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Looking Back

Historical ghosts

/ 12:47 AM October 28, 2011

In the Philippines people will avoid a haunted house or any property with a ghost. On the contrary, old manors are turned into boutique hotels in England, and heritage sites elsewhere in Europe are proud of their ghosts and use them to advantage for marketing and promotion. This mindset shows that the different ways we deal with ghosts are a result of culture or how we were brought up. I do wonder now, after the success of “Harry Potter,” “The Twilight Saga” and “True Blood,” how young people deal with things-that-go-bump-in-the-night.

I have lived long enough to be told of the aswang and the mangkukulam. Part of my childhood was knowing the difference between a manananggal and a tianak. Later I read Maximo D. Ramos’ classification of our underworld into witches, ghouls, blood suckers, viscera suckers, etc.

When I entered my teens, horror movies were not about vampires, werewolves or mummies anymore. These creatures of the underworld were easily repelled with garlic, crucifixes and holy water, or dispatched with silver bullets or a wooden stake in the heart. Instead we were introduced to slasher films that began with “Friday the 13th” in the 1980s and, I think, were created to deter teens from premarital sex in deserted places. There was always a sexual element somewhere because the teens were usually murdered after sex, sometimes before sex. The slash-and-kill films of the 1990s made household words of Jason and Freddie, and even a doll named Chucky.


Today werewolves and vampires are cute teens or young adults that walk the thin line between sex and mayhem. Vampires and werewolves in film are not just predators but complicated beings with human emotions like love, greed and lust.

Balete Drive in Quezon City is known for its “White Lady” who likes to get into empty taxicabs and terrify drivers. It is one of the most famous of urban legends that continues to thrive even if it is a hoax.

Why is it always a “white lady”? Why can’t it be a “black man” like the traditional kapre who will surely protest anti-smoking ordinances declaring his balete tree home a smoke-free place?

Jessica Zafra wrote a wonderful story, “Manananggal terrorizes Tondo,” about a rural flying creature transported to an urban setting. The poor thing couldn’t fly without getting caught up in electric wires and TV antennas! Then we have those creatures with long, pointed and hollow tongues used to suck unborn children from their mother’s womb. Life was easy for them when people lived in simple houses raised on stilts with bamboo slat flooring. How can those creatures feast on their favorite food now, when urban people live in high-rise buildings with concrete floors? Our aswang is growing extinct like the Dodo and needs to be preserved. Which is why Capiz tried to organize a yearly Aswang Festival, until they came afoul of the conservatives in the Catholic Church who  want to keep Filipinos immature and away from contraception, Halloween and even Harry Potter.

When you enter an English heritage site like Hampton Court, you are told about Henry VIII and the ghosts of the wives whose heads literally rolled from a chopping block. Malacañang is supposed to be haunted, so haunted that the late Corazon Aquino would not live in it even if it had been blessed and exorcised repeatedly. It is a historic place but, alas, it has no historic ghosts. I’m not interested in elementals in gardens or ghosts of other individuals. As a historian, I’d want to meet any of the presidents from Emilio Aguinaldo to Ferdinand Marcos and interview them. I wouldn’t mind going back beyond American governors-general to Spanish governors-general, but alas not one of them is available.

I have visited historic sites and shrines, but they don’t have anyone worth being afraid of either. There are three Rizal Shrines: Calamba, Fort Santiago and Dapitan, but his ghost cannot be found in any one of them, not even in Luneta where he was shot and where he is buried.

Juan Luna does not haunt a shrine to his memory in Badoc, Ilocos Norte or his resting place in the crypt of San Agustin Church in Intramuros.

Aguinaldo’s home in Kawit, Cavite, should be a wonderful setting for haunting, but his spirit does not seem to make itself felt inside the house or in the garden where he is buried. The closest we can get to something worthy of a Halloween column are old wives’ tales about a kapre who was supposed to live in an old tree by the general’s bedroom window. This friendly kapre supposedly would warn Aguinaldo of imminent danger, which explains why he outlived all his enemies. Alas, the tree that the kapre called home was blown off by a recent typhoon, and nobody knows where the poor thing has relocated.


Ghost stories abound in Philippine life, and if there are any historical ghosts out there they would make excellent material for this column. The National Library, the National Archives and the National Historical Commission all have their ghost stories spun by old employees or bored security guards. These are probably ghosts of people executed in Bagumbayan, when the now manicured park was a killing field, a place of execution. But alas, no ghosts of historical persons are worth seeking out there.

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