Sunday, June 17, 2012

Playing to the Dead

Thais love ghost stories, and especially the ones that are supposed to be true.  Here's a corker.

In the old days in rural Thailand, motion pictures were a movable feast.  A small crew would haul a projector, a screen, and a few films from town to town.  They'd arrive, find a clearing far enough from town so the lights wouldn't wash out the picture, set up the screen, and wait for dark.  

Most of the films were in English or some other non-Thai language, so they ran the movies without sound and two or three of the troupe would make up whatever dialogue seemed to fit the situation.  (These extemporaneous scripts would evolve over the period of time a film was shown, and I've thought a hundred times about using this idea as the background for a novel, perhaps interspersing the novel's narrative with the changing "script" of the movie and having the permutations in the script mirror what's happening to and within the troupe.  Maybe one of these days.)

Once in a while, one of these companies would get a call for a command performance: a certain show at a certain time in a certain village.  It was a call like that, in 1987, that took a mobile projection unit to Kamchanod Forest, on a small island in the province of Udon Thani, up in the Isaan area of Thailand's northeast.

They traveled as instructed, through the only village around, Wang Tong, and across the waterways to the island, which is rumored to house the underground kingdom of a naga, or dragon.  They found the clearing they'd been instructed to use, set things up, and at nine PM they started the show.

And no one came.  But then, as the evening wore on, oddly dressed people began to slip out of the forest and into the clearing. The women wore white, and the men black.  They didn't mix: men were to one side and women on the other, and they watched the films in perfect silence as the crew put up reel after reel.

At four AM, the show ended as scheduled and the audience melted back between the trees.  The crew struck their equipment and waited for light so they could navigate back to the village.

In Wang Tong, they mentioned their show and were told that no one lived on the island.  No one knew anything about the phone call that had summoned them.  They had just screened a movie for the dead.

Well, okay, so it's not such a crackerjack story.  The movie made from it (see the poster at the top) got the kind of reviews that end careers and make comebacks impossible.  But I read about it on Martyn's wonderful site "Beyond the Mango Juice" at and thought I'd give you a break from all my rants.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Thank you, Tim. On all accounts :)

    By the way, that is one weird story.

  2. Actually, it's quite mysterious, and somehow whimsical-to me, anyway. There are so many stories that could be written. How does one choose?

  3. One is desperate to write a blog at 9:35 at night when it's due at 10, so one cannibalizes something someone else wrote forgetting all about Father's Day as one does so.

    I'm (not very) ashamed of myself.