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The Pontianak: A Globalised Ghost

How does a white-faced spirit from the Malay world become identified with the long-haired girl from The Ring?

One of the less commonly commented on aspects of globalisation (which should more properly be called regionalization) is the way that ghosts have all started to look the same. Of course, some cultural aspects such as Buddhism, Confucianism and the spread of migrants, all contributed to the fact that different countries in East Asia have similar elements in their society. However, more recently, the spread of mass media artifacts, including books and films, has led to a new wave of assimilation of cultural items into a cross-border approximation.

For example, the Pontianak (also called the Kuntilanak) is a ghostly spirit that is familiar across the Malay world. The ghost represents the spirit of a woman who has died giving birth and who appears, therefore, as a white-clad creature combining misery, despair and anger. The Pontianak customarily appears by the side of the road or, at least, it is when people are walking along a road that they might encounter her. Clearly, not only is the Pontianak a frightening figure in herself but she is likely to be ill-disposed towards men in particular whom she might blame for causing the pregnancy which then killed her.

It is not difficult to think of reasons for the origin of the Pontianak: first, a warning for men, especially young men presumably, not to abandon or take advantage of women or, alternatively, not to harass women walking alone along the road for fear that they might turn out to be a fearsome spirit. Second, it could be a warning to women not to behave in the same way and to follow conventional morality. Alternatively, it might relate to a misogynistic belief that women who die in childbirth are cursed or ill-omened or in some other way to be avoided. Other possibilities will readily appear to the inquiring mind.

So why is this an aspect of globalisation? Ever since the first film version of Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, by far the most commonly seen form of ghost or apparition is the white clad young woman or girl with the long dark hair covering her face. Here in Thailand, numerous films have exploited the same concept and, even in the numerous variety and comedy shows that are so popular here, there will commonly be a cutaway shot to such a spirit putting the fear of heaven or hell into an errant character – only the fierce tiger-woman spirit is more common (and that is another easily understood archetype). Now, when people represent the Pontianak, whether in the media or even in the imagination, it is likely to be this Ring-like figure that appears than the rather vaguer but more authentic local version. Such is the modern world.

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