When someone dies the monks invite the soul to go to “the peaceful place,” the only place from which it can be reborn. “I think my father is reborn already, because I don’t feel him with me,” I was told by a young man who lost both parents early. “But I don’t think my mother is reborn yet. I feel her with me all the time.”
A delay in rebirth can be explained in many ways. Perhaps, like this mother, the soul wants to stay and watch over her child. They are a presence, not a haunting. Or perhaps it has become a praet, a hungry ghost. The praets are not so fortunate as those who go to the peaceful world, but they’re not feared. They’ve gone to the underground world of hell, where they can slowly accumulate merit and work their way to rebirth, with help from the living. They don’t haunt people.
The kmouch are a different case. Instead of going to the heavenly peaceful world or to the praets’ hell world they linger on earth and become vicious. Humans who see them are afraid, fear causes them to make offerings, an the offerings merely develop the kmouch’s appetite for more offerings, and so the haunting worsens.
When my friend Socheat’s wife’s sister was about nineteen years old and first moved to Phnom Penh she rented a house at Black River. The real name is Steung Meanchey, the River of Victory, and it runs through the city rubbish dump. As the name suggests, it’s a stinking open sewer, but houses along it are cheap.
This particular house was not only next to a sewerage canal, it was known to be haunted. Socheat’s wife’s sister knew this, but this made it even cheaper, she had several people to support, and she believed she had sufficient reasey (fortune) to protect herself and those who lived with her.
There were five people in her household, the other four being her two sisters and an aunt and uncle. Perhaps the ghost decided to attack the head of the house first, or perhaps she was simply more susceptible. At any event, soon after they all moved in she was in the kitchen one day when she saw somebody coming down the hall toward her, although the front door was closed. The figure vanished as she looked. She cried out “Kmouch! Kouch!” Everyone came running, but the kmouch was gone. After that she constantly felt someone watching, especially as she was drifting off to sleep. Nobody else saw felt these things.
Then her hair started falling out.
She went to the doctor and had tests done, but medical science could find no physical cause. Her mother told her she was possessed by the kmouch.
Her mother, Socheat’s mother-in-law, called in the monks of Wat Botum near the Royal Palace. This monastery, favoured by the royal family, is renowned for its ability with the exorcism ceremony. The purpose of this is not to chase the ghost away, although people think it is, but to bless the house and ask the spirit to leave and stop causing fear in living beings. (All living beings, not just humans: dogs see ghosts when humans cannot, as their night-time howling testifies).
But the ghost remained. This sometimes happens, as the monks are simply asking the ghost to leave, not forcing it to do so. There is another ceremony that “burns” the ghost, meaning destroys it, but monks cannot do this as their rules prohibit them from harming even ghosts. There was no option left but to go to a kru boramey, as only the boramey, a high and powerful spiritual being, has sufficient power to deal with another supernatural being.
Socheat’s mother-in-law one of the very best kru boramey available to burn the ghost. The boramey, speaking through the kru, advised that it was not wise to destroy the ghost – the sin would be very great, equivalent to taking life, and it did not wish to take this responsibility upon itself. It would remove the ghost without committing murder.
It was all over quite quickly. The boramy entered the kru, searched Socheat’s wife’s sister’s body for the location of the ghost, seized it, and wrenched it out. The kru then sent her home with amulets and holy water to be sprinkled through the house while asking the kmouch to go to the proper world of ghosts. Her hair grew back, and the house remained free of haunting so long as the family lived there.
(The lady in the photo above is a kru possessed by her boramey, but not the one visited by Socheat’s mother-in-law).