Brace yourself, because this might be one of the most stomach churning segments of Malicious Myths we’ve ever done (quite literally). The Pennanggalan, also known as Hantu Penanggal, is a variation of the vampire myth that originates from Malaysia and is connected to a wider constellation of Southeast Asian horrors, from the Manananggal of Filipino folklore and the Leyak of Bali to the Krasue of Thailand and the Cambodian Ap.
So, if you’re planning on backpacking in Southeast Asia, make sure to double-check that your travel insurance covers “supernatural encounters”. “Penanggal” or “Penanggalan” in Malay literally means “to detach” or “to remove” and can be perhaps explained by the Penanggalan’s nasty habit of launching its head off of its body.
Unlike other vampiric creatures, Penanggalan are exclusively female and are able to masquerade as normal human beings during the daytime, transforming into their hideous counterparts only at night. They tend to prey upon pregnant women and new-born babies, which is why they often opt for professions as midwives. After all, sucking the blood out of helpless victims might sate your hunger, but it won’t pay the bills. By day, the Penanggalan largely goes about its business and cannot be distinguished from a normal woman.
At night, however, it twists its head off of its body and flies out into the night in search of blood. Like some awful harbinger of birth, the Penanggalan perches on the roofs of houses where women are in labour and lies in wait. As the woman gives birth, the Penanggalan will wriggle its invisible tongue into the house and begin draining the blood of the new mother. In some instances, it may even eat the placenta, drain the blood of the new-born, and feast on the flesh of its victims as well.
While the Penanggalan rarely drains its victims entirely, those who have been fed on by the Penanggalan will contract a wasting disease that is almost inescapably fatal. As if squeezing another human being out of your body wasn’t bad enough, now you have to contend with a blood-sucking pile of organs hanging outside your window. To add insult to injury, even if you escape the Penanggalan’s invisible tongue, you will still develop incurable open sores if you happen to be unlucky enough to be brushed by its hanging entrails.
According to most folk legends, the Penanggalan flies through the air in search of food, although alternative accounts state that they can pass through walls and can even ooze up through the cracks in the floorboards of a house in order to get to their victims. In some instances, they are depicted as being able to use their intestines like tentacles and entangle their victims in a mushy web.
The organised Penanggalan will always keep a vat of vinegar in their house, as otherwise it would be impossible for her to return to her body. After a night of floating-head shenanigans, the Penanggalan will return home to immerse her entrails in this vat of vinegar so that they shrink and can fit easily into the empty husk of body she left behind. That being said, we don’t recommend preparing a vinegar bath for those days when you’re planning on struggling into your skinny jeans.
If you happen to be going into labour in Malaysia, the best way to protect against a Penanggalan attack is to scatter thorny leaves on the roof or loop them around windows. It is believed that this sharp shrubbery will trap or injure the Penanggalan’s dangling viscera as it flies by. In some cases, families will even plant pineapple trees under their houses months before the birth of a child, as traditional Malay houses are built on stilts and the prickly fruit will supposedly deter the Penanggalan from squishing its way through the floorboards. As an extra precaution, the pregnant woman will keep a pair of scissors or betel nut cutters under her pillow, as the Penanggalan is deathly afraid of these items. In short, the Penanggalan likes its betel nuts uncut and its draping entrails firmly intact.
Once an unsuspecting Penanggalan is ensnared on foliage or entangled in a forest of pineapple trees, it can be easily dispatched using machetes. An alternative way to kill the Penanggalan is to first find out where she lives. While they may appear like normal women during the daytime, there are a few key traits that will give the Penanggalan away. They will usually avoid making eye contact, will lick their lips hungrily when performing their midwife duties, and will perpetually stink of vinegar.
The key is to follow your foul-smelling friend back to their house, wait until nightfall, and then casually break into their home. If your suspect is in fact a Penanggalan, then she should have left her headless body behind as she flew out into the night to feed. All you need to do is fill the empty body with pieces of broken glass and, when the unknowing Penanggalan attempts to reattach herself to her body, her internal organs will be severed. Denying a Penanggalan re-entry into her host body before sunrise or sanctifying the body by cremation will also result in her death.
If you need to prove your friend is a Penanggalan to win a bet, however, then you should simply flip the body upside down. According to the rich tapestry of Malaysian folklore, the Penanggalan is intelligent enough to lead a complicated double life, but not quite smart enough to recognise the front of her own body, so flipping her body will mean she inevitably attaches herself backwards. When she emerges from her house the next day, her head will be facing backwards and she’ll probably die of embarrassment due to how frankly ridiculous she looks.
During the day, the Penanggalan appears like a normal human woman. At night, however, this gruesome ghoul detaches its head and flies around of its own accord. As it flies, its internal organs dangle below it and are said to twinkle like fireflies as it glides through the moonlit night. Its long, tangled hair fans around it as it flies and its glowing red eyes pierce the darkness.
While the Penanggalan predominantly uses its invisible tongue to drain its prey, it is often depicted as having fangs. The number of fangs varies from region to region, with some describing it as having two, like the Western vampire, and others stating that the average Penanggalan is adorned with a mouthful of fangs.
According to traditional Malaysian folklore, a Penanggalan is created when an old or young woman uses black magic in order to obtain everlasting beauty. The woman will typically make a pact with a demon and, as part of this pact, it is stipulated that the woman must not eat meat for 40 days. Apparently these women weren’t great at reading the fine print on their contracts, because breaking this pact results in them becoming a bloodthirsty Penanggalan.
This may seem like an insane lack of self-control on the part of the woman, but imagine going without bacon for over a month and we’re sure you’d crack too. In some instances, the woman either died during childbirth and transformed into a Penanggalan or was subjected to a powerful curse that was outside of her control, although this is far less common.
There is alternative Malaysian folktale that states the original Penanggalan was once a beautiful priestess. One day, this priestess was taking a ritual bath in a tub that originally held vinegar. As she bathed herself and entered into a state of deep meditation, a man entered the room without warning and startled her. Out of shock, she jerked her head up so quickly to look at him that the sheer force severed her head from her body and eviscerated her in the process, which is often known in Malaysia as the “overreaction of the century”.
Enraged by the peeping tom, the priestess flew after him and left her empty body behind her in the tub. In this version of the legend, it’s not entirely clear why the Penanggalan went on to target pregnant women and new-borns, although to be honest we’re willing to question the sanity of a woman who thought tearing her own head off was an appropriate response to anything.
Another more plausible version of this legend states that the original Penanggalan was an ugly young woman who had become consumed by bitterness at her single status and was feverishly jealous of all married women. Her unchecked rage eventually resulted in a murderous rampage, during which she murdered many innocent pregnant women. As punishment for her heinous crime, the people of her village hung her head from a tall tree and tied her legs to a bull.
When the bull charged, her body was torn away and her severed head was left dangling from the tree with all of the internal organs still intact. While the people of the village celebrated their triumph over evil, they were less than pleased when they discovered that the severed head had gone missing later that night and that they had unwittingly unleashed a hellish demon on their small settlement.
The Penanggalan may not be as well-known as its other vampiric counterparts, but there are a few choice references to our floating foe:
- There are numerous horror films that feature the Penanggalan, including Penanggal: The Curse of the Malayan Vampire (2013), Mystics in Bali (1981), The Witch with Flying Head (1982, also known as Witches with Flying Heads or Fei Tou Mo Nu), The Resurrection of Angel Eyes (1988), and Mystery of the Merry Widow (1991).
- In the comic Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others, the titular Hellboy travels to Malaysia in 1958 and comes upon a village that is without a Bomoh shaman. In the Bomoh shaman’s absence, the village has fallen victim to a Penanggalan.
- In the 2016 comic Cry Havoc, the character of Sri reveals that she is a Penanggalan.
- The graphic novel Okko: The Cycle of Water features two Penanggalan as its main villains.
- The short manga comic “Head Prolapse Elegy” by Shintaro Kago is centred around a Penanggalan.
- The Penanggalan is set to appear as an enemy in the upcoming action RPG Indivisible.
- Penanggalan feature as enemies in the living card game Legend of the Five Rings.
- In the SCP series, it is heavily implied that SCP-1060 is a Penanggalan.