Halloween

Remembering Suzzanna, Indonesia's Eternal Queen of Horror

No one else can compare.
October 31, 2017, 10:34am
Illustration by Dini Lestari

Suzzanna cast a long shadow. The horror icon will forever be Indonesia's reigning queen of darkness. Maybe it was the fact that she was the star of so many horror films, including classics like Sundel Bolong and Ratu Ilmu Hitam. Maybe it was all the mystery. Legend has it that she ate jasmine flowers, performed mystical arts, and communicated with the Queen of the South Sea—a mythical spirit who she played on-screen more than once.

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I was only 12 years old when Suzzanna (real name: Suzzanna Martha Frederika van Osch) died in 2008 from complications with diabetes. I didn't realize it at the time, but Suzzanna's death marked the end of an era. She ruled the screen from 1981, the year Ratu Ilmu Hitam came out, to 1991, when the fantasy drama Ajian Ratu Laut Kidul was released. But what was it, exactly, that made her so frightening?

Was it her long black hair? Her porcelain skin and big, emotive eyes? Suzzanna had this eerie way of sending a cold chill down your spine. Even my parents, who were young adults in the '80s were too scared to watch her films at the theater.

When you look back Suzzanna's career, she unfortunately spent much of her life embodying the whole "mysterious woman" trope. She was dangerous, but also sensual. Suzzanna was the kind of woman who cultivated an air of mystery around herself and then lived there in the fog for the rest of her life. She was such a mystery that a lot of Indonesians never bothered to get to know the real Suzzanna.

Maybe it was all the work of a clever marketing team. Or maybe Suzzanna was ahead of her time, a woman who was so skilled at creating her own personal brand that it eventually became all that defined her. All I know is that, today, her legacy has left me with more questions than answers. How did she like her jasmine flowers, raw of deep-fried? Did she dip them in some sambal? Kecap manis? What did she read? Listen to? Did she ever fake an orgasm?

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I reached out to the only person I could find who knew the real Suzzanna—the woman behind the head of snakes. Didin Syamsudin is a respected movie makeup artist who got his first big break by working with Suzzanna back in the '80s. He was with her on the set of Sundel Bolong, Ratu Ilmu Hitam, and Nyi Blorong. He was also the first person allowed to touch her face—most makeup artists had to use a long-handled brush and stand back a distance. "She and I just clicked," he told me over the phone.

"In real life, she was normal—she liked to joke around and talk a lot," Didin told me. "But in her movies, she was a completely different person. Her eyes looked really terrifying when she glared at the camera. It was a sadistic look, and I haven't found an Indonesian actress who can do it like she did."

Didin and Suzzanna eventually became friends. But, even then, she still kept a sense of mystery about her. He told me that he would often visit her at her home in South Jakarta, but she would never invite him inside. Instead they would stand there outside her garden, a fence between them, chatting for hours.

Suzzanna was more than a horror icon. She was the embodiment of a strong woman. Indonesian horror films typically mine a deep well of female suffering. In these movies, women are raped, murdered, and possessed. They are, in short, victims. That's what made watching Suzzanna get her revenge so satisfying.

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I rewatched three of her best-known films, Sundel Bolong, Ratu Ilmu Hitam, and Titisan Dewi Ular, before writing this article. In each of them, Suzzanna had to endure insane amounts of suffering. She fells pregnant after being gang raped in Sundel Bolong. She was forced to deal with manipulative men out for their own gain in Ratu Ilmu Hitam and Titisan Dewi Ular.

But in Sundel Bolong she comes back a ghosty apparition to hunt down her tormentors and get her revenge from beyond the grave. She does what the courts wouldn't—one of her rapists was declared not guilty—and exerts her own sense of poetic justice. In both Ratu Ilmu Hitam and Titisan Dewi Ular, she exposes the men in her life as the real villains, eventually resorting to violence because it was the only language they seemed to understand.

The most-memorable aspects of these characters came from Suzzanna's own twist on the script, explained Didin. "She always took directions from directors and made it her own," he told me. "I think while filming Sundel Bolong she really thought, 'That's what you get for disrespecting women.' She really took everything to heart."

When it came to putting herself in her characters shoes, Suzzanna took things a set farther than most. She most-often played sprits, ghosts, and queens of the underworld, so she would often consult with shamans before a shoot. Suzzanna would fast or go on hijrah to prepare for a role. It was all this spiritual preparation that allowed Suzzanna to act with a head full of very real—and allegedly dangerous—snakes in Nyi Blorong, Didin said. The snakes she wore in the film were oddly tame when they were placed on her head, he remembered.

"Suzzanna believed in God, but she also believed the 'other stuff' too," Didin said.

She died nine years ago last week, shortly after shooting her final film, the horror flick Hantu Ambulance—a movie that was about, well, a ghost ambulance. But nearly a decade after her death, she is still remembered as the embodiment of Indonesian horror, a fierce woman who was able to distill centuries of myth and mysticism in every character.

Most of us will never really know who the real Suzzanna actually was. But maybe we can all try to be a little bit more like the Suzzanna she showed on screen—a strong-willed woman who embraced her sexuality and refused to take any shit. Then, who knows, maybe one day we can all get rich by scaring sexist men to death too.