Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Not Like Us

I did not know much about Halloween until I was about 10 years of age. When I was an elementary school student in the 1970's, All Hallows' Even (as it was originally known in Europe) was still a distinctly American event, something seen more on foreign T.V. programs and the Hollywood movies of that day rather than a real, honest to goodness festivity actually taking place all over the country.

Trick or treating, the practice of donning Halloween costumes, and the imagery and symbolism of the macabre, dark magic and mythical monsters that are all part of the Halloween experience were not yet a part of the cultural milieu then and even today I am bemused, if not a bit surprised, at the speed and openness with which we Filipinos, as a people, have accepted, assimilated and even capitalized on this piece of largely American pop culture.

In the Lianga of my childhood, both the young and the old did not need the Halloween myth to enliven the celebration of All Soul's Day and the festivities for the dead. The area's rich, rural and provincial culture abounded in stories and legends dealing with death and the supernatural. In fact, the blending of many old, animistic, pagan beliefs with traditional Roman Catholicism provided a rich fount of myth and folklore that conjured up worlds, including our own, peopled by spirits, monsters, dwarfs, enchanted beings and other otherworldly creatures far more scarier and believable than the classical and often "cartoonish" witches, ghosts, goblins and Frankenstein's monsters of the Halloween myth.

The wak-wak, or local variety of the asuang or Filipino ghoul was the perennial terror of children and even the not so young. It was said to change form at will and was the bane of pregnant women and nursing mothers since it craved for the flesh of fetuses and newly born babies. At other times it was supposed to hunt the cemeteries to dig up and feast on the livers and hearts of newly buried bodies.

The mantianak also haunted the imaginations of those who inhabited the forested areas. Looking and sounding like an abandoned baby in swaddling clothes, it lured its unsuspecting victim near it and then sinks its teeth in for a meal of fresh blood. The kapre or the tall, dark-skinned, bearded and pipe smoking tree demon was also much feared especially by those who dared to harm or indiscriminately cut down the trees that were their supposedly favorite abodes.

Then there were the tales about the dwendes or dwarfs, sprites and other small people that supposedly live underground or cohabit old houses with humans. Some are benevolent, helpful creatures of sunny dispositions while others are horrid, malevolent entities that can bring down on humans the strangest of serious maladies and the most painful of lingering deaths.

Engkantos or essentially the local version of fairies also occupy a sizable niche in the lore of the supernatural. Described as exceedingly fair and beautiful by the rare, few individuals who have been allowed to cast eyes upon them, they can also be both favorably disposed to humans or coldly antagonistic towards them. Old, wizened folks tell tales of whole islands, mountains and forests inhabited by these enchanted beings, the winding streets, tall houses and bustling centers of their cities appearing to human eyes as nothing more than the usual panoramas and vistas of unspoiled, pristine wilderness.

This rich heritage of local folklore and belief systems in the unseen, the paranormal and the supernatural remains strong among Lianga's rural folk to this very day and I have been often astonished at how much hold they still have on the popular imagination and how much influence they have on the way local residents view death, dying, the supernatural and the afterlife. The belief, for example in the barang or kulam (an evil hex or spell cast by a witch or sorcerer to cause illness or death on an unfortunate victim) still predominates and the mananambal or albularyo (the herbal or witch doctor) remains a fixture in many communities.

"Beware of those who are not like us," the old folks use to warn us when we were kids on many of those dark, windy nights long ago. "We are not the only of God's creatures and there are many of those He made who are not men who resent us deeply because God loves us more than any of them. Be respectful of them and their kind. But when you have to fight them then do not be paralyzed by fear. Be strong in your faith in Him who is the Creator of us all and you will ultimately overcome."

That is easily said but every time the feast for the dead comes around in Lianga and I have to travel its dark, forested, country roads at night either on wheels or on foot, my imagination often runs riot with the vaguely disturbing, often scary images, sounds, smells and intimations of things that seem to flit in and out of consciousness. Is that dark outline out there that of the terrifying kapre? Was that swishing sound overhead and that muted screech coming from the passing of the fearsome wakwak? Are those glowing, flickering lights in the distance the innocent dance of fireflies or the mischievous antics of dwarfs and restless spirits? It could even the dreaded santilmo (derived from St. Elmo's fire, a form of lightning) that is supposed to be the soul of a person who had committed suicide or had been murdered and is eager to wreck vengeance on innocent passers-by.

An unreasonable, gripping terror would take hold of me and I would step on the accelerator or lengthen my stride and try to hurry on home as fast as I can. Gone would be my pretense at rationality and my nonchalant dismissal of things unseen, unproven and untested scientifically.

I am again the small child fleeing from the unseen and the unknown. And from those who are, from our perspective and to their eternal misfortune, "not like us."


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