If I were to ask you to imagine a ghost, the most typical image would be that of a white-saree clad, long, dark-haired figure who roams around the prambhu (yard) at midnight with eerie background music and high pitched screams.
For Gen Z, the ghost might be more modern, probably, one without a wardrobe malfunction and grainy radio music. Nonetheless, the one thing that remains consistent is the gender of the ghost. It is almost always a woman. Here, I take a deep dive into the reasons why ghouls and ghosts are women in popular culture and by extension, in Malayalam cinema.
The idea of ghost stories (or its technical term, gothic fiction) emerged in the mid 18th century with a novel called The Castle of Otranto. The classical themes of this genre of fiction include the image of a madwoman in the attic or supernatural entities (often women) who haunt castles, churches, lighthouses, and graveyards and want revenge on something or somebody.
These novels were aimed at a primarily female audience, thus explaining the presence of a female malevolent entity and protagonist. However, unlike the Western counterparts, the stories we have heard about the vadayakshi, raktharakshas and pretham originate from what we call “grandmothers’ tales”. They are generational stories, a combination of fact and fiction, passed on as a legacy.
What is unique about these stories is the presence of a supernatural being, who is powerful, undefeated, and full of vengeance. Our grandmothers and women from the past often use this powerful being as a site to project their traumas, their desires, and the courage they cannot otherwise display in their everyday lives. The female ghost, initially, was a protofeminist figure, the site of collective female desire and power. They were often worshipped and on specific days tempted virginal men, satisfied their carnal desires, and then murdered them. However, when we look at the representations of the ghost in cinema and popular culture today, it lacks this mythic, eerie quality that used to terrify us.
Horror or paranormal thriller is one of the highest-grossing genres of film, but it begs the question, why are most ghosts in these films wronged women?
Often, the female ghost is used to drive home a social message. Stalking, harassment, murder, rape, cyberbullying, abuse, and premarital sexual desires are typical themes of a horror film. The best way to attach these messages to a narrative is to play the ‘women as a victim’ card. The thrills and the jump-scares are just a bonus leading up to the flashback where the social message is obviously displayed.
According to Colette Balmain, “The reason for the success and ubiquity of such female ghosts is a mixture of female desire and fear of such empowerment”. Think of all the ghosts that you know from Malayalam cinema, they have all been wronged in some way or the other. Some of them murdered, others raped and stalked, some killed for their forbidden love affairs, all of them choosing to persist in the human realm for revenge. Another possible explanation for the female ghost is the filmmaker’s way of assuring equal space for the male and the female characters on screen. You can’t shake off the feeling that you are watching a regular action drama with a romantic subplot. Here, instead of romance, we have a revenge thriller.
Two concepts often used in horror films are menstruation and motherhood. For Briefel, “menstruation is the start of monstrosity. Once a girl has reached puberty, she is seen to be monstrous”. In other words, female desire is monstrous. The inherently patriarchal values of horror films can be analyzed through the demonisation of menstruation. It is the first act of transgression where an obedient, family-oriented girl suddenly develops opinions and thoughts of her own. This eventually leads to forbidden desire and she strays from society’s path of arranged marriage and motherhood. So, she is obviously killed or sacrificed or taught a lesson. The ghost of the said victim (who comes back) is not desirable in any way. Besides her white-saree clad figure, she is otherwise represented with bloody teeth, a slash across her face or burnt skin. Biological inclinations of menstruation and motherhood as used as hidden symbols to control women and warn them.
However, there has been a recent trend in rewriting the common narrative of the female ghost. One example is NJ’s song Panipaali which takes a comical twist on the figure of a vadayakshi. Instead of a wronged woman with a sad backstory, NJ’s vadayakshi is a cool, rapping, passer-by ghost who wants to kill the singer because she enjoys doing that.
Another example is the recent release Krishnankutty Pani Thudangi, which juxtaposes the female ghost with the urban legend, Krishnankutty.
This not only makes the film unpredictable, but it allows for the female characters of the film to explore a niche beyond the binary of the damsel in distress and the wronged, vengeance-driven spirit.