The Feminine Grotesque in Indonesian Horror Films

Previously unpublished / Originally written in English / Edited by Corry Elyda

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Suzzanna as The Snake Queen in “Nyi Blorong” (1982)

The feminine grotesque is a central motif in the explosion of Indonesian horror films following the end of the New Order regime (1967-1998). Three years after this major political and social change, two Indonesian young filmmakers—Rizal Mantovani and Jose Poernomo—made the first horror movie of the new era, entitled Jelangkung (2001). The success of Jelangkung was soon followed by a plethora of other films that offer new narratives and new ways of representing horror.[1] From 1998 until 2008, out of the 281 films produced, over 70 are horror films, constituting a major genre in the revival of the Indonesian film industry.[2]

The Indonesian horror film is a particularly grotesque genre—a genre dedicated exclusively for the grotesque. The best way to approach this very typical film is by considering what monsters are like and where they come from. The representation of monster in Indonesian horror film, moreover, is largely defined by its physical appearance and what cause it to become a monster.[3] A crucial aspect of that monster-ness is a female body. This is exemplified most obviously in the large numbers of women who became the monster (the ghost). It is safe to say that the female characters in this period horror film almost always end up becoming ghost.[4] Women are primarily physical creatures, defined in large part by their surface appearances.

The representation of gender has been the subject of theoretical debate for many years, and much of what one finds in Indonesian horror films during the period of 1970s-1990s falls readily within conventional categories recognizable from the production of other media, other cultures, and other ages. Indonesian horror films manifest undoubtedly to what monsters are like and spend relatively little time on articulating or developing those assumptions.

Sen (1994) has argued that the use of feminine (female) ghosts in Indonesian films is a way of dealing with the culturally problematic sexuality of women. Sen points out that horror film represents femininity as a silence. But this analysis tends to ignore the complexities of female characters in horror films. In Indonesian horror films, the otherness of the monster/ghost is, however, an endless source of mystery, fascination, fear, pity and even laughter. Karl Heider (1991) describes the use of ‘horribly humorous’ scenes as a distinctive aspect of Indonesian horror movies.

Stephen Galdwin (2003) contributes his valuable analysis on the history of Indonesian horror genre and its political resonances. Gladwin underlines the notion of a grotesque and evil priestess-ness in the horror narrative of 1970s as a well-worn standby in the genre. ‘Female’ functions as a signifier, either as a fearful woman who possesses fearful magic and exercises a reign of terror over the populace or those ‘proper’ women who are represented as traditional, obedient and pleasant. Gladwin stated that this mode of representation mirrors its ideological function, i.e to maintain social order as stipulated by the New Order ideology.

A recent account of Indonesian horror film by Robert Wessing (2007) further explores and examines on the role of female-ness and monstrosity in Indonesian horror genre. Despite its ‘gender-less’ analysis, his contribution that focuses on the Javanese goddesses in media space, is valuable on proposing and historicizing female figures naturally embedded in the genre. In this context, my paper tries to expand these analyses by using Bhaktin’s theory of the grotesque. This essay will argue that the female grotesque in contemporary Indonesian horror film offers representation of broader political and social anxieties in Indonesian society. The female grotesque exposes traumatic history as well as covers it, substituting comfortably unified stories for disorderly violent events.

To understand this construction, it is important that we examine the history of visual representation of female grotesque in Indonesian horror genre. As mentioned above, the representation of the monster in Indonesia horror film is largely defined by its physical appearance. During the New Order, the iconography of Indonesian horror film circulated as vocabularies such as kuntilanak (female ghost), sundelbolong (the ghost with a hole in her body), Nyi Blorong (spirit with beatiful face and snake body), Nyi Roro Kidul (Javanese mythical figure believed as the queen of the south sea), Si Manis Jembatan Ancol (sweet girl from Ancol bridge), and other traditional female ghost figures. Despite maintaining its old female ghost as well as continuing the theme of the vengeful feminine [female] ghost, who returns from the dead to punish those who wronged her in life, the new horror genre has also introduced a new kind of female figure.

Jelangkung, the pioneer of contemporary horror, uncovers stories of Jakarta urban legends, while bringing old and new vocabularies of female ghost, ie. kuntilanak, sundelbolong, pocong (shrouded ghost), and suster ngesot (crawling nurse ghost) into a new setting: urban space.[5] In Indonesian horror vocabulary, kuntilanak and sundelbolong have been widely circulated and represented as a figure of grotesque. Kuntilanak is a vague category, defining many female ghosts that appeared in all Indonesian horror film since its beginning.[6] Kuntilanak is a wandering and homeless soul who lives in vacant/abandoned house or big (banyan) trees. The key visual features of kuntilanak are hideous, scary, vengeful and furious. She has red eyes, sharp claws, deformed face, long nails, a rotten face and long curly hair. She usually wears a white robe, and is capable of flying. She often masquerades as a beautiful and seductive woman, usually accompanied by the strong scent of flower.[7] Kuntilanak is a primadona who, after being seduced and/or raped by a group of men, is abandoned. As a result she falls pregnant and commits suicide during her pregnancy.[8]

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Suzzanna as the titular character in “Sundel Bolong” (1981)

Another figure that has been represented in the cinema since 1971 is Sundelbolong. The title refers to the ghost who emerges from a woman who dies during childbirth—interpreted cinematically with a hole like a gaping wound in her abdomen. The first film telling the story of sundelbolong was Awaludin’s Beranak Dalam Kubur (Birth in the Grave, 1971) then remade in 2007. As its title explains, the female ghost is undead from the woman who had passed away during her labor in the grave.

Javanese spirits, like Nyi Roro Kidul and her daughter, Nyi Blorong are not considered as ghost but in almost of ‘their’ films, they are represented as having both evil and beautiful quality. In the emergence of new horror, these Javanese spirits are dismissed from the screen.[9] Urban youngsters recognize a ‘new’ female ghost called suster ngesot. Suster ngesot is reproduced in four films, each tries to charge with a narrative and values at the moment it enters into an artistic structure , ie. cinematographic representation.[10] Suster N: Dendam Suster Ngesot (Suster N: The revenge of Suster Ngesot, 2007) was made by Viva Westi, one (of the only two) female director working in the horror genre. Suster ngesot comes from an illicit relationship and the intricate web of affair and jealousy, while in Bangsal 13 (Ward 13, 2004), suster ngesot was an evil nurse who conducted euthanasia and was killed by angry villagers. Her appearance is much worse with kuntilanak, since her figure is not only deformed, but also invalid.

The most interesting recent horror figure is perhaps Pocong (2006). During the New Order period, the pocong is usually presented as a male ghost, or in some cases, genderless.[11] But in this banned and the extremely controversial Indonesian horror movie[12] by the young and renowned director Rudi Soedjarwo, Pocong, the pocong is exclusively reserved for women who were raped and killed in the 1998 incident.[13]

In all those representation of female ghost, bodily elements play an extremely important role. Abnormality, unformed-ness, deformed-ness, degeneration and their material grounding in the lower stratum of the body are typical of those female ghosts. This distorted, doubled and frightening presentation invokes the notion of female body as monstrous and lacking. The grotesque body of woman then is loaded by “connotations of fear and loathing” (Russo, 1994). The narrative of new horror suggests this thesis further.

The narrative structure of horror movie during 1970s starts with the Pancasilaist[14], harmonious village where the female protagonist lives. One day, an antagonist (always male) will try to destroy the life of the female protagonist. He will try to separate the protagonist (represented as a morally-correct, religious, beautiful woman) from her spouse (usually of Eurasian descent, handsome, hero-quality). The antagonist will kill the woman as he attempts to rape her. The female protagonist then dies and becomes a ghost, seeking to revenge her death. She will have a supernatural power and start to kill the evil man and tear their victim’s body up to suck their blood. In the end of narrative, Moslem cleric will come and rescue her from the netherworld, by restoring her soul (into heaven, according to Islam teachings).

The film usually presents clown characters that break the narrative in humorous scenes. Two figures who were very popular at that time are Pak Bokir and Dorman Borisman. Their subplot is that they are phony sorcerers without real powers or the village watchman (hansip, civilian defense officer) who is terrified of the forces he is supposed to guard against (Wessing, 2007). Hansip are one of the New Order’s agents responsible to maintain public order. As a lower class in the state security system, hansip in horror film make fun of themselves and display a civil disobedience by laughing at the most serious thing. Those characters ridicule the ‘upper class’, even the ghost mock and unleash the people’s power.

Those kinds of characters never reappear in the contemporary film, instead, a new kind of clown teenagers have replaced them. Apart from the urban setting, new horror movie is heavily influenced by Hollywood, Japanese and Thai horror. The new characteristic of its narrative are carried by urban middle class teenagers spending their leisure time searching for a ghost. Like the Hollywood blockbuster, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s Blair Witch Project (1999), Jelangkung and its imitators are about a group of Jakarta teenagers who find female ghosts in their schools[15], apartments[16], campuses[17], hospitals[18], and other urban/modern engineered spaces.

Initially they will not believe in the presence of the ghost but slowly, they will witness its presence. They will investigate and dig for the truth behind this ghost story and, in the end, they will find that the female ghost is the victim of a past crime committed by their father or their [male] teacher. Commonly, the female ghost has been raped then killed or became pregnant but the man would not take responsibility (i.e. by marrying the girl). The girl would then be murdered by the man or she commits suicide. During this quest, there will be many characters, comprising of a handsome and heroic boy, a daring female protagonist, a spoiled sexy female sidekick, and fat clownish male or female (but mostly male) teenagers. In the climax of the terror, the female ghost will present herself to the fat clownish character such that s/he will run in terror. Scenes that involve these characters invite the audience to laugh. This combination of humor and terror is the main feature of this genre that has gained wild popularity among Indonesian audience.

Artwork for "Leak" (1981)

Artwork for “Leak (Mystics in Bali)” (1981)

The visual representation and narrative bring this genre closer to the Bakhtin’s notion of grotesque (Bakhtin, 1984; Russo, 1994). Bakhtin finds grotesque imagery is most frequently represented in immediate proximity to birth or death, to infancy or old age, to the womb or the grave, to the bosom that gives life or swallows it up and at its very extreme, Bakthin finds grotesque imagery unifying the two bodies representing death and life into a singular body. The recognition of the bodily elements significance is extremely important in understanding the ways in which the holistic ideals of folk are represented.

In this case, the narrative of national trauma is fixed to the shock of an image of grotesque. The leitmotif of New Order horror has disappeared, and in its place a new narrative structure has emerged. Its main feature is to simultaneously refer to or expose violent events and to cover them. The genesis of the ghost is not traditional, but rather of contemporary trauma and events[19]. But the shock of this image, which registers history as a process of ruination and catastrophe, retains the potential to activate a different reading of history. A closer look at this structure and visual representation of feminine grotesque reveals the underlying ideology in line with its production context.

Every Indonesian horror filmmaker always states that their films are based or at least, inspired by true event, or a true story.[20] During an interview, Monty Tiwa, the scriptwriter of Pocong said that his (film) story is based on a true incident, i.e the 1998 riot in which one of his Indonesian Chinese friends witnessed his mother raped and his sister burned to death by the mob. These kinds of stories are exceptional, but stories about women who are raped and killed by her boyfriend is not strange for Indonesian audience. In the newspaper, female victims of murder or suicide are presented graphically in the news every day.[21] The history of every significant place in Jakarta contains a story of a female being murdered or raped.[22]

It is not a coincidence that in horror stories, the figure of grotesque always comes from the past. In the Indonesian horror films, the ghosts walk through historical walls, to show us who live in the present, that there is a traumatic story behind her appearance. Unlike the horror films of the 1970s where the ghost kills the antagonist, in the contemporary horror stories, the ghosts never kill anyone. They are almost powerless apparitions. They only appear to bring the past into our midst that we might recognize it.

The juxtaposition between their grotesque appearance and its modern setting emphasizes their strangeness.[23] The characters, who are mostly teenagers, also structure the visual representation of ‘perfect body’, the complete, active, and finished body. The figure of grotesque obviously stands in contrast to these modern Indonesian bodies produced in the context of modern society and as a certain kind of social ethic.[24] Their bodies that mark past and present and crossing borders of life and death seeks to viscerally command our attention to what cannot be assimilated into dominant stories about the past. This grotesque image tries to reassert the presence of the past(s) that have been repressed. And in this context, Bakhtin’s ideas find concurrence.

Bakhtin identifies that the grotesque body is the physical manifestation of the folk which normally has a marginalized existence. However it is during periods of carnival that the folk is allowed to engage in dialogue with the sanctioned power structure and challenge the dominance of this power structure by continually subverting official and sanctioned authoritative discourse through its use of unofficial, unsanctioned, folkloric language.

Borrowing this concept, we can say that horror film is the carnival site where folk is allowed to engage in dialogue with the sanctioned power structure and challenge the dominance of this power structure by continually subverting official and sanctioned authoritative history through its use of unofficial, unsanctioned, folkloric language. The horror genre and related popular narratives provide the cultural imagery, themes, and fictions to support the representation of feminine grotesque as in Walter Benjamin’s term, “a historical allegory”.

They bring with them the occluded history (Huggan, 1998) as “they function as agents for the reconstruction of historical memory.” According to Huggan, ghost stories might be effective as vehicles of historical revisionism, or as means by which repressed histories can be brought back to the surface. And for the case of Indonesia, it’s the story of women that appears on the screen as a figure of female grotesque.

But in this context, questions regarding the misogynistic representation of women remain unanswered. The presentation of female as both monster and victim always implies and is based on the conservative ideology, i.e patriarchal society. As Mary Russo puts it, this representation of women perpetuates the dominant representation of women by men. Female body is subject to torturous transformations and violence. More than simply a site to deal with problematic women’s sexuality, the female body in these films is also a site where sex crimes are both perpetrated and importantly, following Bahktin, horror films are a site in which these anxieties can be explored and dealt with by the folk/people. The female grotesque that appears in Indonesian horror films then is an arena for the struggle between dominant and emergent political discourses, in which new society, unfortunately, continues to utilize the old gender hierarchy.


NOTES

[1] Jelangkung hit box office record, with a total audience of more than 1 million people. Unlike other genres, horror has always had a loyal audience in Indonesia.

[2] The first wave of Indonesian horror film started in 1971 (JB Kristanto, 1995), followed by many horror films which are very popular with the name, film mistik (mystic or mystery film). Since then, the horror film is the one of the most popular genre. During 1970s, total production of horror movie is about 24 films, in 1980s, 69 titles and from 1990 to 1998, 33 films.

[3] In Indonesia, horror film is exclusively defined by its ghost. Psychological thriller, slasher, and other kinds of horror subgenre are not really popular and limited to only some films.

[4] It’s not a coincidence that Asian horror (Japanese, Thai, Malay or Indonesian among others) are mostly signified by a female ghost (Ringu (The Ring) (Japan, 1998), Shutter (Thailand, 2004), Alone (Thailand, 2007), Nangnak (Thailand, 1999)). For further elaboration, see Jay McRoy, Japanese Horror Cinema, Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2009. Philip W. Chung, “The Ten Best Asian Horror Films”, Asianweek, October 30, 2008. Adeline Kueh, What Happens After the Bite?A Rethinking Monstrosity in Southeast Asian Films, presented during Southeast Asian Cinema Conference, Singapore, 2004. For Thai horror film list, http://www.thaiworldview.com/tv/tv4.php.

[5] Katinka van Heeren (2004) describes that the horror film of the 1970s usually set in a village and evolved around the search of ilmu (spiritual knowledge) or ilmu gaib (supernatural powers). This change of setting and mise en scène is obvious in recent films.

[6] Kuntilanak is well-known in Southeast Asia folklore. In Malaysia and Singapore she is known as pontianak.

[7] In Rizal Mantovani’s box-office Kuntilanak trilogy (2006, 2007, 2008), Kuntilanak combines a female figure (head) with horse (legs).

[8] The myth has been circulated since at least the colonial era amongst Javenese residents. In the internet, some Indonesia-based website provide a forum where people share their story about ghost appearance, including kuntilanak (for example, www.primbon.com). And interestingly, most of the picture in the website are from handphone and digital camera.

[9] Those two figures, particularly Nyi Roro Kidul, is integrated into Javanese mythology through her political association with Javanese royal kingdom, while ghosts or evil forces are mostly defined as natural spirits and not having a ‘direct political’ connection.

[10] During an interview with the author, Rizal Mantovani, director of Jelangkung, said that the ghost of suster ngesot is based on a story circulated orally among Yogyakarta and Semarang (Central Java) residents. Rizal said that this ghost was originally a nurse that helped Indonesian fighters during Independence struggle, but it’s still unclear why this heroic figure turns into the scaring monster.

[11] Pocong is particularly a ‘Moslem’ ghost, since it’s presented as an undead body wrapped in white burial clothes. Islamic tradition dictates that the body of the deceased must be wrapped in white clothes and its clothes’ ties must be released once they are buried.

[12] The movie was banned from release in Indonesia and has therefore never been shown officially. Indonesian Censorship Board stated that the film contains elements which can provoke ‘old wounds’, a national trauma that should be forgotten and buried in order to step forward. It was released internationally as Shrouded.

[13] Preceding Soeharto’s downfall and the reform era, in May 1998 a riot targeting the Chinese Indonesians occured in which 1,000 people lost their lives and many more their livelihoods as shops, houses and offices were burned to the ground by uncontrollable mobs. It was also a riot in which 84 acts of violence against women took place, including rape, torture, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, mostly against the ethnic Chinese (Muhadjir Darwin, 2003).

[14] Pancasila is the Indonesian state philosophy, containing 5 principles: a belief in God, justice for all, humanity, national integration, and democracy.

[15] Ada Hantu di Sekolah (Ghost in the School, 2004), Di Sini Ada Setan (There is A Ghost!, 2004), Panggil Namaku 3x (Call my Name 3x, 2005), Hantu Bangku Kosong (Empty Chair Ghost, 2006), Gotcha (2006), etc.

[16] Kuntilanak (2006), Pocong 2 (2006), Lewat Tengah Malam (2007), etc.

[17] Lentera Merah (Red Lantern, 2006), the female ghost was a communist activist during the 1960s.

[18] Jelangkung (2001), The Soul (2003), Suster Ngesot the Movie (2006), etc.

[19] I wish to express my gratitude to Thomas Barker for this elaboration.

[20] For example, the filmmaker of Hantu Ambulance (2008) wrote in their promotional banner that the film is based on true events.

[21] Cheap newspaper like Pos Kota, Warta Kota, Lampu Merah, locally called ‘yellow newspaper’, sell million copies to the lower and middle-class audience who are also arguably the audience of Indonesian horror films. Upon finalizing this paper, I read news about a woman who was gang-raped by group of men and then died in the ‘pos ronda’ (hansip post). Hospital refused to treat that woman because she was not able to pay the cost!

[22] Most of the contemporary horror films tell the story about a haunted place in Jakarta. This urban legends consist among others: Jeruk Purut cemetery where a Chatolic priest raped a local girl; Ancol bridge where a girl was raped and killed by gang of men; Pondok Indah house (Pondok Indah is posh and luxury residential complex) where a family was massacred by gang of robbers; Catholic school where a female student was raped by her teacher; Casablanca tunnel where a girl was killed and dumped by her boyfriend; Cipto Mangunkusumo hospital where many unknown bodies are stored (usually they are found killed in accident or crime scenes); and Manggarai train station where a train crashed and killed all the passengers.

[23] Mise en scène is the key concept that indicates this juxtaposition. Characters in the recent horror films live in modern apartments or houses with its modern minimalist interior. They drive BMW, Mercedes-Benz or fancy Japanese cars, have a flat screen TV, using Apple Mac, go to shopping malls and discotheques, dine in modern cafés or bars, listen to electronic music, and wear Adidas, Nike or Prada outfits. Most of them speak ‘bahasa gaul Jakarta” (Indonesian language with Jakarta dialect, typically signified by heavy usage of English words).

[24] In Indonesia, diet/weight control and doing sport in gym are part of high-middle class life style. Television and women  magazine advertise what kind of body that is considered “classical” ideal: Eurasian, white/light skin, relatively tall and fashionable. In film, this kind of classical body dominates the representation of female body, except in horror genre. Religion, particularly Islam and their conservative counterpart, put control over women’s body as very important to their agenda. Parliament under the pressure of this group recently passed Anti-Pornography Law that basically regulates the body of women.

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——————–. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed.Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Austin:University of Texas Press, 1986.

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