The Cult of Mae Nak
The story of Mae Nak is very popular and well-known in Thailand. Certainly, you remember the latest filming of this story: ‘Phi Mak Phra Khanong’ starring young actors Mario Maurer and Davika Hoorne. In fact, the gothic tale of Mae Nak has been filmed numerous times over the past decades and every one of the movies is a box-office hit. Thus, this story has also found its way into Thai popular culture.
The Cult of Mae Nak
However, it is unknown whether Mae Nak really existed or if her story is only a myth. As a matter of fact, there is no conclusive historical evidence of her existence. What is more, there are also different versions of her tale. Nevertheless, the main story line runs as follows:
Shortly after Nak and Mak get married, Mak is conscripted for military service. Thus, he leaves his pregnant wife involuntarily behind. Nak waits for her husband’s return but one day she dies during labour along with her unborn child. They are buried immediately, however Nak’s spirit refuses to perish and let go. When Mak returns home from war, Nak disguises herself and her son as humans. However, Mak soon learns the truth and runs away. Hence, the ghost of Nak follows her husband and kills everyone who comes between them.
To get rid of the spirit, the villagers try to exorcise Nak. Her husband finally finds habour in the Mahabute temple and the venerated Somdej Phra Puttajan from Thonburi seizes the spirit by imprisoning it in a ceramic pot. Then he drops this pot into the river. In some versions, Nak’s skull is made into a belt buckle by the monk and passed into the possession of the Prince of Chumporn. As far as the fate of Mak is concerned, in some versions he becomes a monk whereas in others he starts a new family. In some stories, Mae Nak reappears as an enraged ghost.
Her burial place is supposed to be where the Mae Nak shrine is today. This is located at the edge of Wat Mahabute, Sukhumvit Soi 77 in Bangkok. Here the devotees pray to her statue, which faces a television that is kept on day and night. People bring her many offerings including colourful dresses, cosmetic products, sweets, flowers and toys for her child. Devotees turn to her because she is said to be benevolent at giving out winning lottery numbers. What is more, she is popular among young men who will attend a ‘lucky draw’, which is the so-called ‘red bean black bean’ draft. She is believed to detest the call-ups since her husband had to leave her to fight in the war.
However, pregnant women are advised to stay away from this place because Mae Nak is not a blessing concerning pregnancy. In addition, there are two old takian trees next to her shrine which are considered to be very powerful. Thai people relate ancient trees to spirits. The devotees scrub the trees believing that winning lottery numbers will be revealed by the spirit. In fact, Mae Nak is considered to have brought fortune to some individuals of the community.
Finally, I think that the cult of Mae Nak prevails because her story deals with an universal theme, namely that two beings are torn apart because they are different and come from opposing realms. Her story shows that it is impossible for humans and ghosts to live together. Accordingly, most screenings of this story do not have a happy ending since man and ghost are separated. For example, in the ‘Nang Nak’ movie (1999), starring Intira Jaroenpura and Winai Kraibutr, Mak finally becomes a monk to pray for the spirit of his dead wife which cannot let go of him.
Nonetheless, the last filming of the story, ‘Phi Mak Phra Kanong’, breaks with this convention – in contrast to traditional Thai ghost stories, there is a happy ending because humans and ghosts can after all live together and be happy ever after.
Summing up, we may claim that Mae Nak has a special place in Thai culture and tradition. This is because her story is concerned with an universal topic that everyone can identify with.
(Reference: Siraporn Nathalang, Thai Folklore. Insights Into Thai Culture, Chulalongkorn University Press, 2000)