With Halloween around the corner, it’s a good time to get to know some ghouls! While many of us are acquainted with Western horror entities like poltergeists and Grim Reapers, how much do you know about hantu?
There are hundreds, and probably thousands of hantu that are represented in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Some are good, some are bad, and appear as vampires, tricksters or spirits. Here are just some of them:
Pontianak are considered vampires – essentially ghosts of women who died during pregnancy or childbirth. Looking much like a woman, usually with long hair and white clothing, she is capable of flight (sometimes she’s seen flitting between banana trees). Depending on who tells the story, she either targets the blood of young children or prey on men (in which case she appears as a beautiful woman).
Similar to the pontianak is the langsuir – the ghost of a female who died during childbirth. Unlike the pontianak, the langsuir is merely a decapitated head – with entrails – who’s said to roam around looking for her baby. So if you hear a baby crying where it shouldn’t be, you’re probably close to a langsuir.
Another type of female ghost is the hantu tetek, and as the name suggests, has voluminous breasts. Whenever lost children are found unharmed in weird places (ie. up in a tree), she’s the one most people put the blame on.
The toyol is described as a green child-like spirit that resembles a goblin – usually stored in a glass jar – that’s known to be mischievous and good at stealing stuff. Unlike spirits you run away from, people actually buy toyol from a bomoh, as they can be controlled by the owner to steal for them. This is why whenever a theft occurs in a village, the blame is on a toyol – so some villagers will put shiny toys or marbles in front of their houses as a distraction.
Interestingly, the toyol seems to have originated in Mecca, and is more commonly seen during pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia. Some may know the Chinese version of this ghost: guai zai (ghost child).
No larger than the size of a finger, the hantu polong appears as a miniature woman. Created from the blood of a murdered man, this hantu is like a ghost-for-hire on behalf of its owner. The polong and its pet grasshopper attack victims by entering their mouths, causing them to froth at the orifice. Victims are said to be left with bruises and blood coming out of their mouths.
A pocong, or hantu guling, is a ghost that is said to be the soul of a dead person trapped in its burial shroud, which is why they’re said to move around by hopping since their feet are tied. People describe them as pale-faced with wide open eyes, wrapped in white cloth.
The pocong is the result of a botched funeral ritual, and they don’t have claws or teeth, and anyone can outrun them since they can only hop.
They don’t do much to humans except for randomly popping out from under banana trees (said to be their favourite place) and scaring someone – which is probably why the Indonesian government used their image to scare villagers into staying home during their Covid lockdown.
The hantu raya is a spirit that acts as a double for bomohs, and is supposed to bestow great power onto its master. Because the entity always takes on its owner’s appearance, its true form is unknown. Originating in Malaysia, it’s said to be the master of all hantu.
This hantu normally feasts on ancak, a ceremonial offering that includes roasted chicken, and sometimes animal blood. In the old days, it was blamed for childbirth death – it’s believed its assaults can be prevented by offering eggs – but these days, the belief in this hantu is fading.
The orang minyak – meaning oily man – sounds more like a mischievous man drenched in black oil (or simply an oily Big Foot) than a supernatural ghoul. Its M.O. is abducting young women at night, and its oily skin helps him slip away from capture.
According to a dubious legend, orang minyak was a serial rapist ghost who raped 21 to 40 virgins within 7 days and gained superpowers by making a pact with the Devil. Whatever the origin, there’s been a spate of sightings of strange oiled men spotted around women’s dorms in Malaysia in the early 2000s, which were probably men dousing themselves in oil to do something criminal.
Hantu Kum Kum
The hantu kum kum is a popular story in Malaysia and Singapore. Basically she’s the ghost of a vain woman who seeks the blood of young girls in order to restore her beauty.
The story goes that an old woman went to a bomoh who gave her an elixir and told her that it would require 30 days of not looking in a mirror for her beauty to return. She snuck a peek at the mirror on day 29, breaking it, along with her face. The bomoh told her that only the blood of young virgin girls may restore her beauty – which is why the kum kum goes around in a covered face looking for victims. In some versions, she seeks the blood of young children.
The kum kum caused a stir in 2016 in Yishun, when an old man was reportedly calling at random households asking if there were children around.
So many more…
Thanks to the widespread belief of these ghouls, people have been able to come up with many more characters in order to explain maladies or scare women and children into returning home before nightfall. There are ghosts that cause specific health issues, like hantu buta (blindness) and hantu kembung (stomach aches). There are ghosts that resemble trees (hantu tinggi), and even those related to history, like the hantu Jepun, which is a headless Japanese soldier that haunts pre-war buildings.
No matter what you believe, tales of hantu will forever be a part of our Asian heritage.