As we get closer to the festival of Halloween, it occurred to me that I have never set out to make scary images with photography. I also wondered how I might achieve this by picking a scary subject matter and not making a series of cliched images. I have always thought that the scariest of horror films are the ones which succeed in only hinting at the horror. Films where, throughout the duration of the story, the horrific thing itself is never fully revealed to us. There is an awful glimpse of something unspeakable, or a terrible sound from out-of-shot; a shadow or a reflection, which is fleetingly presented to us. So that the true horror can take on a full life of it's own in our own imaginations. It also occurred to me, that I can't remember the last time I've felt scared, until I remember stumbling upon these ruins in an abandoned plot of land just inside the old city walls of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
This then, was the time that I had last felt foreboding, apprehensiveness and dread. Although I never actually met any ghosts and ghouls, it was for me the real "haunted-house" experience. On deciding to explore and photograph this place - I wondered if the same hinting-at-the-horror approach would work with photography as it does with film?
The Mystery of Janghuarinnakorn House and The House of Success
Since there are two main buildings which draw the visitors attention - we are really talking about haunted houses here. The big mansion in front Janghuarinnakorn House (sometimes referred to as the "White Lion Mansion") dominates the site and sits closest to the street. The other, smaller but similarly ostentatious and more bizarre looking building, "The House of Success" lies behind, separated (at the time of shooting) by a garden.
Even if you had not heard some of the stories circulating about these peculiar, abandoned baroque-fantasies, a visit to them confirms any suspicion you may have had that something terrible may have happened here.
I'm not normally so susceptible to bad vibes from places but this location has such a surreal, deserted fantasy - land quality, which is both dreadful and compelling in equal measure.
The atmosphere I wanted to recall with these shots was not just the sense of abandonment, neglect and ruin but the peculiar stillness and silence about the place. A mood which created a feeling of foreboding and apprehension, despite the fading warmth of a Thai evening as the sun goes down.
Both of these bizarre buildings, the garden between them and the chalets in the neighbouring plot of land, have remained desolate and empty for around twenty years. Local people are insistent that people stay away from them because they are haunted places. Thai people's belief in ghosts is both popular and enduring. There is evidence all over the country of situations such as this, where buildings which have been abandoned are left well alone due to the fact that ghosts now reside there.
It has been incredibly difficult to find out what actually happened to leave this site deserted and going to rack and ruin for so long. If, like I was, you are reluctant to go with the whole ghost-theory; you might subscribe to this version of what happened to this place discovered here :
"The Chiang Mai Mansion was built in 1993, during the boom. It was never occupied. The creator of this complex was “Tycoon Jack”, who is still a tycoon even though this property didn't work out. It was designed as a palatial sales office and residence for him and his elite executives, who would be involved in condo sales elsewhere. Jack thought BIG. It has a pool and a 3-storey kennel for his dogs. Tycoon Jack made the statues himself. There is a collection of them at the lot next door, that were to be used at the condo site. They are arranged there in an eerie vigil, as if waiting for the next owner. The property has been for sale since 1997. It can be purchases for 30 million Baht, $750,000 US, or 3 million Baht a year for 10 years, interest free".
These rumours appear to be confirmed by this visitor to "Creepy Chiang Mai Central". As for the doggy - loving "Tycoon Jack"; he makes an appearance in various "Bangkok Post" articles following the collapse of the property boom.
Then there is the another more oft-heard story about what fate befell this place. And there is no reason why this account could not merge with the above version.
The story goes that an eccentric millionaire ("Tycoon Jack"? ) built these properties and lived with his family in one of them. When "success" and the development of his grandiose schemes did not develop in the way that he had expected, he succumbed to a kind of madness. Something drove him insane and he murdered his wife and family; butchering them and cutting them up into pieces. No one knows what happened to this man but all are unanimous that his wife and family still haunt the site of this tragedy. As a result, no one will buy the properties or the land. Anyone attempting to develop the site has met with bad luck or death.
One of the tragic things about this place is that it seems as if it were doomed from the very start. Whether that was because it's very inception seemed like a vulgar display of wealth in a city of such economic disparities at the time. Maybe it was due to the seemingly crass decision to ignore any sense of vernacular style and go with an extremely eccentric pastiche of European architecture, so close to the ancient city walls and other historic sites? Certainly the location seems to have been an unfortunate and defiantly insensitive choice. If you listen to Chiang Mai residents; they say that it should not have been built within the walls and should not have competed in height with the surrounding Watts (temples) and may even have been built on sacred land.
Since these photographs were taken - work has begun to fill in the swimming pool and clear the land where the garden was, along with the plot next door where the statues held their communal vigil. Squatters have been reported to have moved into the main mansion, and the house of Success has been locked up securely. I'd be interested to know what may become of these highly unusual ruins and wonder if the site can ever be exorcised of whatever holds it in it's present dreadful trance.
In the meantime Chiang Mai's answer to the Amityville Horror continues to draw an array of visitors from: your average backpacker to your amateur ghost- buster, to Vogue Italia.
On my visit I was particularly grateful for the presence of a benign black and white dog which seemed to escort me about for the duration of my visit to the haunted houses. A canine presence which chose to leave only when I did and parted company with me just before dusk fell, in front of the larger mansion. Remember "Tycoon Jack" had a thing for dogs? I wonder?
There's no way I'd spend time here after dark! There's no rational reason why I should say this - it's just a very real feeling. Even after making contact with Thai friends in Chiang Mai (in the hope of confirming one of the stories about this place); I am met with a dead end in my very amateur investigations. Perhaps even to speak of such things is inviting bad luck? Perhaps I misunderstand just how much of an evil the "House of Horrors" represents in this culture? I hope I am wrong.