Sea Genies and the Monstrous-Feminine: Spirits, Horror, Anxieties

Ghosts and spirits – which range from powerful sea genies or hantu air, to amoral land spirits – have occupied the interest of different communities and societies in archipelagic Southeast Asia, often communicated through ghost stories and horror film. While horror film is a commercial endeavour, the genre makes important sociocultural and political commentaries that reflect a range of anxieties the modern nation has to confront. In these films, female ghosts and other supernatural entities – both on land and in the sea – are often articulations of transgressive gendered codes and thwarted womanhood. The "monstrous female" (Creed, 2004) has typically been constructed as abject – as the archaic mother, with a monstrous womb; as possessed monster; as witch; as vampire and as castrator. These readings align women, femininity and maternity with evil and monstrosity. To restore order, the abject therefore needs to be disciplined and exiled.
This talk interrogates how the notion of female monstrosity – through horror – reveals anxieties revolving around female empowerment and change in modernising, androcentric societies in island Southeast Asia. More specifically, the focus of the talk is on the figure of the lang suyar or pontianak prominently featured in films made in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia both historically and contemporaneously. These supernatural beings are reincarnations of women who passed away before or during childbirth, and who then seeks retributive justice on individuals responsible for her death and her unborn child. The lang suyar often appears as a beautiful woman with long nails, ankle-length hair and dressed in white robes, though it may also take the form of a floating woman's head, from which entrails and a spinal column hang. Being fond of eating fish, these beings typically haunt coastal spaces, transforming into the horrific as they attack into the night. Through the arousal of fear and unease, I show how the lang suyar or pontianak as monstrous feminine holds the capacity to potentially disrupt the stability of the established symbolic order. In doing so, this talk attempts to demonstrate how this is accomplished through horror film which articulates what is perceived as feminine excesses that transgress and challenge otherwise restrictive social, cultural and religious beliefs and practices of femininity. The monstrous feminine can therefore be rendered as a key authoritative female character, emerging as a potential figure of disruption against the vanguard of conservative and authoritarian patriarchy.

Noorman Abdullah holds a joint-appointment as Senior Lecturer at the Departments of Sociology and Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore. His core research interests and publications focus primarily on religion and society, particularly in relation to spirit possession and everyday religiosity; deviance and social control; and sensory studies, with a strong empirical component grounded on ethnography, everyday life and qualitative fieldwork.

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