The Sword-blade Trees of Buddhist Hell–a Nightmare of the Mind


Recently, I gave a talk on Thailand’s Hell Gardens at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York, under the auspices of Morbid Anatomy. These “gardens” are horrifically graphic sculptural theme parks scattered throughout the country that depict the torments suffered by those who violate too many of the five precepts (kind of like the Buddhist commandments, only there’s only five of them, not ten) and end up getting sent to hell. Most people, it seems, don’t even realize that Buddhism has a hell, let alone that Thailand has several themed attractions that look like something straight out of the Saw franchise.

Let’s start with hell. The Buddhist word for hell is Naraka. Naraka is a Sanskrit word, and its earliest use appears in the Hindu Vedas, around 1500-1200 B.C., so the concept was already in place in India by the time Buddhism took hold there in about the 5th century BCE. Several of the earliest Buddhist sutras, like The Great Story and The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (both written in 200 to 100 BCE), include descriptions of hell. In Buddhist tradition, hell is one of six realms, some relatively nice, some much less so, that the soul cycles through from rebirth to rebirth, trapped in the wheel of samsara until such time as they attain enlightenment and break free of the wheel entirely. The early texts also make reference to the idea of the hell realm containing multiple hells, with The Great Story describing eight separate hells. As often happens in many religious or mythic traditions, the stories and descriptions change and get more and more elaborate over time, reflecting the specific cultures and societal mindsets that Buddhism spread to. Buddhists in the cold, mountainous region of Tibet introduced the idea of eight cold Narakas. Later, this sixteen hell model became fairly common, though some texts describe thousands of hells.

Many of the punishments meted out in Buddhist hell are similar to those commonly associated with Christian hell—sinners are burned, boiled, stabbed, torn apart, etc. etc. You know, all that fun stuff. And in the earliest texts, punishments don’t necessarily correspond to any specific ill deeds. This changes over the next few hundred years, as torments increasingly come to match specific crimes.


Good times at Wang Saen Suk hell garden

A stroll through one of Thailand’s hell parks illustrates this idea nicely. Here, amid horrors typically erected by well-meaning monks in order to provide both instruction and warning, one sees liars getting their tongues ripped out; drug addicts being force fed boiling oil; rapists getting stabbed in the dick; women who have had abortions being stabbed in the lady parts. You get the idea. But one of the most commonly-occurring and most interesting images is that of the sword-blade trees.

Trees with blade-like leaves that flay the flesh are mentioned in The Great Story as a general hellish punishment, unconnected to any particular transgression. In later texts and in several Thai hell gardens, however, they are presented as a special punishment for adulterers and those who commit sins of the flesh. At Wang Saen Suk, Thailand’s largest and most famous hell garden and elsewhere, naked men and women rendered in concrete endlessly climb a tall tree with massive spikes protruding from its branches and trunk, all while being pecked at by black birds. In many renditions, minions of hell are also present who force the sufferers to climb the tree and who also throw javelins through the climbers for good measure. If you reach the top and fall crashing to the ground, don’t think that’s the end of it. You’re just going to have to start the tortuous climb again.


A very long climb

What all this has to do with fornication is unclear, but I can’t help but notice some resemblance between the tree of spikes and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. Apparently, whether you’re just about to sin or whether you’ve been wallowing in debauchery for years, there’s going to be a tree that has something to say about it.

One question that bears asking any time there’s a depiction of hell, is whether it is meant to be taken literally, or whether it is intended as a figurative representation of things experienced during life. As with Biblical literalists, there’s probably plenty of Buddhists who would insist that the straight-up, literal interpretation is the correct one (although with Buddhist hell you get a break, because it’s not permanent. You just stay there until you work through your bad karma), but I’ve always been one for more nuanced interpretations.

The most interesting description I’ve come across yet of the sword trees comes from The Essentials of Pure Land Rebirth, work completed in 985 by Genshin, a priest of the Japanese Tendai school. In it, the tree torture is described thusly:

“Sometimes the hell wardens seize the victims and put them into a forest of sword blades. As they look up to the top branches of the trees in this forest they see beautiful and well-dressed women, indeed the faces of those whom once they loved. This fills them with joy and so they try to climb up the trees, but when they do so the branches and leaves all turn into swords, which lacerate the flesh and pierce and pierce the bones. Though they are terrorized by this, their evil karma still drives them on in their desire and, defying the swords, they climb on. But when they reach the top they find the object of their desire below on the ground luring them to come down, and each one saying to the lover on the tree: ‘Because of the karma created by my passions for you I have come to this place. Why do you not come near me and embrace me?’ Thus each one from beneath the trees allures her victim till the latter, in his infatuation, begins to climb down the tree again. But as they descend the leaves of the trees, which are made of swords, turn upward and thus lacerate their bodies. When they are about to reach the ground, the women appear on the tops of the trees. Then the victims, overcome with passion, again climb up. This process goes on for ten trillion years. The cause of being thus deceived in this hell by one’s own heart and the consequent suffering is one’s own evil passion.”

            Note, the absence of hell guards at the base of the tree (they seem to serve just to throw their victims into the forest, and then leave them to torture themselves). The tormented souls are free to stop climbing the tree at any time, but, they don’t, driven on instead by their own craving. To me, this version of the sword trees serves as a great illustration of Buddhist hell as a hell of the mind. Plus, it’s just a great image. Kind of like a messed up Jack and the Beanstalk story, on an endless loop.




A Séance at the Physick Estate (or “What Was That?”)


“…and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Early November has arrived, and October, that most glorious of months, at least for those of us of a certain persuasion, has gone again. The past few years, I have made a habit of traveling to some place or event that puts me in a Halloween mood. This year, I attended a séance at the Emlen Physick House in Cape May, NJ, led by medium Craig McManus.

A caveat before I begin: I’m not a “believer.” I’ve never experienced anything ghostly per se and I wouldn’t go on record as thinking that ghosts are a thing. On the other hand, for reasons I don’t completely understand, I have been preoccupied with ghosts as a theme since very early. I love ghost stories. I get spooked to the point of sleeplessness if I stay in a “haunted” room (which I find simultaneously annoying and enjoyable). I’ve had recurring ghost dreams for years. I probably started this blog in part to figure out what my deal is.

That said, on this particular excursion I did have a pretty strange experience.

Cape May is a seaside resort town at the tip of New Jersey’s Cape May peninsula. It has been drawing leisure-seekers since its incorporation in 1848, and its beaches and many colorful Victorian structures continue to lure visitors. It’s the kind of place families go in the summer months to build sand castles, eat ice cream, and shop for souvenir t-shirts. But along with its seaside charm and old buildings, Cape May also has a wealth of spook stories, and McManus seems to have cornered the market on them. Returning from a summer idyll in the Cape, my friend Laura brought me a copy of his Ghosts of Cape May: Book 1. According to the book, McManus is a medium plus psychic—i.e. the full package. True hauntings books are a dime a dozen, but what sets this one apart is that McManus makes a sincere effort to explain, from his perspective, what ghosts are, the different types, how they interact with the material world, and, moreover, how they interact with a medium like himself. Whether you think this stuff is fact, or, well, bullshit, it’s admirable that he’s trying to present a framework.

The Emlen Physick Estate is an 18-room Victorian mansion built in 1879 for Dr. Emlen Physick Jr., the descendent of a well-known (at the time) family of physicians in Philadelphia. While Dr. Physick (that name, right? You can’t make this stuff up) did earn his medical degree out of fear of otherwise being cut off from his inheritance, he apparently never practiced, deciding that the life of a gentleman farmer suited him better. At the age of 21, Dr. Physick moved into the house along with his mother, Frances Ralston, and her maiden sisters Emilie and Isabelle. Several family members died in the house.

Stepping into the foyer of the estate was like stepping straight into a scene from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: it was a grand but somewhat foreboding space outlined in dark, heavy, carved wood and ornate Victorian wallpaper; a broad staircase climbed to the upper regions of the house, and doors opened out on either side of us; and then there was the party of amateur investigators, each there for his or her own reason, and our learned guide. Craig—an average-looking guy in khakis, whose friendly and easygoing demeanor I immediately liked—gave us a brief introduction: the evening would begin with a tour of the house and end with a séance in the dining room. He began by leading the group into the parlor to the left. I was still reveling in the atmosphere, when we were interrupted by a loud thudding sound followed by an exasperated “Hellooooo???” (House caretaker: “Someone’s here!” McManus: “Alive or dead?”). A minute later, the latecomer was led into the room. Middle-aged, dressed in a hippie skirt, Uggs, and a black t-shirt covered in gold skulls, she was clearly either slightly insane, very drunk, or both. Either way, she was going to add a new certain something to the proceedings.


Me at the thing in Cape May (in the middle there).

Craig tries to present his Physick house tour and séance events as an educational experience—an opportunity to develop one’s own latent psychic sensitivities. He invited us to note the general atmosphere and anything else we might be aware of in the parlor, which was also outfitted in dark Victorian style, along with some tasteless and weirdly disturbing Halloween decorations (an intended tableau of Victorian “mourners”—apparently just stuffed clothing—around a casket looks like slumped, faceless, dwarf-like creatures around a blank black box). Craig then instructed us to walk into the adjoining music room, make the same observations there, and circle back to the parlor. He asked which room we would rather spend the night in. I’m not sure how much of it was the wallpaper or the creepy dwarf things, but most people agreed that they would much less prefer to pass a long evening in the front parlor. Many said that the atmosphere felt “heavier.” Craig’s plain explanation was that the perceived heaviness was due to the recent presence of a ghost in the room. He also explained that the vibe of a room is not necessarily permanent, but can change depending on the presences moving through it. We moved on and up the stairs.

At the top landing, we found ourselves surrounded by a quad of four rooms. Starting with the nearest on the right, we repeated the exercise, tuning into the feel of a room and then receiving a back story from Craig. Craig always began by dimming the light, so that we could note the “mood and not the wallpaper,” and then raising the lights so we could see. The consensus on the first room was that it felt comparatively cheerful. And indeed, it had been occupied by the cheerful Aunt Emilie. Room two, at the back right, was heavy-ish, but not so much as the parlor: it had been occupied by a wheelchair-bound Aunt, and also used by the doctor as a study. Room three, opinions differed on Dr. Physick’s onetime bedroom, and also location of his death. But the fourth room… Craig didn’t leave much room for interpretation, calling it the “cold heart of the house” (this description set off all of my Haunting of Hill House bells and both scared and excited me). It was painted a watery, medium-blue hue that gave it a dim, submerged quality. And it held the bed where Mrs. Ralston had died slowly of cancer. Craig then allowed us to wander room to room and compare impressions. Our crazy or drunk (or just crazy drunk?) friend, declared every room’s vibe to be “terrifying” and herself to be “scared to death.” She also demanded to know who was in a picture in every room (Crazy lady: “Is that Dr. Physick?” McManus: “No, I’m pretty sure that’s Ulysses S. Grant.”). We ended the tour by heading back downstairs and passing through the comparatively neutral kitchen and pantry, before coming to rest in the dining room.

Here’s where we began the séance proper. And where the weird thing happened.

I’ve been to a handful of séances at this point—all of them smaller affairs at new age stores or other low-key venues—and I sort of know the deal. The medium does some stuff to center and settle themselves and the other participants, and then a parade of dead people (supposedly) begins passing through the room. Relatives show up. Spirit guides show up. The descriptions of spirits elicit gasps of recognition, or shrugs of incomprehension, after which the medium gamely tries again or offers up the idea that recognition may suddenly dawn later. Say, while you’re brushing your teeth or crossing the street (“Oh! Now that reminds me of my great uncle so-and-so! Funny I didn’t notice before”). Skeptics call this classic “cold read” technique. Believers say… well, when it comes to spirits, you can’t be 100% all the time.

This was basically how the scenario played out at the Physick house. After settling in, Craig immediately picked up on a presence working its way in through the door of the room, just to the rear of where Laura and I and a few other women (it was mostly women there, I might add) were standing. A strong female presence (possibly one of the aunts), she complimented a woman’s bag and declared that she “liked” someone standing near the door (funny how materialistic and opinionated spirits can be). This spirit or ghost was followed by another dominant male presence—perhaps Dr. Physick himself. There was a little boy. Even a cat. So much for the spirits attached to the house. Soon, relatives of those present started showing up. One family across the room seemed to have brought their whole clan with them (“Tribal motherfuckers,” I thought bitterly, jealous that no spirits seemed to be interested in talking to me). A young woman was visited by the spirit of her brother, who died in a motorcycle accident. The brother apparently had a sense of humor, first evoking for our medium the image of a burning wheel, and then commenting “It was cool how the wheel caught on fire. But unfortunately I died from it.” The woman sobbed uncontrollably. It was impossible not to feel for her, belief aside.

At some point, in the midst of all this, a woman to my left asked:

“Did anyone hear that sigh?”

There’s a classic ghost story by Edith Wharton called “Afterward.” In it, the narrator describes what seems like a commonplace event, which she later realizes was a ghostly sighting. Here, I seemed to suffer a bit of an “Afterward” effect, where I realized that I had indeed been hearing a sigh for some period of time—a beat, a few seconds, a moment—but it took a bit longer for my brain to catch up to what was happening. And then I thought, “Yes, I did hear that sigh. I have been hearing it.” (but for how long?)

And it wasn’t just any sigh, either.

It hung in the air, just off my left shoulder. It was not a typical, weary sigh, not an exasperated or wistful sigh, but a long, breathy, drawn out sound. Sort of like wind, or the opening of an air lock. Or like the spooky respiration of some unnamed person on the other end of the phone line. It had a physical quality that pricked my skin. It seemed to occupy both a space in the room and some other void. I looked around and try to figure out if anyone around me could be doing all that sighing, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Then, the sound moved. It migrated up and to the rear, and I heard it just behind and above my head, near the door. And there was definitely no one standing back there.

Craig asked those who heard it to try and assign a gender. Some said it was female, but I disagree. My perception of what I heard is that it was non-gendered, and not of this earth.

I found it odd that the sound also seemed somewhat solid, somewhat stubborn. Having been noticed, it didn’t flit away, but continued for some time. Even after Craig shifted his attention elsewhere, and after it seems like maybe others stopped hearing it, I still heard it, more and more faintly, in that same spot just behind me (like Hill House’s Eleanor, I may have been having a private experience). At some point, it crossed the room… and then faded out.

Look, I know the checkered history of séances. I know about the tricks mediums employed in the 1800’s to dupe the gullible. Moreover, I know that even though these tricks seem extremely simplistic to us now (rigging the table so that it can be moved by the medium, hiding objects in a spirit cabinet, attaching gloves to fishing lines to be drawn across participants’ shoulders, even drawing faces on balloons and letting them float about the room), studies have shown that in the heightened atmosphere of the séance room, these techniques still work on people, in our modern era. The desire to believe is powerful. And our own brains are tricky, giving rise to phenomena like the ideomotor response—the driving force behind Ouija boards and automatic writing. It was possible to fool people in the Victorian age, and with modern technology, it would be all the more easy to fake a disembodied sigh. I am also well aware that as an imaginative person who loves this stuff, I might be the perfect rube.

Nonetheless, something strange happened in that room–whether it was proof of the alarming ability of my brain to play tricks, given the right conditions, or something weirder than that.


NecronomiCon 2017: The Stars Are Right, and a Little Less Male and White

Greetings friends on the Borderland! Your host has recently had the privilege of attending her first ever NecronomiCon, a bi-yearly convention in Providence, RI, honoring all things weird horror and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a bit shocking that I’d not been previously, considering my deep appreciation for (um… obsession with?) weird literature. The stars, it seems, were finally right.


The Old Gent outside the gates of Brown University

I’m feeling energized by my experience there, because instead of finding only the reanimated corpse of the weird horror genre on display, with old ideas rehashed and bickered over by aged nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with aged nerds—I’m not far off myself), I instead encountered something that is vital, changing, and adapting. (Side note: yes, the title of this blog is in part a reference to William Hope Hodgson’s horror classic The House on the Borderland).

A big theme for me, and my main takeaway, was new and alternate voices in weird horror. A big assumption (and I don’t want to harp on it) is that horror is, like a lot of things, predominantly white and male. I judge stories and ideas on their own merit, and so many of my favorite books are by people who are both of those things, but it’s exciting to see things shifting and transmogrifying. There did seem to be something in the air (or the stars, if you prefer) at the Con. Some highlights:

First, women. I’ve heard it again and again: “there’s not that many women writing horror.” I was standing in front of a merch table in the vendor hall and overheard a guy marveling over the fact that there was a collection of stories by women sitting there, because, according to him, “not that many” choose to dabble in the weird.

I call bullshit on this idea. First of all, female writers have always been involved in the horror genre. I remember picking up a copy of Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories when I was in grade school. In the introduction, Dahl states that while vetting stories he was surprised to note that early in the process most of the good ones were by women, though in the end he ended up with a book that’s about 50/50 between the genders. And let’s not forget the mother of psychological horror, the great Shirley Jackson (there was also a panel dedicated to her). And grandmothers of horror like Mary Shelley and Anne Radcliffe.

I won’t say that women were totally evenly represented at the Con, but they were very well represented, both in the crowd and on the panels. I personally came away with a big list of new writers to check out, either because of female panelists talking about their own work or because of panelists mentioning other writers. I just picked up collections by Livia Llewellyn and Nadia Bulkin. And Grady Hendrix, who makes magic out of everything he touches, convinced me to read some V. C. Andrews by describing her fraught and unusual life in his freaking AWESOME Paperbacks from Hell talk.

What about people who aren’t white? I’m not gonna lie. It was a pretty white convention. I was excited that Nnedi Okarafor, the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents and winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award, was there. I’m halfway through her book Who Fears Death and liking it so far. This year’s con and the one before it both featured panels on Lovecraft and race (if anyone is not aware that Lovecraft was racist, I invite you to Google it for yourself. I also invite you to weigh whether this justifies writing off his entire body of work, particularly considering that his attitudes started changing a bit once he escaped his bizarre and cloistered upbringing. Anyway, the fact that I went to NecronomiCon at all shows where I fall). My hope is that as the discussion continues and the horror community changes, we will see more and more diversity of voices (also worth noting: Victor La Valle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is one of my new favorite all time books).


Cultists at the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. Ia! Ia!

Finally, there was the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast. The uninitiated are likely asking themselves “What the hell is that?” It’s a long-running tradition where fans gather for a breakfast spread, and various high priests deliver sermons invoking the Old Ones. I found it surprisingly funny—but maybe only if you’re enough of a fan to get the jokes. It was also surprisingly political. One priest, in the midst of calling on the Old Ones to come and sow chaos on earth, also took the opportunity to say “Oh, and fuck Nazis.” (The Con coming on the heels of the violence in Charlottesville. There’s bad chaos where racists clash with counter-protestors. And there’s good chaos where the Elder Gods reestablish dominance over the earth. See?).

My favorite part was when a second priest delivered a talk on the illusion of Purity. At first, I expected an admonition not to cling to the idea that Lovecraft’s legacy can only be honored in a certain way, and that the weird is only for certain types of writers, certain types of storytellers, certain types of voices. And it did begin that way. But then the talk broadened into a commentary on the state of our country right now, tying the smaller concern into the larger one. Pretty sophisticated stuff for a horror con. I’m not as optimistic about the state of the world as I am about the state of horror storytelling, but the latter (paradoxically) provides me with a bit of light in the darkness.


The good kind of chaos!

Mae Nak Phra Khanong, Thailand’s Most Famous Ghost


Thailand, it seems, has got a bit of a ghost obsession.

Thais’ relatively common belief in the supernatural has started gaining attention because of articles like this and this, and movies like Uncle Boommee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The Wikipedia page Ghosts in Thai Culture lists 34 SEPARATE TYPES of Thai ghost (34!! Separate. Types!). And arguably the most famous among these is Mae Nak Phra Khanong.

Mae Nak (or Mother Nak) is so famous that there have been over 15 movie adaptations telling her story. There is also a shrine dedicated to her at Wat Mahabut in Bangkok’s far-flung Phra Khanong neighborhood. The shrine is pretty far below the tourist radar but popular among Thais, who visit to pay tribute to the famous shade and ask for her blessings.

Thailand and I have something in common, because I’m also kind of obsessed with ghosts. So when my position in an obscure department of a high-profile news organization was recently eliminated, I decided to take advantage of both the situation and my severance by attending a 10-day meditation retreat in Thailand. And immediately afterward, I’d do a little ghost hunting.

The legend of Mae Nak goes something like this:

In mid-19th century, a man named Mak and his young bride Mae Nak are living in a state of domestic bliss, when Mak is called away to fight in a border war. Nak, who is pregnant, goes into labor while Mak is stuck recuperating from a battle injury. Unfortunately, neither mother nor child survives the delivery, and Nak dies crying out for her beloved Mak.

Here’s where it starts getting weird.

Newly healed, Mak returns home and is overjoyed to find his beautiful wife and young son waiting at the door of their home to greet him. He quickly settles back in to his old life.

At first Mak’s friends, seeing him spending his days alone in his decrepit and unkempt home, think he must be suffering the effects of war. But they soon realize that he has been hypnotized by Nak’s ghost to believe that everything is swell on the homefront. Mak brushes off their warnings, and all that his buddies manage to do is to piss off Nak, who visits them at night and murders them horribly. Despite dwindling numbers among his pals, Mak still doesn’t catch on.

One day, he comes home to find Nak grinding curry paste. She drops a lime off the porch of their house, and, apparently unaware of Mak, stretches her arm out several meters to retrieve it (what a ghost is doing preparing dinner and why she can overhear rumors but not hear her husband come home is beyond me). At last, comprehension dawns on Mak. And, naturally, he freaks the fuck out.

Mak books it into the forest, pursued by Nak, and reaches the local monastery (Mahabut, in fact), where he is safe from Nak’s spirit. Here narratives and details differ (one compelling version has monks chanting and weaving sacred string around Mak, while vengeful Nak hangs upside down from the vestibule ceiling uttering curses and pleas). But the most popular conclusion is that powerful Buddhist monk Somdet To (another extremely popular figure in Thailand) performs a series of magical workings and releases Nak, whose main issue is the Buddhist sin of attachment. Legend has it that her body is still buried under a tree at Mahabut.

At the time of Mae Nak’s story, Mahabut would have been located a rural district near Bangkok, but the area has since been absorbed by the expanding city. Getting there is not difficult. You catch the subway from Hua Lamphong train station, transfer to the sky train and take it to On Nut Road. From there, it’s about a 10 minute or so walk to Wat Mahabut. What I didn’t realize when I made this plan was that my visit coincided with Songkran, Thailand’s New Year and water festival (read: all-out street water battle). It was the second day of Songkran when I headed for Mahabut. Since things had quieted down since the chaos of day one, I thought I could make it to the shrine un-soaked and unscathed. I was wrong. A couple of blocks from the wat, some sidewalk revelers grabbed me, explained that it was Songkran (thanks for clearing that up, guys) and dumped a bucket of icy water down my front. Then they thanked me enthusiastically for celebrating their holiday with them. I was about to meet Thailand’s most famous ghost, and my pants were wet.

This would not do. I decided I’d wander the temple grounds and let the Bangkok heat do its work on my pants before going to see Mae Nak.

I have seen Mahabut referred to as a “working shrine,” which is just of saying that it is very much in service and that there is a plethora of religious activity taking place there. A lot of this activity is of the “popular” Buddhist sort (as opposed to the “pure” Buddhism espoused by forest monks like Buddhadasa Bikkhu), which mixes in liberal doses of Hinduism, ancient animist practices, and folk magic. The shrines I wandered among were colorful, varied, bizarre. Etherial music floated over Buddha statues interspersed with images of Ganesh, demons, and famous monks. There were stalls selling blessings and garishly lit coin slots designed to generate auspicious numbers. A collection of spirit houses (an old animist practice that is pretty ubiquitous in Thailand) lay along one side of the main plaza, flanked by logs wrapped in colorful scarves. Not for the first time, I wished that either I spoke Thai or that I had a translator to explain what the hell was going on.

Rounding a corner, I stumbled on the entrance to a small wooden hut. Standing guard outside was one of those weird baby doll figurines next to a bottle of the red, fizzy pop that is a common offering at shrines and that spirits, ghost babies, and the like are supposed to favor (hints of ancient blood offerings?). I stepped past them and into the hut.

I should mention here that leading up to this trip, I also did some research into Thai occult practices and had formulated a sort of personal occult “Big 3”: ghosts (or legends and sites devoted to them), kuman thong (religious effigies with roots in the ancient use of fetal remains for black magic purposes), and Luk Thep (the creepy baby doll craze loosely related to kuman thong). What I stumbled upon in the hut both shocked me and filled me with a weird sort of joy.

A glass case held the dried and desiccated corpse of an infant, covered in gold leaf and dressed in a pink baby outfit that swallowed its shriveled form. Its body was draped in gold chains and no attempt had been made to disguise the sunken hollows of its eye sockets. Lining the top of the case and surrounding the thing inside were various stuffed animals, plastic toys, baby clothes, more red pop, and two spirit houses. A picture of the body had been placed, inexplicably, behind the body itself. Baht notes cascaded over it from a hole in the top of the case. It was some straight up Flannery O’Connor shit.

What I found out afterward is that this is the shrine to Baby Ae. Some time ago, the child died just after birth and was buried by its parents (in Buddhist culture cremation is typical, except in cases of unnatural death, when burial is practiced), but the body resurfaced in a flood. Distressed and taking the exhumation as an omen, the parents brought it to the abbot of Wat Mahabut, who agreed to care for its spirit. Baby Ae now receives both gifts and requests for good luck. While the preservation of Baby Ae is not the same as the ancient kuman thong practice, it bears some resemblance in that the body of a child is thought to contain a spirit that offers help to the living in exchange for continued care and attention. Lame as it may sound, I was too superstitious to take a picture of Ae. But I thought I should pay respects, so I dropped a 20 Baht note into the coffin as an assurance against any haunting and moved on.

Fortunately, my pants had dried by that point.

Mae Nak’s shrine is at the back end of the complex, as indicated by a sign in Thai depicting a woman with long, black hair (a troupe of traditional drummers in green in pink satin performing for Nak near the entrance also provided a helpful hint). There are stalls outside where one can buy offerings for Mae Nak (clothing, jewelry, perfume) or her baby (toys, sweets). I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, so I bought a plastic airplane.


The shrine’s central figure is a gold-painted bust representing Mae Nak, complete with bold purple eyeshadow and a long black wig. The figure is surrounded by three gold babies: one at her side, one in her lap, and one in a glass case surrounded by kuman thong (the plastic figurine kind, not the dried fetus kind). The Nak of legend only had one baby, not triplets, but the principle of abundance adopted by many temples encourages accumulation. So instead of getting rid of a gold baby if one starts to get a bit worn, you just get a new one and keep the others as well. The shrine is meant to evoke Mae Nak’s rooms when she was alive and is piled with offerings: shiny satin dresses line the walls, cosmetics and jewelry fill glass-fronted cabinets, there are piles of baby clothes, diapers, and toys, and clusters of red pop bottles. Behind the shrine there are several artist renditions of Nak as a beautiful young woman. A television is left on at all times to entertain mama and baby.


For a ghost shrine, it’s not too spooky. In fact, the gold bust is—I hate to say it—kind of tacky. The power of the scene lies in the constant stream of supplicants and the apparently sincerity of their entreaties. Nak appeals to women, particularly those requesting safety for their husbands and lovers (especially that they not be drafted into military service), and to pregnant women and those wanting to get pregnant (though based on her legend, the advisability of the latter groups visiting the ghost is questionable). On the day that I was there, most of the visitors were women diverse ages, with a sampling of men thrown into the mix. I knelt at the ghost’s feet (or lack thereof) and tried to blend into the background as I watched them come and go.

An old woman approached, placed her palms together, and stood very close to the figure, mouthing a silent plea. A family consisting of a father, mother, and little girl crowded around together, the girl peering shyly at the gold woman. A short-haired, butchy woman knelt in intense meditation before the bust for a very long time. Visitors tucked baht notes into Nak’s arms and adorned her with bits of gold leaf.

The existence of the shrine raises a few questions: in a country whose central religion emphasizes both reincarnation and impermanence, why do people seek to keep a ghost tethered to one spot? What does a ghost need with material offerings like clothes and perfume? (This also brings to mind Mexico’s Dia de los Muertes celebration and dumb suppers carried out by Wiccans on Samhain). To what extent is the legend literally believed? And what do visitors stand to gain?

As I left the shrine, Big #3, the Luk Thep, lurked back of mind mind. These baby dolls, with their cherubic faces, ritually charged Buddhist tattoos, and supposed ability to affect the fortunes of their human caretakers, put me in mind of every creepy doll in every horror movie ever. Chucky. Annabelle. The Devil Doll. Magic. I kept an eye out, even as I silently swore I would do nothing to anger the dolls.

Then, on a vendor table near the shrine entrance I spotted one. A normal baby doll, except for the carefully inked gold designs that curved from its back over its shoulder. Then another—and then a stall with several in a cluster. I stopped and fumbled for my iPhone, but before I could get the shot, the stall’s proprietress demanded to know what my business was. Her tone was hostile. Perhaps she was warning me away from the dolls.

I took this as my cue to go, and left Wat Mahabut to melt back into everyday life outside.