Guest lecture - Thai Ghosts Go Modern

Guest lecture "Thai Ghosts Go Modern: Production, Circulation, and Consumption of the Horror in Contemporary Thailand" by Pattana Kitiarsa, Southeast Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore.

The lecture is part of the events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

All are welcome!


The persistence and increasingly popularity of premodern beliefs and practices involving ghost (phi) and spirit (winyan) in Thailand and elsewhere in modern Southeast Asia have puzzled many scholars and students across the region. The secularization thesis as discussed by many sociologists of religion since 1960s is apparently applicable to the Thai situation, where faiths in Theravada Buddhism, spirit worship, and other forms of superstition have ever prowled. Observations on the internal dynamics within the Thai religious system, which emphasizes on the domination and institutionalization of state-sponsored Theravada Buddhism, known as Buddha-ization (Kirsch 1977, 1978), over other religious components including spirit worship, do not produce much convincing evidences. In this paper, I revisit one of the main debates in the sociology of Southeast Asian religion: why are various forms of spirit worship and superstition very much alive in the increasingly modernizing and globalizing society? What are their changing roles in the modern world? I argue that spirit worship and superstition are complex modern phenomena. Instead of viewing them as anti-modern or irrational premodern remnant religious belief and practice, spirit and ghost are the very product of modernity. They serve as a religio-cultural mode of remembering and imagining the horror as well as an emotionally intimate reminder of uncertainty in the modern life. They are indeed re-generated, circulated, and consumed as "storied commodities" through networks of mass media by and for people across socioeconomic and cultural spectrums. Discussions in this paper will be drawn from materials I gathered from my recent ethnographic fieldworks in Northeast Thailand as well as a review of selected popular novels, films, and TV drama.