A Ghostly Feminine Melancholy: Representing Decay and Experiencing Loss in Thai Horror Films
By analysing significant Thai horror films from 1999—the year Nonzee Nimitbut’s emblematic Nang Nak was released—to 2010, this essay focuses on the presence and representation of female ghosts and undead spirits from traditional Thai myths in contemporary Thai cinema. More precisely, this essay highlights traditional female characters as mediators between horror and love, and fear and mourning, instead of as traditionally frightening entities. This distinction was made possible after the Thai “New Wave.” As ancestral mirror of inner fears and meaningful images reflecting societal concerns, female spirits in contemporary Thai cinema become the emblem of a more complex “monstrous femininity,” merging fear with melancholy, and an irreparable sense of loss with reflections on the ephemeral.
In Thailand, the concept of the village has been used to imagine the Thai nation and perceive Thai identity. The discourse of the village has been romanticised based upon a socio-political impetus. This paper argues that the romanticised village discourse is repressive and reductive, in the sense that it creates expectations that might not fit with social reality; that the imagination of the peaceful village encourages forced homogeneity; and that the imagination of the pure rustic village bars the village from material progress. The paper contends that the discourse of the Thai village creates cultural anxiety that is well reflected in horror films, based on an analysis of Ban phi pob [Village of the phi pob] (Saiyon Srisawat, 1989) and Phi hua khat [Headless Hero] (Khomsan Triphong, 2002) as responses to the two intense movements of the romanticised village discourse.
According to Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, local horror cinema is counterproductive to building a progressive society. While the genre is now at the peak of its popularity, it was banned throughout the 1990s and accused of tainting modernity with ‘backwards’ ways of thinking. Modernity’s progress through erasure has already been conceptualized as a repression of various cultural
contexts, religious practices, and pre-colonial epistemologies, yet its ontological implications are rarely investigated. Nonmodern ontologies, such as animism, are aesthetically, narratively, and theoretically embedded in a number of contemporary horrors, especially those created by independent or art-house directors, who see in the genre the possibility of discussing the ontological taboos of modernity, such as the personhood of the nonhuman. In contrast to an ethnographic approach to animism, I here read it as a method of disruption: a negation of the idea that cinema is the quintessential modern medium. Animism, as a practice of relational personhood (Bird-David, 1999) renegotiates ontological boundaries modernity claimed to have set in stone: between self and other, nature and culture, humans and nonhumans, belief and practice, religion and play. By taking animism as a theoretical framework rather than a cultural trace, I highlight various points of intersection between James Lee’s gory slasher horror Histeria (2008) and this nonmodern ontology, positing it as a template for animistic slasher horror, where humans and nonhumans connect and disconnect on the axis of personhood, and the transition from relationality to individuality is depicted as a threat.
This article examines Thai horror films as the most frequent and visible representation of Thai cultural products in Malaysia. It outlines the rise of Thai horror cinema internationally and its cultivation of a pan-Asian horrific image of urbanization appropriate to particular Malaysian viewers. Through a comparison with Malaysian horror film, it then proposes a degree of “cultural proximity” between the horrific depictions of these two Southeast Asian industries which point to a particularly Southeast Asian brand of the horror film. Despite such similarity however, it also indicates that in the changing and problematic context of contemporary Malaysia, the ‘trauma’ that is given voice in these Thai films can potentially offer the new urban consumer an alternative depiction of and engagement with Southeast Asian modernity that is not addressed in Malaysian horror.