Black magic and ghosts -- Thai superstitions aren't just for Halloween
Are you worried about a female ghost who possesses a long, slithering tongue that she can poke through your roof to zap you with?
Are you cooking black-colored food, to curse your political enemies?
Or maybe you are quietly sprinkling white powder on a tree's gnarly bark, and rubbing it with kinky zeal, hoping to see a lucky number appear in the wood's swirling grain?
If so, Thailand is the place for you.
Animist beliefs were never totally snuffed after Buddhism's arrival here. As a result, many Thais perceive a universe riddled with dangerous metaphysical antics -- and they’re freaked out.
To defend themselves against the inexplicable, they have created some bizarre ways to quiet their trembling imaginations.
Black magic woman
One creepy cure for problems relating to sex and love can be found at Wat Mahabhut, a Buddhist temple off Sukhumvit Soi 77, which houses a shrine to spooky Mae Nak where people make offerings in hopes of receiving her blessing. She is perceived as a virtuous wife who, many years ago, died during childbirth along with her baby (a movie character in her honor just happens to top our list of Thai cinema villains).
To help her grieving husband, and stay romantically entwined with him, the dead Mae Nak manifested as a humanoid. But her shocked neighbors complained, and tried to chase her away. Mae Nak then got a bit bitchy, until a monk sawed a hole through her skull to exorcise her spirit from the body.
Today, Mae Nak's body -- or possibly a life-sized statue -- is thickly caked with gold leaf and on display in her very own shrine. Her head is topped with a wig which looks like human hair, and her smooth golden face is accentuated by tacky make-up. She wears gold-colored necklaces and red clothing, and stares at a blaring television, to keep her entertained.
Her shrine is decorated with different portraits depicting a woman's face, created by artists who are guessing what she may have looked like when she was alive. A baby-like figure, also covered in gold leaf, sits in front of Mae Nak. Below them rests a glass coffin, containing a plastic baby doll half-covered by paper currency.
"I feel this is my culture, to respect a good person who has done a good thing," said Tuenjai, praying at the shrine with her tattooed Austrian husband, Gerry. "Mae Nak gave her heart only to one husband. This is a person of love, and not a liar. In my prayer, I told Mae Nak I want to have good luck in love, and at my job, and at my school."
The shrine is surrounded with stalls selling new toys, baby clothes and other infant-related items. "People buy these things not to keep, but to offer to Mae Nak in the shrine," one shopkeeper said, gesturing at a rack of shrink-wrapped toys and baby pajamas.
Tanarat Rattanekvatee, a 28-year-old manager visiting Wat Mahabhut with her friend, says "most Thais believe in the supernatural because we feel we can ask them for things. I think it shows that Thai people love to have some hope, and they hope to get something back."
Some ghosts torment, others give deadly orgasms
Many Thais fear ghosts, too. Some ghosts are murder victims, who are beleved to loiter and torment their killers. Tree ghosts can morph into existence if their wood is used to build a house.
A dead pregnant woman can be especially ominous, because she packs an extra spirit in her womb. And a "hungry ghost" will brandish a big mouth, crammed with pointy teeth, and may turn a person into a killer or a cannibal.
Some female ghosts can sexually ravage a sleeping man until he orgasms to death. To trick those ghosts, some men wear women's clothes to bed.
A handful of ghosts have achieved celebrity status and now lounge around as permanent evildoers, constantly demanding and receiving gifts, prayers and other extorted items from a paranoid public.
Not all ghosts are dead humans. Some are monsters and goblins. Others are simply drifting heads with pendulous ganglia.
Home sweet home
Spirits lurk elsewhere as well. As a form of property insurance, nearly every house and building in Thailand has an outdoor "spirit house," which look like a small dollhouse on a pedestal.
Figurines, food, water, flowers, incense and other totems are situated under the spirit house's pointy roof. When Thais construct a building, they erect the little dwelling for any spirits who may already be hanging around, amid hopes that the grateful spirits will then protect them.
When a building is demolished, sold, or thought to be the site of bad luck, then the spirit house might be discarded like garbage, or discreetly placed under a banyan tree where it can peacefully decay alongside other junked spirit houses.
But if you collect trashed spirit houses as souvenirs -- they can evoke poetic bleakness -- most Thais will recoil in horror, because no one wants to inherit any ill-fortunes that might be attached to the spirits from a previous site.
Ode to the penis
Wooden phalluses, however, are collected by superstitious people seeking a sperm-boosting icon, including women hoping to get pregnant, prostitutes wishing for randy customers, and would-be playboys.
Hand-carved penises are also believed by many to bring commercial luck.
The phalluses range from small keychain-sized danglers to fat eight-foot-tall erections suitable for gardens.
Superstitious Thais also insist tattoos, inked by Buddhist monks or adept magicians, can protect the wearer against bullets and knives, bring love, or predict lucky days.
Ironically, an elaborate design may be less potent than a simple purple dot -- or an invisible tattoo made from clear sesame oil -- because these tattoos are empowered by the artisan and not for cosmetic purposes.
Thais have thousands of other more obscure, eccentric superstitions which involve folk tales and village life, including birth, death, food, matrimony, natural disasters, crops, animals and health.
Black magic women -- and men
While some superstitions seem cute or harmless, and others reveal common psychological fears in symbolic form, Thais are also sometimes victimized by horrific black magic.
"I know a person who uses black magic, and he tells a lot of lies about ghosts," said Phra Phansak, a saffron-robed Buddhist monk, after giving a sermon at Wat Mahabhut.
"Thais are superstitious because they have a lot of faith. People believe superstitions now because of the bad economy. They have no job, and no education," the monk said.
Practitioners of black magic often use scary stories and weird rituals to terrify naive believers who are then told they must pay huge sums, or perform immoral or illegal acts, to free themselves from demons.
To obliterate a person's future, a sinister recipe can be stirred with a flexible stick previously used by a widow to balance baskets on her shoulder.
Thailand's coup-crazy political scene also occasionally degenerates into a loud public round of black magic performances by politicians, generals and pro-democracy protesters, each seeking to awaken revenge-filled spirits.
They use items traditionally reeking of bad luck, including decayed pieces of second-hand coffins, bones from victims who perished in violence, bricks and other debris from the ruins of temples, and anything else linked to Buddhism or death which appears damaged or spoilt -- such as a monk's cracked alms bowl.