Life · Writing

Supernatural Beings in Asian Folklore I Grew Up With

Hello everyone!

Since it’s the spooktacular month of October (for me, the spookiest month is actually August because that’s when the Hungry Ghost Festival—a festival during which the gates of Hell are opened and all ghosts are free to receive food and drink—takes place), I’ve thought about sharing some stuff on supernatural beings in Asian folklore that I grew up with!

As you may already know, Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures, religion, races and such. So, it’s pretty much expected that the folktales, myths, legends and whatnot that I’ve grown up with, is not only of one group’s. However, to keep this concise and to avoid erring too much, I will only be writing about some of the ones I know well enough, which are mostly supernatural beings of Malay and Chinese origin. Also, I’ll add in some of the real-life experiences I’ve had or people I know have had with them too, because what’s a scary supernatural experience if you don’t share them, no?

(PS: I’m not going to include ‘proper’ pictures of most of these supernatural beings because real-life visual representations of them scare the crap out of me and I’d like to not have fresh images seared into my mine 😂😂😂 But, do Google them and check them out if you’re a braver soul!

PPS: I don’t really believe in the supernatural but it’s pretty difficult to deny their existence altogether if you live in Malaysia, you know?)

run forrest run

Dì Fù Líng [地缚灵]

The literal translation of this would be “earth-bound spirit” and as you’ve probably already derive from it’s name, it refers to a spirit which is bound to a specific location on Earth. My first encounter with this supernatural being is when an uncle passed away and my then-toddler cousin brother informed me that he saw someone standing by a grave behind us. Of course, I didn’t believe him until another then-toddler cousin came to me crying about someone scaring her by the exact grave the first one pointed out to me.

However, the scariest experience I’ve had that made me question my disbelief of the supernatural was when I was in high school. There was a rumor going around that the ghost of a little Thai boy haunts the corner of the second floor of a wing in the building, so my friends and I went to check it out. There was a locked grill door separating this area and we obviously couldn’t get in without risking or harming ourselves. So, believing that cameras can photograph ghosts, we stuck our hands through the grill, and snapped a couple of photos of the empty hallway using one of those old Sony Ericsson slide phones and holy crap, there was a white, vertical blur in the photos but not in front of our eyes. We got away immediately and never attempted that again, though the girl who owned the phone did print out and enlarge the pictures so we could examine it.

Niú Tóu and Mǎ Miàn [牛头和马面]
Image from Wikipedia

Translated into English as “Ox-Head and Horse-Face”, these two are guardians of the Underworld in Chinese myth. As their name indicates, they have the bodies of human men but Ox-Head has an ox’s head while Horse-Face has a horse’s face. They are believed to the first beings a spirit encounters upon entering the Underworld, though in many stories, they personally escort a new spirit to the Underworld as well.

Now, remember my two toddler cousins that I mentioned earlier? Well, our maternal grandfather passed away a few years later and they’ve had another supernatural encounter. This time, it was with Ox-Head and Horse-Face, and they were standing guard at our grandfather’s favorite chair that the aforementioned deceased uncle’s ghost was seated on. They could provide accurate descriptions of this deceased uncle when we questioned them even though they’ve never met him while he was alive. (We’ve never shown them the deceased uncle’s face when he was lying in the coffin, and the picture of him at the altar is one that’s several years younger than he was when he passed too. Also, they both showed us a eerily accurate mimicry of the way the deceased uncle likes to sit and smoke his cigarette). Moreover, they provided matching descriptions of Ox-Head and Horse-Face for us, both of whom their parents have yet to teach them about then. So yeah, a lot of us younger ones got frightened but the older family members simply laughed it off as a figment of wild imagination.



Now, the actual pontianak is actually the ghost of a stillborn female, but growing up, this term was used by my peers, teachers and all to refer to the bā jiāo guǐ [芭蕉鬼; banana ghost], which is a female ghost that dwells in a banana tree (yeah, imagine my sister and my constant fear when we stayed over at our paternal grandparents’ old place which was right beside a banana plantation). This ghost looks like all of those typical female ghosts we see in Asian horror movies—long black hair covering face, deathly pale and dressed in a long white dress.

I’ve no a personal experience with this ghost and none of my relatives have encountered it before, but a friend of mine who has the seeing gift of Holy Spirit (and is also incredibly immune to experiencing supernatural occurrences since they happen to her every day), has encountered one and boy, was she pissed off about it because she was in the middle of studying for an exam. According to my friend, the banana tree behind her apartment has a spirit residing in it but it had never bothered her before. She still has no idea what triggered it or what led it to her apartment, but it targeted her the moment she locked gazes with it, screeching it’s head off and about to lunge before she managed to banish it. Also, she told me that it looked exactly as the way it’s stereotyped to look, so I guess there are seeds of truth in this stereotype.

selective focus photo of ghost ornament
Image by

A toyol, often translated as “goblin” in English, is basically a dead human fetus with green or brownish skin, large fangs and sharp ears. They feed on blood, which they get from sneakily sucking unprotected toes while the person is sleeping (Ah, the monsters underneath the bed that had me and many of the people I know fearful of the dark when we were younger).

Like with the pontinanak, I’ve never encountered this one (thank God) and none of my friends have either. However, there was a time when we were in primary school and there was a font-page article in a few newspapers talking about how a village banded together and caught a toyol that was terrorizing them. There was a black-and-white picture of it in a jar—not that grainy so we could all make out the fetus’ features and slightly sharp ears. I remember not believing the story and asking my teacher if they actually used a real stillborn and disguised it as a toyol, but he told me not to jinx myself in case it actually is, and to leave the fact-checking to the specialists 😂😂

brown pumpkin halloween decor and gray skull at grass field
Image by

The penanggalan (I’m unsure of how to properly translate this but it means something like the “detacher”?) is one of the most fearful supernatural creature that I’ve heard and had a near encounter with. It a vampiric creature that takes the form a beautiful woman, able to detach it’s head from it’s body (letting it’s entrails trail from the head) so that it can search for the blood of newborn infants to feed on.

I don’t know much about silat or about it’s spiritual side, but according to eye witnesses then and my own near encounter, the story pieced together is this: a bunch of students practicing silat in my high school a little after 6am, and they apparently didn’t preform some opening ritual. While they were practicing, they saw a penanggalan flying overhead. It locked onto them since they were screaming and immediately lunged towards them, demanding to know where it’s baby is at. I arrived at school past 7am and there were a lot of whispering and rumors, and those who were practicing silat had “hysteria” due to being possessed. Two ustazah (female teacher who teaches the Islam)  and other teachers practicing Islam prayed for them, but that wasn’t enough. They were all ill and MIA from school for a while. Moreover, the next day, which was an open day and a Friday, a couple of other students became hysteric at seeing a penanggalan and while the situation was contained, the school had to call in a witch doctor to cleanse the entire school afterwards. There was a lot of salt and pepper all over the school when it resumed on Monday.

Annnnd, that’s all for this post! I may or may not have gone off tangent while writing this, but I guess I mostly stayed on point? 😂 Anyway…

Have you ever had a supernatural encounter or knows someone who did? Do you believe in the supernatural, even just a little bit? Let me know in the comments down below!

As always, thank you so much for reading! ❤

Until next time everyone~



11 thoughts on “Supernatural Beings in Asian Folklore I Grew Up With

  1. I love this post so, so much! Malaysia is definitely a melting pot of so many different cultures — I could tell as much when I traveled there two months ago. 😊 For one day, my family had hired a Malaysian local who spoke English to be our guide, and I thought that I would have to translate the English to my grandparents throughout the tour. It turned out, the man knew how to speak Cantonese, despite the fact that he was 5 generations away from his original Cantonese-speaking ancestor. My family was very, very impressed, and we ended up spending the entire tour talking in Cantonese. Aaaah this is making me want to travel back to Malaysia now! It’s such a beautiful country 😍

    Great post, Aria! I had a lot of fun reading it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much, Aria! 😆 And as for where I’ve been in Malaysia, I went all over Sabah two summers ago and it blew my mind how beautiful and diverse it was there 😍 I really would love to go back and see if I can communicate with people, since I’m learning Indonesian and I hear it’s similar to Malay?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ❤❤❤

        Ohhh, Sabah is a really beautiful place! If you do come back for a visit, you should check out Sarawak, and the islands like Langkawi, Penang and Tioman. They’ve beautiful views and spots for outdoor activities! Kuala Lumpur is great if you want to have a food/shopping/indoor-focused trip, though!

        And yes, Indonesian is similar to Malay (phonetically, I’m not sure about grammatically) but there are vast difference in meanings for certain words, like ‘baja’ is ‘fertilizer’ in Malay but ‘steel’ in Indonesian, or ‘bandar’ is ‘city’ in Malay but ‘port’ in Indonesian.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Aaaah so many places to visit — I can’t choose! I’ll definitely keep your recommendations in mind for the future 😊

        Oh, I see… that might make learning Malay and Indonesian a bit trickier, but I’m glad the simple travel phrases like terima kasih are the same. Thanks for the heads up! 👍

        Liked by 1 person

  2. AMAZING! As I am reading this my dog jumped and made a sound I got a bit scared. lol. Anyway I love this post I have enjoyed it so much. You wrote it and explained them so well and I do get the picture and now I do not want to have any close encounters with. I wish to go visit Malaysia then again not to have a close encounter with them. I am from the Philippines I hope I could just swim enough hahaha. Again, I love this post it was written so well.

    And no I have no experience with the others but my mom does she’s a nurse and at the hospital numerous events had happen that creep her out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. THANK YOU ❤❤❤ I’m glad you enjoyed this post! I got the creeps writing it as well 😂

      And omg, hospitals are just as scary as cemeteries! Brrr, I can already imagine possible paranormal/supernatural events that happened at the hospital your mom works at…😨😨


  3. This was such a fascinating post! I love learning about folklore from different parts of the world, so obviously your post interested me. 🙂 I definitely don’t want to encounter any of them, they sound really creepy. I haven’t had any encounters with supernatural creatures. (Though there is one that I’m kinda unsure about.) Thank you for sharing! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading, commenting and liking as well! ❤ I love learning about folklore from different parts of the world too. They’re just so interesting! And yes, a lot of the supernatural creatures in Asian folklore is scary/creepy as hell. I’m super glad they’re (if they actually are real) not generally visible/tangile to humans 😱😨

      Liked by 1 person

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