The image is undeniably disturbing: an adult woman’s head with long black hair and blood-thirsty eyes haunts the night, effortlessly flying through the darkness. What of her body? Left lying somewhere while the creature slakes her thirst, its only remaining manifestation a spine to which slimy organs such as the guts, heart, liver and sometimes lungs are still attached. This nightmarish floating figure can more or less be considered the equivalent of the much less frightening vampire in Western culture. Widely known in most Southeast Asian countries, it is called Krasue in Thailand, Penanggalan in Malaysia, and Leyak in Indonesia.
Beyond the cultural relevance of such a creature for the locals and the intriguing oddity it represents to foreign eyes, its everlasting presence in pop culture seems to indicate that, much like the European vampires, the Krasue plays an important role for the collective imagination of Southeast Asia. Naturally, the myth has gone through many versions over the centuries, and can vary from one region or village to the next (it appears flying heads tend to avoid densely populated areas), but its origins can generally be traced to black magic, or in other words to a violation of pre-established societal norms. The symbolism the creature carries with her is perfectly summed up by Benjamin Baumann in his essay From filth-ghost to Khmer witch: Phi Krasue’s changing cinematic construction and its symbolism :
Arguably, the most notable visual feature of phi krasue’s cinematic ghostly image is the detachment of the head and the inverted internal organs. This depiction of drawn out and glowing intestines that dangle beneath a floating head goes far beyond the literal inversion of the normal order of things. At its most basic level, this turning of the inside out is a revelation and exposure of what is usually hidden. It is symbolic of the ‘horror within’, of those features that lie beneath the body’s beautiful surface, beyond the social image and so constitute characteristics that are usually excluded from sight: urine, blood, sperm and excrements (Kristeva 1982: 53).
Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the cinematic Krasue one can most frequently find in films are particularly interested in blood and placenta, and that they sometimes take pleasure in devouring babies as they are born, thus preventing them from transitioning from the invisible to the visible world. A scene in the infamous Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981) from Indonesia portrays precisely that.
Listing a comprehensive inventory of movies that contain a Krasue would be both time-consuming and futile. The corpus is obviously very large, and mainly includes made-for-TV movies and no-budget feature films that have no life outside of their local market.
Some, however, have reached our shores. Mystics in Bali is the most well-known, and probably the better-made one. That being said, Thailand being such a fertile ground for Krasue exploitation (krasuxploitation?), fans of horror and the weird would be well-advised to track down and watch the inimitable and legendary Ghost of Guts Eater (S. Naowaratch, 1973). A testament to the uniqueness of Thai supernatural horror films, it relies on many of the flying head tropes. The story opens on the misdeeds of an old Krasue woman who is mortally wounded by unhappy villagers. She manages to reunite with her body and passes on the curse to her granddaughter before kicking the bucket. Now blighted with flying head syndrome, the young woman must go on the run with her partner and fight off another Krasue hellbent on defending her territory.
On top of the insane Krasue vs Krasue face-off where each head tries to bite off the other one’s organs – and which will sear itself in the memory of whoever witnesses it – the film is ripe with varied myths, from demons to giants and sorcerers, all inhabiting a world where sunlight brings the reign of the Krasue to an end, bringing them ever closer to their vampiristic Western cousins. It’s interesting to note that the film’s diegesis is not portrayed as supernatural because villagers, annoyed as they may be, are not surprised to come across the creature, treating her like a natural nuisance. In the film, Thailand is a land of terrors and marvels, where each and every village is plagued with an evil creature tormenting its citizens. The trivialization of what is usually abnormal roots the Krasue into local popular tradition and mythology. It therefore needs no explanation or justification and, by definition, brings the Thai horror film closer to the fantasy genre.
Filmmaker S. Naowaratch, who appears to have directed nothing else, makes the Krasue the centrifugal force that tries (to no avail) to break the couple or the family apart on multiple occasions. Conjugal fidelity and family cohesion are thus considered essential to overcoming adversity, and all those who attempt to dissolve these groups end up paying the price for it (not least of which the village’s doctor, who is killed by the demon he summoned himself). All of this makes for a very religiously and socially conservative film. The curse of the Krasue is shown to be some kind of karma, and characters can free themselves from it by being absolved of their sins.
Ghost of Guts Eater is more explicit in its association of the Krasue to a figure of death than other films in the genre. The protagonist’s transformation is a direct consequence of heredity and family wrongdoings, and inevitably comes with the haunting of the dead grandmother’s ghost. Such an approach would normally justify putting corpses, excrement and blood on screen but, as argued by Benjamin Baumann, the film’s production context made such excesses impossible:
Any explicit reference to the filth-as-human faeces symbolism of phi krasue’s vernacular ghostly images would thus have been a violation of the ‘regime of images’ marking the era of Krasue Sao’s production (Jackson 2004).
Produced under Thanom Kittikachorn‘s westernizing dictatorship (the military leader went to great pains to make his country attractive to Westerners), it was no longer allowed to rely on faecal, necrological or otherwise morbid symbolism. And yet, the image of the Krasue itself was never banned, in spite of its probable ability to upset foreigners, most likely because it is too potent a legend to erase from popular culture. As mentioned above, Thailand has adapted it to the screen countless times, and continues to create the most unlikely movies today. Just check out the poster for Krasue Valentine (Yuthlert Sippapak, 2006), the horror rom-com you didn’t know you desperately needed:
A longer version of this article was published in French here.
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