Tales of poltergeists pervade many cultures. Jose Victor Z. Torres investigates six of the country’s most enduring apparitions.
Theatre of Horror (Manila Film Center, Pasay City)
In the 1980s, former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos fancied the Philippines a hotspot of the international film industry. The venue for this self-indulgence would be the Manila Film Center, a Parthenon-like building within the Cultural Center Complex.
The building’s construction was fast-tracked for the opening of the 1982 Manila International Film Festival: with a budget of a then-impressive 25 million pesos, 4,000 workers worked at a round-the-clock basis. Tons of cement were poured into the seven- storey building. Then, on the morning of November 17, 1981, tragedy struck. Two floors (including the roof), with still-wet concrete, collapsed, burying some 200 workers.
Work, however, was not halted, and only a few of the trapped men were retrieved in a hastily assembled rescue operation. Concrete was then re-poured, even if others could have conceivably still clung to life under the ruins. The center, essentially, became a mausoleum. Imelda allegedly had it exorcised.
The film festival opened with much fanfare that year, but the accident forever tarnished the First Lady’s image as a benevolent patron of the arts. Decades after the Marcoses fell from power, the Manila Film Center remained that era’s emblematic white elephant—a monolith standing empty and dark. In vain, it was converted into a government office. A private entertainment company staging gay “theater” shows now rents it out.
Apparitions of decomposed bodies still reportedly appear. “Men,” also, emerge in the corridors before vanishing. Other hauntings, they say, involve voices wailing in the dark and objects moving unexplainably. The phantoms, it appears, have unfinished business.
The Cursed Village (San Jose Village, Muntinlupa City)
Whenever stories about a haunted village are told, a movie comes to mind. Remember Poltergeist, the Steven Spielberg-produced film where a family encounters paranormal incidents that include moving objects, faceless spirits, and entities talking out of the white-static- filled screen of a TV set? “They’re here!” says that cute kid memorably. Only near the end of the movie, after the chaos, does the family discover that their entire subdivision was built on top of a cemetery. The father (played by the irrepressible Craig T. Nelson) yells at the housing development owner: “You fool! You only moved the headstones. You left the bodies behind.”
San Jose Village in Muntinlupa City, too, is infamous for unexplained disturbances, although the origin of this malediction is unknown. Even desensitized residents avoid certain streets here after nightfall.
“White ladies,” they say, roam two streets in particular, St. Clemence and St. Bernadette. One such “lady” is notorious for riding tricycles, preferring the seat behind the driver, then disappearing into thin air before her destination is reached. Another lady sometimes stares, crazed and her hair standing on end, at pedestrians crossing the street unsuspectingly—only a brave, anonymous few venture to understand the source of her ferocity. On St. Joseph, another accursed road, a headless priest roams the playground. Even more curiously, on St. Peter Street (yes, another apostle), a group of beings—who, of course, are palpably present but not seen—rabble-rouse from 12 to three in the morning. The sinister culmination of these incidents is the sighting of a black bird that slices the air with its large wings each time a woman in the neighborhood is pregnant.
Chambers of Pain (Fort Santiago Dungeons, Intramuros, Manila)
Fort Santiago gained notoriety through the centuries as a place of torture and death. The fort was the military headquarters of both the Spanish and American colonial government in the Philippines. During World War II, it was a dreaded place where imprisoned Filipinos guerillas and their sympathizers were tortured by the Kempei-tai, the Japanese military police. The fort was destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945, declared a national shrine in 1950, and later turned into a park.
Fort Santiago was a setting for heroism, where Filipinos, most notably our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, were imprisoned and executed. Stories of prisoners drowning in the dungeons during the Pasig River’s high tide are common, but archaeological evidence shows that the place doesn’t even flood at all. The dungeons originally stored gunpowder, and no one in his right mind would build a storage area where its contents would be soaked.
Historical accounts, however, mention a flooding cell called the “devil’s barrel,” a small underground room below river level with a low, narrow doorway that can only be entered by lying down first. Prisoners crammed inside, suffocating as water flooded in, up to waist level, and the air slowly depleted. Around 20 bodies were discovered in this chamber when the Americans occupied Manila in 1898.
The haunting stories in this national shrine and tourism site include the eerie moaning and cries of men and women in the dungeons. The park is unlit during nighttime and a chilly wind blows in from Manila Bay, adding to the menace.
The Ghost Palace (Palacio del Gobernador, Intramuros, Manila)
Built in 1976, this eight-storey government condominium building is today home to the Bureau of Treasury, the Commission on Elections, and the Intramuros Administration. Though the structure is relatively new, the site where it stands is old, with a harrowing past.
The Palacio del Gobernador served as the mansion of the governor-general during the Spanish colonial period until 1863, when an earthquake destroyed the building. While there was an attempt to rebuild it, the governor-general opted to move his residence to a cooler (and more spacious) summerhouse in Malacañang, in Manila’s San Miguel district.
The site of the old palace was turned into a plaza during the American period (and then into two air-raid shelters during World War II). During the Battle of Manila in 1945, Japanese soldiers murdered some 80 priests and male civilians inside with rifle fire and grenades.
The House of Spirits (La Loma Cemetery, Caloocan City)
It’s a cemetery, so there are dead people in it.
And dead bodies mean ghosts. Especially if the buried had died a violent death and their spirits still seek closure.
But La Loma Cemetery is no ordinary final resting place. It is one of the few cemeteries in Manila that date back to the Spanish era. Manila North Cemetery, the Chinese Cemetery, and La Loma are located a few kilometers of each other, all within one part of northern Manila near the Caloocan City boundary.
The latter cemetery is the burial place of many well-known historical luminaries, such as politician Pablo Ocampo, Centro Escolar University founder Librada Avelino, Supreme Court Justices Cayetano Arellano and Victorino Mapa, and politician-scholar Jaime C. De Veyra. Many heritage advocates have been pushing to declare La Loma a historical shrine.
The cemetery is infamous for being the execution grounds of the Japanese military during World War II—the blood of suspected and bona fide Filipino guerilla fighters mark its floors. Foremost among the victims was Girls Scouts of the Philippines founder Josefa Llanes Escoda. So, it is said, the ghosts of these fatalities roam the cemetery, disoriented, their spirits restless, their souls seeking atonement.
The Drive of the Damned (Balete Drive, Quezon City)
The New Manila area in Quezon City is a residential district named after our country’s capital. Rich families moved here after the World War II to escape the bustle of modernizing Manila. Lots were cheap, and many of the residents bought large properties and built opulent homes. It was the Forbes Park of Quezon City.
Balete Drive is one of the main roads that cut through New Manila. The street, of course, was named after the large trees that line the route to provide shade. The balete, however, is famous for being a favorite habitat of dwarves, underworld spirits, and paranormal beings. And it wasn’t long before urban legends circulated that the street was haunted. It didn’t help that the place was dark and unlit at night.
Balete Drive was said to be a well-known haunt of the “White Lady,” the spirit of a young woman believed to be (depending on the storyteller) the rape victim of Japanese soldiers during World War II or a taxi driver during the 1950s. Motorists avoid Balete Drive late at night especially if they’re alone. Stories abound of a bloodied lady passenger dressed in a flowing white dress in the car’s back seat or standing in the middle of the road when one glances in the rear view mirror.
Other unnerving sights on Balete Drive are the “haunted houses,” so-called because these abandoned mansions were never bequeathed to relatives or family members by their original owners. They now stand dark and empty, their lots overgrown with weeds.
Perfect settings for a fright night.
This article first appeared in Rogue’s October 2009 issue.