Smile of the Spectral: Malaysia’s Dance with the Uncanny

Mona Fandey’s chilling smile and the spectral undercurrents that shape Malaysia.

Fayyadh Jaafar
7 min readMay 15, 2023

When Mona Fandey smiled as she walked to the gallows, a disquieting chill wrapped itself around the heart of the nation. It was a smile that blurred the boundaries of the rational and the spectral, a smile that was an eerie echo of a world that many Malaysians had long dismissed as mere folklore. As she was about to be executed for a gruesome murder, her quiet words hung heavy in the air: “I will never die”.

It was a statement that seemed to reverberate from an ancient world that survived in the shadows of modern Malaysia, a world inhabited by spirits, shamans, and the supernatural. A world where the laws of nature were more suggestions than rules, where the unseen held as much sway as the seen. A world that the modern, Islamic state of Malaysia, with its skyscrapers and cybercities, its forward march towards a hyper-modern future, had tried to erase, to mute, to ignore.

Yet this ghostly realm does not simply vanish into the ether. Instead, it lingers, casting a spectral aura around the social fabric, bleeding into the corners of our collective consciousness, unsettling the very foundations of our neatly ordered reality. This unsettling dance between the spiritual and secular, between folklore and fact, between the mysticism of the past and the skepticism of the present, is the story of modern Malaysia.

Shamanism, long a part of the Malay cultural fabric, was once an integral part of the community. The bomoh, or shaman, was the mediator between the human and the supernatural realm, the conduit through which the living communicated with the dead, the healer of physical and spiritual ailments. The bomoh was, for all intents and purposes, the gatekeeper of the metaphysical world.

Yet, with the advent of Islam, and its insistence on monotheism, the bomoh’s role began to shift. The rituals and practices, once central to the community, were increasingly sidelined, relegated to the outskirts of societal acceptance. Islam’s firm stance against the supernatural, against anything that might challenge its monotheistic tenets, meant the bomoh and the world he represented became an anathema.

But the realm of the bomoh, of spirits and supernatural forces, never truly disappeared. It merely sank beneath the surface, a spectral undercurrent to the everyday reality of modern, Islamic Malaysia. It is a spectral undercurrent that occasionally breaches the surface in the most unexpected ways, such as the disquieting smile of a singer-turned-murderer, or the shadowy whisperings of haunted places.

It is this spectral undercurrent that underscores the paradox at the heart of modern Malaysia. On the one hand, there is the country’s relentless pursuit of modernity, its devotion to science, technology, and reason. On the other hand, there is an abiding fascination with the supernatural, a resonance of ancestral beliefs that refuses to be entirely extinguished.

This paradox creates a sense of dislocation, a fracturing of reality that is both disconcerting and intriguing. It is as if the nation is living in two worlds at once, both grounded in the present and haunted by the past. This spectral duality infuses the culture with a sense of uncanny melancholy, a palpable longing for a past that is forever out of reach.

The spectral duality is also evident in the relationship between the modern, Islamic state and the spectral realm of shamanism. While the state has largely disavowed shamanistic practices, viewing them as heretical and outdated, the spectral realm continues to exert an undeniable influence. From the whispered tales of haunted locations to the bomohs who continue to operate in the shadows, the spectral realm maintains its grip on the Malaysian imagination.

Consider, for example, the murder case that Mona Fandey was involved in. The details of the crime are horrific and gruesome, an unspeakable act that left the nation reeling. The victim, a politician seeking spiritual assistance for his political ambitions, was lured into a ritual that ended in his violent demise. His body was found dismembered, a horrifying testament to the dark side of the spectral realm.

The grisly details of the murder, the ritualistic aspects, the invocation of supernatural forces, were all elements that seemed to spring straight from the spectral realm of folklore. And yet, this was not a tale from a bygone era, but a grim reality that played out in the heart of modern Malaysia. The case served as a chilling reminder of the spectral realm’s capacity to breach the surface of everyday reality, shattering the illusion of a neatly ordered, rational world.

The shocking case of Mona Fandey not only sent ripples through the fabric of Malaysian society but also made a significant impact on the music scene. Bands like As-Sahar found inspiration in the gruesome tale, weaving it into their lyrics, turning it into a dark hymnology of the spectral realm.

Consider the song “Fandeyian Okultika Hymnology”. The lyrics are a cryptic, unsettling tribute to the spectral realm, to the allure and danger of the supernatural. “Rootings from the coastal depth of Juana / Hoisting the wizardrie name of Siprapat / That of sorcerer’s transcending / Wisdom and glory,” the song begins, setting the stage for a narrative that blurs the lines between the sacred and the profane.

Djinnical disguise / Taken the shape of holy kiyai’s / Proclaiming to lead in evil’s pride,” the song continues, hinting at the paradoxical nature of the spectral realm, its capacity to assume multiple forms, to deceive and manipulate. It’s a reflection of the spectral realm’s duality, its ability to be both enchanting and eerie, seductive and sinister.

Mystical sculpture of reptility / Conjuration / Sanggama’s cult of lust / Conjuration / Cernunok’s cult of wealth,” the song describes, capturing the allure of the spectral realm, its promise of power and pleasure, and the dangers that lurk beneath the surface. The song paints a picture of a realm that is both enticing and terrifying, a realm that lies at the fringes of the everyday, seeping into the corners of our consciousness.

By your name Mona / You’ll remain a monarch / In my eyes…” the song concludes, a haunting tribute to the woman whose smile sent chills down the nation’s spine. The lyric encapsulates the spectral realm’s enduring influence, its ability to haunt the present, to unsettle the future. Even in death, Mona Fandey continues to exert her influence, her memory serving as a chilling reminder of the spectral realm’s potency.

In the end, the realm of shamanism and the modern, Islamic Malaysia are not as disparate as they may appear. They exist in a state of duality, each influencing the other, each a reflection of the other. The spectral realm, with its allure and danger, its ability to unsettle and intrigue, is a vital part of the Malaysian identity. It is a spectral echo of a past that refuses to be silenced, a spectral presence that continues to shape the future.

The spectral realm of the bomoh, the haunting memory of Mona Fandey, the eerie lyrics of As-Sahar, they all serve as a form of echo, a ghostly reminder of a past that refuses to be silenced. They are a testament to the duality of modern Malaysia, a haunting reminder of the spectral undercurrent that flows beneath the surface of everyday reality.

This spectral echo reverberates throughout the cultural fabric of Malaysia, casting an uncanny glow on the present, casting long shadows on the future. It is an echo that cannot be ignored, that refuses to be silenced. It is a echo that continues to shape the Malaysian identity, that continues to unsettle and intrigue, to provoke and inspire.

In the realm of spectral echoes, the past is not a distant memory but a haunting presence. It is a realm where the past and the present coexist, where the spectral and the secular dance a haunting waltz. It is a realm where the realm of shamanism and the modern, Islamic Malaysia are not disparate entities but spectral twins, each a reflection of the other.

Mark Fisher once noted, “the concept of hauntology…is about maintaining a relationship with the ghost, whilst accommodating it, in a kind of mourning…It’s not that we’re dominated by the past, but that we’re dominated by the lost futures that the past was pregnant with.” This echo, this haunting presence, is not about being trapped in the past, but about acknowledging the potential of the past, its capacity to shape and influence the present and the future. It is about recognizing the spectral undercurrent that flows beneath the surface of everyday reality, the duality that underpins the Malaysian identity.

The realm of shamanism, the haunting memory of Mona Fandey, the eerie lyrics of As-Sahar, they are all echoes of a past that refuses to be silenced, of lost futures that continue to haunt the present. They serve as a reminder of the duality of modern Malaysia, of the undercurrent that continues to shape and influence the nation.

And so, as we navigate the landscape of modern Malaysia, we are not merely walking through the shadows of the past, but dancing with echoes, engaging with potentialities. We are not merely observers, but active participants in the dance, in the shaping and reshaping of the landscape. It is a dance that is as haunting as it is intriguing, as unsettling as it is inspiring. It is a dance that continues to shape the narrative of modern Malaysia, that continues to cast long shadows on the future. In this dance, we are not merely haunted by the past, but also by the lost futures that the past was pregnant with. And in this dance, we find the essence of modern Malaysia, the echo that continues to reverberate throughout the nation.



Fayyadh Jaafar

Former business journalist. I write other things here too, you know.