Thailand’s most enduring ghost story has been retold in more than 20 feature films
The ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth—a phi tai hong thong klom—is regarded as the most fearsome of all phantoms in Thailand. In a scene from Nang Nak, the famous Thai horror movie based on the country’s most enduring ghost story, a terrified widower and a group of Buddhist monks are sitting on the floor of a temple chanting mantras to protect themselves when drops of water begin falling on them. They all look up to see the man’s dead wife standing upside-down on the ceiling of the temple, glowering at them while dripping sweat.
At the ‘Temple of Mother Nak’ off Sukhumvit Road, where many believe her spirit still resides, a Thai man pointed out to me a strange indentation on the ceiling of the main shrine, declaring that this was the place where Nak once stood.
Long before the Siamese even had surnames, the real Nak was supposedly born here in the middle of the 19th century. The village of Phra Khanong, once a patchwork of rice paddies crisscrossed with canals—some of which have still not been paved over—later became a district of the capital. As the legend and the 1999 film go, her husband Mak goes off to fight the Burmese, leaving his pregnant wife behind. When they are reunited, Nak shows him their newborn son. But Mak is unable to understand why she is so aloof and keeps rejecting his overtures to make love.
A few scenes later, when the couple are making love on the floor, the scene is edited together with a flashback of Nak dying while giving birth in the old Siamese way—sitting on the floor, her arms tied above her head, as beads of blood drip through the floorboards on to the head of a water buffalo tethered below the house. Never mind the supernatural sex that left audiences around the world gasping and murmuring “He’s sleeping with a ghost and doesn’t even know it!”. The scene was remarkable for the way it contained an entire revolution on the Buddhist Wheel of the Law: birth, death, and rebirth.
Such deaths were common in Nak’s day. In the film and the rural legend, Nak goes on a killing spree to keep the other villagers from exposing her secret to her husband.
After watching her frightful and tender performance on-screen it was a shock to see that, in real life, the cinematic reincarnation of the country’s most famous ghost was a teenaged college girl with spiky tendrils of frosted blonde hair. Only 19 at the time, Inthira ‘Sai’ Chareonepura radiated none of the menace she showed on-screen. Sitting in her school uniform of a black skirt and white blouse, beaming with smiles and politely answering questions, she could have been one of a million university students in the country.
Sai noted that Nak’s story has been made into more than 20 different films, but the 1999 version was different because it focused more on the couple’s relationship.
“The previous versions of Nang Nak are more about scary things and horror—not the love story,” she said. “But the director [Nonzee Nimibutr] wanted to make this a love story about Nak’s faithfulness to her husband as she waits for him. Even after she dies, she’s still worried about him and comes back to take care of him.”
That’s true. What made this version a cut above the usual slasher-and-horror fare is the full-bodied romance. The climax is especially heart-rending when the couple is caught in the middle of a rainstorm while the Buddhist monk who moonlights as a ghost-hunter attempts to trap Nak’s spirit forever.
Even the most oblique and subtle questions about the infamous sex scene turned Sai into a blushing schoolgirl.
“Yes, giving birth in the old way… that wasn’t me. They had a body double,” she said, before breaking into a fit of laughter.
Since this was the most controversial part of the entire film, it certainly required an explanation. Further questions were answered by more giggles. So I asked her point-blank: “So was that really you rolling around on the floor?”
You would’ve thought this was the funniest joke she had ever heard. Composing herself after another fit of hysterics, Sai managed to say, “Yes, that was me,” before explaining that many previous productions of the film were plagued with problems thought to have occult causes. That’s why cinemas once set up shrines to appease her spirit. One old movie house that did not follow this ritual was razed to the ground by a freak fire. As was, and still is the tradition, the whole cast and crew paid homage to her restless spirit before they shot the film, at the shrine behind the temple off Sukhumvit Soi 77 (officially known as Wat Mahabut).
By Jim Algie