Malaysian hantu: good spirits, bad spirits, and neighborly ghosts
October 29, 2019 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Malaysia, known by that name or not, has been a vital trading post for huge empires: China, India, the Arabs, the Netherlands, Portugal, England. The indigenous people of Malaysia, called the Orang Asal, practice what the state (and researchers) tend to classify as a type of animism, with various natural objects held as sacred. And all of those empires left their religions—and their more spiritualist aspects—behind, too. [...] There are hundreds, probably thousands of [hantu], ranging from natural spirits ... to vampire-type ghosts to leprechaun-like tricksters. Malaysia Has Good Ghosts, Bad Ghosts, and Gremlin-Babies That Will Steal Your Stuff (Atlas Obscura, talking with Dr. Cheryl L. Nicholas, an ethnographer who enjoys doing research in her homeland, Malaysia)

Monster KU, Mr. Len's recounting of stories his grandmother told him, has a page on Malaysian ghosts, but doesn't (yet?) include the gremlin-babies, the toyol, as written up on Wikipedia, which also has a broader article on ghosts in Malay culture.
posted by filthy light thief (9 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Bonus links: Eerie Books' quick reviews of seven Malaysian horror films, and more broadly, Cinema Escapist's list of their 10 best Malaysian movies on Netflix (as of 17 June 2019), which includes the recent comedy-horror film, Hantu Kak Limah, at #10.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:29 AM on October 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you ever want to have a near-inexhaustible supply of conversation amongst Malaysians*, just get started on a ghost story, then pretty soon everyone will start trading stories. The funniest thing in my life personally is that whenever this happens with someone from the western Anglosphere** in the mix, it tends to freak them out, not sure why. Maybe because Malaysian ghost stories are always something that happened to them personally. Or they know someone. (Yes, I have at least a couple as well)

*TBH this is true for Southeast Asians in my observation
**Can't test with other western languages on account we don't generally speak it
posted by cendawanita at 8:47 AM on October 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

Though the official establishment line is that these horror movies can bring about social degeneracy, so by law in order to pass the censorship board, all of them need to have some disclaimer that it's fiction (which you may think it's self-evident, but not here). This actually was in some ways a compromise, because there was a moment when there was pushback when the first batch of local horror started to really mine Islam (interestingly older pre-1990s horror was more secular or perhaps more accurately, more Hollywood-shaped) the way American horror mines Christianity and it was quite possible local horror movies would be banned outright from using religious themes. Anyway, disclaimers are now de rigueur, and you have movies like Munafik 1&2 which are pants-wettingly scary especially if you're familiar with the culture.

This doesn't apply to foreign imports, which as you know, come from fictional lands in the first place.
posted by cendawanita at 8:55 AM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh! And one last thing. The variety of indigenous spirits and superstition meant that even with the advent of Islam, djinns only merely joined the pantheon and maybe only took over the roles of previous smaller gods in the local magical ecosystem but the hantu remains, unlike maybe other parts of the Muslim world.
posted by cendawanita at 9:01 AM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

*TBH this is true for Southeast Asians in my observation

Very true. (Source: Indonesian grandmother, Singaporean mother, Malaysian grandfather)

Ghost stories were commonplace at family dinners (and bedtime!) and scared the pants off us kids. We loved them though. I probably learned the word hantu at the same time I learned the word ghost.

Great post!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:22 AM on October 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Loosely related, I've also been reading about Philippine folk tradition & myths, which is pretty complicated because of the diversity of cultures. Wik has more rather long lists of uncanny characters as well, with some references to Malay culture, as mentioned in the article above.
posted by ovvl at 1:31 PM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, there is a lot of similarities with the penanggalan and langsuir for example. And the pontianak, jembalang, polong, toyol are hantu shared across the nusantara/Malay archipelago, so these are shared across Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and parts of Muslim Thailand and the Philippines too.

I remember reading about the usage of gold fibres to encourage collagen production in skincare, and I was like, wow modern bomoh magic, as that's what susuk needles are made of.
posted by cendawanita at 6:10 PM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia links re: Philippine folk tradition & myths -- Ghosts in Filipino culture, which notes that the Filipino term for a ghost is multo, which is derived from the Spanish word muerto, meaning dead; and a very lengthy article, with some citation concerns Philippine mythology.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:25 AM on October 30, 2019

Ah convenient! One of Twitter accounts I follow, who does consistent history/anthro threads of the Malay archipelago just did a thread on hantu for Halloween. They've been RT-ing other replies like ppl's family history with penunggu and weres and also they mentioned the same point I made about djinns.
posted by cendawanita at 9:57 AM on November 1, 2019

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