The Taxonomy of Terror
We have a uniquely Filipino way of looking at the supernatural.
(SPOT.ph) Recently The New Yorker published an interesting article about the unexpected revival of “Dungeons and Dragons” in the United States. The article mentions how Stranger Things (a lot of you, gentle readers, are probably going to spend part of the long holiday watching its second season) sparked a wave of nostalgia among ’80s kids who’d spent their teen years playing “Dungeons and Dragons.” The Philippines in the ’80s experienced this craze, sparking here, as it did in America, the raising of the alarm among conservative Christians who considered all the lore on mythical creatures to be the Satan’s beachhead in conquering young minds. The Bible-thumpers lost that argument, considering the Halloween mania we now have in our country. As recently as the ’80s, Halloween was a fringe observance for the irredeemably American-minded. Now everyone gets into it, encouraged by the candy companies, the malls, and bosses who are willing to let drones in the corporate workplace let off a little steam once in a while. It’s also an annual excuse for dressing up in costume, leading to wild nights like those movies set in the 18th Century where aristocrats broke every possible rule on the excuse that if you have a mask on no one will possibly hold you accountable for what you do during the party.
But lost in all the Halloween revelry with its plastic pumpkins, rubber bats, spray-on cobwebs and witch, vampire, and zombie costumes—excuse me, it’s cosplay—are our own spooky denizens of dark and dangerous places. To be sure God knows how the logistics of a manananggal costume might work, and not everyone is either tall enough to be a kapre or tiny enough to be a nuno sa punso—okay so maybe our native creepy-crawlies are a cosplayer’s nightmare in ways I didn’t think through. But it’s still a pity.
For most of us, we probably learned about the night and its terrors from our elders, and the supernatural from even their daytime habits. Now we are a people who are said to love democracy, but it’s interesting what we believe democracy to be. A friend recently recounted a Filipino recently returned from the United States answer the question, “Which is more democratic, the Philippines or America?” in this manner. Definitely, the Philippines, the balikbayan said, because in America you can’t pee anywhere you like, but here at home, you can—therefore, the Philippines is more democratic. To which, being in a Halloween frame of mind, I immediately responded, we cannot pee anywhere we like. Beware of mounds! How often have we been told that? You do not want to piss off a dwarf by pissing on his home. How’s that for supernatural civic consciousness?
But even if we don’t dress up like tianaks the old tales won’t go away. They turn into urban legends like the White Lady of Balete Drive who hasn’t been seen in a generation after condominiums took over the neighborhood. But more than one late-night returner from Tagaytay has a story they heard from a friend who heard it from a friend (so it must be true!) of the friend whose SUV has scratch-marks on its roof from the claw marks of a manananggal attack.
The past literally haunts us. I have listened to scholars solemnly dispute the origins of some our mythical creatures. Was the name of the kapre derived from kaffir, an insulting term for black Africans, and did it thus suggest that friars, concerned about escaped slaves, told such tales to warn indios about aiding and abetting their escape? Was the mananggal a more recent, American-era invention, as Filipinos were herded into hamlets to keep them from supporting our dying First Republic? And scientists too, have long argued about the bangungot, tracing it to a uniquely Asian reaction to sleeping on a stomach full of rice.
Even as the past haunts us, our modern present collides with it and affects it. And here we return to what made “Dungeons and Dragons” so much fun, besides the game-play itself, with your needing a Dungeon Master, and graph paper, and rolling the dice to determine your character’s fate as you engaged in an adventure. Because for every hour you spent quarreling with the Dungeon Master over his judgment calls, you spent an equal amount of time or even more, poring over the compendiums of gods, monsters, and beasts the D&D publishers churned out. Reading, memorizing—classifying.
Classification is a uniquely human compulsion. We like to draw up lists, order things on the basis of what we consider to be their characteristics and the mechanics of their behavior. The Middle Ages had bestiaries, the first encyclopedias had as much fiction as fact in their pages, the figure that systematized and tried to make the process scientific being Carl Linnaeus, who put together the system of classifying all living things we still memorize in school (genus, order, species). Even as science marched on and it became conclusively proven there were no dragons, giants, or unicorns, the system for classifying the real could just as well serve to classify the unreal. But for most of us today the Mother of All such Linnaean efforts was D&D. Such heresy! D&D thus became demonically dangerous but it didn’t end with the Gary Gygax books and the many-sided dice gathering dust in cupboards. Aside from The Chronicles of Narnia which are considered wholesome and Christian (Aslan the lion is the Redeemer), much of Fantasy remains too sexy, violent, or spooky for conservatives. Why, even the Harry Potter saga has gone in for its share of condemnations from pulpit-thumpers everywhere. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is one; The Zombie Survival Guide is another. I list, therefore, it exists.
Which is why I was delighted when a colleague in the Inquirer first told me about the Aswang Project, which has been going on for years but surely deserves a hell of a lot more exposure. We made it the topic of last Sunday’s Inquirer Briefing (sorry, you’d have to have bought the paper edition of the paper to see it), and it has, besides a web page, its own Facebook, Twitter and even a nifty YouTube channel. Fun for the whole family! But really, what sets it apart is the effort at classifying our national menagerie of supernatural creatures.
It’s all there, scientifically-arranged. Benevolent and Malevolent. Deities (major and minor), Heroes and Supernatural Beings: one could go on and on, which the Briefing team did in the Inquirer, broadly speaking. From giants to dwarves, flying, creeping, forest-, sea-, or town-dwelling beings, the opportunities to classify is vast considering the Aswang Project’s database comprises over 200 creatures. But as we were studying the site, it quickly emerged that there is something uniquely Filipino about this vast catalog of beings.
As one of our researchers put it to me, “Most of these creatures want to be left alone. Only the manananggal is really predatory.” Of course others more steeped in the subject might contest this. I myself find it interesting that quite a few could be classified, in the taxonomy of the supernatural, as tax-collectors. By which I mean they will exact tribute, or a cut—a kind of spooky tong—from humans they encounter. I recall conversations long ago from archeologists and one was developing a theory that it would be better to think of the ancient pre-colonial political units less as kingdoms with all that suggests in the Western-sense, and more like pockets of power that made a living from charging toll. You paid a cut for every transaction that went through that territory. Why, all these things seem strangely familiar, in terms of the creatures imbued with power in our lives today, from barangay kagawad to mayors and even presidents: tax, toll, demands, violence, terror—if you cross them the wrong way.
I wish I could write fiction, but reality in our country, which is far stranger than anything a fictionist could come up with, keeps getting in the way. But for those gifted with the ability to imagine, or reimagine, alternative worlds or our world colliding with unknown ones, not enough credit is due. Not least because by means of their imagination, they lead others to being able to imagine, too. And this suggests something that is, to a commentator like me, the most magical thing of all when it comes to feats of the imagination. Sometimes myths tell us basic truths; think of it as passive-aggressive truth-telling. It does no one any good to make a pointed comment about the powerful. But to describe the powerful, in the guise of a forest giant, a sea serpent, a flying, predatory, giant bird—who can argue with that?
Our elders were on to something.