The “usual suspects” of Filipino supernatural lore — manananggal, kapre, tiyanak, tikbalang, duwende — continue to be perpetuated in movies, television and in daily folklore, occupying a space just below the surface of one’s consciousness until invoked as needed.
Our native ghosts, witches and demons have their own counterparts in nearby Asian countries. We’re not the only culture that deals with self-segmenting witches, weeping baby spirits, wandering white ladies or mound-dwelling dwarves. In fact, when it comes to the supernatural, we have more things in common with our neighbors than we have differences.
And this gives us all the more reason to both fear and be entertained by things that go bump in the night.
Derived from the Spanish word muerte, meaning dead, multo is the Filipino term for ghost, and it is the most common paranormal being in native folklore. The multo is believed to be the soul of a dead person that returns to the mortal world for a variety of reasons, such as an unfinished earthly business, improper burial, revenge, unusually violent death or suicide, to seek a replacement, to fulfill a previous pact, or to take care of his family in times of crisis. Partially shaped by folk Catholicism, native ghost stories are told in both rural and urban settings, particularly in colleges, hospitals, historical buildings and even bodies of water.
Ghosts in neighboring Asian countries, while thematically similar, are shaped by Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic concepts of the afterlife, particularly karma and reincarnation. In Malaysia and Indonesia, ghosts are called hantu; in Thailand, they are referred to as phii. Chinese communities throughout the region call them kuei or gui, while in Japan and Korea, they are called yurei and kwisin, respectively.
The manananggal is the Philippines’ most iconic supernatural entity, appearing regularly as the arch-villain in comics, television and movies ever since the inception of modern media. A type of aswang that’s found throughout the archipelago, it is generally described as a beautiful woman by day, but at night, it turns into a hag that sprouts wings and claws, separates its upper torso from its trunk and legs, and flies out in search of livers or fetuses to devour.
If you travel to Malaysia, you will find perhaps the original version of our native manananggal in the dreaded penanggalan. This creature is also a beautiful woman by day, but at night detaches only its head, followed by its dangling entrails, and flies out in search of victims. This very same creature is also found in Thailand, where it is known as the Phii krasue.
The tiyanak is a malevolent creature most often encountered in remote grassy fields, appearing as a weeping infant to unwitting passersby, who immediately take pity upon finding it. But the moment this “child” is coddled, it quickly turns into a demon and scratches, bites, or devours its victim. In the southern part of the Philippines, it is known as a patianak or munti-anak, considered the ghost offspring of a pregnant mother who died in the forest during childbirth.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, this spirit is more closely associated with its mother, the langsuir, and its stillborn child, the pontianak, that region’s most feared vampire entities. Described as a beautiful woman dressed in a green robe and sporting elongated nails, the langsuir’s long black hair is said to conceal a hole in the back of her neck that she uses to drink the blood of children. Special burial rituals must be observed for deceased pregnant mothers in order to insure that their dead children do not transform into the dreaded pontianak, whose powers and appearance are similar to its horrific mother.
Japan also has its version of the tiyanak, called the konaki jiji. But unlike our native version, the weeping infant, upon being coddled, mysteriously turns into an old man and gets heavier and heavier, eventually crushing its coddler to death.
The “white lady” is the Philippines’ most popular urban legend. A wandering female apparition dressed in flowing white robes, she has been sighted all over the Philippines, but is most closely associated with Balete Drive in Quezon City. A supposed victim of rape that occurred in the 1940s, she fits the classic “vanishing hitchhiker” motif that’s so common in other cultures.
In Hawaii, sightings of a wandering white lady are often attributed to the goddess of fire, Pele. As vengeful as she is benevolent, “Madame Pele” is known for appearing in various guises to the islands’ residents, including that of a beautiful woman dressed in white.
The white lady also appears in Mexico and is known as La Llorona. She is said to be the spirit of a Mexican native who was spurned by her conquistador husband for his first wife in Spain. Killing and dismembering her own children so he couldn’t possess them, it is her destiny to search the world for their scattered bodies before St. Peter will allow her passage into heaven.
Night terror, known locally as bangungot, is a mysterious phenomenon that seemingly targets only Filipino males. Sleeping immediately after a heavy meal is said to bring about horrific nightmares, eventual cardiac arrest and, ultimately, death. This occurrence has also been associated with a creature called a batibat that sits on the chests of sleeping victims and suffocates them in place.
This theme of pressing ghosts is quite common throughout Asia. In Japan, it is known as the kanashibari, the dreaded “tie-down ghost,” while in Thailand, it takes the form of the dreaded “widow ghost,” phii mae mai. The Chinese label this phenomenon as bei quai chaak, while the Hmong blame sleep-related deaths on their native ghosts known as dabs.
Aswangs are perhaps the Philippines’ most diverse class of malevolent entities. Noted folklorist Maximo D. Ramos used this umbrella term to include hex-casting witches, shape-shifting weredogs, flesh-eating ghouls, native vampires, and self-segmenting manananggals. But the concept of people changing into malevolent forms is also not unique to the country. In the neighboring island of Bali, the aswang’s counterpart is the dreaded leyak witch that possesses the same qualities and are often blamed for that island’s calamities and misfortune.
Santilmo, or fireballs, in native lore, are often explained away as wandering souls who were lost at sea, or ghosts intent on getting those who follow them even more bewildered. Early Japanese immigrants in Hawaii considered them human souls, particularly spirits of the offended deceased seeking revenge. Native Hawaiians called fireballs akualele, or flying gods, created by native sorcerers for various reasons, including the death of their enemies.
Western influence is evident in Filipino pop mythology, particularly in the depiction of native fairytale characters. These beings are often portrayed in television and movies as more European in costume, seemingly having stepped out of a Renaissance Faire rather than originating from Asia. But despite the disparity in appearance, native dwarves, fairies and mermaids do exist in the Philippines.
Duwendes are indigenous dwarves said to reside inside ant and termite mounds that are encountered along forest paths. Failure to ask for their permission to pass is said to invite danger and retribution, particularly if one defaces it. Duwendes have a cousin in Hawaii, the menehune, considered those islands’ original inhabitants and the builders of native ancestral monuments. The recent discovery of the fossilized remains of the so-called Hobbit Man, Homo floresiensis, on the islands of Flores and Palau also lends scientific credence to the possibility of actual dwarves existing in that region.
Fairies are known locally as ada, diminutive enchanted beings that live in the forest and depicted in the classic Tinkerbell motif of Disney cartoons. In China, they are known as xian nu, while in Malaysia are known as peri. But not all fairies are benevolent, as exemplified by the dreaded sea-dwelling ponaturi of New Zealand, known for abducting people underwater.
Merpeople, aquatic denizens of the seas and rivers, are more commonly found in television and movies than in actual recorded folklore. They are known in the Philip-pines as sirenas or kataw (beautiful women who possess a fish’s tail from the waist-down), or siocoys (male hybrids who are more fish than human). However, these normally European symbols do appear in parts of Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, they are called ikan duyong. “Duyong” is actually the root word for the sea-dwelling dugong mammals that are related to the manatee. Like our native siocoy, the ri of Indonesia is said to be more fishlike than human and is sighted by fishermen even today. From Thailand to Indonesia, a mermaid motif known as ngyanak is common in native artwork and architecture.
Engkantos are capricious enchanted beings said to reside in majestically lavish houses located in forests and remote areas. These homes, however, appear as mysterious banyan trees and boulders to the human eye. Engkantos are described as having distinctly European features (high-bridged nose, with fair hair and skin), and are known for interacting and even kidnapping humans into their world. Their counterpart in the Pacific can be found in the island of Guam, and are called the taotaomona. These beings also reside within native banyan trees, and can manifest themselves as white ladies, mysterious muscular men, or as invisible spirits who severely pinch those that trespass in their domain.
Todos Los Santos and Todos de Los Funtos, All Saints and All Souls Day, are holidays observed in the first days of November to pay tribute to the deceased. While this is common for most Catholic-influenced cultures around the world, similar celebrations that honor the dead also occur in other countries. In China, it is called Gui Jie, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. In this tradition, it is believed that one day a year, the King of Hell releases souls to earth, and these spirits walk about looking for tributes and offerings to feed on. Japan has its version called the Obon Festival, while southern Thailand observes the Tenth Lunar Month Festival, or Ngan Duan Sib. In Mexico, this tradition is called Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, and is a hybrid of folk Catholicism and native Aztec traditions.
The supernatural traditions of the Philippines have yet to be fully explored outside of the country. Once they receive more global recognition, they will proudly take their places alongside other horror traditions of the world, gleefully playing in the twilight while waiting for the next citywide blackout to appear just beneath the pale moonlight.
Alex G. Paman is a professional illustrator and freelance journalist based in Northern California. A graduate of Sacramento State University, he is an avid researcher of Asian culture and has written two books on the supernatural: “Filipino Ghost Stories” for Tuttle/Periplus, and “Asian Supernatural, including Hawaii and the Pacific” for Mutual Publishing.
First published in Filipinas, November 2009.