Contemporary Malaysian Horror: Relational Politics of Animism and James Lee’s Histeria


According to Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, local horror cinema is counterproductive to building a progressive society. While the genre is now at the peak of its popularity, it was banned throughout the 1990s and accused of tainting modernity with ‘backwards’ ways of thinking. Modernity’s progress through erasure has already been conceptualized as a repression of various cultural
contexts, religious practices, and pre-colonial epistemologies, yet its ontological implications are rarely investigated. Nonmodern ontologies, such as animism, are aesthetically, narratively, and theoretically embedded in a number of contemporary horrors, especially those created by independent or art-house directors, who see in the genre the possibility of discussing the ontological taboos of modernity, such as the personhood of the nonhuman. In contrast to an ethnographic approach to animism, I here read it as a method of disruption: a negation of the idea that cinema is the quintessential modern medium. Animism, as a practice of relational personhood (Bird-David, 1999) renegotiates ontological boundaries modernity claimed to have set in stone: between self and other, nature and culture, humans and nonhumans, belief and practice, religion and play. By taking animism as a theoretical framework rather than a cultural trace, I highlight various points of intersection between James Lee’s gory slasher horror Histeria (2008) and this nonmodern ontology, positing it as a template for animistic slasher horror, where humans and nonhumans connect and disconnect on the axis of personhood, and the transition from relationality to individuality is depicted as a threat.