The monsters we face

As a child who grew up in the province, I was inundated with tales of creatures of Philippine mythology. Some stories served as caution as in when my grandparents would advise me to chant “bari-bari” when passing through the backwoods so that the duwende would not hoodwink me and would grant me safe passage through their territory.

Some dealt with my recalcitrance such as when my aunts would tell me to behave or else the kapre would kidnap me, take me to his kingdom concealed within the cluster of acacia trees, and eventually roll me in a massive tobacco sheet and make a cigarette out of me.

These stories, by and large, and however cautionary, evoke fear. Accounts of these creatures in most regions in the country are replete with frightening descriptions of what they look like and what they can do to you if they take a liking to you or if you wittingly or otherwise invade their domicile.

For instance, the batibat, a demon in Iloko folklore, is described as a huge fat woman with a disfigured face that lives in a hole in a post, which used to be an old tree. She then visits houses of unsuspecting sleeping victims, usually those who felled its former home, and suffocates them to death. Another well-known mythological creature is the aswang, which is sometimes said to take on the form of an attractive and meek lady in the day but detaches its torso from its lower body and morphs into a terrifying creature at night. It preys upon the young and the unborn, often feeding on their liver and heart.

A reflection of society

As horrifying as they are described, these beings from the underworld are the staple of Filipino popular culture. The proliferation of such in komiksand movies show just how influential and effective they are in teaching values and instilling fear in the lives of Filipinos. The late Professor Maximo Ramos cited in his book, The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, an instance where townsfolk in a barrio in southern Philippines would not dare cut down trees without asking the consent of the spirits they believe reside in them.

But more than inculcating terror, these lower mythological creatures also function as metaphors reflecting the anxieties and fixations of a society, especially in a given historical moment as noted by cultural historians and authors Joseph Maddrey and David Skal. The monster in Homer’s Polyphemos and the vampire in European folktales, according to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of the book, Monster Theory, represented the then-nascent fear of the growing racialized immigrant communities in the continent. In the early 1800s, Mary Shelley’s monster, popularly known as Frankenstein’s monster, denoted distress over developing complex scientific advancements of that time. Similarly, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Incredible Hulk was said to symbolize the perils of the atomic age, while George A. Romero’s Zombie was believed to be a social commentary on industrial automation and mindless consumerism.

Other monsters and mythological creatures in Middle-Age Europe represented gender and racial anxieties, noted by Cohen. Given that most story tellers then were male and European, it’s interesting to note that women and people of color were represented in stories as witches and werewolves and such as they were thought to threaten the status quo of the patriarchal society.

The fears that these western creatures epitomize are almost similar to what their local counterparts represent. Professor Maximo Ramos wrote that during the Spanish colonization all the way to the American period, people living in far-flung areas in Northern and Southern Philippines were conditioned to be wary of the dayo or foreigners who may disrupt their way of living. The shapeshifting aswang in their folktales symbolized non-natives. Townsmen were encouraged to court and marry women within their barangays lest they bring ill fortune and danger to their community. The duwende, kapre, batibat and aghoy expressed the ill effects of the then-burgeoning industrialization, deforestation and environmental decay, and urbanization. Almost all stories involving these monsters and creatures caution natives to be extra vigilant in preserving the flora and fauna.

Fearing what we don’t understand

As these folkloric creatures typically come from a mystical realm unknown to us, coming out mostly at night and attacking in the dark, they essentially mirror our human fear of what we do not understand. We avoid certain places and people, and shut down ideas because in actuality we fear the uncertain and unfamiliar. Some people consult fortune tellers, carry around anting-anting, and make chanting noises to ward off perceived evil elements and misfortunes.

Although these monsters are arguably linked to prohibited practices to reinforce good values and acceptable behavior, they also represent a kind of desire to make sense of and overcome seemingly unexplainable and hopeless situations, a desire for heroism and nobility to arise. And our folklore is filled with champions. There is a collective desire to combat corruption, environmental degradation, drugs and criminality, and moral abasement, for justice, equality, peace and truth. There is a yearning to understand how our current society came to be and transcend practices and beliefs that keep us from progressing as a nation.

The aggression and domination these creatures symbolize are expressed within the constraints of liminality, which can evoke escapist fantasies. Every Halloween, people the world over celebrate the macabre for a night. There are tolerable levels of fright and horror in movies and literature. We take comfort in the fact that, at the end of a terrifying story, the monster is slain; the hero prevails. All because deep down, we believe it is only temporary and what comes after is liberation. –

Glenn Pernes is a corporate research professional moonlighting as writer and a college lecturer. He holds a Masters of Arts in Communication degree and has written and presented academic papers on Filipino pop culture and comic book fandom at international and local symposiums.