“There have been many people who have seen the Penanggalan flying along with its entrails dangling down and shining at night like fireflies.”
–The Vampire: His Kith and Kin
Imagine, if you will, that you are a woman close to her due date. You lay in bed, get comfortable and eventually fall into a relaxing sleep. You awake to a sharp pain between your legs and look down in horror as a body-less head snaps the umbilical cord and you see your lifeless child roll across the blankets, drained of blood. Imagine the scream you would make when that head floats up, a spine and organs dangle down from the neck as it soars out the window and into the night. You have been visited by a Penanggalan.
There have been sightings of Penanggalan like creatures all over Asia, going as far back as the 1200s. In Thailand, they call it a Krasue and in the Philippines, it is called the Manananggal. The Penanggalan sets itself apart from the other variations throughout Asian folklore in one large way, the Penanggalan is always female.
Vampiric in nature, the monster has often been compared to the Chupacabra. Though other than blood drinking there are few similarities. Penanggalans are said to have a voracious hunger and while the blood of newborns and menstruating women are a favorite, the creature will dine on anything it can. Sheep and goats, even cows and sleeping pets aren’t safe once the sun goes down.
Now the origin of the creature is muddy at best but at the root is a folk tale about pacts with ancient evil entities. Much like with any deal, there are consequences for failure and should a woman not uphold her end, she is cursed to become a Penanggalan.
Legends talk about young men being approached by beautiful women while walking alone. The women would ask strange questions about their sisters or wives, how many children were at the home, and if anyone was expecting a birth. More often than not, the men would answer them. Because one of the most insidious aspects of this monster is how normal it appears during the day.
However, there are some warning signs. When around pregnant women the cryptid will avoid making eye contact. They also show signs of intense hunger, licking their lips and salivating at the sight of blood. Another interesting tell is the strong smell of vinegar that the creature gives off. This is because after a feeding the organs swell up and the Penanggalan can’t put them back into their body. So they soak for a few hours in a vat of vinegar to shrink the organs back down, allowing the head to reattach.
Different cultures have unique ways of warding off the creature, all of them involving sharp objects. People in Malaysia who fear a Penanggalan attack will loop vines of a thorny plant, like the Mengkuang, around windows and doors.
Some will even plant pineapples under their houses to keep the monster from entering through the floorboards. The idea behind this being that the Penanggalan will snag and cut its sensitive organs on the thorns and briers. Soon to be mothers will also take to sleeping with sheers under their pillows.
Should the cryptid be found snagged in the thorns, they are easily killed by destroying the head or exposed entrails. Another means of killing a Penanggalan requires some brave souls to follow the head back to the body. Once there someone will stand watch until night. Once the head takes off in search of prey, broken glass or pottery is stuffed down the neck hole. Daylight comes again and the heart and lungs are shredded.
My take on the Penanggalan is one of interest. Interest in the strong connection between it and infant mortality. Asian cultures are deeply rooted in family. It makes up a large part of their social dynamics as well. The death of a child, never an easy thing, has a wide ripple. This is shown in the myths and folklore. Is it any wonder that in most of the legends the Penanggalan spends its day as a midwife?
(If you enjoyed the Penanggalan, please feel free to check out other fascinating cryptids under the Creature Feature category.)
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