Saturday, 15th June 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

“Are You Strong Enough to Go Through with This?”

Posted on 17. Nov, 2021 by in Curious Travel

This true personal journey is one of dozens of true stories published in:
Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Borneo

Dead, But Still Kicking



Dewi, channeling Farida: “Meester, I’m coming for you.”


Encounters with female vampire ghosts in a city built on a ghost story.

PONTIANAK, West Kalimantan

The shaman asks me a third time.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

I feel like I was back in high school again and my soccer coach, Charlie Koch, was looking down the bench to see who he could put into the game.  Put me in coach. I can do it. I’m ready.

The shaman, called a dukun in Indonesia (and bomoh in neighboring Malaysia) was responding to a request I had made hours earlier.  I was the first European to pose this particular challenge to the middle-aged man and he was checking my desire and commitment, and, I suppose, my strength to handle what might take place if he was successful.

Send me in coach.

For the third time he offers me an easy out.  He points to a 30-something woman named Dewi, who was seated nearby, watching quietly.

“She’s a medium.  She can channel the spirit and you can watch. It’ll be easier for you.”

But I had come this far and can be stubborn when faced with a challenge.

 Put me in coach.  I’m sure. I want to speak with a pontianak.

* * *

In the Inter-World, in the twilight mist of grey rainbows, hovering between dusk and dawn, joy and sorrow, life and death, dwell the ghosts.  Wisps of smoke, certainly, but all too real for those who believe.

And the best place in the world to look for ghosts is the western tip of Borneo.

Not just any kind of ghost, but a very specific type of spirit which gives this city its name: Pontianak. The only city in the world named after a female vampire spirit who is eternally angry at men.

* * *

I am in Pontianak.  I have visited various shamans over the previous few days and have heard a bunch of pontianak stories.  Now I want to “see” one for myself.

 A friend found a shaman who was willing to hold a séance and, through a medium, introduce me to a “real” pontianak.  The only hitch was that the shaman-for-hire had to pay the medium, buy offerings, cover his costs.  “How much?” I asked.  “About $650,” my friend said.

 Time for Plan B.

* * *

According to legends, and there are many, a pontianak is a misandrist for good reason:  She is the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, alone, abandoned by the child’s father.

The word pontianak may be a corruption of the Malay perempuan mati beranak or “young woman who died in childbirth.”

She preys on men, indiscriminately.  She is pale, dressed in white and horribly ugly, except when she’s beautiful.  You can only make a hideous ghost beautiful by hammering a nail into the hole on the nape of her neck; the spirit will then become an attractive and dutiful wife.

* * *

The alternative to the expensive séance was provided by my friend Din Osman, a local historian.  One rainy afternoon we visited the home of one of his office colleagues, Rustammy.  He runs a music café that is attached to his house, and in his home office I noticed a few electric guitars lying about, like a poor man’s Hard Rock Café.

Rustammy explained the two options.  I could “call” a pontianak myself and have a one-on-one experience with her.  Or I could “speak” with a pontianak via Dewi, who was quietly watching our discussion.

We could do it that evening.

“Are you really strong enough?

Send me in coach.

* * *

A note on nomenclature (apologies, this gets a bit confusing).  In the Malay language, used in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and parts of Indonesia, the term for this particular spirit is pontianak. In the closely related Indonesian language (the difference between the two languages might be compared to the difference between American English and Australian English) the term is kuntilanak.  Even though the town of Pontianak is in Indonesia, they use the Malay word, pontianak, for their city and use the Indonesian term, kuntilanak, for the ghost.  For simplicity I will refer to the ghost as pontianak, regardless of whether it appears in Malaysia or Indonesia.

* * *

When we get to Rustammy’s house there are about ten people hanging around.  Two additional men stroll in.

“Who are you?” Rustammy asks.

“We heard you were going to call a pontianak and we came over,” the strangers say.

Rustammy is annoyed.  “I don’t know you,” he says to the men, angry, but in a polite Indonesian way. “How did you find out about this?  Please leave.”

* * *

I met the tenth Sultan of Pontianak during a 2014 visit.

I was having dinner with two friends who are related to the royal family.

Over the grilled prawns and fish soup, one of my friends, a cousin of the sultan, said “You’re asking so many questions about the royal family, do you want to meet the sultan?”

“But it’s already eight-thirty. Isn’t it too late?”

“No problem.”

So we forgot about dessert and walked to the river bank, and boarded a comfortable wide-beamed boat that was a semi-permanent café.  Rustammy asked the other patrons if they minded a little river cruise, I forked over a few dollars, and the boat untied from the mooring and chugged across the river to the sultan’s kraton (palace) to meet Syarif Toto Thaha Alkadrie, the tenth sultan, the successor to a man who was Pontianak’s first ghost-buster.

In 1771 a prince named Syarif Abdul Rahman al-Gadri, burdened with a dodgy reputation among seafarers and hassled by a vicious on-going family feud at home, wanted to have a new start to his life and settle somewhere without being burdened with the baggage of his past.  He sailed along the west Borneo coast and anchored near an empty stretch of land 17 kilometers from the sea where two major rivers meet.  It was a strategic place for a settlement, but had been left empty because it was a swampy jungle believed to be a place of bad spirits — the pontianaks.

Local historian Din Osman recounted one of many tales of the founding of Pontianak.  He said that for three days and three nights the ghosts mocked the intruders, making an eerie “hee-hee-hee” laughing sound that infuriated Abdul Rahman.

Legend has it Abdul Rahman scared the pontianaks away in the same way he fought his earthly enemies, with a large bombardment of cannons. History is not an exact science here, myth and fact are joined at the hip.  Some legends say that the spirits fled. Other myths say that the sultan never got rid of all the ghosts and was haunted for the remainder of his life.

Either way, Abdul Rahman became the first Sultan of Pontianak. And the town was given the name it has to this day.  Every October 23 the local tourist office celebrates the event with a (redundantly named) Pontianak ghost festival.

* * *

The busy town of Pontianak has 600,000 people, a large university, shopping malls, traffic jams and luxury hotels.

But the ghosts remain.  Pontianak probably has more ghosts per capita than any other small city, and virtually everyone I spoke with has a ghost story to tell.  It doesn’t take long before I imagine the entire town bursting into song, like an Indonesian Busby Berkeley musical —   “ooh-eee … one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater.”

They’re everywhere, and I challenge a visitor to find a citizen of the town who doesn’t have a pontianak story.

Ghosts, sprites, demons and things that go bump in the night are rampant.  They’re in the banana trees. In cellphone towers, in dreams and, most definitely, in schools. And in the soup (don’t eat at Auntie Aminah’s, she might put a spell on you).  There is a particularly nasty pontianak in the old house near the cemetery, where my sister-in-law’s ex-boyfriend’s motorcycle mechanic’s grandfather was killed; just before he died he ran gibbering into the yard shouting “I’m not the one who killed your baby, go back to your own world.”

Din Osman’s story is typical. In 1984 he was on a motorcycle crossing the bridge over the Kapuas River, near the swampy site where the first sultan encountered the ghosts. One end the bridge also connected with a cemetery.  Osman saw a pontianak walking across the span carrying a gravestone.  He watched her for a while, and then decided that safety was better than curiosity and he sped away.

Many of the folks I spoke with in Pontianak speculated that the ghosts are spirits of dead women who are stuck between earth and heaven.  But beliefs can be slippery.  “So you believe it,” I would prod.  “Not really,” they would reply.  “I don’t believe in ghosts.  But I saw it.  I can’t explain it.  If it’s not a ghost then what is it?”

* * *

Rustammy explains the procedure, what I must do and what I might expect.  Suddenly, one of Rustammy’s friends, a man named Andi, starts shouting.  His eyes bulge, he arches his back and pounds the table. “He’s a foreigner,” the man yells, looking in my direction.  “It’s not right.”

“Ah, that’s Datuk Jangut [the Bearded Lord],” Rustammy says.  “Andi goes into a trance easily.  There are so many spirits in this room and some of them don’t want to be bothered.  Can you feel them?”

No, I don’t feel them.  I have attended dozens of séances throughout Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.  I’ve seen men in trances speaking in tongues. Men in trances stabbing themselves with knives and broken glass.  Men in trances claiming to be my father.  One time a man in a trance said he was Moses and that he wanted me to go to the Middle East to stop the never-ending feud between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

 Rustammy calmly tells the spirit that we aren’t going to bother anybody, just settle down and be cool.  Datuk Jangut leaves Andi’s body without another word.

* * *

When an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore disappeared in late 2014, Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama referred to the high density of ghosts and mystical phenomena in the region of Kalimantan, where the plane was last heard from.  He joked that jinn (supernatural creatures in Islamic mythology; origin of the English genie) might be responsible for the disappearance of the plane. His statement was poorly received.

* * *

Too many people.  Four of us go into an adjacent room, partly enclosed.

“You’re really sure you are strong enough to see a pontianak?”

Yes, coach.

“Sit in a lotus position, close your eyes, and call the pontianak,” Rustammy instructs. 

I’m not comfortable sitting in a lotus position and sit against a wall.

“Hold your hands out in front of you.”

Which I do.

“Close your eyes.”

Which I do.

“Now call the pontianak.”

Which I do. Do I need to say it out loud or to myself? I opt for a silent murmur. Hello Ibu Pontianak!  Good day to you.  Miz. Pontianak, where are you? I know you’re here. Come to me.  I want to see you.

“She’s close, I can feel she’s close,” Rustammy says.

Order her to come.”

Get your vampire ass over here right now.

“She’s right here,” Rustammy insists. “I can feel her.”

I don’t feel her.

Order her to come,” Rustammy says, insistent that his tactics will work.

I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to boss around a female vampire ghost who hates men.

I mix the strategies of command and request.

Come closer, Madam Pontianak.  Close to me, close to you.  I order you.  I command you. You’re close.  I want to see you.

And then my monkey-mind kicks in. I start to hum the Carpenters’ song “Close to You.”  Why do birds suddenly appear, every time, you are near?

I want to giggle.

Do pontianaks have a sense of humor? Do they appreciate music of the seventies?

After about five additional minutes of unanswered entreaties and scraps of banal music I open my eyes.  “Nothing,” I say.

* * *

The discipline of ghost taxonomy is still in its infancy, and the spiritual world could certainly use someone like Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who was to taxonomy what Brigitte Bardot was to the bikini.

One might argue that nature (and the spirit world), by definition, is chaotic and disorderly.  But Linnaeus, who liked to say “God created, Linnaeus organized,” strove for structure and logic; he was frustrated by the chaos in which mushrooms were mushrooms. Some were tasty, some were hallucinogenic, and some would kill you. True, they were all mushrooms, but not alike.  Same-same but different.  In the early 18th-century Linnaeus lamented that there was no common, easy-to-use, universal system of nomenclature for different species, citing the case of the common tomato which was described as Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incises — the solanum with the smooth stem which is herbaceous and has incised pinnate leaves.

Ghost taxonomy is similarly chaotic and imprecise.

In his book The Malaysian Book of the Undead, Danny Lim catalogues 126 different types of ghosts, vampires, hantus, demons, were-tigers, evil spirits, goblins, and other creatures you don’t want to meet on a dark and stormy night.  Malaysia has plenty of faults, but you gotta love a nation with enough ghosts for more than ten football teams.

Like a taxonomist, Lim suggests various classifications.

There are the “class of disease-causing ghosts” like hantu cika, which causes colic, or hantu sawan which causes convulsions (sawan) in young children

He names nature spirits that inhabit snakes, rivers and wind.

He writes about men who turn themselves into were-tigers, were-pigs and were-crocodiles.

There is even a conservation spirit, hantu songkei, that undoes snares “to release trapped animals.”

One ghost which takes up a large space in the Malaysian/Indonesian psyche is orang minyak, “greasy man,” who is a take on the Hunchback of Notre Dame; he wanders around naked and covered in oil, and preys on beautiful young women.

But the female ghosts steal the show.

The pontianak is the most prominent of a large sisterhood of feminine spirits who are descended from women who have died in childbirth or who have been abused by men.  If you have the patience, gather together some Malay friends and ask them to name and describe the characteristics of the various angry female ghosts.  There is considerable overlap and confusion.  They are beautiful and entice young men to messy demises.  They are old hags with droopy breasts. Or they exhibit both personas, depending on the situation and who’s telling the story.

Here are some of the more well-known forms of female Malay ghosts identified by ghost taxonomists; one could argue that they are related but distinct ghost species, like the fox, the coyote and the wolf, but one could similarly argue that they are variations on a single theme, just as the beagle, the Siberian husky and the Yorkshire terrier are all Canis lupus familiaris.

  • The classic female vampire ghost is called pontianak in Malaysia and kuntilanak or matianak in Indonesia.  She is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth, and sucks blood of virgins and men who have wronged her.
  • Sundel bolong is the spirit of a woman who has been raped and abandoned to die.  She has a deep hollow in her back.  Very nasty piece of work.
  • Langsuir has the ability to fly, like a pontianak; she is sometimes associated with the owl, called “ghost bird” in Malay.
  • Hantu tetek, also known as hantu kopek, a huge old hag with pendulous breasts, who preys on children, thereby encouraging kids to get home in time for maghrib (dusk prayer) or risk being captured by her and smothered to death.  Many cultures have this kind of Big Momma Witch; Hansel and Gretel come to mind.
  • Churel is another female ghost with sagging breasts, a consistent feature of their ilk.  And, like other female ghosts, she can also appear as a beautiful young woman who can charm any man.  Because young men caused her death during childbirth, the churel drinks their blood, beginning with the man she loved in life.  There are numerous ways to get rid of a churel, including burning a ball of thread along with a just-deceased body in the belief that the woman’s spirit will be so preoccupied with unwinding the ball that she won’t bother to haunt anyone still alive.
  • Penangallan, which Danny Lim describes as having long flowing hair, penetrating red eyes and a long protruding tongue.  She feeds on human blood and flesh, with a preference for the taste of a newborn infant.  When she goes out on the town she is able to separate her head and organs from the rest of her body; she leaves the rest of her body in a container of vinegar to preserve it until she returns.  As Lim says, “A woman smelling of vinegar is not to be trifled with.”  This head-and-intestines creature seeks houses where women are about to give birth.  The way to prevent her entry is by hanging pineapple or pandan thorns around the house; the sharp points will hook the penangallan’s flailing intestinal tracts and entrap the spirit.

* * *

“You were so close,” Rustammy says.  Like a manager talking to a baseball player who hits a long ball which is caught when the outfielder makes a spectacular leaping catch.

But actually I wasn’t close at all.  I don’t believe in this stuff.

“Want to try again?”

Rustammy instructs me to relax, repeat the body posture, and this time he says I should ask the pontianak to shake my hands.

I’ve done this type of thing before. The power of suggestion is a strong power indeed.  I hold my hands in front of me, keeping them still.  Come on pontianak, make my hands jiggle.

I sit there for another few minutes.  Nothing.  I order the spirit to come to me, to make my hands shake. I command her in English. In Indonesian. In French. In Thai. I run out of languages.  Oh yeah, German. That must be a good language for ordering a spirit to come hither.  Komm sofort her.  No, make it stronger.  Sonst, I order with menace in my voice.

And just for fun I start to wiggle my hand.

And once the wiggling starts, the jiggle and jangle of my hands became stronger and my arms are bouncing around, like a small boat on a rough sea.  But I am in control.  I could stop it at any moment, but it is sort of fun. Let’s see how this plays out.

Come to me.  I order you. I humbly request you. Sorry to impose, but I’m only in Pontianak for a short time and it’s now or never. I have a story to write. 

What a great song Burt Bacharach wrote for Karen and Richard Carpenter. 

Karen Carpenter couldn’t be a pontianak. Could she? No, no way.

Monkey mind goes wild.  I’m shaking my arms and having a good old time.

Foreplay, but no climax.  No ghost appears. After a few more minutes I deliberately stop my flailing arms, take a breath and open my eyes.

* * *

Maya Satrini doesn’t look like a woman who could beat up a pontianak.

She’s a thin, neat, serious grandmother who lives in Singkawang, a small town two hours north of Pontianak.

But Maya has steel in her character.

She runs a non-governmental organization which tries to stop the trafficking in women from the region to men in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia.  “Young girls from the villages are promised jobs as maids or think they’re going to get married,” she explained, but often they wind up as “family whores,” forced to service many men.  They’re promised salaries but they receive nothing after the down payment of a few hundred dollars. Eventually they get HIV and are sent back.  “Sometimes I get a call in the middle of the night,” Maya explains, “to rescue a girl left on the side of some rural road.”

Maya believes the origin of the pontianak myth is based on the widespread (and not incorrect) belief that men don’t take responsibility for fatherhood.

The first sultan of Pontianak encountered pontianaks when he wanted to make a settlement in the swampy forest.  Similarly, Maya’s house abuts a forest and she thinks that could be one reason why her son and two grandchildren saw pontianaks in front of the family home — it’s common knowledge that a wilderness is the haunt of demons.

Pontianaks are spirits which haven’t had a chance to settle,” she says, explaining that most people die because their contract with Allah is finished.  “But some spirits don’t go back to Allah immediately; they’re waiting for a promise that has yet to be kept.”

Several pontianaks appeared to Maya a few days before my visit. “It was eight-thirty in the morning,” she recalls.  “I was in my bedroom.  They looked like normal adult women except I could see through them — they were transparent.”

“One of the ghosts was angry with me,” Maya told me.  “She knew you were coming and said I mustn’t talk with you, that you had no business delving into such things.”

Maya said that she told the ghost that they had no such agreement.  Maya told the spirit to leave.

And then the pontianak spit at her.

Maya’s face became red and a rash immediately appeared.

And Maya spit back.  “The pontianak’s face became red and her eyes looked like they would burst out of her head,” Maya recalled.

The ghosts disappeared.  Maya treated her rash, which she described as being “like a bee sting,” with an herbal remedy made of charcoal, garlic, onion and dried chilli. The swelling went away after fifteen minutes.

*  *  *

And then, Dewi, the quiet housewife in the maroon head scarf sitting opposite me, lets out a shriek that, excuse the cliché, could have woken the dead.  It is a cinematic screech, worthy of the best (or the worst, it’s hard to tell sometimes) pontianak movies.  Her voice goes all husky; she lets out a high-pitched “ha-hee-ha-hee” laugh of maleficence that could equally be a cry of anguish.

Her voice can best be described by a phrase I would never allow my writing students to use: blood-curdling.  Laughter. Screaming.  Crying. Sobbing.  “You people are bothering me.”  Her gaze is distant and unfocused, her eyes hooded, her voice husky. Repeat laughter, screaming, crying, sobbing.

Dewi starts to shake, jerks around and stands up. Her headscarf goes flying.  It looks like she is having an epileptic fit.  Softer laugh.  “Blood. See the blood!?” she shrieks.

Dewi quiets down a bit.  Rustammy speaks to her, asks who she is.

“Farida,” she spits out.  “My name is Farida.  I was killed by a man.  I want to go to Meester Paul.  He called me.”

Meester Paul.  That is me.

“I want blood. His blood.”  Laughter and sobbing.

“I want to return.  Don’t bother me.”  Dewi crawls into the next room, her sobbing mixed with a hysterical laugh.

Rustammy calms her down.  “Go back. It’s okay, Farida. Go back.”

Then Dewi erupts again.  “I was torn apart.  I’ll remember his face forever. I don’t want to go home. I want to follow Meester.”

Dewi collapses.  She is lying on her back. She looks like she is in a coma.

Rustammy “wipes” her body to remove the ghost. It’s a cleansing action in which he rapidly sweeps the negative energy from Dewi’s head, her back, her stomach, her legs. Even Western massage therapists know this move.

After a few minutes Dewi opens her eyes and sits up. We all breathe easier.

* * *

Wherever there are ghosts there are surely ghostbusters.

A dukun has to know not only how to call a spirit, but how to get rid of one.

My friend Amalia is a Singaporean spirit guide who makes a decent living flying around the world cleansing homes and businesses of bad spirits for Beverly Hills-types.  I never quite know how serious she is when she tells me about her achievements.  You would recognize the names of some of her clients.

At the village level, folks like Rustammy “cleanse” the victim.  The concept of cleansing has a special place in Indonesia’s Islamic community, and Muslim prayers are often invoked.

But is there a deeper intention?

The term “catharsis” is Greek for purging or cleansing.  One controversial etymology of the word derives from the Greek katheiro, to rid the land of monsters.

Isn’t that what a shaman does?  He or she helps us banish the demons within. We all tango with our demons, weaving, posturing, conquering and submitting, seducing and sometimes conquering.  Demons are our dark sides, our uncontrollable desires, our regrets over actions taken, or not.

* * *

Vampire movies sink their teeth into theaters in most countries.  A quick check of the IMDb database gives some 200 results with “vampire” in the title, including Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, Vampire Hookers, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle, and A Polish Vampire in Burbank.

Pontianak– and kuntilanak-themed films have been box-office favorites in Malaysia and Indonesia since 1958 when the Malaysian film Anak Pontianak was released, followed three years later by the Indonesian film Kuntilanak.  A spate of female vampire ghost films ensued, followed by a three-decade hiatus.  The industry picked up again in the 2000s.

L. Krishnan, one of the pioneers of the Malaysian film industry is now 93 and living in Thailand. His films include some of the classic Malaysian ghost films, such as the 1958 Serangan Orang Minyak (Attack of the Orang Minyak).

“No, I don’t believe in ghosts, but the people who go to the cinema do,” he explained over lunch at a Bangkok café.  “There were times when the film was shown in a cinema and the film burned because the projectionist hadn’t said the proper prayers.”

Shankar Punjabi is another leading horror film director who doesn’t believe in ghosts.  “No, I’ve never seen a ghost and I never got possessed. If you believe in ghosts you will see them. It’s the power of suggestion, as if I ask you ‘do you feel the wind on your arms?’ They go into self-induced trances. Imagination works best in a dark room.  If you believe you will feel, if you feel you will see.”

Over coffee in a Jakarta restaurant, Indonesia-based Shankar added: “But I’ve had actors who got possessed, and we always have an ustadz [Islamic spiritual teacher] on call during the shoot to treat the crew and actors who get possessed.”

Prem Pasha, a Malaysian filmmaker who is L. Krishnan’s son, recalled that when he was about seven he visited the set of his father’s film, being shot at night at an old English bungalow in Kuala Lumpur.  “I remember that Noordin Ahmad, the star who played the orang minyak, approached the camera. I looked up and saw a “real” orang minyak watching the proceedings from the balcony where Noordin had just come from.”

Teenage boys like to tempt fate, and when Prem was 16 he and two friends went to a cemetery to spend the night.  He doesn’t remember the details, but they were approached by a woman who glowed, like she was covered in diamonds.  Prem went into a coma for two days, and when he awoke he was suffering a high fever and his frantic grandmother was rubbing Indian holy ash on his forehead.

I asked if they had called a bomoh.  “No, ninety-nine point nine percent of bomohs are fakes, he said.  “But what about spirits and ghosts?” I asked.  “Ah. They’re real.”

Are the pontianak films sexist?  Glen Goei, who, with Gavin Yap, is writing a new pontianak film, thinks they represent the 1950s Malaysian society when men were men and women were women.  He didn’t say so, and I’m not suggesting he thinks this, but the extension of this idea is that in rural Malay societies women are closer to the spiritual world than men; they have special, often nasty, powers, and are fickle about whom they choose to befriend and whom they elect to curse.  Perhaps this is male resentment (or acknowledgement) that Malay women, like women throughout most of Asia, bear the brunt of the labor, take a large chunk of familial responsibility, and are generally the stronger and more reliable of the two genders.

I had coffee with Danny Lim at a Kuala Lumpur café. Lim, who wrote the Malaysian Book of the Undead, agrees that ghost stories and films reflect rural, village life.   “You don’t have many urban ghosts,” he says, although some modern ghost films feature sophisticated urban men (usually spoiled playboys and businessmen) encountering traditional spirits.

The Indonesian film industry is in the doldrums, and according to film journalist Bobby Batara, it’s due to poor governance. There are about 120 Indonesian films made each year, Bobby says, of which about 20 are horror films.  “The government regulation of 2009 specifies that there should be two Indonesian films distributed nationally for each foreign film, but the handful of cinema owners who control the market ignore that ruling. Indonesian filmmakers have to beg, bribe and coerce to get their films shown.”

* * *

I wanted to speak with an actress who played a vampire ghost.  I was introduced to Julia Perez by a mutual friend, a leading Indonesian film producer.  I was in Jakarta, and she was in a Singapore hospital.  I was surprised she bothered to exchange SMS messages with me to set up a phone interview; the day before our talk she had undergone an operation for cervical cancer.

Known by her nickname Jupe (pronounced Joo-Pay), her career has risen due largely to her energetic portrayal of a range of sexy and nasty ghosts.  She has starred in some of the most famous Indonesian kuntilanak films such as Jeritan Kuntilanak (Scream of the Kuntilanak), Kuntilanak Kesurupan (Trance of the Kuntilanak), Kuntilanak Kamar Mayat (The Mortuary Ghost), and Beranak Dalam Kubur (Birth in the Graveyard).

“Acting in a horror movie is not difficult,” Jupe says. “They’re the same as any action movie.”

But has she seen ghosts while making her films?

“Not clearly, not in front of my face, but I’ve seen strange shadows.  My grandmother told me they exist.”

I didn’t know how hard to push a woman who had just had major surgery, but asked whether she believed in these spirits.

“I believe fifty percent.  There are mystical things we have to respect.  But the other fifty percent is just human behavior.”  It was a similar answer to the question I had been posing so frequently — maybe, who knows, I’m not sure, I saw something I can’t explain, better not examine it too closely.


Following is a bit of hooptedoodle (see John Steinbeck).

Julia Perez is one of Indonesia’s most hard-working actresses; her career has blossomed partly because of her outspoken approach to life and performing.

Jupe has written a book in which she describes the secret of her success: The Five Bs: beauty, brains, behave, bitchy and boobs.   This is not the place to elaborate on her life strategy, but no doubt a Ph.D. awaits someone who can put a post-modern Indonesian spin on her philosophy.

In August 2012 Jupe carried out a promise that when she reached one million Twitter followers she would perform a pole dance at a busy traffic intersection in downtown Jakarta.  This performance, plus the fact that she wore skimpy clothing, plus the fact that it was the Muslim fasting month, did not endear her to the more conservative of Jakarta’s tastemakers.

Moralistic officials and religious leaders abhor her sexy persona and denounce her suggestive singing and dancing (she is probably responsible for the creation of the Indonesian word bomseks, from the English “sex bomb”). Righteous men and women have banned her from performing in many cities.  Jupe defends herself by asking, and I’m paraphrasing: The men who criticize me are the ones who take bribes, who cheat on their wives, who use taxpayer money to line their own bank accounts.  Who is committing the sin?  Me, who entertains people or these hypocritical men, who steal from the people?

* * *

Meanwhile, a few meters away, Rustammy’s wife Anni, who had been drinking tea and chatting with friends, becomes possessed.  She doesn’t shout, but her eyes roll up in their sockets and she is quietly sick.  The spirits are up and about, targeting impressible women.

Just as Westerners are taught the Heimlich maneuver, most Indonesians seem to know how to ask a spirit to leave.  Someone puts his hand on Anni’s forehead, and “sweeps” away the spirit, while mumbling some Islamic prayers.  Anni is an elegant woman, wearing a dress with a Burberry-style plaid.  She calms down, a bit embarrassed by the mess she has made.

* * *

How can you recognize a pontianak?

And, more importantly, what can you do when you are confronted by one?

Her presence can sometimes be detected by a sweet floral fragrance identifiable as that of the plumeria, followed by an awful stench afterward.

A pontianak kills her victims by digging into their stomachs with her sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. In some cases where the pontianak desires revenge against a male individual, she rips out the man’s sex organs with her hands. It is said that if you have your eyes open when a pontianak is near, she will suck them out of your head. Pontianaks locate prey by sniffing out clothes left outside to dry. For this reason, some people refuse to leave any article of clothing outside of their residences overnight.

And most insidious, the pontianak announces her presence through baby cries.  If the cry is loud then the ghost must be far away. If the baby’s cry is soft, then she is close, ready to punish a man.  It doesn’t really matter to the pontianak whether the man she has targeted is good or evil; all men are same-same, which is to say all men, according to her definition, deserve to die.

* * *

I kneel down next to Dewi and ask if she had any recollection of what had just happened.  And she goes wild.  It is a false calm.  Farida has not left at all, but was lying in wait, like a hibernating bear.  Dewi screams and sobs and laughs. This time she looks straight at me. “I want to follow you.  You follow me to the cemetery.”

She picks up a plastic water bottle and throws it across the room.

Dewi holds out her hand, wants me to take it so she can guide me to the cemetery.  I refuse.  Her eyes bulge, unfocused.  “Meester,” she says, using the expression Indonesians in an earlier generation used to address Dutchmen.  “Meester. You called me. I am Farida. You wanted to see me. I am here for you.”

* * *

Why do ghost stories linger in so many countries?

Some people feel the pontianak is an enforcer of morality,  a creation of Malay wives who wanted to discourage their husbands from engaging in casual sex with women they might meet on the road at night.  Be faithful, the man is told, and he won’t have any supernatural complications.

Dimas Jayasrana is an Indonesian film producer who thinks that an encounter with a ghost is like meeting a superstar. “Seeing an old lady in a white dress who is dripping blood and laughing like a little girl is the village equivalent of running into George Clooney.”  And, Dimas adds, ghosts are useful for disciplining kids.  All cultures have tales of ogre-like beings.  In the English-speaking world we are told “be good or the bogeyman will get you.”  The bogeyman, so feared by young children, is a creation inspired by the Bugis, a race of Indonesian seafarers (and sometimes pirates) for whom the British colonials developed a healthy fear.

* * *

Dewi crawls into the next room, knocks over a table with coffee cups and then crashes into a computer printer. She huddles in a corner, then squats on a chair.

I don’t get too close to her.  But she approaches me.  “Meeesterrrr,” she says, rolling her Rs in a supernatural vibrato, drawing out the two syllable word for several seconds.  “Meee-Sterrrr.  You called me.  Fifteen years. I am Farida. You called me.”

Fifteen years? I have no idea if that was her age when she died, or how long she’s been in this place between two worlds. 

Dewi then ignores me, like a small child who’s bored with a toy.  She shudders and Rustammy goes to her to cleanse her once again.

* * *

The pontianak is an equal-opportunity ghost. In multi-cultural Malaysia, where Malays, Chinese, and Indians live side-by-side but not always tension-free, pontianaks traverse racial, religious and urban/rural differences.

Pontianaks have, so far, escaped the scrutiny of the Islamic fundamentalists in Malaysia.  These are the fun-killing folks who have outlawed Halloween because it’s both too Christian and too pagan. This dress-up holiday is “associated with the devil” and is “clearly contrary to the values of Sharia,” according to the National Fatwa Council, Malaysia’s top Islamic body.

Perhaps because pontianaks are home-grown they are socially acceptable.  As cultural observer Amir Muhammad writes in the forward to The Malaysian Book of the Undead, “The ghosts we choose to believe in can also say a lot about our attitudes towards gender, the natural environment and even race.”

* * *

Rustammy brings Dewi out of the trance, and this time it seems like Farida has genuinely left.

“So, you saw a pontianak,” Rustammy says to me.

“But she didn’t come when I called her myself,” I say.

“But that’s exactly what did happen. You called her,” Rustammy says, “and she came to you, through Dewi.  You saw Farida.  She’ll be with you tonight.”

I think about that for a moment and say. “Never mind, that’s ok. I got what I came for.”

And Rustammy gets really pissed off.  “But you called her. She came. You have a deal.”

Now my monkey mind recalls the story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”  Faust and all that. I don’t have a valid contract with a pontianak. Or do I?

Of course I don’t believe all this stuff. But I also don’t want to insult my hosts by appearing to not take it seriously.  “What can we do?”

Rustammy obviously is disappointed in my lack of commitment.  “You’re not convinced, I can see that.  But still, you called her, and she came.”

And so?

“Chicken blood should do the trick.”

I look bewildered. Rustammy explains: “She wants your blood. But she’ll settle for chicken blood.”

It is about midnight on a Sunday night.  We are in a middle class, residential neighborhood of Pontianak.  You can’t just go into the backyard and grab a chicken. And the live chicken market is surely closed.

But this is Indonesia, and everything is possible.  I dig into my wallet and hand a few bills to a young man.  Forty-five minutes later he comes back with an unhappy looking red chicken strapped to his motorcycle handlebars.

“Do I need to kill it myself?” I ask.

“No, since you’re not a true believer we can do it. You can go home.”

I don’t like the religious connotation of whether I am a “believer” but perhaps I am overreacting.

To be certain I ask one last time.

“So this will satisfy Farida and keep her happy?”

“It should be ok.  She probably won’t bother you tonight,” Rustammy says.  “But you never know.”

* * *

It’s not hard to see how the guided trance state of a pontianak séance uses similar dynamics to some religions and cults.  “Do you believe?” Do you really believe?  Do you want the Holy Spirit to enter you and save you?  Like Molly Bloom you spurt out “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Then comes speaking in tongues, fainting, signing over the mortgage to your house and dancing with rattlesnakes.  A true believer is born.

* * *

I return to my comfortable hotel around one in the morning, have a shower and hop into bed.  I have no fear that a pontianak has followed me home. I don’t believe in such stuff.  I turned the air-con up and snuggle in for a good rest.

Just as I am hitting that never-never land between consciousness and sleep I hear a faint sound that jars me awake.  I listen more carefully.  It is the cry of a baby. Unmistakable.  Coming from the next room.  Damn, that meddling pontianak Farida did follow me home.

And then I remember.  Earlier in the day I had heard a baby crying in the adjoining room.  Parents travelling with a young child; so common in Indonesia as not to be worth a second thought.  Surely that is the baby’s cry that I hear.  Of course it isn’t a pontianak.  Surely not. Just a normal human baby crying for a feed.  Isn’t it?