One woman in Nong Ben village was plagued by headaches, stomach pain, and dizziness. Another began babbling to herself incoherently. A third started laughing and crying at the same time. As the number of mysteriously ill women in this northeastern Thai village rose last October, so did suspicions about the source. Someone, it was said, must be using black magic to infect the community with a phi pob—a Thai-style ghost that possesses its victims and eats them from the inside out.
While many Thais have only encountered the bloodthirsty phi pob in low-budget horror flicks and soap operas, dramas revolving around the ghost are still playing out off screen in places like Nong Ben. That's where 46-year-old Lek, whose name has been changed for this article, has spent the past year fighting accusations that she used witchcraft to dispatch the ghoulish spirit on her neighbors.
At first there were only whispers here and there—gossipy but harmless. The real trouble started after Lek was accused of witchcraft in a Facebook post that garnered more than three million views. Once the narrative was scrawled across the web, it was difficult to erase, and quickly became a catchall for the community's health problems.
"Every time a woman would die people would say it was the phi pob," said Supot Sonsomnuek, a Thai reporter who lives in the province. "The whole village was looking at this woman."
CAUGHT ON CAMERA
Lek had recently married into the community, where most people farm rubber and rice, and she had always been considered "strange," locals told VICE. After the witchcraft accusation went viral, villagers stopped speaking to her altogether, and their children refused to sit or play with her kids at school.
Northeastern Thailand, where Nong Ben is located, is still the poorest and least developed part of the country, but it's no longer the disconnected backwoods it once was. Today the roads are paved, homes are increasingly built with bricks, and cell phones are ubiquitous. In just ten years, the percentage of Thailand's rural population living below the poverty line has halved.
But this sweep of economic development and globalization has largely altered, not displaced, traditional practices and beliefs like that of the phi pob, an animist spirit that predates the spread of Buddhism across Thailand.
Even exorcists like Ken Mooltripakdee, 66, who claims to have killed more than 1,000 phi pobs in his lifetime, cites the proliferation of cell phones as one change that has made his job easier.
"In the past, it was all kind of mysterious, and I had nothing to prove that the phi pob existed," he said. "But now, villagers can record the ceremonies [on their cell phones] and share the videos on social media."
"It helps provide evidence," Ken explained, pointing to CDs of his exorcism footage.
When Ken started his practice 40 years ago, ghost doctors were often a patient's first and only stop. Now, his services—which involve magical chants, sprinkles of holy water, and some light prodding with a special plant to oust the spirit—are sought in tandem with those provided by doctors at hospitals.
Some spiritual practitioners even incorporate the language of modern medicine into their ceremonies, said Visisya Pinthongvijayakul, a Thai anthropologist who teaches at Chandrakasem Rajabhat University. Local spirit mediums in the northeast, for instance, will offer to use their spiritual stock to "help lead pills, or medicine, into the right channel," he said.
"They have a really vivid explanation for how medicine works," said Visisya. "They see a map of the body, and that the medicine isn't working because it's blocked somewhere. But if someone comes to them to pray and ask for help, then the gods will open the channel."
COVETING THY NEIGHBOR
According to travelogues written by foreigners in the late 19th century, Thai villages used to expel hundreds of accused witches annually. Today, that number is down to one or two per year. But the underlying motivations driving these accusations appear to have hardly changed.
For Thip Yingnok, 43, there's no question that her father's enviable herd of buffalo played a role in his expulsion from their village several decades ago.
"At first people said the phi pob was in my father's buffalo, so he had to sell them," recounted Thip. "Then the villagers said the phi pob had moved into his hut."
Eventually, he was forced to leave everything behind and move to the "phi pob village," a community that was founded by families from across the region who were similarly exiled on account of witchcraft accusations.
"People wanted his land and property, so that's why they accused him," said Thip, who still lives in the community.
Similarly, while some villagers in Nong Ben appeared convinced that Lek was a sorceress, others spoke of a separate dispute that had nothing to do with ghosts or black magic.
One man said he heard Lek was involved in a land conflict with a local official, whose wife was one of the first villagers to claim she was infected by the phi pob. Another village rumor alleged that the same official was involved in the drug trade and feared that Lek, who was friends with local soldiers, was serving as a military spy.
Several officials confirmed that a personal conflict lay behind Nong Ben's phi pob scare, but none were willing to provide the particulars.
"When someone has more power, they can get people to agree with them," is all that Paiboon Nakthippiman, the new district officer in town, would say of Lek's witchcraft accusation. He described trying to challenge that power as similar to "using only one hand to block the sun."
Lek's effort to combat ostracization in her village lasted for the better part of a year. With scant assistance from local leaders, she was forced to marshal help from government officials outside the village, and she eventually threatened to sue those who published the accusatory post on Facebook.
The conflict was finally settled last month after Paiboon brokered a compromise: Lek agreed to drop the lawsuit if the villagers promised to put the witchcraft accusation behind them as well. In order to placate those who remained wary, Paiboon hired a group of monks to bless the village and Lek's home.
"A special thing happened on that day," said Paiboon. "There was very hard rain, a sign that the village was cleaning itself."
Whether everyone else is as convinced remains to be seen. A woman serving up papaya salad in the village told VICE she thought the phi pob was probably gone. But she said she's still watering a special plant said to ward off the spirit, just in case.
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