Inside a dark cave with shadowy wall paintings of hungry ghosts, a monk tells the teenage Pey, “I know you don’t like being controlled or told what to do. Nobody likes being controlled.” He lights prayer candles surrounding the Buddha statues. “But sometimes we must follow the precepts and rules. Rules can distance us from sins.”
And some sins can get you killed.
That’s the moral behind the horror movie Novice, directed by Paween Purijitpanya. The short film is part of the Thai anthology Phobia 2, which collects five thrillers that intertwine Buddhist themes of morality, karma, and supernaturalism. (The films were first released in 2009 but were recently added to Netflix in September 2018, making them widely available to a US audience for the first time.) Novice, in particular, stands out as an example of how Thai ghost movies explore how karma can haunt us.
In Western horror, the vulnerable characters—the virginal women in slashers or children in paranormal flicks—are often in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Thai horror movies are often driven by an idea of karmic justice: you reap what you sow, and the consequences of your intentions (Sanskrit, cetana) can unleash paranormal punishments. Novice explicitly introduces these Buddhist themes, which the remaining four films explore further.
Novice is a story about the hungry ghosts from Buddhist cosmology known as pret (Sanskrit, preta). As a Thai movie watcher who was raised by Buddhist parents, this movie terrified me and filled me with complex feelings about morality and how “sins” can come from mindlessness. When looking at online reviews, I see many Southeast Asians agree, especially those who are familiar with the cultural context of phi [spirits] or dead ancestors intimately looming over our mundane lives. But others, especially non-Buddhists, seemed to be unfazed, reducing it to basic jump scares. That makes sense. Imagine watching the Exorcist without any understanding of Satan or Catholic rites. Since many Phobia 2 reviews missed the overt Buddhist themes, I hope to break down some scenes of Novice that may have gotten lost in translation.
According to Buddhism—and many Thai parents’ threats—merits and sins determine your reincarnation into various realms inhabited by gods, human, animals, demons, and pret. As a child, I was taught that in a world dimmed by misery, ignorance, and suffering, those who found their inner light are protected. Those who fail to find this light, however, come back as demons or pret, or are haunted by them. Pret are tall ghosts cursed with tiny needle mouths but huge agonizing appetites for worldly pleasures. In Thailand, pret have a special significance in the household: they are often used to scold children about the dangers of disobeying their parents by serving as a moral tale about ungratefulness. Talking back to your elders, for example, isn’t just a behavioral stigma but a violation of right speech in Buddhism’s eightfold path—in other words, it is a sin (Thai, บาป).
Novice starts the day after a hungry ghost ritual in a superstitious rural town, where a troubled teenage boy, Pey (Jirayu La-ongmanee), has traveled to be ordained at a monastery. Early in the film, Pey thinks back to a car crash, which ends up being pivotal later on. The imagery ties into a larger theme. Phobia 2’s original Thai title translates to “Five Crossroads,” and each film in the series plays with transportation motifs. All the wheels, however, are turning away from dharma and speeding toward darkness.
Back in the present, the abbot (Chumphorn Thepphithak) shaves off Pey’s hair, indicating his disconnection from identity and his tainted ego. In Thailand, it is fairly common for young men to undergo ordination for a short period of time, although some choose to further their commitment to monastic life. People become novice monks—whose vows cover fewer precepts than full-fledged monks, or bhikkhus [one who shares in the alms given]—in an effort to renounce societal desires and to create merit, or good karma. But as Pey begins this process, we learn that he is hiding something.
At first, I had empathy for Pey’s teenage angst, fueled by parental divorce. My parents would view behavioral or mental health issues as a faith-based dilemma. Pey fails miserably at adjusting to the ascetic life. He calls his mom a sexist slur, disrespects the shrine of the tree spirits, violates the Buddhist precepts, and shoves the temple’s abbot to the ground. Unable to curb his worldly desires, Pey steals the food offering for the pret.
That’s when omens start to appear, such as scorpion infestation and a snake fighting with a Tokay gecko (usually symbolizing luck). As Pey’s bad karma builds up, his inner light dims, and the pret’s wrath intensifies.
Though Thai ghosts can kill, Novice is not a revenge fantasy. Rather, in the way we feel satisfaction when an annoying character on TV show gets their just deserts (think of the tyrant King Joffrey’s death in Game of Thrones), we are equally satisfied by ghosts punishing karmic sins through terror.
“Some sins once committed are difficult to rectify. I know you understand this well,” one monk (Ray McDonald) says after he leads Pey to a secluded, dark cave. Pey is left with a book of protection prayers and instructed to chant, pray, and meditate for “the peace of his mind” and to undo his bad karma. Before leaving, the monk tells Pey about Maya, or illusions. “No matter what happens, you must remember that what you see, have seen, or will see, they have no truths. You must compose your samadhi [concentration in meditation].”
[Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens.]
During Pey’s meditation, he has more flashbacks. In the silent cave, the sound of the speeding motorcycle echos in Pey’s mind; in the backseat his hand grips a heavy rock. The plan, we find out, is to throw the rock at a car and then steal the driver’s phone when he crashes. Suddenly, a car approaches, and Pey throws the stone, which smashes through the windshield. The driver swerves out of control, and Pey runs over to grab the phone, only to discover that his dad lies inside, dead.
In the present, the monks chant in a circle as the candles go out in the cave, and Pey screams as the hungry ghosts visit with devilish wails. The teen panics, changes back into his layperson’s clothes, and flees on foot, breaking a white thread at the cave’s entrance that offered protection. At the same time, a matching thread resting in the hands of the monks also breaks. “There is nothing we can do,” the abbot declares. “It is karma.”
A pret screeches in the forest. Trapped, Pey throws heavy rocks into the darkness, challenging the hungry ghost. Eventually the rocks are flung back at him. His face breaks, bloody like the windshield. Lying on the ground, Pey takes out his stolen Nokia phone, screaming apologies to his parents. But it’s too late for Pey. His hands stretch out and his body grows taller, showing us that he is doomed to live out his next life as a pret.
Novice portrays karma, morality, and attachment through its stunning cinematography, and also presents the tensions between supernatural folklore and our modern city lives. The older generation in Pey’s world are driven by the belief that he can be saved, while Pey himself fails to understand this. He often appears small, his stature diminished by the natural settings that engulf him, and he is powerlessness against the ever-present ghosts that haunt him. His rocks are no match for the pret, inexorable agents of karma. In the cave, paintings of the hungry ghosts and statues of the Buddha symbolize both temptation and enlightenment, both possibilities that lie within. That’s what makes Novice terrifying beyond scary noises, gore and ghosts—the horror of having to face up to the parts of ourselves we try to ignore, the parts we sense deserve a darker fate.
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