Buddha’s Halo and Ghost Shadows

Thai horror movies are all about good and evil, reward and retribution, karma and reincarnation

By Tian Lin

Since the release of Nang Nak in 1999, Thai movies involving the supernatural have left a mark on world cinema with strong ethnic flavors and Buddhist undertones. Their appeal is grounded in the prevalence of Buddhism in the Southeast Asian country, where more than 90 percent of the population practice Theravada Buddhism. Ghosts also constitute a key element of Thai culture. Gods and ghosts, the two seemingly irreconcilable beings, are eerily compatible in Thai beliefs, and have found allegorical expression in Thai movies.

Light over Darkness

Imbued with Buddhist concepts of karma, retribution, and reincarnation, Thai ghost movies feature an unmistakable hierarchical relationship between worship of ghosts and admiration of Buddhas: Theravada Buddhism, the official religion of the nation, is held in the highest esteem, while worship of ghosts is a folk practice, representing a shadowy niche in the national psyche.

A poster for the Thai film Karma.

This relationship has been presented with astute cinematic language in films such as Karma (2015) and the first part of Phobia 2 (2009). The leading character in all these stories is Phi Pret, a ghost with gigantic hunger for almost everything. This evil spirit roams near temples to atone for sins committed during life. As tall as a palm tree, it has huge hands and feet but a tiny mouth no bigger than the eye of a needle, which makes eating or drinking impossible. Phi Pret therefore lives in perpetual starvation as punishment for violations of Buddhist teaching. The creature struggling to bend its gigantic, skinny body before a Buddhist statue to humbly pray is a particularly extraordinary rendition of ghost worship’s submitting to the Buddhist system. 

Such submission is not found in all Thai movies. In Nang Nak (1999), Pee Mak (2013) and 407 Dark Flight (2012), ghosts overpower monks. This is however no indicator that evil can defeat Buddhist justice. Although as a representative element of Buddhism, a monk is, like a ghost, just one individual existence in the karma system. In Theravada Buddhism, monks are not saviors, and one can only rely on oneself to escape the sea of suffering. A repeated theme in Thai horror movies is revenge by ghosts who were wronged during their human lives. No Buddhist monk dares to meddle with the law of cause and effect in Buddhism.

A still from the Thai film Karma.

Divine retribution is a central idea in most Thai horror movies. In most circumstances, it is easily perceived by the audience even without distinctive Buddhist elements. One example is Art of the Devil (2004-2008), a series about devils and witchcraft. Void of any major monk character, it still delivers the Buddhist conviction that evil doing will be punished without exception. The story is told in reverse: It starts with a brutal killing by a spirit before revealing the backstory that leads to the event.

It should be noted that in some Thai horror movies, Buddhism is purposefully left out to create more room for ghost worship and other faiths, creating amusing antagonism between the “low-ranking” beliefs. In Buppah Rahtree (2003), a landlady seeking to dislodge the vengeful spirit of Buppah Rahtree brings in people of various backgrounds including a false shaman, a pair of Roman Catholic priests, and a genuine shaman from Cambodia instead of seeking the help of monks, which would be the more conventional choice in Thailand. This plot however justifies the failures of those exorcists, mocking the religions they stand for and proving the supremacy of Buddhism. 

Light Parallel to Darkness

Ghost worship is situated at the bottom of religious hierarchy, but is not marginalized in Thai society. Rather, it remains highly influential in the country. Almost all Thai people can tell several ghost stories, and worship sessions are often seen in public spaces. For local people, ghost worship is a vital supplement to Theravada Buddhism.

A poster for the Thai film Second Sight.

According to Gong Haoqun, a professor at the School of Sociology and Anthropology of Xiamen University, Thai society ranks Buddhism the highest in morality, but low in functionality because it only stresses moral cultivation and betterment in future lives. Worship of other supernatural beings is considered less moral but more pragmatic because it aims at instant gains and exchange of interests. Simply, visits to temples and deeds of merits may bring blessings in another life, but praying to ghosts is believed to be more effective to bring good luck in present life in realms such as a good harvest, passing exams, finding a partner, or winning the lottery.

Similarly, vengeance by ghosts comes sooner and is more straightforward than Buddhist retribution. In Thai movies, such vengeance is portrayed as the deliverance of justice and triumph of good in a society where the public power is barely functional. The lead of Second Sight (2013), a lawyer, tells his client, “You may escape punishment by law, but you cannot avoid karma.” But Buddhist retribution for immorality often comes in a later life, and Buddhist masters can do little more about evil-doers than preach against them. When both public power and Buddhism have their hands tied in the face of evil, ghosts become the only force to administer justice.

 Ghost characters in Thai movies are mostly not bloodthirsty monsters who kill randomly as seen in many Western films. Instead, they go after well selected targets, justified by the moral standards of Buddhism, targets who are guilty of something. In this sense, the action of ghosts is a good supplement to application of Buddhist ethics. 

Light in Darkness

Theravada Buddhism, which dominates Thai society, is an inclusive faith. Indigenous ghost worship has survived, evolved, and integrated into its system. Many Buddhist shrines in Thailand have altars for non-Buddhist supernatural beings such as the Mae Nak Shrine in Bangkok.

Mae Nak is the best-known ghost in Thailand, and has been featured in two dozen films. The story goes that a woman living near the shrine died during childbirth, but her spirit disguised itself as a living human to retain her husband. Compared to visitors seeking the Buddhist altars at the shrine, many more come to pay tribute to the ghost. People pray to her for children, a happy marriage, and wealth. Next to her statue stands a bucket, from which visitors can pick up numbered ping pong balls to predict lottery numbers.

The Mae Nak Shrine at Wat Mahabut Temple in Bangkok, Thailand.

The Mae Nak sculpture at the shrine contrasts her traditional image with longer hair. It was modeled after her appearance in the 1999 film Nang Nak, with a line carved in its base: “eternal love.” In the past, the name Nang Nak evoked fear, but now it is more associated with love and devotion. Its inclusion in a Buddhist venue is the result of re-branding of her image by the popular film. In this sense, Thai horror movies have helped better integrate ghost worship with Buddhist beliefs.

Like the relationship between light and darkness, Buddhist beliefs and ghost worship coexist in Thai society, complementing and reinforcing each other. This balance and interdependence has been skillfully depicted in cinematic narratives that have mesmerized audiences worldwide.

(Tian Lin is a lecturer on the Thai language at the School of Asian Studies of Beijing Foreign Studies University.)

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