Vampires and witches are well represented in Western pop culture and have been the protagonists and antagonists in a slew of popular movies and TV shows in recent years. Here in Southeast Asia we have two monsters that are pop culture icons in their own right.
Native to the Visayan regions of the Philippines, the manananggal is a hideous female monster that can detach its upper torso. It uses its large bat-like wings to fly through the night sky in search of victims.
Its long flexible tongue is perfect for sucking the blood of its sleeping victims. Pregnant women are its favourite prey.
To defeat a manananggal you must sprinkle salt, crushed garlic or ash on the vulnerable lower torso of the monster, which remains immobile while the upper half is out hunting. Doing so prevents the two halves from recombining. If you succeed, the manananggal will die as the sun rises.
Interestingly, variations of this folktale are shared by other cultures and countries across Southeast Asia.
The krasue of Thailand, Cambodia’s ahp, Laos’ kasu and the penanggalan of Malaysia all bear striking similarities to the manananggal. They share the ability to detach their upper torso, have the same long tongue and exhibit a similar penchant for preying on pregnant women.
The manananggal has been the subject of several movies, TV shows and video games over the years. Its first appearance on the silver screen was as the titular monster in the first ever Filipino horror movie released in 1927.
A popular folktale monster in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia is the pontianak. Described as the vengeful spirit of a woman who died during pregnancy, it is also known as kuntilanak or matianak.
Western sources from the early 20th century documented a pontianak as the spirit of a stillborn child.
Their origin aside, pontianaks are often depicted as a beautiful woman in a white dress with long black hair and pale skin. However, when you get close they turn into a hideous hag with red eyes, claw-like fingernails and a thirst for blood.
The fragrance of frangipani and baby cries are often associated with pontianaks, signalling that one is close by. The fainter the cries sound the closer a pontianak is to you. Conversely, the louder the baby’s cries sound the farther away she is.
Pontianaks are dormant during the daytime when their spirits are said to take shelter in banana trees. At night they roam freely in the darkness seeking to sate their hunger for human flesh and blood.
Some people believe they track their victims by the smell of their laundry. This leads people of particularly superstitious dispositions to make sure their laundry never stays outdoors after the sun goes down.
Pontianaks dispatch their unlucky victims in a gruesome fashion. They eviscerate their victims with their long, razor-sharp fingernails and feast upon the entrails.
To defeat a pontianak you must drive in a nail into the back of its neck. Doing so is said to turn it back into the woman it once was. However, if the nail gets removed the pontianak will revert back to a bloodthirsty fiend.
The capital of West Kalimantan province in Indonesia is even named after the iconic spirit.
Uniquely Southeast Asian
Although manananggal and pontianak are not as well known worldwide as their Western equivalents, these uniquely regional legends have grown into pop-culture icons.
They serve as a connection to the old days of kampongs and villages, providing a truly Southeast Asian flavour to the different forms of media in which they make an appearance.