Why ghosts are nearly always women

PETALING JAYA: For years, Malaysian horror movies have portrayed the “pontianak”, a female ghost in traditional Malay folklore, as the supernatural being most greatly to be feared.

It’s not just Malaysia, either – according to a 2016 research paper from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) titled “From International Horror Films to Local Filem Seram”, Singapore and Indonesia also feature the pontianak as a long-haired woman with fangs who screams in a high-pitched voice and can only be subdued with a sharp nail to the back of the neck.

This begs the question of why, for horror flicks, the ghost is nearly always a woman.

Adrian Lee, a film studies lecturer from USM’s School of Communication, says the female portrayal of ghosts is largely due to patriarchal elements in local writing.

“There is definitely a discussion on patriarchy in this,” he told FMT. “Women are not satisfied with the domination of men, so what happens? They must die or be eliminated so that this domination is also destroyed.”

Film expert Mahyudin Ahmad wrote in 2006 that patriarchal elements are often the main focus in movies.

“Women are depicted with various negative characteristics and features while male characters are often portrayed in a positive light,” he said in his article “Box Office Films and Ideology: A Study on Selected Films in Malaysia”.

According to Lee, women are a favourite target for ghost characters because they are often seen as abject and unclean due to their menstruation cycles.

“They are seen as dirty and dangerous, and threatening towards men.”

Referring to the film “Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam”, directed by Suhaimi Baba, Lee said the title character, Maryam, played by Maya Karin, embodied the pain and anguish felt by women.

“Maryam is a beautiful woman, a famous gamelan dancer who was killed during pregnancy because she rejected the marriage proposal of a rich man, Marsani.

“After her death, Maryam returns and haunts Marsani to get revenge. Maria, Marsani’s daughter, becomes possessed by Maryam’s spirit whenever she performs gamelan.

“During the final part of the film, Maryam confronts Marsani to demand justice for her death.”

To turn patriarchal elements around, Marsani is then forced to kneel before Maryam. After this, the spirit of the Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam is finally at peace.