Employer: Morningstar, Inc.
Project Type: Feature Story
I produced this feature story as a communications specialist at Morningstar, Inc. It was published on the company intranet as part of a series of employee interest stories. The series aimed to increase employee engagement in the intranet. I developed the topic, conducted the interview and wrote the story.
Morningstar’s Ryun Patterson Uncovers the Ancient Magical Traditions of Cambodia
In 1999, Ryun Patterson, a writer/editor on the Marketing Services team, made a major move—he quit his job as a reporter in Illinois and relocated nearly 9,000 miles away to become editor of Cambodia’s only
independent news source, The Cambodia Daily newspaper. “In places like Cambodia, where free expression is extremely limited, I saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the world—quickly and immediately,” Ryun said.
For four years, Ryun provided in-depth coverage of local news in Cambodia, including politics and crime. He liked the job but didn’t have the chance to cover what really intrigued him about the country—magic. Ryun first encountered it in 2002, when his colleague at The Cambodia Daily wrote an article about a police chief who attacked a sorcerer—a practitioner of magic—for offering blessings to a political rival. Ryun says he became fascinated by what the story taught him about the belief system and rituals of magic.
In 2003, Ryun moved back to the United States seeking greater financial security and a break from covering Cambodia’s hard news. “Seeing that kind of endless, relentless poverty on a daily basis was taxing,” he said. In 2004, he joined Morningstar. Now, he is chasing the story he never told—the vanishing sorcerers and magical traditions of Cambodia.
Historically, many Cambodians, according to anthropologists, believe that magical rituals provide luck and protection against challenges that are rooted in the country’s history of sociopolitical issues, including genocide, poverty, and poor living conditions. Sorcerers follow different rituals (some interpret cards while others interpret numbers) and offer blessings to the people who visit them. “Magic has served as a coping mechanism for Cambodians who don’t have anywhere else to turn. For some, it’s an avenue to improve their lives and how they deal with horrible circumstances,” Ryun said.
Today, the number of sorcerers is dwindling, which Ryun credits to a few factors. Over the past few years, mobs have attacked and killed an increasing number of people who they suspect of practicing magic.
These mobs are part of a certain sect of Cambodians that blames sorcerers for their daily hardships—what Ryun calls the “bad luck” that sometimes accompanies life in a developing country. Ryun says the attacks have intimidated some sorcerers into hiding and discouraged the public from consulting them. At the same time, Ryun has observed that even modest advances in education and technology have pushed younger Cambodians to care less and less about preserving magical traditions. The news media isn’t interested, either. “Magic is interesting and unique in the world,” Ryun said, “but news organizations aren’t going to pay journalists to cover its disappearance.”
So, with an overdue sabbatical, Ryun decided to finally get the story. “It’s easy for people who spend time in Cambodia to get attached to aspects of life there, and Cambodia’s culture of magic and sorcery stayed with me even after I moved back home,” Ryun said.
In February 2014, he organized an online fundraising campaign to support the production of an interactive
e-book—“Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic”—that chronicles the lives of sorcerers, including their motivations, rituals, and views on the future of magic in Cambodia. Thanks to 116 backers, Ryun surpassed his fundraising goal. So, in May, he flew to Cambodia with a production crew and spent six weeks interviewing sorcerers across the country. “I don’t want to convey that these magical rituals are weird or bizarre. I want people to understand that as far out as this may seem, magic was once a part of everyday life in Cambodia and still is for some,” he said.
Ryun tracked down fortune-tellers, spirit mediums, and sorcerers who make spells, including a woman well known for her love potions. He also met magical tattooists who create elaborate personalized body art that allegedly shrouds recipients in good luck. Ryun received his own magical tattoo during a trip to Cambodia about four years ago. (The tattooist said it would “protect” him from bullets.)
Despite varying magical abilities, Ryun discovered a common thread among the sorcerers he met. “They’re upbeat people, despite their hardships. Those I met have discovered what they’re trying to give to other people—happiness,” he said.
Since Ryun returned from Cambodia in June, he’s been sorting through hundreds of photos and hours of audio and video to compile the e-book. “I’ve had so much support from my colleagues and friends around the company. I look forward to when everyone can take a look,” he said.
Ryun plans to release “Vanishing Act” to the backers of his fundraising campaign by the end of the year and to the general public early next year.