Rizal and poltergeists? | Inquirer Opinion
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Rizal and poltergeists?

/ 05:09 AM October 28, 2022

Searching for a Halloween column topic led me to “Rizal and Poltergeists in Dapitan” by Jesuit historian Jose Arcilla that appeared in the scholarly journal Philippine Studies in 2001. While many people today associate poltergeist with the title of an American horror film from 1982, it is actually a German word for a noisy or troublesome spirit or ghost. A poltergeist scares people by asserting itself physically in our world through noise, or in rare cases, actually throwing objects around. Father Arcilla’s article was disappointing because poltergeist takes up less than a page in an essay of 15 pages followed by four pages of notes. The title was clickbait.


I have yet to consult the primary sources used for the article, two unpublished letters from the Jesuit parish priest of Dapitan, Fr. Antonio Obach to the mission superior from March and May 1895. Josephine Bracken was at the center of this story. According to Father Obach, Rizal reported poltergeist manifestation in his Talisay estate occurring over three days from April 19 to 21, 1895. A bright lamp roused Josephine from sleep and made her believe that her father had died in Manila. Rizal advised her to speak to the spirit and ask what it wanted, and she did so. On the third try, when she asked “In God’s name, I ask you what you want.” Cups, saucers, and teapots rained on her, hurled by an unseen hand. Rizal’s students were supposed to have witnessed this. Rizal stepped in, confronted the spirit with the same question, but received no reply.

Rizal then requested Father Obach to sprinkle holy water in his clinic to exorcise it. Rizal was even quoted to have said, “If her father had indeed died in Manila the previous day, what more incisive proof is there for the existence of the soul?” To cut a long story short: the priest came, blessed the “round house,” advised Josephine to kneel, “[recite] the Our Father and the Creed, make the sign of the cross, sprinkle holy water, and have no fear.”


This story is strange not so much because of the poltergeist, but how Rizal was said to have reacted to it. Rizal requesting a priest for an exorcism is completely out of character. Rizal was rational; he put his faith more on science than religion. Furthermore, there is no mention of the poltergeist in any of Rizal’s letters, diaries, or notebooks from that time. I imagine Rizal taking notes and analyzing the poltergeist rather than praying.

A Rizal manuscript preserved in the National Library of the Philippines, “La Curacion de los Hechizados,” (The Cure of the Bewitched) was written in 1895, that is, on or around the poltergeist events in his estate reported by Father Obach to his superior. This essay, according to the late psychiatrist Dr. Luciano P.R. Santiago, might be the first psychological essay ever written by a Filipino. Rizal gathered data from interviewing his patients who claimed their ailments were caused by a mangkukulam (usually male) or a manggagaway (usually female). Rizal concluded that “kulam” worked by “suggestion” or “autosuggestion,” so its cure was not to be found in the realm of magic and witchcraft but through psychology, through “countersuggestion.”

For folklorists, Rizal provided this account from Laguna:

“A woman quarreled with a manggagaway on account of a bag of rice and two mangoes. The following day, the woman got sick and a tumor appeared in her abdomen looking like the bag of rice and the two mangoes in question. Relatives of the victim immediately took hold of the manggagaway and tried to compel her to cure the sick woman who died within a week amidst horrible pains. The manggagaway, with great difficulty, managed to escape from the irate relatives; however, she was arrested and sentenced by the gobernadorcillo to fifty lashes daily. On the second day of her sentence, they found the manggagaway hanging on the grill of the jail with a rope that she had fashioned from the lining of her skirt. Oddly enough, the grill was too low for suicide, yet the poor woman had drawn herself together by bending her legs! The devout in town explained this by saying, ‘The devil helped her to commit suicide.’”

The above is similar to reported suicides by hanging from a doorknob. Rizal’s scientific attitude to the supernatural is a Halloween party pooper.


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TAGS: Dapitan, Halloween, Jose Rizal
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