At a noodle shop in Little Vietnam, Ryun Patterson showed me a video of a Cambodian sorcerer on his iPhone.
The man in the video is garbed in brown with an embroidered orange sash across his chest and a red kerchief atop his head. He’s sitting in a doorway, happily chatting in Khmer, gesturing with a handful of yellow candles.
“What are the candles for?” I asked.
Patterson chuckled and nodded toward his phone. A split second later, the man lights the candles and extinguishes them in his mouth.
“We had no idea he was going to do this,” Patterson said. “He’s possessed by a spirit at this time, a spirit that is the lord protector of the underworld or something like that. He’s talking right now about how fire is what burns out evil spirits and is like ‘If anyone’s affected by evil spirits, I’ll burn it out.’
“For the rest of the video, he’s just spitting wax everywhere, after he opened his mouth to show us he was unburned. He smoked three cigarettes at a time to represent the Buddha, the Buddha scripture and the clergy.”
Patterson is a Chicago-based journalist who has collected stories, video and photos of Cambodian sorcerers, fortune tellers and spirit mediums for “Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic.” The book explores magic’s role in Cambodian society, and how it’s changing or, in some cases, disappearing forever.
“After the Khmer Rouge is when there was a real explosion of this — spirit mediums, fortune tellers and things — in the absence of all other institutions,” Patterson said. “People just emerged from four years of brutal work camps. Too many people died of starvation, overwork, disease and murder. It rose up to fill the gaps of psychologists, counselors, all those kind of things that the government provides not nearly as much as it should.”
During the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered in dictator Pol Pot’s pursuit of an agrarian communist ideal.
This was when two child spirits came to one of the mediums profiled in “Vanishing Act.”
“’I saw her from on my perch in the holiest perch on the holiest mountain in Cambodia, suffering,’” she recalled the spirits saying. “’And I had to help her.’”
She’s now an older woman who reads fortunes of the serial numbers of money. When she channels the spirits, the old woman is gone. She laughs and jokes like the children she channels, making mouth noises at nothing and playing make-believe with the cash.
She lives a simple life, donating 70 percent of what she makes to charity. Patterson said this was common among the mediums and sorcerers. One or two seemed grifters, but most seemed pleased to take a pittance for helping their neighbors.
Others seemed almost plagued by the spirits, like the rural fisherman weary that fortune telling took him away from the water.
“’I just want to be a simple fisherman who can help people when the spirit comes into my life,’” Patterson recalled him saying.
For others, the spirits cause real hardship.
Patterson’s wife’s aunt is a Khmer Krom, an ethnic Cambodian from Vietnam. In the 1980s, she fell ill. She almost died, until the spirit of a monk named Lok Ta Soc, who died in the 1940s, reached out to her with a deal.
She would live, but she had to become Lok Ta Soc’s medium and follow his rules.
“The rules were you can’t work, you can’t eat meat, you have to help anyone that comes to you for help and you cannot take their money. So she’s in her house in Vietnam, this is what she told us, and she said the lines outside her house became so long that the Vietnamese government sent troops to try to figure out what the hell was going on in this house, like ‘What are they plotting? What is going on in there?’”
The government was knocking at the door. Offerings were piling up outside her house, but she couldn’t take them, dropping them off at a local temple instead. Panicked and weary, she renegotiated the deal.
Under the new deal, she still couldn’t work, eat meat or take money for her fortunes, but she could pick whom she advises. In return, she must donate about $500 a year to a temple.
The average Cambodian income is $950 a year. That’s for people not forbidden to work.
“’That offering buys you a year of life, otherwise you’ll die,’ she said the spirit told her. So her whole life has been struggling to make the money for this offering every year so she can stay alive,” Patterson said.
Cambodia is pulling further from the devastation left by the Khmer Rouge, and from the folk magic resurgence that followed. The youngest sorcerers Patterson found were in their late 30s. The next generation went to college.
While Patterson was doing his interviews, two rural villages accused local healers of black magic and beheaded them.
There’s no right way to be magic. Some read serial numbers off money or burn out demons with candles. Others take the numerology of names, write wishes on succulents or divine with the Western playing cards the French brought to the former colonial territory. There’s a clinic for the cursed in Cambodia. Mediums tell fortunes by cell phone to expats in the Cambodian communities of Long Beach, Calif., and Lowell, Mass.
There’s no good resolution to a tale of Cambodian magic because the story hasn’t resolved. As long as there’s faith, Patterson said, there will be magic.