A strange folktale told in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia is one of the scariest and most savage superstitions in Southeast Asia, a region where superstitious beliefs tend to be commonplace.
The belief goes something like this. Any woman who has died a violent death at the hands of a man (directly or indirectly) – in childbirth or due to a violent act committed by him – will turn into a fearsome man-eating supernatural called the ‘pontianak’. While not everyone believes in it, the nature of the superstition is still enough to make one feel uneasy. It is said that men roaming alone at night should avoid looking at women, because any one of them could actually be a revenge-seeking pontianak (a word that translates to churail).
A pontianak’s principal aim is to take revenge for her painful death – with men as the intended target. When offended, a pontianak turns into a man-eating vulture with claws: she rips into her target and devours the insides. Men aren’t the only ones wary of this legend. Parents use it to warn their children as well of the dangers of staying out too late.
A superstition is only a contrived belief, after all. But the interesting part of this legend is that it has been readily accepted and embraced by many. People even admire the pontianak, considering the spirit to be an “icon of feminism” (source: Vice).
Authors, filmmakers, and educators alike have used this pontianak folktale in their works because they feel the idea sells – and more importantly, is extremely relevant in misogynistic Asian cultures. Many individuals feel this mythological creature is rebelling against the pain and atrocity that real-life women face on a daily basis.
Interestingly enough, the concept is very close to what forms the basis of a recent Pakistani web series titled ‘Churails’: a group of four women who call themselves churails and embark upon a mission of revenge against men who have wronged them. The idea of revenge is so appealing perhaps because it is a private fantasy for many, yet so unattainable a goal in real life.
However, in Singapore and Malaysia particularly, this terrifying spirit has become somewhat of an iconic horror movie character as well as an inspiration for feminist movements. Filmmakers have used the concept to their fullest advantage; for instance, the ‘Revenge of the Pontianak’ was a Malaysian horror movie made in 2019, a story based in 1965 of a small village beset by the wrath of this vengeful spirit.