Ghost stories have spooked, entertained and terrified humans for as long as we have told stories. A long time ago, the scientific community reached a consensus that there is no proof that ghosts actually exist. While ghosts may not be able to wreck our lives; ghost stories can wreck havoc on the human psyche. The human mind is capable of imagining all kinds of things that do not tangibly exist.
But what exactly are ghosts and where do they come from? I may not believe in the existence of ghosts, but what I do believe is that if they can exist so vividly in the human mind–they can also wreck havoc upon it.
In storytelling traditions, a ghost is usually created upon death and is closely associated with a realm in between life and death. A ghost–or a spirit–was also credited with the ability to assist or harm the living. In some cases, they were non-human; i.e. demons or nature spirits. There were even cases of ghostly armies of long lost knights in shining armour that fought battles at night. The stories of a haunted house–or the haunting of a place–is the formulaic plot line for a long tradition of Hollywood Blockbusters.
Regardless of the scenery and setting of the story, the crux of what makes for a good ghost story are two elements: a wrong that has been enacted and a wrong that needs to be made right.
In every ghost story, there is an untold story that is waiting to come to light. And if we’re really listening, it’s the story of the ghost. Most of the time, ghosts don’t want to harm humans, but are either misplaced in their desire for vengeance or are seeking justice for a perceived wrong that had occurred. It all boils down to the universal idea of unfinished business.
The English word ghost has its roots in a Proto-Indo-European word that connotes fury, anger and rage. In the ancient Mesopotamian religions, there are many references to the existence of ghosts; and traces of these beliefs continue on in the Abrahamic religions.
On average and all things being equal, it is the stories of female ghosts that populate our imagination. They can be highly seductive beings, mothers who lost their children, or even women who were wronged by men as well as other women.
If they didn’t manage to get revenge while they were alive–well, there’s always the afterlife to set things right.
According to the folklore of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, a pontianak is a vampiric spirit of a woman who tragically perished during childbirth. The spirit appears as a beautiful woman who entices her victims before turning into a ghastly creature and attacking them.
The story usually begins at midnight–or at least, late at night. A tired man is driving home on a particularly dark and lonely road after a long day at work. Seems normal so far, right? Suddenly, he spots a beautiful young lady in a flowy white dress up ahead. She appears distressed so he decides to stop the car.
This is usually the point in the story when I wonder what a big imbecile he is.
Anyways, he decides to play the hero and offers her some assistance. As he steps out of the car, he gets the whiff of something fragrant and floral, usually frangipani or something ominous. Suddenly and also serendipitously, he hears the sound of a howling dog that is hiding among the banana trees.
The very last thing he hears–and we hear–is a high-pitch shriek as the beautiful woman transforms into a terrifying ghost.
And then she sits down for supper and eats his organs.
What makes the pontianak so scary? It is her classic backstory of tragedy and revenge, which taps into our primal, social and cultural fears. It is a fear that exists and persists in the human psyche when we know that we have done something wrong and are afraid of getting caught.
Women have, for centuries, had numerous wrongs enacted against them. From a certain perspective, it could even be said that there was no real recourse for them to seek justice via conventional methods. It is why their stories get pushed into this realm we call the underworld.
Not too long ago, I saw the movie The Revenge of the Pontianak. In many ways, it begins as a typical storyline. Boy meets girl. They get infatuated with one another. Boy is not serious about having a relationship–but the girl is pregnant and continues to long for his love. She wants to get married, but he doesn’t.
The final straw: she sees him flirting with another woman.
No matter how terrifying the folklore of the pontianak is, the scenario of boy meets girl and boy is not serious about girl, is common. Most of the time, girls would realise that he’s not worth it–maybe cry a bit (or not) and then move on.
But it takes a certain kind of person to wreck unparalleled vengeance–not just on the person who did it, but also on any man who happens to be passing by. This is a spirit that is bent not only on revenge but on annihilation.
And to what ends, exactly?
In the movie, she kills the guy who wronged her. She even waits till he actually gets married before she decides to strike out at him. As she didn’t get to have him, neither could anyone else. When he saw how terrifying she had become, I mean, she was a demonic ghost by this stage, there was no way he was ever going to love her–not that he ever did, mind you.
If anything, the folklore reminds us to be wary of our obsessions. A lot of women would have been hurt, but a lot of women would have also moved on. No man is worth the price you will have to pay to enact vengeance. Sure, men can be jerks; but if there is any shred of truth in the story of the pontianak, it is that women are not damsels in distress.
Dump the imbecile and find someone better. There are plenty of fish in the sea who will actually love you and not leave you. If he did leave you, don’t haunt him. He’s not worth it. And secondly, leave his wife alone. They’ve found their happiness and so should you.
But that’s just my take on the story.