A poignant exploration of the tragic reality underlying a terrifying myth.
Though seldom manifesting, the spirit of the Pontianak looms like an ominous shadow over Suzana Selamat’s one-woman play, We Are Nothing Without Hantu Hantu. A familiar figure in Malaysian folklore, the Pontianak is the vengeful ghost of a pregnant woman who died at the hands of her husband or lover – an origin that would seem to cast her more as righteous avenger than monster. However, as critic Robin Wood pointed out in his influential essay, “American Nightmare,” a culture defines its monsters in opposition to its dominant hierarchy, so it is little surprise that a country steeped in patriarchal Islam* has superimposed the mask of the monstrous feminine upon the face of its innocent female victims. Selamat’s essential goal is to re-contextualize the monster, ripping off the mask to expose the human reality hidden behind the myth.
After the spirit of a Pontianak briefly addresses the audience, denying her monstrous reputation, the bulk of the play switches to Chomel, a Malay-Muslim woman named after the Pontianak by her grandmother, who raises the Chomel on a steady diet of hantu (“ghost” or “horror”) films, featuring the fearsome vampire-seductress. Selamat then slips into various female characters, whose stories in one way or another mirror that of the Pontianak. In the most amusing example, a young woman stuck in an arranged marriage with an older man (living with his ten children and his previous wife) finds solace by going to the cinema to watch hantu films; when her husband objects, she threatens to to do him what the Pontianak does to men in these movies, and he backs off.
This story explains the potential appeal of the Pontianak to women, casting the monster as a source of female empowerment. Other stories, however, do not end so well for the women concerned. The cumulative impact of the various narratives is a depiction of systemic sexism rendering women as second-class citizens whose victimhood is eclipsed behind the legend of the Pontianak – including one legitimate ghost story in which the mournful spirit of a murdered woman haunts a forest catching glimpses of her son while knowing that the world regards her as villain rather than victim.
Selamat adroitly transitions between characters, evoking sympathy, humor, and pathos by turns. The only downside is that these transitions can be slightly confusing. It is always clear when she is shifting to a new character, and it is always clear when she returns to playing Chomel; however, it can be difficult to keep track of the other characters. At first it seems we are seeing a random selection of women who in some way or other embody an aspect of the Pontianak story, but as the play proceeds, Selamat’s monologues reveal personal connections between some characters, and we are not always clear whether we are meeting someone new or reconnecting with someone previously introduced.
(Additionally, her accent may throw off careless listeners. Though her English is perfectly clear, she offers some lines in Malay, especially when singing. This can lead to brief moments of confusion: “I can’t understand her accent – oh wait, she’s not speaking English.”)
Eventually, Chomel escapes the land of the Pontianak and moves to the U.S., where she concludes that her grandmother’s steady diet of hantu movies has prepared her for living in a rundown area that resembles a zombie wasteland, though she worries that familiarity with the Pontianak may not have fully equipped her for the less familiar frights associated with the walking dead. This brief moment of comic distress is balanced by memories of women left behind: figurative or literal ghosts depicted as ominous threats, their tragedies buried beneath the monstrous myth, the only recollection of the truth a sense of outrage at the horrible injustice perpetrated on their memories.
The mask of the Pontianak remains in place. As the stage lights dim, the only testament to the truth floats in darkness – an echo of sad laughter evoking the forgotten faces behind the mask.
- This is not a blanket slur on Islam. The religion’s impact on Malaysia and the surrounding region is too long to explore here, and it is complicated by the fact that it was imported and eventually superimposed over the region’s indigenous beliefs. You can get a thumbnail rundown of how this impacted the Pontianak myth in Monstrum’s YouTube Video, Pontianak: The Vengeful, Violent Vampiric Ghost of Southeast Asia.
We Are Nothing without Hantu Hantu
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Aside from some minor confusion regarding the connections between the various characters depicted in this one-woman show, We Are Nothing without Hantu Hanut is an engaging, funny, and heartfelt revisionist take on the Pontianak, in which the vengeful female monster is reimagined as a myth erected to hide an ugly truth.
- Suzana Selamat – performer, writer, co-producer.
- Giovanni Ortega – director, co-producer.
- Joshua Bennett – sound designer, lighting consultant.
- Chritina Otarola – stage manager.
- Larry Mayorquin – production manager.
We Are Nothing without Hantu Hantu completes its run at Hollywood Fringe Fest with a final performance on June 23 at 8:30pm in the Main Space at 905 Cole Theatre. The address is 905 Cole Avenue in Hollywood. Tickets are $15. Run time: 60 mins. Learn more here.
Note: Audiences interested in seeing the Pontianak onscreen can watch the excellent Revenge of the Pontianak on Netflix, along with several other hantu films.