Attack of the Thai Widow Ghost
The phii mae maai is the ghost of a previously married (read: sexually experienced) woman who had an untimely and likely violent death.
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It’s been a rough few days – in the past week, I juggled thesis rewriting, mentoring at a regional app challenge, and thinking about my PhD proposal.
But I just got back from Bangkok last week, and being in Thailand reminded me of widow ghosts, which Mary Beth Mills (1995) wrote about in Attack of the Widow Ghosts: Gender, Death, and Modernity in Northeast Thailand.
In the book chapter, Mills writes about an episode that took place in the northeast of Thailand during the dry season in 1990 – for six weeks, villagers believed “they were in imminent danger of attack from ‘widow ghosts’ (phii mae maai)” .
In response, they erected “wooden phalluses in all shapes and sizes”. Mills, who was doing research in the village at the time described the phalluses as:
Ranging from the crudest wooden shafts to carefully carved images complete with coconut shell testicles and fishnet pubic hair, they adorned virtually every house and residential compound (Mills, 1995, p. 249).
The villagers told Mills that these phalluses were meant to protect the men of the village from “nightmare deaths” (lai taai). There’s a reason as to why the villagers believed they were in danger. But first…
What is a phii mae maai?
According to Mills, the northeastern Thais in the village of Baan Naa Sakae believed that when a person dies, there is a risk of their spirits being set loose. They also believed that a sudden and/or violent death can result in “a particularly dangerous and uncontrollable phii”.
A phii mae maai or a widow ghost is “the sexually voracious spirit of a woman who has met an untimely and probably violent death”.
Although it’s translated to “widow”, Mills adds that mae maai is colloquially used to also refer to women who have lost their husbands through divorce or desertion.So the ghost is a woman who has had sexual experience and in death, this “carnal appetite is both virtually unquenchable and potentially fatal to the living who become its targets”.
Basically, these ghosts travel the countryside looking for men to have sex with. The belief is that the ghost appears – typically as a young and beautiful woman – in a man’s dream.
… she lies down upon him, draining him of strength and life but leaving no other sign. To the victim's friends and family, the man simply goes to sleep one night and never wakes up (Mills, 1995, p. 251).
So how do the living appease a violent, horny ghost? With wooden phalluses.
According to Mills, these “giant penises” acted as decoys. The phii mae maai would “take their pleasure with the wooden penises and be satisfied, leaving the men of that household asleep, safe in their beds”.
Why were the villagers afraid?
In 1990, about a fortnight before this episode took place, the national news had just revealed that since 1983, more than 200 Thai men had died mysteriously while working in Singapore. Medical experts called it "Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death" (SUND).
Throughout April and May of 1990, the press continued to cover these deaths and found that this was also happening to Thai men working in other countries like Brunei, as well as other countries in the Middle East.
For several weeks the news media were preoccupied with the need to find the cause of this malady. Several government commissions, research teams, and expert panels travelled to and from Singapore searching for answers… Theories flew about thick and fast. Chemical poisoning from unsafe cooking procedures, vitamin B deficiency, bootleg alcohol, unhealthy work and living conditions – all were proposed as potential causes (Mills, 1995, p. 252).
But in the Thai village Mills was in, the villagers already had an explanation – the men who had died in their sleep (lai taai) were victims of phii mae maai.
When the media began reporting local deaths as well, the men – especially those who had worked abroad or had tried to – became increasingly anxious.
How to prevent lai tai?
Even before the villagers began putting up the phalluses, some men had begun to take protective measures to prevent dying in their sleep.
Mills noticed that some of the village men started wearing red nail polish – only on one finger, sometimes on several. Some also wore women’s clothing in the evening. According to Mills, one man even went as far as to wear a long black wig and another showed up one day in a bra and phaa sin, with heavily rouged cheeks and lips.
There were other methods for protection as well, which Mills also documented:
These included several all-night drinking and gambling parties to help men avoid sleeping on certain nights, tying a red or multicoloured string about one's wrist to prevent the soul's "vital essence" (khwan) from leaving the body, as well as the wooden penis images already mentioned. Villagers' explanations of these tactics often shared the same substitution logic as that of the phallic decoys. The nail painting and the transvestism were, as residents readily admitted, attempts at disguise to trick the widow ghost into thinking a man was a woman and therefore not a potential victim. Two of the most common measures, the nail painting and the wrist string, required the services of a living widow (to apply the polish or tie the string). In this way, people told me, the ghosts would see that another widow had already claimed that person and so leave him alone (Mills, 1995, p. 253).
Horrors of modernity
Whenever occurrences of the supernatural take place (or are believed to take place), there is usually a deeper cultural experience taking place as well.
In the case of the widow ghost, Mills explores several things. But the one thing I found especially interesting was the anxiety related to overseas employment.
Although the men who found jobs overseas were able to uplift their families economically, getting work abroad in the first place was a challenge.
In the 1980s, employment agencies more than doubled their fees – from about $400-500 to “the equivalent of between one thousand to two thousand dollars” (USD) – to arrange jobs, travel, passports, and work permits.
Most families who wanted to send their men abroad would have to go into debt to finance their search for employment. The widow ghost, Mills writes, represents “the risks that rural men and their families run by participating in modern economic relations like overseas migration”.
Isn’t it interesting how even economic anxieties can manifest in sexual terms? What does it say about us humans?
Mills, M. B. (1995). Attack of the Widow Ghosts: Gender, Death, and Modernity in Northeast Thailand. In A. Ong & M. G. Peletz (Eds.), Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia (pp. 244–273). University of California Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnnrv.13
There is also a spirit of a child and mother who die during pregnancy / in childbirth called the phii phrai. This has similarities with the Malay pontianak and, in the Northeastern Thai belief system, is also one of the most dangerous types of spirit.