Stories with bite

Sara Veal

Since the first vampire appeared on the silver screen in 1913 (The Vampire, Robert G. Vignola), the fanged ones have been immortalized on screen every decade.

Recently the obsession with the undead has hit biting new heights, mostly thanks to the meteoric Twilight phenomenon. You can’t turn on the TV or pick up a magazine without coming across vampires, with the proliferation of shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, and the tabloids’ endless fascination with the love life of Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who plays vampire Edward Cullen.

What is particularly notable about the latest breed of vampires is the emphasis on their looks and brooding qualities, especially in the case of Twilight’s Edward Cullen and True Blood’s Bill Compton (played by Stephen Moyer), which likely explains their wide appeal.

These lads are the ultimate bad boys and are guaranteed never to get receding hairlines or beer bellies – an addictive combination. Sure they’re still lethal killers, but these days they’re more likely to break your heart than suck your blood – which undoubtedly makes them all the more terrifying and alluring to their teen girl target audience.

All these angsty, de-fanged vampires are enough to make a true horror fan long for monsters with real bite. Luckily, here in Indonesia, you don’t have to look far. The Southeast Asian region is rife with folklore about its own vampires, all of which would likely have the boy-band bloodsuckers cowering in their coffins, and provide equally compelling material for the silver screen.

The most common versions across Southeast Asia have disembodied heads with entrails hanging from the neck, with a particular appetite for souls and infant blood. Such vampires are known, to name a few regional and local variations, as tanggal and leyak in Indonesia, ap in Cambodia, phi krasue in Thailand, phi kasu in Laos, ma ca rang in Vietnam and penanggalan in Malaysia.

These gruesome creatures have many reported origins, from apparently being midwives that made a pact with a devil to women who were startled while praying, which caused their heads to detach from their bodies. According to several tales of the panggalan and regional counterparts, these monsters are capable of appearing as humans during the day, but usually have to soak their innards in vinegar before switching between appearances – so if you’ve noticed a colleague has a rather sharp scent, you may want to hide your baby from them.

While these floating heads are usually of beautiful women, the Myanmarese kephn, found among the Karen tribe, tend to be male, and are also sorcerers to boot, maintaining a human form during the day and unleashing their intestinal terror at night. Beware the bodily fluids that drip from these creatures, as the mere splash could make you violently ill.

Also in Myanmar, the Thaye, also known as Tasei and Tase, are evil people who are condemned to be disembodied spirits. They appear as tall, dark people with huge ears, long tongues and tusk-like teeth, and are associated with the spread of plague and disease.

However, most Southeast Asian vampires do seem to be female. Women who have died violent deaths related their sexuality or reproductive qualities, such as during a sexual attack or childbirth, often revive as vampires with succubi tendencies.

Known as phi song nang in Thailand, pontiannak and langsayur in Malaysia, pontianak in Indonesia and aswang in the Philippines, these femme fatales mostly prey on young men, or like the disembodied heads, feast on infants and pregnant woman, out of jealousy. These demons usually have long fingernails, holes in their back and the ability to transform into birds – adding a whole new level to the concept of henpecking.

They are incredibly seductive, often tricking their enraptured victim into marriage – although the big wedding day is usually when they first give themselves away, as they have a tendency to get so excited at the first big dance that they morph and end up flying into the trees.

Childbirth gone wrong seems a prime way to bring about vampires, as is the case of Malaysian bajang, a spirit that can apparently be coaxed out of a stillborn fetus by a practitioner of the dark arts with incantations. The bajang is often male and appears as either a cat or a dwarf-like human, with beady orange eye, a wide lipless mouth and claw-like hands and feet.

Bajang are usually kept in a tabong (bamboo vessel) by their summoner, and used to inflict harm on their master’s enemies. As well as blood, bajang require a constant supply of eggs and will turn on their owners if not fed sufficiently. The investment is worth it, as a well-maintained bajang can be handed down through the generations.

Yet another Malaysian spirit that can be handily kept in a container is the polong, a vampiric imp that can be created by bottling the blood of a murdered man and the performance of certain archaic rituals. Appearing as a tiny, nude woman, the polong will torment her master’s enemies with fatal madness and sickness, in return for being fed blood from her owner’s fingertip. The polong can also summon her own minion, the cricket-like pelesit, which can carve small holes in the flesh of human hosts and climb inside, causing the victim to become insane and eventually waste away.

So how does one arm oneself against such demons?

While stakes, sunlight and crucifixes are traditionally the way to defeat Western vampires, their Southeast Asian counterparts often require more unusual methods. The Thaye, for example can allegedly be defeated with drums and fireworks, while the polong are vulnerable to black pepper seeds. Male defense against succubi-like spirits often involves donning female clothing and makeup, in an effort to disguise their masculinity, as well as large wooden poles that are hoped to confuse and distract the man-eaters.

These bloodthirsty monsters make for excellent horror cinema.

Notable vampire screen outings include Penanggalan aka The Headless Terror, a 1967 Malaysian film by Tulsi Ramsay; Mystics in Bali (H Tjut Djalil), a 1983 Indonesian film about leyak that was originally banned but managed to find cult status among horror fans worldwide; Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam (Malaysia, 2004, Shuhaimi Baba) about a vengeful woman; Nieng Arp (Lady Vampire, Cambodia, 2004, Kam Chanty), about a young woman who becomes a vicious ap who seeks revenge on the gangsters that attacked her; and Krasue Valentine (Ghost of Valentine, Thailand, 2006, Yuthlert Sippapak) a romantic-horror film about a nurse who occasionally turns into a fearsome krasue, much to the detriment of her love life.

Southeast Asian vampires are not limited to myth nor to the cinema, with frequent reports of vampirism and malevolent spirit attacks cropping up in the media throughout the region.

In 1999, the Associated Press reported that a 20-year-old Cambodian man, Pheach Phen, who was “accused of killing people and drinking their blood in the belief it would cure him of AIDS” was arrested and accused of murder. In 2007, several blogs reported the existence of a Cambodian boy with oversized canine teeth and a predilection for meat and little girls’ blood, although the case has yet to be significantly substantiated.

Anthropologist Mary Beth Mills, in her article “Attack of the Widow Ghosts” in the 1995 book Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, describes an incident in a northeastern Thai village in 1990, where, for about six weeks, rural communities throughout the Isan region came to believe they were under attack from phii mae maii (widow ghosts), entities similar to the phi song nang and pontianak. This belief was triggered by revelations in the national news that more than 200 Thai men had died mysteriously while working in Singapore since 1983.

Even today, in Bali, illness and deaths are often attributed to leyak, and balian (traditional healers) are required to conduct s*ances to discover the leyak/witch responsible, although vengeance against suspected leyak is strongly discouraged. In Vietnam and the Philippines, the enduring superstition in vampires has even been successfully used in psychological warfare programs as part of counter-insurgency campaigns.

This brief look at vampires across the region suggests these grisly incarnations have much to do with deep fears about women’s sexuality and about health in general, and the continuing beliefs today reflect the fact that blood-related epidemics like malaria and HIV/AIDS remain rampant throughout Southeast Asia.

Perhaps in the West where health is much less precarious, bloodsucking killers can be romanticized in a sterilized fashion – but for the time being, Southeast Asian vampires are unlikely to lose their bite.

Edward Cullen wouldn’t stand a chance against them.


Leave a comment

Filed under Clippings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s