War of the shadow world: Angry ghosts and their victims in Vietnam

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan S. Wadley


Spirit possession, Mediums, Ghosts, Victims, Vietnam, Exorcists

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology


The war in Vietnam claimed the lives of 5 million of its citizens, many of whom died in ways thought to have turned them into malevolent spirits who prey on the living. These angry ghosts are held responsible for a host of physical ailments and other misfortunes suffered by survivors of the war and their descendants. Cross-culturally, treatment for spirit-induced illnesses is typically provided by practitioners like mediums and exorcists, who cure victims by interacting with noncorporeal entities. In Vietnam, such spirit healers were banned after the communist takeover of the north in 1945. This has posed a problem for the large numbers of Vietnamese who suffer from ghost-induced sickness. This dissertation provides an overview of Vietnamese beliefs about death and the after-life, as well as a historical look at Vietnamese politics and its effects on the individuals victimized by angry ghosts. A number of key points are made: (1) the Communist Revolution in Vietnam gave rise to what is commonly known as the Vietnam War, which resulted in an enormous increase in the number of angry ghosts; (2) simultaneously, the Revolution also prohibited the traditional spirit practices that Vietnamese utilized to assuage angry ghosts; (3) economic liberalization in Vietnam has been accompanied by an atmosphere of increased cultural freedom in which victims of ghosts are now able to seek out treatment from officially banned spirit practitioners; (4) the state in Vietnam recognizes that to achieve its political and economic goals, it must help the Vietnamese people lay to rest the ghosts of the War, and this accounts for the resurgence in spirit practices.


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