This is an edited version of a conference paper presented at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies conference in Seoul, South Korea in July 2017
The meaning of laughter, seen as springing from humour and moral degradation, has been a matter of philosophical preoccupation with human morality since the ancient time of Aristotle. And for much of the history of laughter, it is often interpreted with grim judgment. For all its suddenness and ephemerality, laughter can leave in its wake a lingering tenor of lightness and ambivalence, but also a countervailing darkness not far behind.
For some reason, women’s laughter is especially ugly and because of that it resides comfortably in the horror genre. In this post I’ll focus on the iconic laugh of the pontianak, the female vampire of Malay legend. Her laugh is a cornerstone of Malay-language horror and functions to elicit fear in men. There is a term in Bahasa Melayu, ‘mengilai’, that is specific only to women’s excessive, high-pitched laughter. The term is mobilised both in a context of supernatural horror but also as a way to undermine women’s pleasure of laughter. ‘Mengilai’ is associated with the grotesque and excess, a woman who laughs too much and too loudly, without shielding her gaping, convulsive mouth. Hags, witches, and evil women are represented to laugh in this manner. They are emblematic of undesirable Malay femininity, degraded simply by age and pleasure.
Why does the pontianak laugh and what does it mean? Why is her laugh a fixture in horror and why is it so threatening? And can women’s excessive laughter generate a powerful expression of feminist critique of patriarchy?
In scenes where the pontianak’s exaggerated shrieks of laughter fill the audiosphere of the victim and audience, we find that the point of origin of the laughter itself is immaterial. Her pale visage, hidden partially by a curtain of long hair, may be expressionless but her laugh is heard and very frequently not seen; we do not see her physically laughing. At times the laugh reappears as the closing credits roll when the film ends. I’d like to argue that her sonic subjectivity is formed through the play on physical absence and vocal presence – desynchronisation. According to feminist film theorist Kaja Silverman, desynchronisation counts as a strategy that disrupts cinematic conventions of gender.
The pontianak’s laughter anticipates the terror and painful death of male victims, setting the stage for the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, forcing open potentialities for feminist affective knowledge. Seemingly transcendental across time and place, the pontianak’s laugh signifies the transgressions of modern Malay femininity and the interruption to patriarchal control. Rather than an inexplicable outburst or an attempt at supernatural mimesis, the laugh of the birth demon in Malay language cinema indexes the boundaries of gendered Malay embodiment and anxiety of the modern Malay woman.
The laughing woman as grotesque
If the polite way for women to laugh is the inoffensive giggle, shielded with a hand to cover the aperture of laughter, then the wild shrieks of a woman’s laughter is truly grotesque. The female grotesque presents a challenge to patriarchal visual culture, as Mary Russo argues, because she assaults the male gaze thanks to the ‘destabilisation of female beauty’ and the realignment of the mechanism of (male) desire’. The laughing woman makes herself a different, subversive kind of spectacle that shatters her passivity and compliance to the male gaze. As a female grotesque par excellence, the pontianak belongs to the pantheon of Malay grotesquerie not simply through her status as visual spectacle (from which one may wish to look away) but also through her sonic excesses.
Women’s laughter in film especially in non-western cinema is under-appreciated. But attention to it illuminates powerfully aspects that make the convergence of film and gender so unsettling and subversive. The function of women’s laughter in film compared to that of men, though the latter certainly deserves separate attention, provides much food for thought. Scenes of women’s anti-patriarchal collective laughter are rare. The Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris’s 1982 film, A Question of Silence, is exemplary for its rare use of women’s collective laughter as an expression of power.
In the film’s ending, three women are in court for murdering a man in a boutique. A motive behind the murder proves elusive. The film’s protagonist, a feminist psychiatrist, provides a defense but the proceedings are interrupted when one by one, every woman in the court including the defendants themselves, inexplicably break out in loud uncontrollable laughter. The men remain unmoved, perhaps perplexed by the show of solidarity. They watch the women laugh as they walk out the courtroom. Even the psychiatrist herself walks out of the trial laughing and the film ends there. Unsurprisingly, the film’s anarchic ending drew unfavourable reviews from critics who were incredulous of women’s ability to derive sadistic pleasure from the destruction of men. Reviewers of the film have stated that the film’s feminist message ‘will not be served well’ and it is the ‘most ferociously anti-male feminist movie’ they had ever seen. So what makes women’s laughter in film so threatening? Can it be even more ominous when situated within a humourless (or even horrific) context?
When her uncanny self emerges to terrorise the living, the pontianak’s laugh cracks through the cinematic frame. In many instances, the disembodied laugh of the pontianak occurs when she is pursued by men of a village who act as guardians of moral order. She laughs during scenes depicting her as a direct threat to the living, whether physically or psychologically. Before a stake is driven through her body, she laughs at her imminent annihilation. Her laugh dominates the audiosphere when she defiantly demonstrates her supernatural abilities, whether to fly (Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, 2004), to effortlessly decapitate her head (Pontianak Menjerit, 2005), or paralyse men into submission by immediately transforming into a horrifying demonic spirit (Pontianak, 1956; Anak Pontianak, 1958; Gergasi, 1958).
As she leaps from tree to tree from her male pursuers, she laughs at their humanly limitations and mortality. Her laugh that shoots through the film’s soundtrack is one of defiance that the men cannot apprehend and destroy her, a mission that combines male desire and dread. Often only audible, her laughter further underscores her uncanny capacity to defy all that is humanly possible. We can declare that the pontianak’s high pitched laughter pierces through an unwitting man’s soul like a claw that rips through the soul of patriarchy.
A ‘monstrous maternal’ of Malay folklore, the pontianak is a symbol of thwarted motherhood. Having died at childbirth, she turns into a vengeful spirit who wreaks terror on the living. Her spectre can be seen at night in quiet graveyards or sitting on tree branches, sometimes accompanied by a ghostly infant in her arms. In the presence of people unfortunate enough to encounter the pontianak, she willfully transforms from a beautiful young woman into terrifying hag with claw-like fingernails. Her very long hair that sometimes falls down to her ankles conceals a hole in the back of her neck through which a stake is struck to subdue and destroy her. In cinematic representations, the pontianak returns from the grave to kill the men who have wronged her.
Women make the minority of casualties and do not count as the pontianak’s main victims. Instead, women serve as a conduit into the mortal world who provide access to its men. They become bewitched under the spell of the pontianak and transform into femme fatales themselves, attacking men on the pontianak’s behalf. Pregnant women, however, a target of vengeance fueled by maternal jealousy, are vulnerable to supernatural attacks. Murderous attacks on pregnant women is a motif in films featuring the ‘monstrous feminine’ (An especially grisly example is the 2007 French film Inside). As Erin Harrington argues in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, it is a scenario whereby a ‘mirror-framing of victim and villain pits one expression of maternal drive against another, and asks us to consider how each woman might be an extension, or alternative resonance, of the other’.
But the pontianak is not always so fearsome. Her gentler side as either loving wife, mother, or lover is constitutive of the Asian monstrous/feminine that stalks Asian horror narratives. She is also a sympathetic figure who displays a range of emotions and when she has a back story that embellishes the aforementioned myth of her origins, she plays parts other than the villainous undead. Switching between beauty and monstrosity, affectionate and murderous, the pontianak makes for an ambivalent spectre who, in a few films, is not vanquished but rather is subdued by her role as wife and mother. The open laughter of the pontianak in Gergasi (1958) precedes the uncanny oscillating display of grotesque monstrosity and conventional feminine beauty. Here, the male hero and love interest does not fear the pontianak but appears determined to love and transform her monstrosity into a romantic and reproductive potential. It is the romance of Beauty and the Beast in reverse: a man’s love tames the grotesque behaviour and physicality of a woman, a woman who has all the beastly means to destroy him.
The meaning of the pontianak’s laugh
The pontianak’s laugh alone signifies the intangible and non-visual excesses of the monstrous feminine, a figure who traffics in both desire and repulsion. In her text that has redefined gender in horror cinema, Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine draws our attention away from the female victim in horror to the female monster – monstrous feminine – a cinematic phenomenon that takes its cue from the tradition of male unease with female reproductive abilities. In spite of its expansive parameters ranging from witches, virginal women with deadly vaginas (vagina dentata), vampires, to the rape-revenge femme castratrice, the monstrous feminine implies that there is something always-already monstrous about the female body.
We may also argue that women’s bodies are always-already grotesque. They are more easily subjected to a diminished or degraded status than men because of cultural taboos and other sensitive meanings associated with various openings, orifices, and matter that leak out of the female body. As women are culturally defined by their bodies, women’s physical expression that exaggerate elements of the grotesque body will be met with derision and censure. From a cynical feminist perspective, these stock female monsters along with the all-encompassing categories of the monstrous feminine and gynaehorror reinforce the conflation of femininity with female reproductive function, and making women synonymous with slits, openings, cavities, cracks, and orifices. In short, in the horror genre, women are yet again defined by their bodies. Thus some attention away from these reductive metaphors is perhaps overdue.
To fully appreciate the cultural significance of the pontianak, she has to be understood as a reconstruction within a dynamic socio-cultural space, standing in as a metaphor for the violence against women and the violence of being women. She is imagined as a figure who indexes the dark half of modernity and its moral antagonisms about women. The pontianak no longer lurks the village but haunts the underbelly of cityscapes. In the latter, the murderous streak of the pontianak appears less to do with revenge than as supernatural vigilantism, going after unwitting wayward men who use women’s bodies for instant sexual gratification. Through the erotic cum fatal entrapment of men the pontianak becomes instrumental in a cautionary tale that implicates the minefield of male-female relations in modern Malay society (Pontianak, 1975). Representations of the pontianak are replete with symbolic contradictions. Torn between tradition and modernity, she is emblematic of birth and destruction, sonic presence and physical absence, and what Kristeva calls the ‘abject’.
When denied the traditional aspects of femininity and dignity, Malay women will turn (in)to spirits as their means of resistance. But such forms of resistance takes advantage of sexist conception of women as the weaker sex. Inspired by Islamic belief, the integrity of Malay women’s constitution – body, mind, and spirit – is traditionally thought to be more vulnerable to a range of moral and spiritual deviations. The spirit world consisting of benign and malevolent unseen beings (makhluk halus) is central to the Malay-Muslim cosmology and summoned, involuntarily and otherwise, during moments of distress.
Accounts of spirit possession and mass hysteria, the latter of which only women are susceptible, connect extreme impurity (toilets and menstrual blood) with the spirit world. Those who appear to succumb to these phenomena are reported to cry and laugh uncontrollably, display superhuman strength, and speak in a disturbingly strange voice. Women and girls have been reported to fall under the spell of a mass hysteria in manufacturing factories where they are overworked or in boarding schools where the rigidness of the Malaysian education system proves too much to bear. Explanations for spirit possession and mass hysteria often are caught between a belief in supernatural interlopers and ‘rationalist’ interpretation of mental illness with neither prevailing in public discourse.
The pontianak’s laughter is located in the extreme end on the register of Malay embodiment. Modulations of embodiment between halus (refined) and kasar (coarse) are part of the everyday reproduction of bodies and values consonant with a transcendental order that pervades the lifeworlds of certain peoples in the Malay archipelago. Seen as central concepts in the aristocratic Javanese worldview, halus is all that is sophisticated, polished, and restrained in contrast to the disorderly, rough, and bawdy which register as kasar. Behaviour understood as kasar, from everyday informal and intimate speech to loud laughter is unevenly sanctioned across age, gender, and kinship lines. Socially permissible forms of laughing for women are limited to barely audible giggles. Loud and unrestrained laughter for all women is dishonourable although a degree of transgression by some women is given more leeway than others. Older women, unburdened by the restrictions of feminine youth, have the tacit permission to laugh openly and tease men. By contrast, Malay men’s laughter further reinforces his dominance over others present around him.
In Part 2, I’ll continue with the feminist commentary on the role of women’s laughter in subverting patriarchy and the reconceptualisation of the pontianak’s laugh as feminist resistance