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25. The Pontianak (Southeast Asian Folklore)

In today's episode, we discuss the pontianak, a frightening female vampire from Southeast Asian folklore. We discuss the meaning of civilization vs. nature in monster stories, the symbolism of female vampires, and why we love monstrous women so much. We also make a few subtle (and a few not-so-subtle) references to one of our favorite TV shows, The Untamed.


“Kuntilanak: Ghost Narratives and Malay Modernity in Pontianak, Indonesia” by Timo Duile (,JSTOR)

“The laugh of the pontianak: darkness and feminism in Malay folk horror” by Alicia Izharuddin

"Cerita Pontianak: Cultural Contradictions and Patriarchy in a Malay Ghost Story” by Cheryl L. Nicholas and Kimberly N. Kline (,JSTOR)

"What is pontianak from the mythical point of view?"

Transcript below:

Musical intro

Zoe: Hello and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts--

Lizzie: I'm Lizzie.

Zoe: And I'm Zoe. Lizzie, how are you doing today?

Lizzie: I'm doing pretty good. I had to fly back to the Netherlands for school purposes, so that was...interesting, cause of COVID--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --but I'm happy to be back now.

Zoe: Yeah! Yeah, how's the jetlag, uh, going and everything (laughs)?

Lizzie: It was pretty bad at first cause I did like nothing the first few days, but it's okay now.

Zoe: Ah, that's good, yeah. I'm glad to hear that.

Lizzie: How are you?

Zoe: I'm okay! Um, it's been a bit of a crazy week. Uh, my town had a pretty big election and the results were pretty heavily mixed, but--

Lizzie: Not what you were hoping for?

Zoe: Yeah, not exactly what I was hoping for, but some good things did happen. Um, so you know, we're just trying to figure out, like, what to do from here, and just keep going forward, and that's just what I'm trying to do right now, so.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Yeah. So Lizzie, you did the research this week, so who are we gonna be talking about?

Lizzie: So, today we're going to be talking about the pontianak, who is a female vampire from Malay and Indonesian folklore.

Zoe: Ooh! Awesome.

Lizzie: Had you heard about her before?

Zoe: I think I recognize the name from when I was looking through a bunch of "see also" Wikipedia articles.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: Looking at various ladies for the podcast, but I don't remember any details, really. I just remember vague, like, vampire stuff, so. I'm excited!

Lizzie: Yeah! Well, okay. So, like I said, she's a female vampire, and she's also called the kuntilanak or the sundel bolong. So, she's often shown in Malay horror films, killing prey by sucking blood from their necks like a vampire.

Zoe: Mm hmm!

Lizzie: She is depicted in dozens of movies and TV shows, and also a few video games; mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, but also to a lesser extent in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Zoe: Awesome.

Lizzie: The Malay film industry began to make movies about the pontianak in the fifties and sixties, and then there was a 30 year period where there was a government ban on depictions of horror in Malaysian cinema.

Zoe: Hm.

Lizzie: But after it ended, in the first decade of the 21st century, people again began to make movies about her.

Zoe: Wow. So sounds like she's a really, like, significant cultural figure if they've been making movies about her for that long.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: I--there are many, many movies about her.

Zoe: Awesome.

Lizzie: So, for a very general overview of the pontianak before we go in-depth about her story: she is believed to be the soul of a woman who died during childbirth, who is a vampire who appears at night, sometimes accompanied by a baby.

Zoe: Ooh!

Lizzie: She has long hair and wears white robes and is typically seen at the side of the road or under a tree.

Zoe: Very spooky.

Lizzie: Very (Zoe laughs). And she typically appears as a young and beautiful woman to attract male victims, but then she transforms into an ugly and old woman with sharp teeth.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: And she sucks blood and feeds on intestines.

Zoe: Ooh! Very fun.

Lizzie: Very. So there is also a city in Indonesia called Pontianak, which was named after the creature.

Zoe: Huh!

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: Okay. Yeah!

Lizzie: (overlapping) I thought it was really interesting when I learned that (laughs).

Zoe: Yeah, yeah, like, normally when you have a creature that seems to be very, like, threatening and scary, like this creature, I would assume you probably wouldn't wanna, like, invoke the name that much?

Lizzie: Yeah, you'd wanna avoid the associations.

Zoe: Yeah. So it's interesting that the city is named after her.

Lizzie: Yeah, we'll talk about it a bit more later. So...

Zoe: Okay! Awesome.

Lizzie: Yeah. So, first, some etymology. So, the anak at the end of pontianak and kuntilanak means child. Um, I have read some conflicting etymologies from a few different sources. One said that the meaning of ponti in pontianak was unknown, but I also read another source that said that it's short for perempuan mati beranak, which means “woman who died during childbirth” in Malay.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: And another one that said that the name comes from the Malay pohon tinggi, meaning high tree, a reference to the pontianak’s habitat.

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: And then I couldn't find an etymology for kuntilanak. And for the other variant, sundel bolong, sundel means prostitute and bolong means hole in Javanese. And this will become clear the reason as to this later.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Yeah. The Pontianak is quite well known in Malaysia and throughout Malay-speaking Muslim groups, which also includes Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei as well as the southern parts of the Philippines and Thailand. So, something to stress is that in Malay culture, unlike in Western culture, ghost stories such as the story of the pontianak aren’t some sort of fairy tale that is told to scare people. Cerita hantu, or ghost stories, are very real and have actual effects on people and on society.

Zoe: Awesome, yeah.

Lizzie: The most common narrative of the Pontianak is basically the version I told earlier. She is a female vampire who either sucks the blood of humans or tears out their organs and then feeds on the blood that comes from the wound.

Zoe: Whoo! Okay!

Lizzie: Yeah, I thought that was pretty fun.

Zoe: Yeah. Mm hmm!

Lizzie: Multiple methods.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: She just wants--she just wants blood.

Zoe: And it's also like in the Philippines, in our vampiric women episode, that we talked about--there was both the aswang and there was, like, a bloodsucker and a viscera sucker.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: So it's sort of both in one.

Lizzie: Yeah, true! Ah, that's fun. Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: She died during childbirth and is distinctive from her fangs, the scar marks on her face, long black hair, and white clothing. She is also known for the sounds she makes when she is in the vicinity. When she’s nearby, she makes loud shrieking noises and unsettling laughter.

Zoe: That's horrifying. Oh my gosh! (laughs)

Lizzie: Definitely, yeah. You'd be quite frightened to hear that, I think.

Zoe: Yeah! Oh, gosh, like...those are, like, some of the--like, literally the scariest sounds ever (Lizzie laughs). Oh my gosh.

Lizzie: I know.

Zoe: Yeah. Whew! Okay.

Lizzie: I also read in one source that her most preferred victim is a newborn baby and that she kills pregnant women and eats the fetus.

Zoe: Mm. Okay.

Lizzie: Um, I also sort of read and also sort of caught from sources that she prefers--her preferred victims are men and pregnant women. So not women that aren't pregnant. Just pregnant women.

Zoe: Huh. Okay.

Lizzie: And men.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: Which, fair enough (Zoe laughs). Most of the demon ladies prefer killing men, so (laughs).

Zoe: Yes! Um, yeah. Definitely have a lot of thoughts about that, but, um...(Lizzie laughs)

Lizzie: In addition to that, uh, she can appear in her human form, often to lure victims. But she can also be returned to her human form if you stick a nail in the nape of her neck.

Zoe: Hm.

Lizzie: In some versions, she has a hole in the back of her neck specifically for this purpose.

Zoe: Oh! So that-that-that's where the hole part comes in, then.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: (overlapping) Yeah, mm hmm.

Lizzie: But it seems like a bit hard to do, though. I feel like it would be a bit hard for even a regular person to stick a hole in the back of their neck.

Zoe: Yeah. Well, it seems like it's a very precise thing you have to be able to do, and I'm guess, uh--

Lizzie: Yes, probably very difficult.

Zoe: --they don't want you to do it, so they're definitely gonna be fighting against you.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: But it also does, you know, sound like a horror movie monster weakness, you know, like...

Lizzie: Oh yeah, true. So, when she's in human mode, she typifies the “ideal” behavior from a woman.

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: She is beautiful and docile, and makes a perfect wife and mother. The person who pierced her with the nail owns her, and she is submissive to them.

Zoe: Wow.

Lizzie: She is thus trapped in servitude and cannot explicitly ask anyone to remove the nail for her. And if the nail should be removed, she would return to being a pontianak.

Zoe: Wow, that is very interesting.

Lizzie: Yeah, so she definitely wants the nail to be removed. She just can't ask anyone to do so.

Zoe: And that's, like, very freaky that she's just under the control of the person who--

Lizzie: (overlapping) I know.

Zoe: --puts the nail in, yeah.

Lizzie: It's crazy, and if you're, like, that person who puts the nail in, you both get rid of a scary monster, and you have a new servant.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: So...

Zoe: It's very frightening.

Lizzie: Very interesting.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Although I don't know. If I--I feel like if I were to do that, um, which I probably wouldn't, but, still--

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: --I would not want a pontianak, near me--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --even if she was in her human form.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: It's a bit scary, but.

Zoe: Yeah. Mm hmm. I feel like--yeah. Mm hmm. There's always the risk that something might happen to take the nail out, and then you're gonna be the first victim because--

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: Of course they're gonna want--they're gonna want to get you.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. And it's said that whenever a woman dies from childbirth, she risks becoming a pontianak. But there are also ways to prevent this. People can put glass beads in the woman’s mouth after she dies so that she can’t shriek, and put eggs under her arms and needles into her palms and joints so that she can’t fly. And then she won’t become a pontianak.

Zoe: Euh, okay. Yeah. I think the glass beads thing is really interesting because, like, you know, when I first think--hear it, you think like oh, so she can't suck blood, or whatever. But it's because it's to stop her from shrieking, and that makes it seem like, you know, considering what the essential characteristics are to become a pontianak-- like, the shrieking is apparently, like, such an integral part, and you can't be one without the ability to shriek, and I think that's just very interesting.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly. Like, it's talking about restricting her--like, calming her soul or whatever, so she doesn't become a resentful spirit or whatever, it's more about, like restricting her abilities.

Zoe: Yeah, I--then it's, like, if you die in childbirth, can you become another spirit if you just can't shriek? Like...

Lizzie: True. I have no idea, though.

Zoe: I don't know. That's fine, yeah (laughs).

Lizzie: Also, she's believed to live in rural areas and avoid the cities.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: She prefers the forest, and specifically banana trees, and artificial lights and electric sounds frighten her.

Zoe: Oh, so do you mean she likes banana trees?

Lizzie: Yeah, she likes banana trees.

Zoe: Okay, cool. That makes sense. Those are big leaves.

Lizzie: This depiction of the pontianak is the most commonly told version in media, especially horror movies. There is, however, a lesser-told version that concerns the founding of the capital city of West Kalimantan in Indonesia, which is called Pontianak.

Zoe: Mm!

Lizzie: So, Pontianak is a city on the west coast of Borneo which as of 2019 had a population of about 64,000 people. The city was founded in 1771 by Syarif Abdurrahim. He was a nobleman of Arab descent and was given this land near the delta of the Kapuas river, which was an important trading route.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: However, this land was also home to many pirates, and part of the reason why Syarif Abdurrahim was given this land was to establish it as a fortress to protect against the pirates.

Zoe: Mmm.

Lizzie: Which is not vital to the story, but I thought it was pretty fun.

Zoe: Mm. Yeah! Love some good pirates.

Lizzie: Exactly. Um, the area was made up of swampland and a dense jungle. The area was also home to many Pontianak spirits, which frightened the people who were arriving by boat.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: So, as a way to get rid of these ghosts, Syarif Abdurrahim fired cannons.

Zoe: Hmm!

Lizzie: To, like, scare them away or whatever.

Lizzie: Once the ghosts were evicted, Syarif Abdurrahim built a mosque and a palace from the wood of the trees that the pontianak used as their home.

Zoe: Huh!

Lizzie: Right on top of where their ghost nest was.

Zoe: Wow.

Lizzie: And these were the first two buildings built in Pontianak.

Zoe: Interesting!

Lizzie: Very.

Zoe: I think that's really cool because in most western depictions of vampires, based on, like, Stoker's Dracula, et cetera, we see a lot of Christian imagery repelling vampires. And we talked a little bit about, like, seeing other religion imagery repelling vampires in our vampiric women episode, Episode 7, with the striga.

Lizzie: Yeah, in Albania.

Zoe: Yeah, who, like, could be repelled by some symbols of Islam. And here we also have some other Muslim symbols, which are built to repel spirits and vampires, which is really cool!

Lizzie: Definitely! I also think it's cool.

Zoe: Yeah, yeah! It's exciting to see more of that.

Lizzie: Yeah! Definitely. Yeah, so today a cannon can still be found in Pontianak’s riverside. There apparently used to be an annual event celebrating the founding of the city where the cannon would be fired, but during the New Order, the festival and the cannon disappeared.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: But the cannon was brough back, uh, in recent years as a sort of revitalization of traditional Malayhood.

Zoe: Okay.

Lizzie: I must say, I didn’t really find a proper motivation for why they decided to name the city after the terrifying ghosts that were haunting it, but I suppose it was a symbol of their victory.

Zoe: Yeah, that was sort of my thought as well. As, like, some sort of defiance, or like, brag thing, like, we defeated these creatures and now we're gonna, like, name our city after our victory, or something like that.

Lizzie: Yeah, basically.

Zoe: Yeah, that's fun.

Lizzie: Yeah, it's definitely really interesting because you definitely have a lot of, like, mythological place names, but less so of, like, scary ghosts from folklore.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah, definitely. And it's also interesting because you said that, like, she doesn't really like cities, so it's interesting that--

Lizzie: Yeah, true.

Zoe: --they named the city after her. It's sort of like--almost like a taunt, in a way. Like ha, we're the city, and you don't like us. And we defeated you, so, like--and you can't do anything about it, or something like that.

Lizzie: True (laughs). Also, in 2017, the head of the Department of Youth, Sport, and Tourism proposed building a 100 meter high statue of the Pontianak beside the Kapuas River in order to attract tourists, but people didn’t really go for this idea because they found it to be frightening.

Zoe: Yeah! (laughs) That's a huge statue! Oh my gosh!

Lizzie: Yeah, literally a hundred meters is so big.

Zoe: It's so big! Oh my gosh. Like maybe, like, a little tiny statue, Little Mermaid, uh, Copenhagen statue--

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: --something like that. But a hundred meters, that's so big! That's just--that just seems like, uh, bad energy or something, like...

Lizzie: Exactly. I mean, I feel like I also wouldn't go for it if I was one of them. I mean, it does sound kind of scary.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: But it's a fun idea!

Zoe: Yeah, like if it was, like, a positive spirit I'd be, like, sure, but if it was--like the spirit that's just this dangerous, it's, like, maybe we should not build a giant monument to them? I don't know.

Lizzie: Also scary-looking as well.

Zoe: Yeah, I bet!

Lizzie: So that would just have to be something you'd have to look at all the time.

Zoe: Yeah, and it's huge!

Lizzie: Yeah, that's literally so big! (Both laugh)

Zoe: Yeah, but I-I guess it's an interesting idea.

Lizzie: For sure. Also, the pontianak fits into religious narratives. The pontianak can fit into a category of ghosts mentioned in the Quran called jin haffaf. These are ghosts that are hostile to humans, but can be kept at bay by praying. I also read that the sound of prayer calls can dispel the pontianak.

Zoe: Awesome.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: So yeah.

Lizzie: Again.

Zoe: Yeah. Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Very interesting. Very cool.

Zoe: Yeah, and more of the Muslim symbolism and prayer used to dispel vampires, which, very cool.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. Definitely. There are also stories where the Pontianak can turn into a bird when she needs to travel long distances. A source I read emphasized her closeness to nature, emphasized by the fact that she has a hard time living in cities. While the fact that a ghost would prefer the countryside isn’t really a shock, I do find it interesting because of something that was written in one of my sources, which was “Kuntilanak: Ghost Narratives and Malay Modernity in Pontianak, Indonesia” by Timo Duile. Which said: “Here again, the journey to a remote place far from civilization is a journey to the world inhabited by Kuntilanak and to the trauma of urban modern society.”

Zoe: Yeah, that definitely makes sense. And actually, like, when I was hearing you talk about how she doesn't like bright lights or loud, industrial sounds, I sort of thought it was definitely reflected some ideas and attitudes about industrialization and modernity, and, like, the frightening aspects of it.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And so I think that's really interesting that she reflects that. But it's also, like, the fact that she is a dangerous spirit outside of the city, and it sort of shows that tension that a lot of time, like, if you're in a city, that's a safer place to be because you're around other people, but also there's a lot in the city that's uncomfortable and that makes life scary, or, like, uncertain, and so there's, like, the tension where it's like, there's some not-safety in the city and not-safety outside the city, and it's just interesting.

Lizzie: Yeah, definitely. I agree.

Zoe: And I mean, like, stories of, like, creatures who are outside the city, or, like civilization in, like, the woods or whatever have been around for so long and in so many cultures, and I just think it's, like--but I just think it's interesting, that, like...I always like to see it, I just think it's a really interesting reflection of, like, human ideas, that, like, if you go away from humans into the woods or whatever, there's something horrible waiting for you.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: (laughs) Very fun.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I also find it interesting in light of the story of the founding of the city of Pontianak, where the uninhabited area was an untamed swampland and jungle that ran amok with pontianak spirits, where the triumph of settling the area was marked by defeating the ghosts and constructing buildings on the land. And in general I find this theme of, like, “escape to nature” interesting, and maybe even more so in this context. Like, for the spirits that lived in Pontianak before it was settled, they were allowed total freedom over the land, living in tall trees and doing what they wanted, and then they were evicted by settlers. And then there’s the fact that the pontianak hate living in cities and prefer the countryside, and like Timo Duile said, they wanted to escape the “trauma of urban modern society.” So, I think the connection that the pontianak has with nature is quite fascinating, and the way it rejects modern society in favor of sparsely-populated lands full of nature, and how her connection to nature is associated with freedom and being unrestrained.

Zoe: Mm hmm. And then I also think, in the context of the settlement of the area is interesting because a lot of the time there's the idea that if you take uninhabited land and bring humans to it, you know, that's the good thing, you know, like, civilization is good, bringing people there is good, like, people living there is good. But then there are a lot of consequences to that, like, you know, environmental consequences are a huge one, and it feels like that can sort of be reflected in that story. You know, they built the city, and they took control of the land. And they drove out the spirits. And like, that's generally, like, seen as a good thing, cause obviously the spirits are very frightening and you don't want them near you. But also there are other things to consider when you are, like, settling in a new place and continuing to, like, build and expand on, like, human settlements and stuff, and, like, how that's gonna affect the world around you.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And it's not always gonna be in a good way.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I thought it was this really interesting theme in the story of the pontianak.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And I think you're really right! And it's--yeah. Quite fascinating. Another thing I read is that Syarif Abdurrahim didn’t actually kill the pontianak, but rather sent them to another place.

Zoe: Hm!

Lizzie: They weren't after--or at least they weren't actively trying to kill them, probably. They just wanted them not near them.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: I guess.

Zoe: Yeah. I mean, that makes sense. I mean, my thought was also, like, when I heard it was probably like, maybe they just couldn't kill them, and so like driving them away was obviously the best decision. Like, they just needed them out.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: So that was what they chose to do.

Lizzie: And it's also interesting that the cannon drove them away.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Because that's, like, very, I don't know, civilization, war, all that kind of stuff.

Zoe: Yeah! Yeah, it's very much like you said, uh, loud electrical noises frighten them, and so it's like yeah the cannon. Like obviously we're not at electricity yet in the 1700s, but, like, it is a sign of advancement and technology, and it's also quite loud so it makes sense that they would be upset and disturbed by this, and wanna get away.

Lizzie: Yeah. Or, as Timo Duile says, “Unlike Western modernity, this narrative of Malay modernity did not seek to eradicate the concept of ghosts. Disenchantment only took place insofar as the ghost was evicted to another place, that is, the localized other of the coastal town: the jungle of the interior of Borneo, as a place of nature and the uncivilized.”

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So yeah.

Zoe: Yeah! I think that's super interesting.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. However, even though she has been evicted and Pontianak is considered to be a safe place, there is also the threat of her return.

Zoe: Hmm.

Lizzie: So, people don’t leave laundry on the clotheslines at night so as not to attract the pontianak’s attention, and it’s also believed that even talking about her may make her appear.

Zoe: Mm. So then again, the name of the city. But--(laughs)

Lizzie: Yeah you have to wonder. But, um...

Zoe: Maybe th-they understand context really well.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: Like, they know if you're talking about the city versus them (laughs).

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Uh, but, yeah. I think that's really interesting, like, considering what you just said. That quote about Malay modernity versus western modernity and, like, how even though, like, the ghosts aren't dead, the ghosts haven't been killed by civilization, and they're still very much present alongside civilization. And that's just shown by all, like, the practices they have to keep themselves safe. And I think that's really cool.

Lizzie: Yeah! And, um, people also leave a light on at the front of their homes in order to keep her away. So, the pontianak is also similar to several other figures. There is another female vampire from Malaysia and Indonesia called the langsuir, who is also the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth, so I don’t know the difference. Um, I think the langsuir wears green instead of white--

Zoe: Hmm.

Lizzie: --but other than that, I don't know. But supposedly there is a difference.

Zoe: Okay!

Lizzie: So there's also the legend of the churel in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, who also died from childbirth and dwells in trees.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Interesting.

Lizzie: Uh, a churel can also die at the hands of her in-laws, in which case she typically comes back and haunts particularly the men of the family.

Zoe: Ooh! Very cool.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I also mentioned that before that she can also be referred to as the sundel bolong. The difference between the pontianak and the sundel bolong is that the sundel bolong is specifically associated with sex workers.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: That's the name.

Zoe: Yeah-yeah.

Lizzie: Makes sense. So, what are your overall thoughts on her?

Zoe: Well, I think she's great. I really love learning about, um, new, like, sort of vampiric lady myths and stories, and I think that it's especially fun to learn about stories that are, like, just so opposite and different from stories that are like, again, Dracula. Like, I bring it up a lot, but it really influenced western ideas of vampires so much. And, like, there's so many other ideas of vampires that are honestly a lot more interesting and fun to me.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: I think it was really interesting you said that she had a baby with her at times.

Lizzie: Yeah. I heard that in some sources, but not others. I don't know.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Cause I don't know, like, if she dies from childbirth what happens to the baby. I have no idea.

Zoe: Yeah. I mean, I think that's really fun and very creepy. Like, little baby vampire, you know, that's something.

Lizzie: True (laughs). Like in Twilight (both laugh).

Zoe: Yeah. Oh my gosh, yeah. And then I do like how, like, you know, like, sort of bloody and graphic the story is. Like, she's sucking their blood, she's ripping out their intestines, like go, girl power, like, love that for her, um.

Lizzie: Exactly (laughs).

Zoe: You know, I think it's fun. I think it's great.

Lizzie: I think we should just let her do what she wants.

Zoe: Yeah, like, don't stick the pin in the back of her neck, that's rude.

Lizzie: I know!

Zoe: Don't, like, control her, that's creepy and messed up. Like, no.

Lizzie: (laughs) Exactly.

Zoe: Yeah. I do, like, have a lot of thoughts about, like--we say this every time we talk about women like this.

Lizzie: Yeah (laughs).

Zoe: Like, female spirits like this who are, you know, demonic and, like, appears like beautiful women who then attack men. Again, the commentary on men's fear of female sexuality and basically the idea of what will happen if women are not submissive to them, and how it becomes, like, this great fear. I also think it's especially interesting in the context of a few things. Firstly, of course, the pin thing.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: And the fact that if a pontianak gets a pin it has to become, like, the perfect female obedient wife, and that's, like, the opposite of what a pontianak is. And I think that just really shows how, like, the pontianak is this idea of uncontrollable female spirit and then, like, the only way is to get rid of her, to change her, to control her entirely, which is very frightening and very interesting.

Lizzie: Yeah! Yeah.

Zoe: And then, of course, the childbirth thing is very interesting as well. You know, a lot of times, there are ideas that spirits become vampires if they die in very tragic or unnatural ways, like through murder or suicide. So I think adding childbirth to the mix is interesting, and I think there's sort of, like, an idea of the corruption of women's true role in childbirth, or whatever.

Lizzie: Oh yeah, that's interesting.

Zoe: Like, they didn't bring a child to life, or whatever, and they died, so now they're this evil spirit or something is interesting. Cause, you know, it's not a woman's fault if she dies in childbirth, like--

Lizzie: (overlapping) Mm, yeah, of course!

Zoe: --so she shouldn't be punished by becoming, like, this terrifying spirit.

Lizzie: It's nobody's fault, really.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Or, probably. Depends, I guess.

Zoe: Yeah (laughs).

Lizzie: For me, I was sort of thinking, like, it just means, like, take care of pregnant women extra good so that they don't become demons and stuff, but...

Zoe: I do like that interpretation. I like that a lot! (Lizzie laughs)

Lizzie: I like yours! And it's great (Zoe laughs).

Zoe: Yeah, it's just sort of--the thing is, when there exists a monster, the question is always what's viewed as a monster, and, like--

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: --the idea is that if a woman dies in childbirth then she becomes a monster, like, there's a question--

Lizzie: Like, definitely, yeah.

Zoe: You've gotta think about why that idea is there, you know.

Lizzie: Yeah. It must be, like, extra scary to, like, go through childbirth knowing that that could happen to you.

Zoe: Yeah! Like it's not only that you could die, but then you become this vampiric creature that's going around killing other pregnant women! Like...

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: And then, like, it also sort of seems like, going back to what you said about, like, you know, protecting pregnant women and treating them extra well so they don't turn into demons--I feel like that could also reflect in the fact that one of her main victims are pregnant women is, like, you've gotta protect pregnant women to make sure they aren't attacked by this creature. You know.

Lizzie: Yeah. Mm hmm. So, I feel like one of the things that makes the pontianak so fascinating is how rich her story is thematically.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: Like, first we have the classic figure of the female ghost who dies in a horrible way and then seeks revenge and kills people.

Zoe: Mm hmm!

Lizzie: We’ve talked about figures like this before, and definitely will again--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --and this by itself is already a super fascinating story archetype, made even more interesting by how commonly we see it among world cultures. We've seen this already on the podcast in, like, Central America, and in North Africa, um, Japan--which, I mean, those are all very different places, so that's pretty interesting.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: That it's, like, so widespread.

Zoe: Absolutely.

Lizzie: And I mean, they're all great. I think they're all amazing. Secondly, we have another depiction of a vampiric woman, like in episode 7. This is obviously a super fascinating archetype as well, and I also think it’s really interesting that she doesn’t just suck blood from people’s necks, but also rips out their organs in order to drain blood from their abdomen. Like, she just wants blood.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Like, I could--I don't know if she needs the blood to survive, because, I mean, she's already dead, but, um...

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Maybe she just likes drinking blood. Which is pretty cool, I think.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: Thirdly, we have a depiction of a woman whose grief and sorrow turn her into a monster.

Zoe: Mm.

Lizzie: It seems that just any woman who dies from childbirth can become a pontianak, and then she’s forced to roam the earth forever in grief about it, which we said already, like, that's a horrifying prospect.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Fourthly, you have the theme where a young woman is beautiful and appealing, whereas an old woman is ugly and also horrifying.

Zoe: Yeah, yeah! I definitely saw that.

Lizzie: Which we've also talked about before.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: And this is a--also pretty widespread theme (laughs) in folklore as well.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah!

Lizzie: Also there's the fact that the entire story of the pontianak represents many dualities. She can be either young or old, beautiful or ugly, powerless or powerful; there’s also the dual symbolism of both birth and destruction.

Zoe: Mm! Yeah!

Lizzie: She represents two different ways of being a woman: there is her human version, which is controlled and submissive, and then there's her ghost version, who is uncontrolled and untamed. The first version is characterized by how she--(both start laughing) I was trying to insert the word "untamed" in as many times as I could! Um, it was like two or three times, so...

Zoe: Ooh! (Lizzie laughs) Okay.

Lizzie: Anyway (laughs). Um...good show. The first version is characterized by how she serves others as a wife--(laughing) I can't say that without smiling! (laughs) The first version is characterized by how she serves others as a wife, mother, or daughter, while the second is characterized by how she does not conform to these roles, and instead has complete freedom.

Zoe: Mm!

Lizzie: There’s also another layer to this dichotomy by the fact that you want the pontianak to be in her human form. There’s an idea that she should be controlled by the nail on the back of her neck to prevent any harm from coming to people.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Because in her uncontrolled state, she is potentially lethal. So just in general, there’s sort of this idea that a woman should be docile and tame, and that a woman having power and freedom is undesirable.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: The filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu made a short film in 2017 called It’s Easier to Raise Cattle about a friendship between two girls where one of them is revealed to be a pontianak.

Zoe: Ooh!

Lizzie: Yeah, sounds pretty fun. She said about the pontianak, like in an interview: “She can walk alone and not have to be accompanied by a man; she can be as beautiful and as provocative as she wants; she can be extremely gentle or a massive flirt—but if you dare touch her without her consent, her claws will come out.”

Zoe: Yeah, definitely. Like, the use of the vampire myth in that way--or vampire stories in that way is so cool.

Lizzie: Yeah, there's something in a way desirable about having total autonomy and agency.

Zoe: Yeah. Yeah! And it's like, you know, the movie A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night--

Lizzie: Yeah, yeah.

Zoe: It's like a similar idea, right? Yeah.

Lizzie: Mm hmm. So there’s something to be said about the fact that even though she’s a murderous vampire who instills fear in people, she is allowed to have more freedom and agency than an ordinary woman.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Obviously it would never be desirable to become a bloodthirsty ghost who kills people, but I do think it’s an interesting commentary on the fact that ordinary women have to be controlled and even subservient--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --whereas monster women get to have complete freedom and do as they please.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: And there's also the connection with her freedom to, like, be close in nature, which we talked about already, but that's also--

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: --another layer there, which is super interesting.

Zoe: Yeah. And that's sort of like, you know, the appeal of monster women in general, right?

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Like, that's one of the things we find so interesting about them. It's, like, the way that they're able to be free and not be restricted by societal ideas and patriarchal ideas.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly.

Zoe: And sometimes actively fight back against them in their own way, no matter how, like, potentially problematic it might be.

Lizzie: Yeah. I mean like, they kill people. But it's, like, pretty cool because they can just do what they want, and they aren't--

Zoe: Exactly, yeah.

Lizzie: --they aren't held back by anything. And that's--that's quite desirable, in a way.

Zoe: And in the situations you're--they're in, they're the ones with the power.

Lizzie: Yeah! There's also this sort of satisfying thing about how most monster women have quite tragic backstories, and they can go and get revenge, and...

Zoe: Mm hmm. Yeah!

Lizzie: So that's also really fun.

Zoe: Yeah! Thank you so much for listening to this week's episode. If you enjoyed it, please make sure to subscribe, leave a review, tell all your friends how much you enjoyed it, and we'll see you in two weeks with our next episode. Thank you!

Lizzie: Thank you!

Zoe: Good-bye.

Outro, underscored by music:

Zoe: Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today’s episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix, with help from Margot and Zaïn. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter (and now Tumblr) @mytholadies, and visit us on our website at Mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening! See you next time.