Looking Back

Rizal’s ghost

/ 11:09 PM October 30, 2012

ON APRIL 22, 1895, Jose Rizal, then an exile in Dapitan, consulted a Jesuit regarding noisy and destructive ghosts in one of the houses in his estate. These types of spirits are called poltergeists and were the subject of a scholarly paper by the Jesuit historian Jose A. Arcilla, who dug up the following letter in the Jesuit Archives in Spain:

“Here in this round house things apparently beyond explanation are taking place. The English lady [Josephine Bracken] was awakened last night, her cups being broken, and her lamp burning brightly. She believes her [step]father [George Taufer] had died. I urged her today to talk with you and the third time it happens. To ask, ‘In God’s name, I ask what you want.’ Together, cups crashed down, teacups, saucers. All the boys and I saw the pieces. Tell me what we ought to do, if it is better to exorcise the clinic, keep holy water. It might be good if you come and see [for] yourself. If it turns out he [Taufer] died in Manila the other day, what more conclusive proof for the existence of the soul? I spoke to him and asked him questions, but he does not answer, does not do things in my presence.”


I have yet to examine the original of the above text to ascertain if it is indeed in Rizal’s handwriting or just quoted in a report or diary by the Jesuit parish priest of Dapitan at the time. It seems incredible that the rational Rizal would respond to paranormal activity by seeking an exorcism. In all his other letters and writings Rizal scoffs and sometimes makes fun of Catholic practices, rosaries, scapulars, holy water, etc. But then, how does one confront or understand a poltergeist who not only scares people with noise but also actually throws things about and breaks their cups and saucers? Was there a real haunting in Rizal’s idyllic beachfront estate? We will never know, but the incident as reported above demands further research.

All letters to and from Rizal were compiled and published in 1961 by the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission to update the six-volume “Epistolario Rizalino” put together by T. M. Kalaw in the 1930s. The 1961 compilation has Rizal’s correspondence in the original languages—Spanish, French, German, and Tagalog—as well as a translation of the same into English, Tagalog, Cebuano, and all the major Philippine languages to make Rizal accessible to all. In the last 50 years since, more letters have come to light, making it necessary to publish a new “Epistolario” that should come with: name and subject index, cross-referencing, detailed annotation, concordance, and the other scholarly apparatus making serious study of the National Hero possible. Rizal’s letter on the poltergeist above, when validated, will be an addition to what we hope will be a complete, definitive edition of Rizal’s writings.


Rizal’s poltergeist letter bothers me because he is made to appear like a superstitious fool. In November of the same year, Rizal wrote what was supposed to be one in a series of studies toward a history of Philippine medicine; he even dedicated “La curacion de los hechizados” (On the cure of the bewitched) to a Spanish official in Dapitan named Benito Francia. In a scholarly tone Rizal explained the difference between the mangkukulam and manggagaway and how these were supposedly able to inflict pain and disease on their victims, and also suggested a method for curing them. This study also comes with four charming drawings showing the victims of witchcraft that he got from his research. Everyone knows that Rizal trained in medicine in Spain and specialized in eye diseases in Paris and Heidelberg, but it is not well known that he was also interested in the medicinal properties of Philippine plants and herbs for which he interviewed herbolarios and other informants in Dapitan. One could say that aside from historical and scientific research, Rizal also dabbled in anthropological and ethnographic research.

I will not bore you with the details since Neal Cruz has already written a column enumerating the different types of aswang and mangkukulam in his Halloween column (10/29/12). Rizal left us with a story appropriate for Halloween 2012, taken from “La curacion de los hechizados” as follows:

In one town of Luzon, called B[ai?] of the Province of Laguna, they tell the story of a woman who quarrelled with a manggagaway on account of a bag of rice and two mangoes. The following day the woman got sick and in her abdomen there appeared a tumor looking like the bag of rice and the two mangoes in question. Immediately they took hold of the manggagaway and they tried to compel her to cure the sick woman. The latter died in a week amidst atrocious pains and the manggagaway, who escaped the ire of the relatives with great difficulty, was sentenced by the gobernadorcillo to fifty lashes daily. But on the second day of her sentence they found her hanging from the grille of the jail with a rope that she had made with the lining of her skirt. In order to die, the unhappy woman had had to draw herself together a great deal and bend her legs, for the grille was low. “The devil helped her to commit suicide,” said the devout.

Surely our folklore has a lot of scary stories to match Dracula, Frankenstein, Freddy, Jason, Chucky and Sadako of foreign films. We just have to seek them out.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, column, ghosts, Jose Rizal, poltergeists
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