Denizens of the Dark

Hollywood may have its plethora of vampires, werewolves and other creepy crawly creatures, but the Philippines is not far behind with its own cast of ghoulish characters. As youngsters, we grew up in the city, where modern ideas and bright lights made monsters and apparitions seem like mere fabrications of an idle and foolish mind. However, when we would go on summer vacations in my mom’s hometown of Pilar, all our deepest, darkest fears would take root again, like it was just waiting in the shadows for the right moment to spring up. At the mercy of long nights lit only by gas lamps and a fickle moonlight, we led dual lives. In the daytime, we terrorized our elders with our motorcycle joyriding, boisterous get-togethers and ravenous raids on any existing food supply. At night, we were trembling captives of a never-ending line-up of storytellers specializing in tales of the macabre. When the moon was at its fullest and the shadows were at its most sinister, you would find us quietly huddled together, shivering in fear, our hearts beating wildly, our eyes wide with terror, as we listened to some local telling us about his encounter with a phantom hitchhiker or some other unearthly being . The locals over there were walking encyclopedia of traditional myth and folklore. Of course, there is nothing more delightful to a storyteller than to look at the spellbound faces of his audience and feed on their fear, and I have no doubt they made the stories more theatrical and blood-curdling for that reason. My cousins and I would listen with bated breath at these stories, although we tried hard to pretend to each other that we were too grown-up to be scared by such nonsense. Yet when we went home and the gas lamps were turned off, the pretense came off. We were now at the mercy of our own active imaginations. Since there were so many of us visiting for the summer, all of us kids would usually sleep on the floor of the living room, where they would roll out mats and blankets for us. We would race to dive under the covers and then cower, our minds going wild over the ghost story we had just heard. We would make sure no toes were exposed so no hungry fiend could snack on them. We would all fight to sleep in the middle because as any kid knows, the ones in the middle are safe, but the ones on the side, well, they are the ones that monsters grab first, right? We would recite as many Our Fathers and Hail Marys as we could before falling asleep, in the hope that this was enough to keep these horrible creatures out of our rooms and out of our dreams. After nights like these, you would think we’ve had enough of scary bedtime stories. Oddly enough, it only whetted our appetite for more. There was something perversely comforting in knowing that even though the denizens of the dark haunt you at night, in the morning you’ll wake up to your real world where people love you and will not let anything harm you.

Although this was a lifetime ago, I still love the feeling of getting goose bumps all over from a good ghost story. I am sure a lot of you can relate to this, hence the allure of Halloween and Hollywood horror movies.  So to all the adrenaline junkies out there who are looking for a spooky fix, let me introduce you to the denizens of the dark that used to haunt my nightmares.

The first creature in our carnival of horrors is the manananggal. Manananggals were beautiful women by day who turned into these horrible winged creatures at night complete with fangs and claws. The word manananggal comes from the word “tanggal” or remove/separate, thus it means “one who can separate itself”. These creatures were able to separate themselves at the torso, freeing the upper half so it can fly around looking for victims, while the lower half was left in a secluded place as a kind of base. Their favorite targets were pregnant women whose scent they found irresistible. They would land on the thatched roof of any pregnant woman’s house and insert their long tongue through the cracks, straight into the woman’s belly, where they would suck the fetus through the belly button. That’s how old folks used to explain miscarriages. Mananaggals did not limit themselves to pregnant women, however. They fed on the very old and the very young, the sick and the weak, and just about anybody they found wandering around at night. To me that meant everybody was fair game. That’s why even though the roof of the house we were staying in was made of galvanized iron and the ceilings were well-cemented, I would sleep with both hands over my belly button, protecting it, just in case. Better safe than sorry, I always say.

So how do mananangals come to be? Old folks say that manananggals are born as well as made. They say that there is a lineage of mananggals. They do grow old and can die from old age. When a mananangal is at its deathbed, they look for a successor, usually their own child. If they don’t have one, just about anybody will do. They will cough up something, some say a thick phlegm while some say a black chick, that they will force down the throat of their chosen successor. Once swallowed, there’s a new mananaggal in town. If you didn’t get to be the chosen one, there is still a chance of becoming one (accidentally or intentionally) by eating their food which they like to offer to people. These look like harmless sweet potatoes but are actually human meat. Another way to become one is to obtain flying oil and spread it all over your body. Pretty soon, you will feel a burning sensation, your lower body will detach, you will grow wings and viola, you can fly. (I know a lot of you out there dream of being able to fly, but I would not recommend this route.)

How does one protect itself from a manananggal? Old folks swear that hanging cloves of garlic around the doors and windows of your house effectively keeps them away. Salt is also a proven deterrent. To kill them, a balagkay (sharpened bamboo stick) or a bolo ( sharp knife) has been known to do the trick . (I have heard one story when a mananaggal’s long tongue was snaking through the roof heading for the pregnant wife’s belly. The husband woke up in time, grabbed the tongue and whacked it off with his bolo. They heard a terrifying scream and some flapping of the wings, and then the creature flew away. The next day, the couple searched the neighborhood looking for someone with this injury, and they found this beautiful woman inside her house, bleeding from having her tongue cut off. That confirmed their suspicion and the woman was driven out of town by the villagers.)

However, the tried and true way of killing a mananaggal is to look for the lower half of its body while the other half is busy somewhere terrorizing some hapless villager. The entire trunk should then be covered with salt or garlic. Doing this will make the mananaggal unable to rejoin it. If it is unable to return to its body before daybreak, then it would die. Be forewarned. While it is going berserk at the thought of not being able to rejoin its body, it can and will go on a killing spree. That much I learned from watching all those Filipino horror movies.

Next on the list is the aswang, or ungo in our dialect. Now the aswang is often confused with its equally delightful cousin, the manananggal. They do have similarities but the difference is that the latter can divide its body in two while the former can’t. Also, the aswangs are more multi-faceted. They have been likened to the ghouls in Western mythology who prowl funeral wakes and cemeteries, hoping to steal dead bodies. They would then replace these bodies with the trunks of the banana trees. Aswangs are also shapeshifters, changing from human to an animal and back. They are usually shy and quiet and keep to themselves. They are hard to distinguish from regular folks in that they go to church and have regular jobs. In the Philippines, if someone’s eyes are bloodshot, people would say they look like an aswang, because supposedly aswangs have bloodshot eyes from having been up all night, looking for victims. Another way of telling if someone is an aswang is to look into their eyes. If your image appears inverted in their eyes, then you are staring one right in the eye. Of course, it might just be the last thing you see before you become dinner. A safer method would be to have a bottle of a special coconut oil handy. This oil will bubble or boil if an aswang is nearby and will not stop boiling until the aswang is gone. It will not keep the aswang away, though. It will just alert you.

So now that you have identified the aswangs in your neighborhood, how do you keep them away and how do you get rid of them? One way is to have the usual stash of garlic bulbs around the house. Another is to throw salt at them. The purifying element of the salt crystals will burn their flesh. Some claim that it is handy to keep a red pouch full of ginger and coins around aswangs. The ginger will repel them much like garlic does while the coins will weigh you down, so they can’t carry you away.

Aswangs are reputed to have a black chick inside their throat which makes them hungry for human flesh. To kill an aswang, old-timers recommend either burning them or whipping them with a buntot ng pagi (sting ray’s tail) until the black chick is coughed out. Be careful, though. If the black chick for some reason or another is swallowed by somebody, that person will end up becoming an aswang themselves.

Another fearsome creature is the mangkukulam, or witch. Kulam means hex, so a mangkukulam is one who places a hex on people. A mangkukulam, usually a female, casts spells and makes potions to make people sick. She uses a doll to represent the intended victim. She then pricks this doll with sharp needles on various parts of its body to cause pain or illness. This is similar to the practice of voodoo in some parts of the world. A mangkukulam usually places a hex on people out of spite or because somebody paid them to do it. To get rid of the hex, the victim has to find ways to appease the mangkukulam or pay them more. If all else fails, then their best bet would be to go to an albularyo, or a healer/ medicine man, who will hopefully get rid of the spell.

No less scarier is the next one on our roster which is the Tiyanak, or demon child. They are said to be the aborted fetuses who were not baptized, and are now possessed by evil spirits. They attract attention by crying like babies. If anybody comes close, they then attack that person with their sharp teeth and long nails. They also like to play pranks on people by leading them astray. Anybody who suspects that they are being pranked by a tiyanak need to turn their clothes inside out. This is supposed to amuse the tiyanak enough so that it will voluntarily release the person from its spell. Those in the know claim that to get rid of tiyanaks, one needs to make a lot of noise. Loud noises are supposed to scare them away. Garlic and the rosary are supposed to have similar effects on them.

The next mythical being we will discuss is the Engkanto, or Enchanted One. Among Visayan folks, they are referred to as “Dili-Ingon-Nato” or “Beings Not Like Us.” They are reported to look like normal people except that they are usually taller and more beautiful. Some say that Engkantos are blond and blue-eyed with unusually pale skin. Because of their unusually pale skin, some people claim that  albinos are their children.

The dead give-away to someone being an Enkanto is that they do not have a philtrum, or that canal normally found between the nose and mouth. (This is the time you should check the person on your left or right to see if they have one.) They are invisible to humans except when they want to reveal themselves. They co-exist peacefully with mortals but can be offended easily if their personal space gets invaded, even if it’s just someone accidentally bumping into them. ( That’s the reason some Filipinos usually murmur “tabi, tabi” or “excuse me” when they’re making their way in the dark. They believe this will alert the Engkantos so they have time to get out of the way.)

Engkantos have been reported to come out after the Angelus is called ( a Catholic call to prayers which is usually around six in the afternoon.) That is why some mothers don’t allow their children to play anymore after six for fear of the kids running into them and offending them. It is believed that if they get offended, they can cause illnesses and eventually death to the person involved. Those they favor will be showered with good fortune.

There have also been a lot of stories about Engkantos falling in love with mortals. They are usually attracted to good-looking people who are quiet and well-behaved. They will show themselves to these mortals and even bring them to their dwellings, which may appear like marvelous palaces but are actually big “balete” trees or a non-existent storey of an old house. The Engkantos are fun-loving beings who love to dance and have parties.

According to folklore, if a person wanders into their world and is held against his will, his way out would be to ask  for salt. This request will enrage them enough so that he will be thrown out of there and sent back to his world. Like most mythical beings, the Engkantos are reputed to be afraid of salt. However, if that person ate the food that was offered to him in his stay, he is doomed to live the rest of his life with them. He will appear dead to his fellow mortals. If people suspect that someone was taken by Engkantos, the surefire way to confirm this is to dig out the coffin out after it has been buried. If they open it and find a trunk of the banana tree in place of the body, then that means that that person is now indeed in the realm of these enchanted beings. To get him back, old folks recommended making really loud banging noises near the Engkanto’s suspected place of dwelling in the hope that this will bother them enough to give up that person.

Another feared creature is the sigbin. It is described as a hornless goat with large ears and a long tail that it uses as a whip. Not only does it look fearsome, it also has a reputation for feasting on people. It is said to walk backwards with its head lowered between its hind legs. Although a sigbin is the pet of an aswang, some families are reputed to have special powers that enable them to tame it enough to keep it as a pet. These families secretly keep the sigbin in a clay jar inside the house. This supposedly brings fortune to the family.

The sigbin has been likened to the chupacabra in Mexico. Some skeptics attribute sigbin sightings to the presence of kangaroos. Kangaroos in the Philippines? That will have to be something the Animal Planet has to check out.

Next we have the Dwendes, or dwarves. They are said to live in houses, on the base of trees or under mushrooms. They are mischievous and often play harmless pranks like throwing pebbles at people and whistling at pretty girls. If their homes get threatened, they can be quite vicious and can cause bad luck to fall on the affected person. Some people blame psychological disorders and mental retardation on them.

Another popular topic for ghost stories is the White Lady. Every corner of the globe has its own tales of the White Lady. She could be a bride who died on her way to her wedding or a woman who has been wronged and is out to get revenge. One story I remember hearing is about this guy who was riding his motorcyle late one night. He saw a lady dressed in white crying by the roadside. When he stopped to offer the lady a ride, the lady wordlessly climbed on the back of his motorcycle and remained silent. The guy was surprised that the motorbike did not seem to be any heavier. When he looked behind him later to check up on her, the lady was gone. The next day, he went back to the same spot and asked about her. The villagers told him that an accident had taken place in that area a few days ago. A young woman fitting his description had died on the spot.

After all this talk about ghosts and goblins, I don’t blame you if you think that I am one superstitious fool. I beg to differ. I am actually a big skeptic. I love horror stories for its thrill factor and entertainment value, but nothing more. Fortunately, I’ve never encountered any such beings either, if they even did exist. Except possibly on one occasion…

My family and I were in Oahu, Hawaii for our summer vacation. We were staying at a fabulous resort just a few steps away from the beach. Ghosts were the furthest thing from my mind. On our third day there, I woke up to find my husband fixing breakfast and my two daughters excitedly chattering away. When the girls saw me, they rushed over to me right away.

“Mom, guess what happened last night?” was their breathless intro. ” We had just turned off the TV to get ready to go to sleep when we heard footsteps on the ceiling. Then the footsteps became like this shuffling of steps from the ceiling climbing down to the balcony. Then we heard scratching noises against the patio door outside. It was like somebody was trying to get in! We were so scared that we pulled the covers over our head and did not let go, even if it was getting really hot under that blanket. We tried to reach for our phones but they were still charging and we were too scared to get up and get them. Mom, we kept calling for you but we were too scared to scream out loud. We just huddled together with the blanket over our heads. We don’t know when the scratching stopped, coz we must have just fallen asleep in exhaustion. Mom, we were really scared!”  This was the story that the two were telling, each one finishing each other’s sentences and nodding in agreement at the other’s account.

My husband and I tried to explain it away.

“Maybe you heard rats,” said my husband.

“No, Dad. We know what we heard. They were footsteps.”

“Maybe it’s the people on the upper floor.”

“Mom, this is a nice hotel. You will not hear people’s footsteps in the upper floor. Besides, these footsteps crawled down from the ceiling to the side of the walls to the balcony. How do you explain that, ha?” And with that, the two took turns poking me in the ribs and tickling me, and we were soon giggling away.

In the middle of our laughter, the doorbell suddenly rang. It jolted us because of the timing. Besides, we were not expecting anyone.

My husband quickly opened the door.

There was nobody there. Nobody outside. Nobody standing by the door. Nobody in the hallway. I mean, nobody.

When my kids and I saw that, we shrieked and clutched each other.

My husband tried to explain it away. “It was probably the wind.”

Yeah, right! My eldest daughter just gave him a look and said, “Dad, the wind does not ring doorbells.”

As soon as she said that, the doorbell rang again.

This time my husband rushed to the door with all of us three girls trailing behind him. There was nobody there again. The hallways were long so nobody could have rang the doorbell and ran fast enough without being seen. The doors of the hotel had an automatic “pause” feature that prevents the door from being closed fast, so if someone had rang the doorbell from another room, we would have seen the door while it was closing. My husband checked the elevators but nobody had gone up or down recently. Then while we were standing outside the door looking at the doorbell and puzzling over the incident, the doorbell rang again. Without anybody touching it! My kids and I just looked at each other and burst out laughing. Hysterically. From fear and disbelief, I think.

I rang the front desk to report it. “Hi. This is Room So-and-so. Our doorbell rang three times and nobody was there by the door. ”

I haven’t even finished my story when the voice on the other line said, “It must have been the wind, Ma’am.”  Hmmm… I would have accepted if they said they were testing the doorbells or there was a short/ electrical wiring snafu somewhere, but for them to give such a quick and ready answer made me think that this was not the first time a complaint like this had been made. Whatever.

When we left the room for the day, we checked the hallway again. No way could the wind have rang that doorbell. First of all, there was no wind. Anywhere. Because there were no windows on the hallway. Besides, the doorbell was in a recessed area so the wind would have to have some pretty long and strong fingers to ring it.

When we got to the elevator, we were still talking about it, trying to find some plausible explanation about the footsteps and the doorbell. I remarked to my kids that it would have been really spooky if we were staying on the thirteenth floor, since thirteen has some supernatural connotation. Then we glanced at the buttons by the elevator door. That’s when we noticed that next to the button for floor 12 was floor 14. There was no floor 13. Then I remembered I read somewhere that some hotels were still superstitious enough that they would skip a thirteenth floor. Since we were staying on the fourteenth floor, that meant we were actually on the thirteenth floor! Creepy! We couldn’t get out of that elevator fast enough.

That was way too much for us. That day, we tried to act like it never happened. Still, for that night and the nights to follow, we made sure that the patio doors were safely bolted, the doors to our adjoining rooms were slightly ajar, and the phones were fully charged and within reach. Thankfully, there were no more such incidents. We all but forgot about it until one day I saw this on the internet…

Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort Spa Ghost Story 2005 Kalia Road, Honolulu HI 96815, 808-949-4321 hotels rating – $$$$

“The ghost of a beautiful young woman in a red dress has been seen wandering the halls here. In 1959, an employee saw her vanish before his eyes as he was escorting her to a room. Some say she is the ghost of a woman murdered in a tower room, while others say she is none other than the volcano goddess herself, Madame Pele.”

We were staying in the Tower Room of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Was this woman seen wandering the hallways our mysterious doorbell ringer and source of footsteps? Have there been any more strange incidents associated with her that nobody reported? Why just that one day? An anniversary perhaps?  Or was it all just  a collective hallucination that can be explained away somehow?

The world holds mysteries that cannot always be explained by science or reason. As for me, I  prefer to leave these mysteries and the other denizens of the dark where I think they belong: in movies and in books, told under the moonlight to some wide-eyed kids, or shared over the internet with people interested enough to know about them.

In ending this, I wish to quote the beginning narration of a favorite show of mine, which, I don’t even need to tell you, has spawned its own set of denizens of the dark in my mind.

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

NOTE: All the pictures and some of the data used in this article are from various sites on the web like Wikepedia and Monstropedia, among others. However. it is hard to cite all the original sources because a lot of the info have been repeated from site to site. I would still like to express my gratitude and acknowledge my indebtedness to all of them.

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