Ghosts in Thailand, it’s complicated.
To sort it out let’s first note that talk of ghosts belongs to two realms of discourse. One is supernatural and the other is literary. That is true in many cultures.
Ghosts in literature are largely in the category of fantasy. Here in Thailand ghost stories are ubiquitous. They are equivalent to vampires in movies and popular culture in America these days, except that Thai ghosts predate Edgar Allen Poe or even the classic American Halloween story “The Headless Horseman” by Washington Irving, with plot borrowed from Medieval tales. Thai cartoons either exploit ambivalence about ghosts or veer toward outright ridicule. The noticeable thing, however, is how widespread they are. They are everywhere, in comic books, Saturday morning TV, soap operas, and theme parks. [The picture accompanying this essay is from a park in Pattaya, based on the famous “Tiger Balm Gardens” park in Singapore, now in sad decline.]
As an aspect of the supernatural, pii are of two types. One is a restless, wandering spirit, and the other is thought of as the spirit of a place. Popular attitudes toward the two are very different.
In Thai language the “jao thii” or lords of the land are the manifest proprietors of the world of nature. They are many and they are one. They were here from the beginning and will be here long after human beings relinquish their right to inhabit a place. They are given honor by being venerated in shrines for which Thailand is famous, the iconic “spirit houses” (a misnomer).
Wandering spirits are apt to be more troublesome. One reason they are wandering is because they have been prevented from their rightful destinations. Their stories are grist for legend-spinners: tales of vengeful lovers, the unburied and un-cremated dead, ghosts of those spitefully abused, and many others who ought to be reincarnated to work out their karma but cannot be until some condition is met. Meanwhile, they find no rest from their pitiful plight. They wreak havoc in their wrath, or plague us with their mournful outbursts, or interfere with people’s health in order to wrangle a second chance to die.
How seriously are these ghosts taken? Seriously enough to spawn an industry worth millions of baht that needs to use no advertising or promotion to sell their spirit houses, statuary, and paraphernalia. Seriously enough to inspire entire communities to concerted action whenever there is a death. Action can be as limited as an individual lighting an incense stick or as vast as a royal funeral. It has been a long time since the last nation-wide effort to appease virulent spirits, but even in these modern times such a thing is possible.
The related question is how literally these ghosts are taken. That there are pii few Thai people would disagree. What they require is less certain. What is universal is the sense that if anything is to be done, it is done “just in case”, to cover the options, to fulfill long-held tradition, and to clarify our standing in the world of nature and unseen forces. Ambivalence is the feature of supernatural belief that separates it from religion.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.