Written and illustrated by Carlo Vergara.
There’s more to monsters than a good scare. The Philippines is host to a number of indigenous tribes, each with their own set of beliefs and superstitions that helped them make sense of life’s mysteries and instill discipline in their children. Remember how you were warned that some frightful fiend would take you away if you misbehaved? It’s a near universal experience among Pinoys — if not everyone around the globe.
Thanks to Western entertainment, the world is familiar with the usual creepies, from ghouls to vampires to ogres, but the other parts of the world are generally oblivious to the Philippines’ own gallery of unearthly rogues, like the viscera-sucking manananggal or the cigar-loving kapre. There has been progress — such as the appearance of the batibat in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or of the generic aswang in Grimm. But Filipino folklore has so many more ghastly characters to offer — dozens, in fact — who range from the playful to the macabre. We’ve more than enough to give us goosebumps on our own supernatural soil.
If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, you know how terrifying the experience can be. Our ancestors place the blame on the batibat — or bangungot in Tagalog folklore — a hag who suffocates men by sitting on them as they sleep. It is said that the batibat originally resides in a tree. When the tree is cut down into lumber for houses, the batibat is forced, unhappily, to co-habitate. Protesting its new housing situation, the batibat incepts a stifling nightmare into its sleeping victim — usually the person sleeping nearest the batibat’s nest — and does the deadly deed. To thwart the batibat, all the victim has to do is wiggle their toes or bite their tongue. Goes to show that even the smallest of actions can save your life.
The one-eyed bungisngis has two tusks and a huge, flappy upper lip that covers its entire face when thrown back. In Filipino, “bungisngis” means “to laugh” — and true to its name, the bungisngis is always chortling, which will make it a hit at boring parties. It possesses mighty strength, enabling it to lift a carabao above its head. However, humans need not fear much when the bungisngis is around. First of all, it’s a sucker for carabao meat. Secondly, it’s not very bright, and panics easily.
Turning the familiar image of the Greek centaur on its head, the tikbalang is a creature with the body of a man and the head of a horse. Its origins are said to be rooted in Hindu culture, harking to the horse-headed Hayagriva, an avatar of Vishnu — but that’s where the resemblance ends. The tikbalang lives to lead travelers astray for fun, though others say that they do this to guard the elemental kingdoms. To counter their magic, travelers can put on their shirts backwards, or politely ask permission for safe passage. There is a way to tame the tikbalang: pluck out the three golden hairs from its mane. Do this, and the tikbalang will be loyal to you for the rest of your life, unlike some Facebook friends.
The hulking kapre has dark skin and smokes a large cigar. While one might find them frightening, the nocturnal kapre are said to be gentle and a tad mischievous, pranking travelers by casting an enchantment of confusion that may cause one to get lost. Kapre have the power of invisibility, which comes from either a magical belt or pebble, and they can grant wishes to anyone who acquires those items. They can be friendly, and have been known to trust and even fall in love with mortals — just don’t cut down their tree homes! Sadly, pop culture has given them a bad rap. Maybe someday, someone can redeem the image of these friendly, fun-loving giants.
If you’re a barrio-dwelling woman yearning to have a child, then it would be best to ignore any cries of babies in the middle of the night. And if you come across an unswathed baby lying amid the tall grass, don’t even think of picking it up and taking it home. It might just be the vampiric tiyanak, said to be a spirit of a stillborn baby, eager to dig its claws and fangs into your neck and suck the very life out of you (it obviously doesn’t believe in breastfeeding). During the Spanish period, the tiyanak were said to be the souls of the unbaptized. The creature has been featured in several movies and television shows since the 1950s, but it has yet to collect royalties.
The bal-bal, said to have originated from Tagbanua folklore, has a taste for corpses. They’re about the only things the bal-bal eat, which explains their nauseating breath. While they prefer a fresh catch, they sometimes exhume their meals from graveyards. But the bal-bal has a hidden talent — they are excellent sculptors. Their modus operandi is to hang out near wakes, hypnotize the mourners, then swiftly steal the corpses, replacing them with accurate replicas which they’ve sculpted from banana tree trunks. Oh, the things artists do to put food on the table.
Female mythical creatures tend to fall on the extremes of the beauty spectrum — they’re either aweinspiringly beautiful or simply awful. The manananggal is both. By day, it takes the form of a gorgeous, if aloof, lass. Come the full moon, however, its upper torso detaches from the rest of its body, sprouts bat-like wings for flight and searches far and wide for pregnant women. Once it spots its target, it uses its proboscis-like tongue to suck out the heart of the victim’s unborn child. One of the more wellknown Philippine creatures, it exists in forms with some variation in other Southeast Asian cultures, such as the leyak of Indonesian folklore. To rid your hometown of the manananggal, locate the lower body and pour into it a generous amount of salt. It’s bad for our health, and it’s bad for theirs, too.
Think of it as ride-hailing for the dead. The kakarison from Ilocano folklore appears as a carriage driven by a headless man and drawn by a headless horse or water buffalo, doing its rounds and picking up souls along the way. Sometimes you’d see one passing by, packed with souls like the MRT during rush hour, but not one of them seems to mind. If you happen to end up in a kakarison, pay no attention to its rickety build. It does its job well, and you don’t have to worry about price surges.
Kumakatok and Nangangatok
What could be freakier than hearing a knock on your door in the middle of the night? The kumakatok are a robed trio — one resembling a young girl and two resembling old men — who are harbingers of a death in the household. Another version, called nangangatok, are invisible messengers of bad news to come. When you hear a knock on your door, it is strongly advised that you call out to see if anyone’s there before you open it.