Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ghosts Galore

The Thais take their ghosts pretty seriously.  Foreigners, who are more likely than Thais to regard ghosts with a grain of salt, sometimes make jokes or do ghost-impressions, only to feel like idiots when the Thai with whom they're joking shows every sign of actually being afraid.

Generally, village people are less likely to question the reality of the undead, and Thailand offers up a vast spectrum of phantasms for them to worry about.  In the more worldly cities, though, some sophisticates scoff at (or pretend to scoff at) ghosts.  There are even the occasional Halloween parties, especially in the tourist zones.  This year's party on Khao Sarn Road, the backpacker's ghetto, is nine days long.  I may be wrong, but I think the Thais enter into the celebration in a much more complicated frame of mind than the farang do.

Many Thai ghost stories have at their center the bond between mothers and children.  Mothers who died in childbirth, returning to protect the infants they inadvertently abandoned; dead children returning to seek the mother from whom they were separated.  Both themes occur frequently in Thai movies, an astonishing percentage of which are screamers about ghosts.  Around the corner from my apartment in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is a theater which is given exclusively to Thai ghost movies, and there's a new double-header all the time -- complete with enormous, horrifyingly bloody, hand-painted posters.

The otherworldly nature of the mother-child link is at the center of a real-life ghost drama that's playing itself out right now.  In early October, newspapers reported the story of a mother who went to Bangkok to visit her married daughter but was told by her son-in-law that the woman had run away weeks ago.  Several weeks later the daughter appeared in a dream and told her mother that she'd been murdered and buried beneath a mango tree behind the house.  About fifty people from the neighborhood dug up the site, finding nothing.  But the daughter returned again to say they hadn't dug deeply enough.  Sure enough, they found the skeletal remains of a woman, the back of her head broken in.  The husband is a person of interest, but for now the authorities are waiting for DNA results.

One more (although this has been a very big year for ghosts):  a young man recently left a Bangkok party on his motor scooter to get some more food and drink.  He was hit by a car and killed on his way to the store.  The kids at the party all remembered seeing him afterward -- and he even showed up in a video taken there after his death.  I've seen a clip of the video, and it's pretty spooky; there's a kid sitting cross-legged in a group in a brightly-lighted living room, and behind him is a door to a darker room.  Visible directly over his shoulder is a pale, reddish face, as if someone were sitting in the other room, looking on but not joining in.

So if you go trick-and-treating in Thailand, make sure to look over your shoulder from time to time.


  1. A perfect story for the day. Are Thai ghosts all benign? I remember a very old movie, "The Ghost and Mrs Muir"; he was a sea captain who haunted the people who had moved into his home. He wouldn't have been a bad ghost to have around.

    I don't believe in ghosts but.... We had a dog, a beautiful Samoyed, who was dumber than dirt. Every once in awhile, she would sit as still as a statue and stare up at a corner of the ceiling that connected the kitchen and the dining room. She would do this for about five minutes, a very long time in a dog's life when not sleeping.

    My children concluded that she could see a ghost that was visible only to animals. That didn't explain why the other dog, almost as dumb, didn't react to the "ghost". My husband thought that if the dog was seeing a ghost it was the ghost of the food that was carried into the dining room from the kitchen, perhaps an olfactory ghost rather than a visible one.

    Whatever it was, it didn't manifest itself to any of the other dogs we have had; that corner, near the ceiling was special only to her. Her name was "Edna". We always have reject dogs so we didn't name her. Maybe she was seeing the ghost of the person who gave her such a ridiculous name for a dog.


  2. Hi, Beth --

    No, the vast majority of Thai ghosts are evil beyond evil. In fact, the most terrifying of all Thai ghosts are mothers who died in childbirth -- they're benign to their orphaned children but vortices of rage for everyone else. In general, people who died by violence come back as vengeful "hungry ghosts" who desire revenge on everyone. "Hungry Ghosts" was, in fact the first title of A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART.

    We had a Lab who saw those very same ghosts, also in the high corners of rooms. But she saw them only in one house, an amazing old Spanish three-story built in 1921 by Charlie Chaplin, and only in the living room and the room which which I wrote, which was part of the maid's quarters and had been unused for years when I bought the house. After we moved to a new house (literally only 4-5 years old) in Venice, she never saw them again. I may blog about that now that SPIRIT HOUSE is finished.

  3. Love this blog. Please link to mine at

    i write a lot about Phii. I live in Sisaket and Bangkok, and enjoy terrifying my superstitious Isaan GF with this stuff. We have had to get a Mo Phii (Thai sorceror) to exorcise the spirits in our apartment.

  4. Your blog is great. I've bookmarked it for future plagiarism -- I mean, reference.

    And thanks fir writing.

  5. this is so sad. jk its not mother fucker