There is no Thai who does not know Mae Naak. While mentioning her can make young children run and scream hysterically in the "Nang Naak game", mothers invoke Mae Naak's name to quiet their crying infants; otherwise, the ghost might break their necks and eat their heads with chilly sauce. The gothic tale of Mae Naak Phra Khanong has been filmed more than twenty times; moreover, every one of them is a box-office hit. Thai youths grow up watching her ghostly tale on television.
Whether Nang Naak was a real person
or just a fabrication is still as mysterious as the myth itself. There is no
historical evidence of her existence. However, most Thais tend to believe her
story is genuine, or at least some parts are. Popular legend tells that she was
born in the Phra Khanong area of Bangkok about a hundred and thirty years ago
during the later period of King Rama IV (1851 - 1868) and died of childbirth
complications some eighteen years later in the early part of King Rama V's
regime (1868 - 1910). Others assume that she lived during the reign of King Rama
III (1841 - 1851). Some believers even date her presence back to more than two
hundred years ago in mid-eighteen century Ayutthaya.
Likewise, the detailed background of Nang Naak also varies from one tale to
another, from being an ordinary farm girl to the daughter of the village chief.
Nonetheless, her doomed fate and horrible deed stay the same. It begins as a
love story. A teenage girl named Naak falls deeply in love with a handsome young
man, Nai Maak. Some sources state that the couple are childhood lovers who grow up together,
while another version take on the more tragic flavor of "Romeo and Juliet" in
which their romance is opposed by Nang Naak's wealthy and
powerful father, for Maak is of poorer and lower origin. No matter how harsh or
smooth the situation is, they eventually manage to be together. Shortly after
they get married, Nai Maak is conscripted for military service, involuntarily
leaving his pregnant bride behind with tear and fear. The dutiful wife waits for
her lover's return, but that day never comes in her lifetime. Haplessly, Nang
Naak dies during labor along with her unborn child. Although they are buried
instantly according to local tradition, her strong spirit refuses to perish.
When Nai Maak comes back from the war, the ghost of Nang Naak disguises herself
and her "infant son" as humans. Their uncanny reunion is sweet but brief.
Despite her arduous effort to blind Nai Maak to reality, Nang Naak cannot
prevent him from learning the truth of her death. The revelation itself provides
one of the most memorable scenes in the story when Maak sees his wife
grotesquely stretching her arm through the floorboard of their elevated house to
pick up a fallen lime, or a knife in another version, on the ground.
The supernatural romance then
transforms into a macabre horror. The terrified husband runs away, and the scary
ghost follows. There are many gory accounts of how Nang Naak chases,
harasses, and even kills whoever comes between Maak and her. In order to get rid
of the gruesome spirit, the villagers resort to all the possible religious means
including exorcist and voodoo shaman, which soon prove to be futile. Another
rendition states that Maak remarries after the death of Nang Naak. The jealous
ghost is enraged, and she terrorizes the new couple along with the miserable
community. In all versions, Maak finally takes refugee in the Mahabute temple.
Defying the monks, Nang Naak persists and pursues. At last, a gifted young
novice from far away comes to the village and rests her tormented soul. Certain
versions claim it is the venerated Somdej Phra Puttajan from Thonburi who seizes
the fierce spirit, whereas some editions combine the two together as the heroes.
In all cases, the Buddhist representative imprisons Nang Naak in a ceramic pot
and drops it in the river. In some of the renditions, the skull of Nang Naak is
made into a belt buckle by the monk, which passes into the possession of the
Prince of Chumporn and then disappears. Maak nevertheless, becomes a monk in
some versions, and in others, he begins a new family and lives happily ever after. Yet this otherworldly
saga of love and revenge does not end there. Numerous stories about Mae Naak's
reappearances are widely and frequently spread, from Bangkok to Pattani, casting
her in many roles from being a guiding angel to an enraged ghost.