The Spirit of Change: Horror and Female Morality in Thailand
Once upon a time, there existed a woman on the fringes of proper society. Perhaps she’d
gotten pregnant out of wedlock, or participated in the sex trade, or had the utter impudence to lust after with someone out of her own volition. Shunned by the rest of her traditional world, her death comes quickly and often violently. It is only after her demise that she gains the power to fight back against the men who hurt her, usually in viscerally gruesome ways. Her name is Phi Tai Hong, Phi Krasü, Phi Song Nang, Pop; Lin, Elli, Natre. Her many lives are bound together by common factors: a series of ill-advised swerves away from illustrious tradition, exploitation at the hands of greedy or lustful men––and eventually, bloody vengeance upon the aforementioned men. She and her ilk dwell in the blurred space between reality and fiction, populating the reams of ghost stories––from oral tales to gory movies––which have sprung up in Thailand over the centuries. The themes present in bodies of national fiction are often reflections of real-world issues and fears, and the fundamental aspects of a country’s horror traditions, both old and new, are no exception. Horror by nature exploits apprehension of the unknown; In Thailand––which has a strong culture of virginity and places a deep emphasis on the gap between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women––the unknown often refers to rapidly changing societal mores regarding women’s sexuality. Many Thai ghost stories tend to involve dangerous, vengeful female spirits––women in body, demon in mind––attacking young men. In modern Thai horror films, these ladies are often depicted as sex workers, rape victims, and other women who live outside the bounds of conventional respectability. Their male victims, too, display a tendency to stray from the values of filial obedience and sexual restraint ingrained in them by Buddhist society. As shown by analysing a few notable pieces of Thai ghost horror, this genre can act as vessel for a reactionary movement against changing modes of morality amongst the younger generations: only characters who embody traditional values survive peacefully until the end of such stories and films.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ghostly
As in many other parts of Asia, sexual purity plays a vital role in dividing Thai female society. In strongly Buddhist Thailand, sex is seen only as part of a woman’s journey to motherhood, rather than an activity which doubles as pleasurable for the female body. Nicholas Ford and Suporn Koetsawang write that a “line is clearly drawn between ‘respectable’ females who are expected to preserve pre-marital virginity, and prostitutes to whom recourse is taken by males for both pre- and extra-marital sex” (408). In accordance with this, “only one-thirteenth” of unmarried female college students openly admitted to engaging in sex, compared to “two- thirds” of their male counterparts (Ford, Koetsawang 8). The stigma of being seen as an ‘easy’ woman who has lost her virginity before marriage would be too great to bear. One Thai man stated, during an interview, that it is, “…harder to look after a daughter than a son. Neighbours will gossip and look down to her if she has premarital sex. Having a daughter takes as much care as having a public toilet in the front yard” (Sridawruang et al, 183).
Yet other statistics contradict the notion that most modern women are refusing to engage in any premarital sex. A study on premarital sexual relations in rural Thailand states that “Although in Thai traditional culture premarital sex is not accepted, today’s teenagers in Thailand are embarking on sexual relationships outside the boundaries of marriage. This has been attributed to the increasing influence of western ideas brought by industrialisation and urbanisation” (Sridawruang et al, 181). The years between 2000-2003 saw a rise in Thai teenage pregnancy, and “the average age of first coitus” amongst “female vocational students” is 17.6 years (Sridawruang et al, 181). These increasing rates of sexual behaviour amongst the younger generations, especially girls, cause consternation amongst many elders, who believe such activity is immoral and untraditional.
Such fears tend to manifest in the form of stories which detail the punishments waiting for people who step outside the bounds of traditional morality. Female characters who engage in promiscuous or otherwise unsavoury behaviour tend to die quickly, and are sometimes brought back to existence as revolting malevolent spirits. In Buddhist Thailand, “untimely or sudden death”––something which is relatively common in rural women, especially given the dangers associated with childbirth––“is interpreted by popular opinion as the result of very serious misdeeds committed… by the victim… during the present or a previous life” (Formoso 8). Such misdeeds can include sorcery, greed, and lust. Quite a few Thai female ghosts are given backstories which involve some great sin in their past lives as mortal women. The ethnographer Phraya Anuman Rajadhon, in his Essays on Thai Folklore, also discusses how women are far more susceptible to ghostly possession––or “obsession”––than men are; perhaps due to the Buddhist belief that women are more easily swayed into sin than men, and can never fully achieve spiritual enlightenment as long as they are of female birth. Such possessed women take on grotesque forms: “she develops more than human strength. In fact, every gesture and sign she makes is abnormal, leaving no doubt in people’s minds that she is obsessed by a phi” (Rajadhon 166). Phi Krasü is a Thai spirit composed of bloody entrails dangling from the disembodied head of a woman. When a woman practices “black magic”, it is said she will become a Krasü: a grotesque being who lurks around villages at night and feeds on scraps of offal. Black magic can often be a potential metaphor for sexual activity, as evidenced by many historical events: the reasoning behind many of the witch hunts which took place across seventeenth century Europe, to list one example. The aforementioned black magic, which in Thailand traditionally involves rituals centring around aborted foetuses, could also involve the creation of herbal contraceptivesand abortive agents, both of which have been widely used by prostitutes and rural women throughout history until the present. Therefore, the Krasü story can potentially be taken as a reaction to the sexual agency of women: a warning against engaging in premarital sex. Interestingly, Krasü is known for sucking the foetuses from the wombs of pregnant women: in other words, this is a ‘bad’ woman, an immoral one, attacking a traditionally ‘good’ one who is doing her best to fulfil her childbearing duties. According to Thai tradition, “[women] who died in pregnancy usually enter the category of the phi samphawesi”, or malevolent spirits. This whole interaction is infused with a sense of a ‘bad’ woman spreading her morality and dragging other impressionable women down with her. Indeed, a Krasü’s status is passed on from woman to woman through salivary exchange, an act which, in the context of this myth, has female- homosexual and incestuous connotations––both at least somewhat taboo traits in Thailand.
In Thai society, where women are traditionally treated with less deference than men, female ghosts are a symbol of women reaping, in death, the power denied to them in life. Krasü works as a wonderful example of this. Women cannot become monks, and in rural areas a woman is generally expected to bow to her husband’s will. Krasü, however, is fearful enough that she does not have to bow to anyone. Rajadhon, describing the Krasü myth, says that “If an old woman who is supposed to be a phi krasü bargains for anything which she wants to buy in a shop, and the shop keeper knows that she is a phi krasü, he will accept her price readily. He fears that a refusal will make the old woman angry and she will harbour malice” (159). He adds a short anecdote about a woman, presumed to be a Krasü, whom he knew as a child, and recalls fleeing from her whenever she approached. Being perceived as a ghost therefore hands women, especially elderly widows who lack husbands to provide for them, a sense of agency––the tradeoff for which is the repulsive nature of female ghost-hood itself. A dichotomy is at play here: ‘bad’ women instil fear in men and can use that to wield more financial power, but they are will never receive the kindness and respect ‘good’ women may enjoy, instead being condemned to loneliness.
Sinful Female Lust in Mae Nek
Physical lust is generally frowned upon in Thailand, where it is known as “rakha”: one of the Three Poisons. Women who exhibit such lust will be punished after death, as illustrated by tales such as that of Mae Nek Phra Khanong. Although there are many versions of her story, both traditional and modern, they follow a similar pattern: a man is called away from home, and leaves his pregnant wife behind. When he returns, he is greeted by his wife and child, and settles into domestic bliss with them––despite warnings from the neighbours that the lady is a ghost, having died in childbirth during his absence. Only when he sees his wife act in an inhuman manner does he realise that the townspeople were telling the truth. When he bolts, however, the ghost of his wife pursues him, determined to hold onto her husband even in death. Superficially, Mae Nek does not fully resemble Krasü. Unlike the latter, she is not stated to have practiced black magic or otherwise committed sins during her life. Mae Nek dies in childbirth and joins the ranks of the Phi Tai Tang Klom––but she does not target pregnant women or otherwise harm anyone. Instead, she is content to eke out a living with her husband and child; indeed, her husband only learns of her ghostly nature when he sees her stretch her arm across the porch to pick up a fallen lime during her preparation of their evening meal. Why, then, is she reviled by everyone? The answer lies in her insistence on staying connected to her husband.
Strong earthly attachments are generally discouraged in traditional Thai Buddhist teachings. Letting go of such ties is seen as a step toward achieving enlightenment. However, Mae Nek refuses to do so. Even though she is dead, her lust––both emotional and physical––for her husband drives her to continue living with him, pretending that nothing has changed in the hope he will reciprocate. By ignoring traditional teachings, she therefore traps herself in a terrible fate: a shadowy imitation of domestic bliss which will not allow for her reincarnation and enlightenment.
Mae Nek’s story has become the subject of a number of Thai horror films, perhaps one of the most famous of which is Nang Nak (1999). Nang Nak’s plot follows the traditional Mae Nek Phra Khanong story quite closely: Nak, the ghostly wife, enjoys wedded life and murders townspeople who speak up against her. Nak’s husband, Mak, is content to live with her until he watches her stretch out her arm to pick up a fallen comb. Once he learns of her true identity, he leaves her––but Nak follows him, pleading with him to stay with her. The crisis is only solved when a Buddhist monk is brought in to exorcise Nak, finally freeing her from her somewhat-less- than-mortal coil. The problem of Nak’s desire to stay with her husband is framed as a religious question: only by bowing to the power of traditional Thai morality can both Nak and Mak exonerate themselves. This is notable because in the original tale, Mae Nek did not eventually repent. Instead, she is trapped in a jar and thrown into a river. Nang Nak’s decision to turn Nak’s morality around to match the prevailing moral code in Thailand is a manifestation of Thai horror’s reactionary elements. The only way a happy ending can be achieved, the only valid mode of survival, entails admission that traditional cultural values are superior to the lust and sexual desire which supposedly characterise the influences of urbanisation and globalisation on Thai society.
Male Victims’ Morality in “The Wayward Child”
Sinful women are not the only ones punished in the Thai ghost mythos. They are often used as agents of punishment for men who disobey traditional systems of morality. One of the most common instances of this is the general backlash against the younger generation’s perceived tendency to shun parental advice. A 1993 study on child development in various nations stated that “In Thai society, children are socialised to be obedient and polite, to avoid offending or distressing others (particularly those who are older), and to show emotional restraint and self-control” (Weisz et al, 99). This likely stems from Buddhist doctrines, which include numerous pieces of commentary on the ideal parent-child relationship. The Sigalovada Sutta, for example, states that “In five ways a child should minister to his parents… Once supported by them, I will now be their support; I will perform duties incumbent on them; I will keep up the lineage and tradition of my family; I will make myself worthy of my heritage; I will give alms on their behalf when they are dead” (Pali Canon, D.III.189). Folktales which highlight the importance of filial piety abound in older Thai mythology. “The Wayward Child” is a prime example of this genre. The story opens with a group of brothers being instructed to go find work and earn wages, in order to provide for their ageing parents. Most of the young man acquiesce immediately––but one of them, Kaem, ridicules the notion of being made to support his own parents. He derides the elderly couple as “lazy”, refuses to seek a job, and spends his time sunk in indolence. One day, while passing an old hag on the road, he insults her too––but she turns out to be a ghost, and promptly devours the disrespectful Kaem.
“The Wayward Child” provides a twofold example of the consequences of neglecting traditional cultural teachings. First, there is Kaem, who––unlike his more fortunate brothers––laughs at the teachings of the Sigalovada Sutta. He is the only one who outright spurns Thai traditions, and the only one who meets a grisly end. Kaem’s fate acts as a warning to those who may also be inclined to disobey their parents. It reinforces the notion that those who do not adhere to Thai cultural norms are at risk of not only facing pain in this life, but in the next life as well––for Kaem’s violent death ensures that he too will become a malevolent ghost. Secondly, there is the ghost herself. Her behaviour, wherein she sinks her fangs into Kaem and either sucks his blood or gorges on his innards, indicates that she is either a cannibalistic ghost called Pop, a Krasü in human form, or a Phi Tai Hong––a woman who died violently herself, and now inflicts the same agony on anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path. Her reaction to Kaem’s disrespect matches the atmosphere present in the anecdotes Rajadhon details in his work: Kaem suffers the same fate which the old shopkeeper feared. Haggish, monstrous women thus serve as vessels of tradition: their own tragic stories propagate the importance of following time-tested codes of morality for women, while their presence as elements of horror in other tales urges men to do the same.
And Now For Something Completely Different, in Shutter
Occasionally, modern horror will update the story of the female ghost by painting her as more tragic and less villainous than her older counterparts, and by giving her a triumphant––if not happy––ending. Take Shutter (2004), a horror film which became so popular it inspired remakes from two of the largest film industries in the world, Bollywood and Hollywood. Shutter is the story of Thun, a college student who finds himself and his girlfriend Jane haunted by the bloody ghost of Natre, his ex, who had committed suicide after being tormented at the hands of Thun and his friends.
Just as Nak’s overwhelming love of her husband may touch viewers’ hearts in Nang Nak, Natre’s plight is deeply sympathetic. She is given a clear reason to seek revenge, not like Pop and Krasü, who act out of sheer malice and greed. A central point of Shutter’s plot, the reason Natre is driven to suicide, is that Thun’s friends had taken turns sexually assaulting her while Thun––a photographer by trade––gleefully took pictures. Given this disturbing event, Natre’s burning desire for revenge is understandable. Her rape is not framed as an example of her promiscuity, as older folktales sometimes do: the close-up of her face during this scene clearly shows unbridled terror. In this way, her transition from tortured woman to avenging ghoul places emphasis on the agency she gains along with her supernatural powers. In life, she could not get revenge on Thun and his friends––but in death, she has the power to inflict severe pain on them: the rapists end up killing themselves, while Natre pushes Thun out of a window at the end of the film. Shutter also provides a relatively rare example of a malevolent female ghost assisting a mortal woman. Unlike Krasü, which views pregnant women as prey, or Pop, which indiscriminately devours victims, Natre is not interested in harming Jane, Thun’s current paramour. In fact, Natre actively helps Jane by leading the latter to a bookcase behind which are stashed photos of Natre’s rape. Once Jane finds out how vile Thun’s actions were, she breaks off their relationship, thus potentially saving herself from a fate similar to Natre’s. Thus, instead of Natre dragging Jane into despondency with her, Natre ensures Jane will have a happier life.
The meaning of what constitutes good behaviour is also somewhat different in Shutter.Jane, an unmarried woman, is shown drinking and spending late nights with Thun, but this is not shown as immoral, and she does not suffer for it. Natre is not depicted as immoral for dating Thun, and her rape is not her fault. The film clearly underscores that the violence Natre suffers is due to the perversions of Thun and his compatriots, which is why they receive their comeuppance––while Natre, unlike Nak, is not driven away at the end, and can continue existing alongside the man she once loved, and on whom she still wants revenge.
In its unique framing of ghosts and humans, Shutter sets forth a new moral code which is experiencing rising popularity amongst Thailand’s youth, as well as young people across the globe: a morality centred around sexual freedom and consent rather than virginity and docility. Neither Natre nor Jane are virgins, and yet neither is evil, nor are they punished specifically for being sexually active. Thun, like Kaem from “The Wayward Child”, is disrespectful and disobedient, but his punisher is not a nameless hag who acts out of greed. She is, instead, an embodiment of anger––at the mistreatment of women by men, and at the general lack of consequences which men face for engaging in such behaviour. And Shutter, too, embodies a larger concept: even as older horror stories cling desperately to older codes of morality, a new genre is emerging, one which challenges tradition and finds feminist heroes in unlikely places––even the afterlife.
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Since childhood, Aditi Ramaswamy has been fascinated by the ways in which folklore reflects societal attitudes, both progressive and conservative. Funnily enough, she hates horror movies.