Ghosts and Gores: A critical interpretation of Thai horror films and dramas
Ghosts play many roles in the Thai society. They can be topics for discussion in camp fires. They can represent Thai people’s respect towards their ancestors. And they can reveal the bonds between communities and the nature. Most remarkably, in popular culture, especially films and dramas, these supernatural entities can also capture the compassionate quality of Thai people. But with all the spookiness and jump scares, how so? The horror genre, like in other cultures, is not only about horrifying spectral creatures. It also allows us to visualize the horrifying nature of the lived reality through ghosts and gores as hyper depictions of social injustices. In this sense, horror shows are means by which Thai people call out for the improvement of the lot of others, before the dangers on the silver screen are fully actualized. There are three main aspects worth mentioning.
Ghosts from the Past
There are many kinds of Thai ghosts both on and off screen, but interestingly, in Thai horror films, especially traditional ones, most of them are women, who were mistreated and oppressed when they were alive. The classic Nang Nak (1999) provides a clear example of how Nak undergoes pain and heartache and eventually dies in her labor while her husband is away at war. Shutter (2004) likewise tells a story of a vengeful female spiritual entity, who was sexually abused before committing suicide. Or even the more contemporary Krasue: Inhuman Kiss (2019) focuses on a girl who is hunted by her entire village simply because she is abnormal—because she is possessed with the curse of Krasue.
A critical way to interpret these cases is women have long been victims of the unfair treatment under the patriarchic social structure, so in their afterlife, with no physical and spatial limits, they come back at night to haunt their perpetrators and will not rest till justice is served. In this sense, the portrayal of female ghosts on the silver screen is an attempt to help raise public awareness on gender inequality and, therefore, call for change, which also resonates the bigger picture of international women rights movements.
Ghosts of the Present
However, as new technologies give birth to new lifestyles, new kinds of scariness are also brought to (after)life to make horror shows more relevant and relatable to new audiences. What is more interesting is these malicious entities in contemporary times no longer wait for the sun to go down to take action. They can simply come out in broad daylight. Consider 999-9999 (2002) and 4bia (2008). They both show how horror is omnipresent whether on an airplane, phones, or even in text messages. As for an example in real life, more relevant than ever during the pandemic, although social network applications, such as Line and Whatsapp, help increase communication speed, they can also make it possible for work to follow or “haunt” a worker anytime and anywhere, even when the business hours are over. Furthermore, online platforms also cause anxiety and depression. In an episode of the internationally acclaimed Girl from Nowhere (2018-2021), Nanno, the embodiment of human’s inner dark sides, manipulates social media and reality to highlight all the lies and pretentious online relationships in a way that irreversibly ruins the life of an internet celebrity, Jenny X.
Therefore, it makes sense to interpret these Thai ghosts in their more advanced forms as warnings of how machines can corrupt the human ways of life, urging the society to confront and tame the pervasive influences of the cyber world.
Ghosts Not as Scary as the Background
Last but not least, there is a new rising trend that pays less attention to the foreground but much more to the background, indirectly portraying the latter as the true source of horror. Laddaland (2011), for instance, captures the precarity of the middle class and shows how unemployment, economic insecurity, and family burden are much scarier than the malign spirit Makhin, who rarely shows herself on screen. Another example is The Promise (2017). Following the same manner, the film reflects the monstrosity of the fragile global financial system, whose meltdown in 1997 separates two best friends and forever ruins their families and friendship. Or again, in Girl from Nowhere, it should be clear that even without Nanno, each anthological episode can still progress by its own, because the socio-economic questions looming in its background have already long been in existence. Nanno is merely a catalyst of chaos, and it is rather the monstrous background that turns everyday lives into horror stories.
In this sense, as the world economy is raging and spilling over inequality as well as hardship to peoples across the globe, late Thai horror shows have become more ambitious in terms of its critiques. They aim to contest the everyday economic horrors, thereby calling for a systemic transformation.
To conclude, there is much more to the horror genre than jump scares. In the case of Thai popular culture, it is more about expressing sympathy for fellow compatriots, especially in the realms of gender exclusion, digital invasion, and socio-economic injustices. Ultimately, these are by no means the concerns of Thailand alone. They are international problems. The key to move forward then is to realize and bring these issues up for open discussion, so that we as an international community can share ideas to solve them and move forward together. Otherwise, the whole world might actually turn into a place full of ghosts and gores.
- David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2012
- Manta Klangboonkrong, “There’s More to a Thai Ghost Story than Being Scary.” Thailand NOW, October 26, 2021. Available at https://www.thailandnow.in.th/arts-culture/theres-more-to-a-thai-ghost-story-than-being-scary/.
- Pilan Poonyaprapha and Saminee Ratanayongpiroj, “Parb Pa Yon Phii Thai: Parb Ma Ya Tan Kwam Fun Kong Phu Chom” [“Ghost Film : the Illusion of the Dream”] in The Journal of Social Communication Innovation (Bangkok: Srinakharinwirot University, 2016). Available at https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/jcosci/article/download/93096/72921/.
- Soravis Jayanama, Mue Lok Seum Sao: Mark Fisher Lok Sat Ja Ni Yom Baab Tun Lae Laddaland [A Depressed World: Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, and Laddaland]. Translated by Suchanad Jarupaiboon. Bangkok: Illuminations Editions, 2021.
- Tappanai Boonbandit, “From Village to Airplane Cabin: How Thai Ghosts Evolve alongside the Living.” Khaosod English, October 31, 2019. Available at https://www.khaosodenglish.com/life/entertainment/2019/10/31/from-village-to-airplane-cabin-how-thai-ghosts-evolve-alongside-the-living/.