The Nightmarish Demon Child of Southeast Asian Folklore

In a nod to the Halloween season, I’d like to talk about what I consider one of the creepiest creatures in Southeast Asian folklore—the toyol.

Some of you may already know what that is. A toyol is the spirit (some say zombie) of a fetus who died before he or she could be born.

To create a toyol, a bomoh (a witch doctor or shaman from Malaysia or Indonesia) searches for the grave of a woman who recently died in childbirth. The bomoh digs up the mother’s corpse and extracts the fetus. He enslaves the fetus through black magic and binds it to a piece of its body, such as a sliver of bone.

The bone chip is placed in a bottle in a suspension of corpse oil. The oil is produced by burning the chin of the fetus’ mother with a candle.

Once the toyol is enslaved, it has to do its master’s bidding. In folklore, toyols were used to steal from the neighbors, harass enemies or vandalize property. In more recent times, it is said a toyol may help you obtain valuable information such as winning lottery numbers.

The toyol supposedly looks like a mummified baby with greenish or grayish skin. It has a big head, red eyes, pointy ears and sharp teeth. The toyol stays in its bottle when it isn’t out and about on its master’s errands. The creature must be fed fresh blood (usually by pricking a finger and squeezing blood into its bottle).

The toyol has the temperament of a spoiled child. You must keep it entertained and fed by making offerings of toys and food, including candy and cookies. If it gets hungry, it escapes its bottle and looks for its own nourishment. According to some lore, it feeds by biting into the toes of people who are sleeping and sucking their blood.

You can buy a toyol from a bomoh. Once you become its master, you assume the responsibility of making sure it’s happy. A toyol exists until it is buried and properly laid to rest by magic ritual. Some say you can also get rid of a toyol by throwing its bottle into the sea.

If you don’t lay the toyol to rest, it will attach itself to your family members and descendants when you die. They then have the job of keeping it happy.

Ewww. The thought of this zombie baby creeping about the house always gives me the chills.

A toyol is featured in a short story in Joss Paper, my collection of short horror stories set in the United States and Southeast Asia. Joss Paper was the second book I published in 2021, after my debut novel The Geomancer’s Apprentice.

I wrote the short stories between 2018 and 2021. These stories are very personal to me. They incorporate some of the folklore that I grew up with. I’ve also tried in them to evoke the essence and atmosphere of the ghost stories that I heard from my mother, other family members, and friends in Singapore and Malaysia.

Happy Halloween!


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