How Filipino Horror Films Preserve Philippine Folklore & Superstitions

It’s October and horror films are everywhere! I’ve always loved the horror genre. I’m a scaredy-cat, but there’s something about experiencing the horror from a distance – seeing it and reading it, but knowing that you’re somewhere relatively safe and far from Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Recently, I’ve been rewatching a slew of Filipino horror films on cable TV. I’ve seen Feng Shui, T2, Dilim, and Pwera Usog. What I’ve always loved about Filipino horror films is that most of them are grounded in Filipino folklore and legends.

The Aswang Chronicles: The Most Popular Philippine Monster

Tiktik The Aswang Chronicles film poster 

I remember watching The Aswang Chronicles 1 and 2 (Tiktik and Kubot respectively). The first film dealt with an entire town of tiktik, a kind of aswang that targeted pregnant women and their unborn babies. The tiktik would stay on the roof and extend an extremely long tongue through some opening. This is what they use to reach the mother’s belly and eat the baby (like sucking it out or something). The second one dealt with the kubot, another kind of aswang. The kubot uses her long, unruly hair to kill her victims.

Both films had horror elements but they were action-centric and had that urban fantasy vibe going on. It was definitely more of a creature feature and monster movie than straight-up horror. (The first movie was actually a pretty fun romp.)

Kubot The Aswang Chronicles film poster

The first movie dealt with an entire provincial town of tiktik who converged on the protagonist’s house to get at the sole pregnant woman. The second film, on the other hand, was set in the city where aswang (disguised as regular people) were killing orphans and vagrants and using their meat for the sausages they were selling. It was their grand plan to turn as many people as they can into aswang. (In Philippine folklore, a regular person can become an aswang if he/she were to eat human meat served by an aswang. Usually, the human meat would be included in ordinary dishes and passed off as pork or beef.)

The tale of the aswang has mesmerized and terrified Filipinos for years. Even now, a stay in the province can prompt warnings and cautionary tales about the aswang roaming above and under nipa huts and old wooden houses. In the city, it’s not such a potent tale of terror – unless there’s a pregnant woman in the house and you can be sure that one older woman will advise protection against the tiktik.

T2: Realm of the Engkanto

T2 film poster

T2 is another horror film steeped in Filipino folklore. The premise is this: A social worker gets a case about an orphaned little girl. She needs to get the girl to a relative in another city, so they take a ferry and go on a long land trip. Throughout the trip, the social worker realizes that there’s something up with the girl who says that there are people after her. Turns out, the girl’s mother is an Engkanto – a fairy.

In Philippine folklore, fairies take a more sinister turn. They can cause sickness and death and they’re usually depicted as selfish or mischievous creatures who, once they find someone they like, will try to bring them to their world (by killing them off in this realm). In T2, there’s a twist. The engkanto mate with a human so that they can produce an offspring. Once that child reaches a certain age, they will appear and try to convince him or her to go with them to their world. There’s one caveat. The child must consent and must want to stay in their world.

Feng Shui: Astrology is Murder

Feng Shui film poster

The film Feng Shui revolves around a cursed bagwa or ba gua, a Chinese object that incorporates Taoist cosmology. The movie draws attention to the Filipino-Chinese community, particularly the practitioners and believers of Feng Shui. In the story, a woman finds a bagwa on a bus and is told that it will bring her good luck. There’s a downside to the good luck she receives, though – the people who looked into the bagwa’s mirror center are destined to die… in a way that relates to the year they were born according to the Chinese Zodiac. The deaths are reminiscent of Final Destination – mostly freak accidents. (I can’t get out of my mind that one character who was born in the Year of the Horse and she died because she fell on top of several cases of Red Horse beer.)

Pwera Usog: Filipino Curses & Witchcraft

Pwera Usog ilm poster

Pwera Usog, meanwhile, was a surprisingly interesting film. I only caught the middle to later part of the film. The movie is about a group of college students (tech and social media-obsessed millennials, apparently) who prank a beggar woman, resulting in her “death” (honestly, I can’t believe the protagonists did this – like, you get what’s coming to you, kids). They then experience strange and fatal things afterward – like bleeding through their nose and eyes and eventually dying.

Turns out the beggar girl, Luna, is possessed by a witch, Catalina. The title comes from a belief in the Philippines about usog – when a stranger curses a person, usually a child. The stranger or visitor is told to wet his/her finger with his/her own saliva. That finger will then be pressed to the child’s forehead or stomach. After they do that, they must say, “Pwera usog, pwera usog…” to ward off the curse.

The film’s most obvious theme is the passing down of traditional beliefs to the new generation – and for that generation to appreciate and learn ancient Filipino practices. Of course, some traditions and customs should be changed, but some should also be preserved.

I grew up in the city and have lived in it all my life, but I think it’s very important for younger people to know the traditions and folk beliefs of people from the provinces. We call them superstitions, but I believe that they are an important part of the Philippine society. If you don’t believe in the paranormal and the occult world like I do, you can just consider it a vital aspect of Filipino culture.

In the film Pwera Usog, there are three generations of people who fight against the evil mangkukulam, Catalina: the grandmother, the mother, and one of the main characters, Quintin, who is trying to save his childhood friend, Luna. It is Quintin who joins forces with the remaining college students, Jean and Sherwin, to save Luna and stop Catalina. His grandmother and mother were killed in the fight, but he has remembered all the things they taught him. In the final fight against the witch, he calls on the spirit of the previous generations to help him defeat Catalina.

I loved that scene because it depicted three generations working together – instead of the usual generation gap, with the young and old unable to understand each other’s POV. The film also served as a reminder that young people should concern themselves with the past, with history, with things that happened years before they were born. After all, as George Santayana once said:

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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