The Vengeful Feminine
A Look at Female Ghosts in Asian Horror
By Colleen Wanglund, The Geisha of Gore
The female ghost is a major icon in Asian horror films. It’s as much an icon in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, as zombies or vampires are in Western horror movies. Even to Western audiences, the female Asian ghost is one of the most recognizable characters in horror movies. She rampages through schools, homes and towns bringing death to anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way. Asian movies like RINGU (1998), JU-ON (2000), SHUTTER (2004), EPITAPH (2007), and ACACIA (2003), and American remakes—THE RING (2002), THE GRUDGE (2002), and SHUTTER (2008) all have the requisite female ghost. Her appearance is generally the same—long black hair usually covering her face and a white dress or gown. Where does she come from? What is her significance?
The ghost in Asian culture, most notably China, Japan and Korea, dates back centuries. The Chinese have a very long history of ancestor worship and there is a long list of various types and classes of ghost. In Korea, the first documented ghost story dates back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BC—668 AD) and, in Japan, female ghosts were seen in literature dating to the feudal period (1185 AD—1868 AD). While coming from three different cultures, there are many similarities to the ghost stories. All three countries have very specific rituals for dealing with the dead, to ensure the eternal happiness of the spirit of the departed. If those rituals aren’t observed, the spirit will come back to haunt the living. Ghosts are also the product of spirits succumbing to strong negative emotions that keep them here in the corporeal world.
Aside from the long-standing tradition and fear of a restless spirit coming back to haunt the living, the modern ghost story has social and political meanings as well. While women in the West have become, for the most part, equal with men thanks to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, that has not happened in Asian cultures where women are still viewed as being inferior to men. Women in Asia tend to be more reserved and are expected to be submissive to their husbands. Even highly successful women across Asia are considered failures if they haven’t married by the age of 25. The ghost is not a symbol of women’s oppression. Rather it is a symbol of women overcoming that oppression. It represents the destroying of the traditional patriarchal society. The modern ghost story is hardly the first in Asia to express social and political anxieties.
In 15th-century Korea, a series of novellas were banned because they depicted strong-minded, independent female ghosts who had a strong sense of identity—an absolute no-no. The spirits were believed to have stayed in the human realm because of an unwillingness to conform to societal standards of the time. The ruling class feared this and made the ghost stories illegal. In feudal Japan, the country was ruled in pieces by various shogun and their samurais who fought for control of territory. It is believed that in most ghost stories from this period the female ghost represents Japan itself, and she is returning for revenge on the men who are tearing her apart. The stories gave moral as well as political warnings. These constant battles for control between the shoguns lasted for about 700 years. There is more to this horror icon than just some scares. She represents real social and political issues that have existed and still exist.
The biggest similarity and most recognizable aspect of the female ghost is her appearance. No matter what Southeast Asian country the movie comes from, the ghost looks the same—long black hair, hidden face, white dress/gown. The white clothing is traditional funeral garb for the dead, so this is why they are almost always in white. The hair is a little more complex. The simplest explanation is that this is how the ghost was depicted in Kabuki Theater. The black wig let the audience know immediately who the character was. In fact the long hair has much deeper meanings. In folklore, the hair was believed to have a magical quality to it, representing the spiritual essence of the person. Women typically wore their hair up while alive, mostly for practical reasons, and it was let down while preparing the body for the funeral. This may have released that powerful energy enabling a wronged woman to come back and seek revenge. Women, while being seen as physically weaker than men, are also perceived as being spiritually stronger than men, thus the reason for (mostly) female ghosts. The weak woman who was abused in life can now exact her revenge in death. Long hair is also believed to represent the power of female sexuality, which gives these ghosts incredible power after death, even though they were powerless in life.
The hair is also seen as some sort of organic mask, covering the face and thus obliterating any past identity or personality of the woman the ghost may have been. The ghost is driven by very definite feelings, but she has lost what made her human. There is no compassion, love or remorse. But is the female ghost just a faceless spirit with almost no connection to its lost humanity, or is the ghost a compassionate villain? While the ghosts are generally driven by negative emotions and the need for revenge, those emotions come from a pain that a female audience can understand. While fearing the ghost we can also sympathize with the reasons for its rampage. We can even pity her at times. She represents pain, rejection, betrayal and loss—feelings the female audience can surely empathize with. In a much broader sense, the female ghost also represents the social and political anxieties of the patriarchal societies that have spawned them. The repression of women still exists in countries like Japan and Korea—modern countries where you wouldn’t expect this kind of repression to exist. There is a fear in these patriarchal societies of what would happen if women escaped these bonds.
One thing to keep in mind is that these female ghosts don’t usually hurt the men who hurt them in life. They hurt others who either are related to the object of their revenge or who just happen to get in the way. In the Korean movie PHONE (2002), a young woman is having an affair with a married man and goes missing. People who have her phone number since her disappearance have died in horrible accidents and the man’s daughter is possessed, but the man himself is left untouched by the presumed ghost of the girl. In JU-ON (2000), from Japan, a woman is murdered by her husband. Her ghost then curses everyone who comes near with death, even though they have no connection to the woman or her husband. The ghosts are not hurting the men who hurt them, but others. In this sense, the representation is not that the patriarchal society will be destroyed, but the traditions that allowed it to exist in the first place. If women become the equals of men, society won’t fall apart, but the traditions of the subservient wife, the male-dominated business world, and even male-dominated politics, would fall away. Men hold all of the power in these societies and they fear losing it.
Interestingly enough, the reasons are slightly different in Indonesia. The ghost story in Indonesia is a relatively new phenomenon and is believed to be directly influenced by the movies of Japan and Korea. The political climate there has been in flux over the last decade or so, and women as well as men have taken to the streets in protest. However, the representation of the female ghost in Indonesia is more of a statement on the victimization of women as a whole. The movies themselves attempt to create a dialogue about the violence perpetrated against women when new governments do nothing to protect them or change the existing patriarchal structure. In the movie VICTIM (2009), a young woman is hired by the police to play the victims in crime-scene reenactments. The young woman says a prayer for the woman she is portraying, but over time the ghosts of these crime victims begin to overwhelm her with cries of vengeance. It is recognized that women are disproportionately victimized in Indonesia, but successive governments have failed to do anything about it. What’s ironic is that a majority of the filmmakers who use the female ghost as an analogy are men, whether it’s in Indonesia or Japan.
The female ghost is symbolic of women gaining an equal footing in a repressive society. Women have slowly been gaining ground, in that they can go to universities and can get good jobs, but there still exists a stigma for a young woman who is not married. The film industry generally reflects what is happening in society. Asian horror is merely reflecting the woman’s rising stature, as well as the fear of men who are reluctant to break with tradition. These particular ghost stories have a vagueness to them that isn’t necessarily seen in Western horror. There is no need for an explanation as to how or why the ghost is doing what it’s doing. This usually reflects the fact that there is no explanation for the existence of the patriarchal society—it just is. There is also not necessarily a finish to the rampage at the end of the movie. This is probably because there is no one who can say what will happen when these societies fall and make way for a more equal society. This is part of the fear—the unknown.
© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund