Now, it's important to note that Thai people *love* ghost stories. Most of my students believe in ghosts and one even told me a story about being visited by his late mother's ghost. When I went to Phuket last April one of my students warned me to watch out for the ghosts of the tsunami victims. While Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, a lot of older animistic / superstitious beliefs get mixed in there too.
Spirit houses abound. You can't walk down the street without seeing a little offering of food, drink and/or incense set out to appease any spirits that might be around. Even at my school there is a small alter with a picture of a monk, one of the former kings, and maybe a Buddha statue (I've never actually gone up and inspected it)... every morning one of the staff sets out a glass of water, a glass of juice and a glass of tea for their spirits and says a little prayer of respect to them. So yeah, ghosts and spirits are a very real part of the culture here, and I was really looking forward to watching a genuine Thai ghost movie.
The one we saw was actually a collection of five short movies (the title in Thai was something original like Five Ghost Tales - I think the English title is Phobia 2). Although I usually avoid any kind of horror movies, so I'm hardly an expert, I think it was a pretty representative sample of the genre.
The first film, Novice, was the most interesting to me, and the most Thailand-specific. The movie starts out with a wide open road... a car is speeding from one direction, a couple of helmeted teenagers on a motorbike coming from the other. A crash seems imminent but instead one of the teens hucks a rock into the windshield of the oncoming car which crashes in a nearby ditch.
In the next scene a teenager is having his head shaved in preparation for being a novice monk. The identity of the teen is a bit ambiguous, as is the whereabouts of his father. But if you've seen any kind of 'suspense' movie, I think you know where this story is heading.
This poor kid is not an especially good monk however and proceeds to intentionally as well as accidentally break a great many Thai/Buddhist taboos:
1. As the monks are walking through a forest they pass plates of food offerings to hungry-spirits (ghosts whose loved ones are not properly taking care of them in the afterlife), the novice carelessly steps into one of the plates. GASP! The foot is the lowest part of the body - the most 'unclean' and to even point your foot at another person is considered rude. To step into an offering like that is about the equivalent of taking a piss in a baptismal font.
2. While washing some dishes in a river the monk spots a snake & gecko locked in battle. The gecko escapes & runs up into the novice's robes. He freaks out, throws off his robe and stomping on them kills the gecko. Buddhists in general and monks in particular are NOT supposed to kill anything - not even a fly. So, this novice is wracking up bad-karma points by the dozens.
3. Monks are not allowed to eat after sundown. The novice is lying awake in his bungalow late at night when his stomach growls. He goes back outside to the offerings of foods for the hungry ghosts and steals a packet of instant noodles. Double GASP! At this point my Thai friend was whispering urgently to me "Ooooh can not, can NOT!"
Naturally this rather irritates the hungry ghost giant who goes all ghosty on the village/temple area. He slams the doors and rattles the window shutters of the novice's bungalow and tears down one of the altars. Upon seeing the destruction the next morning, the head monk portends (in one of very few lines of dialogue) "A hungry ghost will be reborn, and a soul will be damned in it's place."
4. For all his sins, the novice is told to go meditate in a spooky candlelit cave. Creepiness abounds... eerie music, ominous shadows, candles being blown out by the wind. On running out of the cave the novice trips over and breaks a white string that wound around the hungry ghost alter, into the temple, and through the hands of each of the monks who are meditating and praying for protection. On feeling the string snap one of the monks looks up and the head monk delivers his second & last line of dialogue "Nothing can be done now." ooooooooohhhhhh!
In the final montage, the novice hears spooky things in the forest & throws rocks in the general direction of the sounds, someone... or something (cue *very* spooky music here) throws it back at him and hits him in the head. As he is lying on the ground bleeding grotesquely we have flashbacks to the first scene of the movie - GASP! it's *him* on the motorbike throwing a rock at the oncoming car. And DOUBLE GASP!! - it was his father in the car! He continues to get pelted by rocks as he grabs his cell phone and pathetically calls his mother to say "Kor tot, koooooor toooooot" (I'm sorry, I'm sorry) but his mother cannot recognize his voice and hangs up on him. A little special effects magic and we see the novice's hands enlarge and become grotesque as his perspective rises up into the air. He becomes the giant hungry ghost and his soul is damned... uh...eternally? Or at least until the next incarnation.
The movie was genuinely spooky, although this is like 98% due to the creepy music and things jumping out from nowhere. I screamed a lot! It was a fun experience.... screaming along with all the Thai teenagers in the theater. But it has NOT turned me into a horror movie fan. After the second short movie (doomed patient in a hospital room next to a guy hovering between life & death) I was ready to go home. But then there was a zombie movie and one about a haunted used car lot. I cannot take that much creepiness! Fortunately the last movie was a spoof and provided some much needed comic relief.
On Saturday I told my afternoon students I'd seen the movie - one had seen it already and two of them were planning on going. It's always nice when I can connect with my students in some way or other. In fact, on break they were all watching Phobia 1 (or Four Ghost Tales) on the TV in the lobby and there was a collective gasp of disappointment when the office staff turned off the TV and made everyone get back to class. After class the students fairly ran out of the room to get back to watching it. What can I say? The Thais LOVE their ghost stories!!