From Aswang to Feng Shui: the culture behind Filipino horror

There is a different way to which Filipinos take on horror and scary stories. There is a pervasiveness in our culture; an inherent sense of supernatural in our collective consciousness that it is almost impossible for any child to grow into adulthood without hearing at least one or two urban legends or myths of Filipino folklore. But in investigating our culture’s very fascination with stories of the supernatural, one must take a wider approach on the history surrounding the affiliation of Asian culture as a whole with paranormal folklore.

As any horror film buff would notice, there is a slight and yet noticeable variation in which Western media creates horror films, as opposed to those done by Asian filmmakers. An inherent ‘creepiness in the everyday’, as described by Channel News Asia’s Genevieve Sarah Loh, is prevalent in horror movies from the Asian region that is simply impossible to replicate by its Western counterparts – and this is credit to, primarily, the unique cultural history of Asian traditions, and its intertwining with the supernatural. That is, cultures and cinemas of Japan, Hong Kong, and China are ripe with images of ghosts and specters, demons and devils.

And the Philippines is indeed no stranger to such supernatural traditions, with stories of beings beyond even those grasped by Western storytellers. Supernatural beings in the Philippines go beyond the Western ghosts and poltergeists, or the cultural-inspired mythical beings of the Japanese or Korean paranormal. The rich, unique ethnology of Filipino horror is a product of a mix of cultural and colonial assimilation – centuries alternating Catholic indoctrination, Chinese influence, and our own pre-colonial beliefs in animism have combined to create a trove of supernatural myth that is a culture in and of itself, and passed on from generation to generation.

Such as it is, it is nearly inevitable that such a rich trove of supernatural culture and history bled into the creative consciousness of filmmakers, giving birth to the extensive portfolio of local films that took inspiration from the Filipino supernatural. Indeed, such is the depth of the supernatural ingrained in our culture that the bulk of horror films take root in the stories of the past, in the myths passed down from our great-grandparents, rather than in manufactured creations. This is, perhaps, what feeds and perpetuates the Filipino public appetite for horror – that the films we watch are grounded on a truth, or at least in a shared understanding and belief in its origins. There is no need for convincing the Filipino audience with dramatic, monstrous creations but rather with vivid re-imaginations of the characters we already know, the superstitions we are already aware of.

And perhaps, if anything, the treasure trove of our local supernatural is an inherent and valid aspect of our culture in itself, just as any other cultural baggage brought on by the generations before, and the ordeals they have encountered. Horror is, after all, an undeniable element of culture, and thus a constituent of our identity as a nation.


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