In South East Asia ghosts play an important role. The spirit of ghosts is notably predominant in Thai culture. A radio is broadcasting every night between midnight and 3 a.m. a call-in show, “The Shock”, dedicated to the supernatural where Kapol Thongplub, the animator of the show, listens people nightly telling him about their ghost stories and the apparitions they experienced.
The Thai belief of ghosts is so strong, that Thai people regularly leave offerings at places where people have died, and for example a Hungry Ghost Festival, “Por Tor Festival’, is held in Phuket every year.
There are a lot of different kinds of ghosts, mainly coming from Buddhism history and former Chinese influence, that have however survived and adapted themselves to the modern era.
One of them, called the “widow ghost” (Phii mae maai in Thai), particularly present in the North East Thailand, is a ghost that seeks to steal men away from their families (looking for men to kill and take as “husbands”). The power of this spirit reflects some of the Northeast Thailand understandings of gender difference and most of all translates the danger inherent in female sexuality. This is a reference to female hysteria.
The gender differenciation in poor rural areas of Thailand is not so marked: the domestic work are often done by both women and men. However the gender differenciation remains an important aspect in social life mostly through the necessity of controlling the woman’s body. This translates a divergent understanding about male and female sexuality. Masculinity, except for monks that represent a higher “class” in Thailand, spotlights sexual prowess. Female sexuality is interpreted in a different way: it is the subject of moral problems. When the sexuality of a female is not linked to a conjugal relationship, it is seen as depraved and the social equivalent of prostitution. Female sexuality is interpreted as potentially dangerous for the physical and spiritual well being of men.
They have to avoid any sort of public physical contact with men as this can be interpreted as a sexual interest of their part.
In the case of the widow ghosts, the ‘women’ show their sexuality powers. They take the initiative by seducing husbands. This is a reversal also of the male and female bodies hierarchy (the phii mae maai are thought to lie on top of their chosen ‘husbands’, contrasting with the more usual known sexual position of the man above the woman during the sexual intercourse).
This belief is linked with economical and geographical changes in Thailand (and which are mostly affecting the northeastern part, the poorest one): there is a labor immigration to Bangkok and it is women, usually young and unmarried who constitute the primary labor force. The new geographical mobility of young unmarried women challenges the customary male monopoly over the sources of prestige. Villagers’ fears of widow ghosts bring into play these conflicting meanings of female sexuality in contemporary Thailand. The mobility of young women and their growing independence towards their family and husbands challenge the traditional idea of men being more productive.
This threat of ghosts in Thailand is also a symbol for the new challenges and issues that capitalism and the evolution of the urban spaces.
“Attack of the widow ghosts: gender, death, and modernity in Northeast Thailand” in Bewitching Women, Pious Men by Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz (1995)