Tangle, Mangle, Strangle:
Hair and the Horrible Female in East and Southeast Asian Folklore
“One hair of a woman can tether even a great elephant.”
Dead or alive, scary or sexy—hair is inherently weird and contradictory, a dispensable part of the indispensable body. The symbolic possibilities are endless. Hair doesn’t decompose like flesh. It signifies both wisdom and youth, virility and femininity. Long hair can be simultaneously alluring (driving fantasies of beautiful women) and revolting (the detritus of the body, the stuff of witchcraft). Despite being far from a strictly feminine characteristic, long hair has been a prominent trait of female monsters, ghosts, and demons for centuries, especially in Asian folklore. The most ubiquitous of Asian ghosts is recognizable by her long, disheveled black hair. She is a figure as analogous with the idea of “ghost” in Eastern horror culture as the floating sheet with eye holes in Western tradition. A major source of the fear surrounding these ghost girls and other abundantly tressed female terrors is in the hair, which they use to seduce, terrify, torture, and kill. And since popular mythologies tend to illuminate the cultures from which they came, a closer examination of these terrifying creatures reveals both cultural and universal attitudes towards women, fear, and the psychological relationships we have with our hair.
In Japanese Kabuki and literature, and in many other cultures as well, disheveled hair is a symbol of inner turmoil, distress, or madness. Western pop culture became familiar with the bedraggled ghost girl through Japanese horror films such as The Ring (Nakata, 1998) and The Grudge (Shimizu, 2002), but she is also a significant figure in Chinese and Korean folklore. In all three traditions, she is described as a vengeful spirit, with long black hair, pale skin, and wearing a white dress (white being the color of death). She is called yūrei (ghost) or onryō (vindictive ghost) in Japan, nü gui (female ghost) in China, and cheonyeo gwishin (virgin ghost) in Korea. These are the spirits of women who suffered violent deaths while full of heightened emotions such as hatred, anger, or love. Each of these female ghosts has a male version, but he rarely appears, possibly because women were (and are) seen as more emotionally volatile and thus more dangerously hostile as ghosts. Her crazy hair clearly indicates that she is not one to be reasoned with.
Along the same vein, neatly coiffed hair that is supposed to indicate respectability cannot always hide whatever turmoil lies beneath. Even carefully controlled hair can sometimes take on a life of its own. The long hair of the Japanese yōkai (monster) known as Futakuchi-onna (“two-mouth woman”) conceals a ravenous second mouth at the back of her head. The Futakuchi-onna is an ordinary woman who becomes a yōkai after her miserly husband does not give her enough to eat, or if she starves a stepchild to death, who then comes back to haunt her body. The second mouth is unpredictable. It might remain quiet or it might scream profanities and demand food. At mealtimes, as her proper, polite natural mouth eats bits and morsels, the Futakuchi-onna’s hair uncoils and moves like two serpentine arms, shoveling food into the second mouth. Her demure facade is no match for the destructive secrets of her family life, manifested in her body and hair.
Bedlam or bedroom, loose hair deftly represents both sex and its frequent partner, guilt. The intimacy of long, unbound locks adds to the appeal of Harionago and pontianak, making them even more terrifying when they turn on would-be lovers. Harionago, or “barbed woman,” is a Japanese yōkai who appears as a lovely girl with a thick black mane. She wanders the roads and laughs coquettishly at men and boys. If they are foolish enough to laugh back, then her long, razor-tipped hair comes to life and lashes out, torturing, mutilating, and killing. The beautiful Javanese pontianak is another lonely road-traveler. She is porcelain-skinned, with long dark shining hair. Male travelers allured by her charms die when she tears out their entrails or sexual organs with her fingernails. Pontianak is sometimes confused with the Malaysian langsuyar. Langsuyar wears a green dress and primarily attacks pregnant women and babies, while pontianak wears a white one and preys on men. Both have flower-scented hair that falls to their ankles. Both are dazzlingly beautiful, a recurring trait among the most lethal of female demons and ghosts. But unlike the Eves, Lady Godivas, and Venuses of classical art, whose hair titillatingly veils their bodies to heighten arousal in the viewer, pontianak and langsuyar’s hair conceals horrific anatomy: blood-sucking holes in the napes of their necks. Futakuchi-onna, as described above, hides her supernatural second mouth under her hair. Onryō, cheonyeo gwishin, and nü gui are often shown with hair covering most of their faces so that only a bloodshot eye peers out. In the flutter of an eyelash, sexualized dreams become nightmares.
Although tales about demonic beauties such as pontianak and langsuyar may have been handy in keeping wayward husbands away from strange women, a closer look reveals that warnings against female societal deviance are deeply entrenched in these mythologies. Langsuyar and pontianak are spirits of human women who died before fulfilling expectations of motherhood—the pontianak was a woman who during pregnancy and the langsuyar died during childbirth. In their lifetimes, neither successfully reached what was considered the pinnacle of female experience: motherhood. Similarly, the Korean cheonyeo gwishin, or “virgin ghost,” is prevented from entering the afterlife because she did not marry or bear sons in her lifetime. Only married women wore their hair “up,” and the cheonyeo gwishin carries the shame of her virginity on her head. According to their respective cultures, pontianak, langsuyar, and cheonyeo gwishin were women who had failed. They can be saved only by applying remedies that are meant to settle their deficits. To stop langsuyar, one must stuff the hole in the nape of her neck with her own hair. She will then instantly transform into an ordinary woman who can assimilate back into society, marry, be a good wife, and have children. To tame the murderous, seductive pontianak, one must fill the hole in her neck with a nail, or pluck out one of her hairs. But each “cure” is reversible. Clear the hole, and the good wives fly off, screeching, leaving behind husbands, children, and the company of respectable humans. Their hair is their salvation or betrayal, depending on how you see it. The remedy for the cheonyeo gwishin is even more blatantly sexual than the stuffing of holes. In some villages of Korea, large numbers of wooden phalli, offerings to the cheonyeo gwishin, are reported to have been found. She is thus “completed” and can move on to the peaceful afterlife. An alternative measure is to perform a marriage ritual that unites her with a male ghost.
In more recent years, however, the folklore of cheonyeo gwishin has liberated her from dependency on male society for identity and fulfillment. Women were frequent victims of abuse and injustice in traditionally male-centric Asian societies, but cheonyeo gwishin, onryō, and nü gui could intimidate, terrify, and even kill those whom they were powerless to face in life. Their hair is no longer compelled to indicate social or marital status, attract suitors, and fulfill expectations of beauty and modesty. Like the ghost girl herself, it becomes a formidable weapon to exact revenge upon an unjust world. The ghost’s presence is sometimes indicated by the appearance of her disembodied hair. Horror movies such as Dark Water (Nakata, 2002) and Exte: Hair Extensions (Sono, 2007) depict hair gushing out of faucets, appearing in webs and tangles on the walls, and sprouting from the mouths, noses, and eye sockets of victims. Hair kills by choking, suffocating, stabbing, and devouring. It veils the ghost girl’s face from the world. With all expectations dissolved, she and her hair have been unleashed.
When anything is set up as a signifier of extreme goodness or beauty, the corruption of such a thing has the doubled potential to sink it to extreme depths. Angel or demon--there is no middle ground. With long hair, it is near impossible to tell which is which until it is too late. Will it be golden-tressed Rapunzel, or black-haired onryō? Will she invite you into her boudoir, only to castrate you with her fingernails? Does her long hair indicate modesty or madness? Submission or rebellion? Both, perhaps, or neither. But in the horror mythology of East and Southeast Asia, the mystique around demon girls is all the more fascinating because of the anticipation of not knowing. And while the folklore seems to warn women from straying from their social duties, it simultaneously cautions men to be wary, to not underestimate their female counterparts, and to not be so easily seduced by a smile and a pretty head of hair.