Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scary Movies, Thai Ghosts, and Your Favorites

Our blogospheric pal Jen Ster has posted (glancingly) on the topic of movies that still scare the bejeezus out of her, and, it being Halloween, I thought I ought to do the same.

But first I thought I should say a few words on the real topic of her post, which was how the whole world of scary ghosts and demons fits into the Buddhist tradition. Jen concludes, quite rightly, that at the theological level, while Christians may get their chastity belts in a knot about the eternal conflict with the unseen forces of darkness, Buddhist doctrine denies the reality of such forces and their desires.

True enough. But in on-the-ground practice, neither of these faiths looks much like their theories. I mean, tune in to an evangelical Christian radio station in the US, and you'd never know Jesus had ever said anything about love or kindness or tolerance or mercy.

Similarly with Buddhism on the street (Yo, Bodhisattva! Howzit, homie?). I've spent a fair amount of time in Asia, and a good deal of the Buddhism there is infused with animism, pantheism, and just plain superstition.

And, wooooo-baby!, although they are Buddhists, do they ever love ghosts in Southeast Asia. Though they have a way of looking at it that seems quite off-kilter to a Western sensibility. For example, I worked with a young Thai woman--sharp as broken glass and honed to a nanometer edge by Bangkok's top university--who was named 'Puntip.' But her birth name was 'Puntib.'

Why the spelling change? Her sister had died when Puntib was still young, and so she changed the spelling of her her sister's ghost couldn't find her.

I'm not sure why she feared her sister's ghost. I mean, I'm sure Puntip wouldn't have done anything to antagonize her relatives, or anybody else. She had a formidable intellect, but her only characteristic that anyone might think was out of the way was her ongoing habit of trying to bend the fingers of her hand backwards as though she hoped her nails would touch the back of her wrist. Why? Because having fingers that bend way backwards is very sexy for women in Thailand; traditional Thai dancers can flex their fingers way back (without tugging on them). I gather it's attention-getting, sort of like our female dancers who can put their feet behind their heads. Though I have to admit retroflexive fingers is a bit more subtle.

But the finger-bending thing isn't nearly as odd to my mind as the idea you can evade your sister's ghost by changing the spelling of your name. What's up with that? I mean, how do ghosts find you? The phone book? Social Security records? People in Thailand had better hope ghosts haven't figured out how to search on Google, because when the ghosts search on "Puntib" a bold blue underline is going to pop up at the top of the screen asking Do you mean "Puntip"? and then the game is up.

I have two sisters: both of them are younger than me, and apparently healthy. But if I were worried they planned to haunt me...But, wait. Why should they, anyway? Is it a chick thing? Maybe sisters are more prone to haunt one another, because of borrowing one another's sweaters and stretching them out, or not getting out of the shower soon enough when the other one like totally has someplace important to go.

I'm not saying sisters don't have issues with their brothers. I'm just saying they know any subtlety would be wasted on us. Their spirits might come back and give us a swift kick, or even dump a plate of lasagna in our laps in a restaurant when we're trying to sweet-talk a first date. Who wouldn't? But as far as 'haunting' us, on an ongoing basis, sisters know they really ought to reserve their good stuff for each other. The subtle stuff would be wasted on me, plus I never borrowed any of their clothes. Well, not without asking first.

In any case, if I were trying to hide from the ghosts of Amber or Kristie, I'd try the false nose, mustache, and glasses thing first. I don't see that changing my name to Davud would fool either of them. But, then, I'm not Thai, so some of the tricky nuances of the animist/Buddhist stuff go right over my head. Our ghost stories probably seem weird to them, too.

And down in Indonesia, where they are Muslim, their ghosts--ghost is 'hantu' in Bahasa, one of their interesting borrowings--are equally weird. Though they seem to worry more about 'pontianaks,' which are sort of witches who steal children. (It's easier for them to steal children if the children sleep from daylight into darkness, which I totally undertand. If you fall asleep in the afternoon and wake up in the dark, it just feels wrong. Keep your kids awake through twilight.)

What was my point? I'm sure I had one here somwhere...Oh. Yeah. Christians got ghosts, Muslims got ghosts, Buddhists got ghosts. Jews have annoying in-laws..and golems, too. But what really scares you is not only cultural/religious, but also deeply personal. Jen's creepfest is apparently Amityville Horror (though I think she's the one who pointed me to the awesome Thai film Shutter. Must be a Buddhist thing.)

My personal fave--the one that makes me horripilate while watching, and sleep uneasily that night? That would be Nicholas Roeg's inscrutable Don't Look Now. Disturbing, ambiguous, and ultimately unresolved.

Roeg was one of the few loose wheels on the Great Hollywood Freight Train, and his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now is one of those films that couldn't have been made a few years prior or a few years later to its release date of 1973. The sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie is legendary, and reputed to be real rather than acted; it's easy to believe the legend, because the scene is so damn striking, and so, so un-Hollywood.

When Pamela and I were in Venice, we stayed in the (then) only hotel out on the glass island of Murano, out past the Cimiteria, the Isle of the Dead, where I visited Stravinsky's grave. We're night people. though, so every evening ended with us blundering our slighly inebriated way though the dark, echoing, dead-ending maze of Venice to get to the northern docks where we could catch a late vaporetto for Murano. A few times we kept bumping into dead alleys and uncrossable canals, and I felt myself cursing Roeg...

I'm pretty immune to gore and standard horror. Don't Look Now scares me, because it seems to mean something, and I'm not sure what. Dreamlike, horrible, and horribly unresolved. It probably isn't the best horror film ever made. It's just the one that scares me the most.

And, by the way: Is Daphne du Maurier one of the great unsung writers in the English language, or what?

Oops. There I've rattled on again. It's Halloween! What movie scares the hell out of you?


Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

Glad to see I'm not the only one talking horror today. I'd say The Omen still gives me the heebie-jeebies. It's the music that does it. And that whole photography-thing.

Modern horror doesn't scare me much, though there was a moment in Jeepers Creepers which was quite unnerving (the Sistine Chapel of the Dead) and 28 Weeks Later had its moments.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Yeah, The Omen definitely has some moments.

Ain't seen Jeepers Creepers, though...

Tim Stretton said...

Good point on Du Maurier, David. One of the really great things about her is that she's equally adept at novels and shorts - an unusual accomplishment.

A very wide range and a very dark imagination...

Aliya Whiteley said...

I love Du Maurier. Just wanted to say that.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim, Hi, Aliya--

She seems to have somehow become lost in the shuffle. When you aks people about 20th Century writers, people seem to forget DDM unless you mention her--but then they respond with enthusiasm.

The same was true for Patricia Highsmith for a time, but she seems to be having a renaissance.

Jake Jesson said...

28 Days Later. The Ring scared me the first time around, but not on subsequent viewings. And also, I'm easy...

Happy Halloween, David! (Several days later.)

Jen Ster said...

Hi David!

Your observation on Buddhism getting mixed with animism and local legend is right on; Tibetan Buddhism is not Thai Buddhism is not Chinese Buddhism. But then, Irish Catholics are not Roman Catholics are not Brazilian Catholics, either. Mel Ash once postulated that the Twelve Steps (of AA and other similar As) were the American Buddhist contribution to the pantheon, but I'd wager a Texas American Buddhist is a bit different than a San Francisco American Buddhist even if we both sing the four Brahma Vijaras. Religions may not catch on so much as they go native.

Perhaps the same is also true with scary things. If Japanese ghosts were to make their way to, say, North Texas, I'm not sure they'd know what to do with themselves. I mean, people have heart attacks in front of TVs around here, but that's usually after too many years of beer and hot wings. People tape up their windows with red tape every so often, but that's usually because some idiot was doing 50 down the gravel road in his pickup truck and they're too cheap to call the glass guy to come fix the darn things. And it's hard to imagine the ghost of a murdered woman stalking you through the negatives of your photos; put-near everbody round here has one of them newfangled cell phone camera thingies.

My sister was here this weekend and I have no intention of haunting her if I should meet with a horrible accident after one of those bonding experiences you go through with a group of friends and then swear never to tell anyone about. For one thing, my brother-in-law just bought himself a pet tarantula. Even ghosts of sisters are afraid of something.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

I lived for a while in the southern Alaskan islands. In one of the towns, they have a big totem pole from the 1860s: Frog, Beaver, Eagle, Abraham Lincoln...

Abraham Lincoln? It's amazing how fast religions can incorporate new things in the absence of central authority.

I sorta like tarantulas; had a couple as kid. But guys who die from too many beers and hot wings--now that's a scary bunch of ghosts!

Probably not very fast ghosts, though.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

I lived for a while in the southern Alaskan islands. In one of the towns, they have a big totem pole from the 1860s: Frog, Beaver, Eagle, Abraham Lincoln...

Abraham Lincoln? It's amazing how fast religions can incorporate new things in the absence of central authority.

I sorta like tarantulas; had a couple as kid. But guys who die from too many beers and hot wings--now that's a scary bunch of ghosts!

Probably not very fast ghosts, though.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jake--

I have hard time taking zombie/rabid people flicks as seriously as I should ever since "Shaun of the Dead" (which I loved). But the two "28s" were both pretty effective.

The one problem I have with the sequel ("28 Weeks Later") is the fact that the actress who plays Tammy is named Imogen Poots.

Imogen Poots. (She does?) Yikes. Now THAT'S scary.

Jake Jesson said...

I'd never seen a zombie movie before watching Shaun of the Dead. I don't think that choice was a mistake. (Though I did see the actual original Dawn of the Dead later on. Surreal, but not too scary.)

I haven't seen "Weeks", but that name reminds me of the band "Imogen Heap". Does "Imogen" mean something I'm not aware of?

Jake Jesson said...

Oops. It's a name, apparently. Thanks, Google. The more you know...