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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Shock Horror: The Southeast Asian monsters we love

ArtsEquator chats with five writers about their favourite horror characters and monsters from Southeast Asian lore and mythology. We then asked two Singapore artists, Natalie Christian Tan and Divyalakshmi, to respond with a custom illustration based on the replies.

Singapore Writers Festival 2021 runs from 5 to 14 November 2021 with the theme “Guilty Pleasures” – with plenty of offerings on horror, mythology and many more.


Rina Garcia Chua | Philippines – Canada
Manananggal
Illustration by Natalie Christian Tan

 

What’s your favourite Southeast Asian monster? 

I have always been equally fascinated and frightened by the manananggal. In Philippine folklore, the manananggal is a flying vampiric monster who, by day, is any normal beautiful woman, but at night would transform into a demon who detaches her upper body from her lower limbs. “Tanggal” means “to detach” in Tagalog, so her name literally means “the one who detaches.” The lower half of her body would usually be left in the jungle field, while her upper half grows bat-like wings and flies at night searching for pregnant women sleeping soundly. Then, she would make a hole in the roof and slink her long rope-like tongue down to suck the foetus from the woman’s womb and finish off the woman by also feasting on her internal organs!

They say that the manananggal is accompanied by its pet bird called a tik-tik. It’s an onomatopoeia for the sound the bird makes, and when you hear the sound fading away, that actually means that the manananggal is getting close! The only way to kill the monster is to go into the jungle and find the other half of her body; if you pour salt on her severed torso before sunrise, then she can be killed.

Why do you like this character?

The manananggal encapsulates the complexity of Filipino culture’s treatment of women. The manananggal as a monster is deceitful; she is a beautiful woman in the morning and then transforms into a monster at night. Often, it is not of her desire to be a monster – she accidentally ingests a “black chick” and becomes one. This helpless naivety, monstrosity, and vulnerability is reflective of dualistic binaries that are imposed on Filipinas: we are often expected to either be the meek demure woman or the monster. And, sometimes, if the Filipina has demonstrated excellence that surpasses patriarchal expectations, then many people will assume that there is something fundamentally flawed with her, something missing within her, that makes her infallible. It could be that she does not have a husband, is a single mother, or is gay. Something

What I do like about the manananggal is that she is the “shadow beast” (nod to Gloria Anzaldua) that lurks among the cohesively pristine and morally upright facade of a Filipino society. The manananggal may not want to be a monster, but I like to imagine that–in the end–she realises that being a monster is her gift; her power. 

What’s your personal relationship to horror?

I think horror is about consuming the abject (this time, a nod to Julia Kristen). That means, for me, when I am in the frame of mind to consume horror, I want it all: blood, violence, guts, everything! Not that I am intrigued by violence porn or that I crave it; I think that it is more that I appreciate the function of horror and why its intemperance (when artistically done) is a necessity to reframe our imaginations into something radical. 

I do not like suspense or jump scares in horror. I want the unedited gory violence that is often depicted in a horror film, because they usually express or symbolise something problematic in our daily material living conditions. Plus, as an academic, I also like to just not think for a while and enjoy the carnage, so to speak. As a child, I also loved Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, because they reach a climax that is not as gory as how horror is depicted nowadays, but that bares open the complexities of human characters. His mastery of writing engages every part of me until I get to the climactic reveal. 

Complete this sentence: Southeast Asian horror is ____________.

Ferociously unpredictable. Not even the sunrise will save you. 

Rina Garcia Chua is the editor of Sustaining the Archipelago: An Anthology of Philippine Ecopoetry (2018), and is co-editing the collection, Empire and Environment: Confronting Ecological Ruination in the Transpacific, forthcoming in 2022. She is part of the panel Concrete Jungle, happening 13 Nov Sat, 10am – 11am, which will delve into nature and the environment in Southeast Asia.

 


Ng Yi-Sheng | Singapore 
Mae Nak
Illustration by Divyalakshmi

 

What’s your favourite Southeast Asian monster? 

For now, I think the answer’s Mae Nak, also known as Mae Nak Phra Khanong, also known or Nang Nak. 

According to Thai folklore, she was a beautiful young woman who died in childbirth while her husband was at war. When he returned, she pretended that she and their child were still alive, thus preserving their domestic bliss… and of course, when her nosy neighbours threatened to reveal her actual (un)dead status, she had to murder their asses! Alas, she was eventually exposed and exorcised—but she’s had an afterlife as a goddess! Women and queer men still pray at her shrine in Bangkok, which I got to visit before the pandemic.

Why do you like this character? 

Mae Nak represents a meeting of multiple strands of Asian folklore traditions. On one hand, she’s a violently vengeful female spirit, much like the pontianak, the langsuir, the leyak, the aswang, the penanggalan, the phii krasue. On the other hand, she’s a genuinely loving supernatural bride, like Lady White Snake, like Neang Neak (the naga wife of the Funan ruler Kaundinya I), like Mahathu’l Bahri (the mermaid wife of Sang Nila Utama). And now she’s become worshipped as a goddess at her own shrine, illustrating the thin line between monsters and gods in our culture.

Oh, there’s the possibility that she was created by an actual 19th century man who dressed up in women’s clothing and threw rocks at boats. Queer anarchism FTW!

What’s your personal relationship to horror? 

I’m honestly not 100% into horror! I’m too chicken to watch a lot of horror films, and I’ve never really felt a connect with slasher movies (serial killers seem way more foreign to me than vampires).

I’m mostly interested in horror as an extension of mythology—how stories about ghosts, demons, monsters, aliens, etc. work as an extension of our wider imagination and sense of wonder about the universe. My research covers not just speculative fiction, but supposedly “true” ghost stories and ongoing folk practices, from urban legends to medium worship rituals. Supernatural horror often provides a window into spiritualism that hasn’t been institutionalised by organised religion (e.g. there’s evidence that the pontianak was a goddess for the Orang Asli) and it paints a picture of a world that’s less benevolent and structured than we’re led to believe (e.g. what kind of universe would have so many of us lead afterlives as hungry ghosts?).

Complete this sentence: Southeast Asian horror is ____________.

Borderless! (So many continuities between different nations’ myths.)

Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean writer with a keen interest in Southeast Asian history and myth. His books include Lion City (winner of the Singapore Literature Prize), Black Waters, Pink Sands and A Mosque in the Jungle: Classic Ghost Stories by Othman Wok (editor). He is part of the panel Beware the Smell of Frangipani At Night, happening on 14 Nov Sun, which focuses on Asian horror.

 

 


Kathrina Mohd Daud | Brunei
Nabau
Illustration by Natalie Christian Tan

 

What’s your favourite Southeast Asian monster? 

 My favourite Southeast Asian monster is the Nabau, or giant snake. It is most often attributed to Iban legend, which according to this article depicts it as an ancient god. It’s frequently described as having the diameter of a fuel drum. In one account I read, the Nabau swallows an entire village to keep it safe from invaders, and the villagers emerge safely 100 years later.   

Why do you like this character? 

I grew up with snake stories and cautionary tales about how to behave when encountering a snake, whether in the house or outside. It’s difficult for me to deconstruct the cultural origin of these fears about snakes – whether it’s the natural consequence of living near an abundance of rainforest which is so rich and dense that they are still discovering new species of flora and fauna today, something to do with Brunei’s animist history, historical and existing Hindu-Buddhist influences, or Islamic influence. So snakes are definitely mythologically powerful, I think, in the way they can cut across and through cultures.

The idea of a giant, mystical snake monster fascinates me, because it feels true and secretive. In the things I’ve read about the Nabau, I’ve not come across a motive, a why for its being – but also because of the spectacle of it. Maybe also because so many of the staples of horror that are frightening to me are things that can’t be seen or sensed – jinn, ghosts, ill-intent – there’s something that’s almost a relief about a monster that overwhelms the senses.

My novel The Fisherman King, which features a version of the Nabau, has a beautiful cover with a snake on it. Some of my friends and readers have told me that they find it frightening, a little repulsive even. One even had to cover the book while reading it! That surprised and intrigued me, but I think it speaks to how powerful the image of the snake can be.

What’s your personal relationship to horror? 

My personal relationship to horror is full of boundaries. I like being a little bit scared sometimes – I think I enjoy the physiological aspect of it, having my heart race, getting a little jumpy. There’s probably some biological reason why there’s some pleasure in being frightened. But I can only enjoy horror when I can exercise a degree of rational control over my own reactions – for example, I have strong visual retention and a very persuasive imagination, so I refuse to watch any supernatural horror, because I have brought those images back from the cinema with me and been unable to forget them for years! For this reason I generally don’t like to watch horror at all.

In books, I will only read British or American horror, because they scare me much much less than Southeast Asian horror, which I refuse to read. Southeast Asian horror scares me too much to enjoy at all, really! 

The exception I think is Bruneian horror – I like hearing scary stories from friends about “real-life” horror, or scary things that a friend of a friend has experienced, but only sometimes, and in broad daylight. I think this is a cautionary exercise, but also it’s fascinating to be privy to the multiple worlds we all inhabit and experience differently.

Complete this sentence: Southeast Asian horror is ____________.

Best in small doses! Spread far apart.

Kathrina Mohd Daud is a writer and academic in Brunei Darussalam. Her first novel, The Fisherman King, was a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2020. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester. She is part of the panel Asian Lore Reimagined, happening on 7 Nov Sun, of how myths and legends lend themselves to creative re-imaginings.

 

 

 


 

Krishna Udayasankar | India-Singapore
Sarama
Illustration by Divyalakshmi

 

What’s your favourite Southeast Asian monster? 

I love my own characters – my take on werelions – a lot. I like them because both in their animal and human form, they are pretty sexy creatures. But the other character that has always fascinated me is that of Sarama – the mother of all dogs in Vedic texts. She is sometimes described as a hellhound who wreaks havoc (possibly because her children are the dogs of Yama, the god of Death). Sarama is also credited with creating water so that people would not starve, and for helping the gods in their battles.

Sarama is described as light-skinned or furred, and is supposed to be fast as lightning, extremely knowledgeable and wise, and also has the ability to speak. Her children are described as having four-eyes, so it may well be true of Sarama too. She’s also described as a goddess (doggess?) herself! (On a side note, I am a mother of dog-children, so I’m very, very biased!)

Over time, she has turned in popular understanding into a terrifying creature who feeds human infants foetuses! 

Why do you like this character? 

Sarama, to me, is typical of how we tend to associate “animal” with something negative. For example, human murderers are described as “animals”. I resonate with the larger idea of how evil is actually a human characteristic and animals, particularly dogs, are typically non-duplicitous and unaware of greed. They are, in fact, the purest creatures. Characters like Sarama then become metaphors for how humans tend to “other”, even marginalise what they cannot control or understand, be it on the basis of caste, economic, gender, sexual orientation or other forms of discrimination and hate

What’s your personal relationship to horror? 

I am not a fan of mainstream horror. In fact, I get terrified watching scary movies and then need to leave the lights on! In books though, I found that horror is something I can enjoy a lot more. Horror often works as a metaphor for reality, and forces us to confront our conventional or social notions of good and evil, beautiful and ugly. I think it’s a powerful device. 

Complete this sentence: Southeast Asian horror is ____________.

A mirror to our realities.

Krishna Udayasankar is the author of The Aryavarta Chronicles (Govinda, Kaurava, Kurukshetra), Immortal and a book of prose-poems, Objects of Affection. Her latest book is Beast, an urban fantasy thriller from Penguin-Random House. She is part of the panels I’ve Created a Monster, happening on 7 Nov Sun, on creating new myths, and Things Your Mom Calls Trash, happening on 13 Nov Sat, which intriguingly pairs poetry with the act of “trash” collecting!

 

 


Sunisa Manning | Thailand–USA
Mae Nak
Illustration by Natalie Christian Tan

 

What’s your favourite Southeast Asian monster?

I have always felt an especial kinship with Mae Nak. She’s a vengeful ghost, whose story dates from Rama V’s era, which means she has short hair, wears these wonderful pantaloons called joongaben, and a wrap top – the badass fashion is important. 

The story goes that Nak and her husband were deeply in love when he was conscripted to war. While he’s off fighting, she dies in a difficult childbirth. He comes home, happy to be with his wife and son, and lives with them, oblivious to his neighbours who try to warn him that there’s something different about his family. 

One day, the husband sees his wife making nam prik on the veranda. She drops a lime, stretches through the floor to get it. He realises she’s a ghost, and when he goes out to the toilet that night he runs away. She pursues him, of course. The husband hides in a temple, because she cannot enter it. Mae Nak haunts the neighbourhood, furious that her love has abandoned her. In various stories a monk “vanquishes” Mae Nak, or a prince does, or the husband makes a new family, or a monk promises our wailing ghost that she’ll be reunited with her husband in another life, which puts her spirit to rest.

Why do you like this character? 

In popular discourse this is a story about a vengeful wife doing everything she can to keep hold on the man she loves. Looked at another way, the lessons of this fairy tale are about the danger of the threshold of labour, about a woman’s power, and her ability to channel it to keep in relationship. 

Thailand has such a patriarchal culture; notice that the state, in the form of the prince, is called in; the sangha, in the form of the monk; and there is the permissiveness of “second families” – yet the woman continues to have a deeper, earthier power. There’s something about the mother’s power too, and the way her rural personal anguish is unleashed over the state, which has forced her mate to fight on its behalf. 

What’s your personal relationship to horror?

I am a complete scaredy cat who doesn’t partake in enough horror! The thing about having a vivid imagination is that it will run long after the credits roll. Thai horror is a special, brilliant industry; I admire it from afar.

Complete this sentence: Southeast Asian horror is ____________.

Potent.

Sunisa Manning has a BA in English Literature from Brown University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first novel, A Good True Thai, was a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize for Southeast Asian writers. She is part of the panel There’s Friction in my Fiction, happening on 7 Nov Sun, which looks at how writers explore social tension and issues in their work.

 

 

 

Check out our other ArtsEquator coverage on Singapore Writers Festival here, including an interview with writer Wayne Rée on all things gore and slasher!


Catch these five authors and many more at the Singapore Writers Festival 2021, which takes place from 5 to 14 November 2021.

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Natalie Christian Tan is an illustrator and graphic designer from Singapore. She graduated as an Arts and Humanities major from Yale-NUS College in 2017, where she won the Outstanding Capstone Award for her thesis on selfies and the female image. Now, Natalie’s experience includes publicity work with National Gallery Singapore and SGInnovate, branding work with the Association for Philosophy and Literature and the Singapore Drama Educators Association, and book illustration with Epigram and Ethos Books, among others.

Divyalakshmi (b.1999) makes art that traverses, questions and reroutes timelines and bloodlines. Their work centers at the Dravida body and branches outward into spirituality, ecology and queerness. They graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2020 with a Diploma in Fine Arts. Notable projects include performance series Contemplation/Reclamation (2018-2020) and Ritual Labour (2019).

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