TOP HORROR fictionist Stephen King says people’s appetite for terror is insatiable.

The tendency of people to turn to “unreal stories,” the scary details of which are easily forgotten afterwards, has contributed to the rise of horror media as an art form.

In Asia alone, Korean and Japanese horror films never fail to catch the attention of moviegoers. Volumes of Anne Rice’s vampire stories and King’s tales of horror are staples in any bookstore. In the Philippines, the bestselling series, True Philippine Ghost Stories, now on its 13th volume, published by the Psicom Publishing, Inc., proves Filipinos always want a good scare.

In a country full of real life horrors, the horror genre finds its way into normal conversations. Filipinos, never lacking in their share of fantastic creatures and urban legends, treat such stories with timeless interest.

Horror literature in the country has its roots in the backyard tales of the engkanto and the maligno passed by oral transmission. As such, the genre has lacked criticism, although some scholars have tried to compile the local stories about supernatural beings.

In her paper “Philippine Literature in English: Tradition and Change,” Ophelia Dimalanta, director of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies, said the early purpose of supernatural tales was to “explain natural phenomena with a theme in which a moral is brought home to the reader.” This was evident in folktales such as the Laguna province’s “Mariang Makiling,” a version of which was written by Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero.

In Rizal’s narrative, Maria was a “half-nymph, half-sylph” creature who appears usually after a storm to revive the drowned fields by driving the water back to the streams and restoring nature to order. Narratives show that she even gladly lent her finery to the townspeople. Maria, however, disappeared. Some blame her disappearance to people who failed to return her finery or pay their respects, or to the unrequited love that Maria experienced with a young farmer. Rizal may have even alluded Maria’s disappearance to the loss of natural order with the coming of the Spaniards.

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Gary Devilles, a professor of literature at the Faculty of Arts and Letters, said that most pre-colonial ghost stories are also revenge stories. These, he said, are manifested in the belief that the soul of a wronged person cannot rest and, therefore, has to seek revenge. This is also related to the concept of the anito or dead relatives who need to be appeased as they are “still living with us.”

With the entry of Christianity into Filipino culture, however, these horror stories multiplied. Devilles said the Spaniards encouraged this in an effort to suppress paganism. By associating pagans with the aswang, the Spaniards reportedly “demonized” local beliefs and practices.

Feminism and history in myth

One interesting feature of the stories is that the aswang is always a woman, Devilles said.

This shows that the pre-colonial woman who did not conform to social rules was branded a danger to the society, he added.

“The aswang complex demarcated women because they needed to be subdued,” Devilles said. “Hence, if the woman does not want to fulfill her wife and mother roles, she is demonized and called aswang.”

Other examples of “demonized” women include the manananggal, whose upper body detaches from the waist to enable her to fly in the night. Deviles also mentioned the tiyanak, a demon disguised as an infant, which is related to the early abortion practices of Filipinos before the Spanish rule.

Stories about these creatures persisted throughout the pre- and post-war years. Historian Ambeth Ocampo wrote about ghost tales in his column “Looking Back,” where he recounted the tale of an aswang that kept people indoors at night during the anti-insurgency campaign of President Ramon Magsaysay.

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But as communities grew, a new form of scare tale came to be known, the urban legend.

Devilles said the displacement of the aswang stories by urban legends in the metropolis was related with the geographical origins of lower myth creatures like the nuno sa punso.

“There are ghosts in the lowlands but none in the highlands. So it depends on the ideal cultural place. The nuno sa punso myth used to demarcate lands because rural settlements have no fences. And in order to mark their properties, (rural inhabitants) come up with the nuno sa punso,” Devilles explained.

In the metropolis, the absence of nuno sa punso mounds did not discourage the emergence of horror tales. Instead, ghosts served as protection for the old city houses from people who wished to live there by scaring them away.

The theme of ghosts haunting their previous houses is prevalent in modern horror stories such as the ones collected in True Philippine Ghost Stories.

In one of the stories, “From Here After,” a family of ghosts kept the inhabitants of an old house from staying too long by making peculiar noises and casting “disturbing” shadows that scared the residents.

Reginald Ting, editor of one of the True Philippine Ghost Stories volumes, said that the book started out in the manner of “ghost story-telling sessions,” where one ghost story would be followed by more. He credited this to the Filipino’s “penchant for the unnatural.”

“Give a Pinoy a ghost story and you have his undivided attention for the next couple of hours, or maybe the whole day,” he said. Sharline J. Bareng, Bernadette G.. Irinco, and Czeriza Shennille S. Valencia

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