Heritage Sites and Why Are We Afraid of Them

Aminin na natin, there is one point in our lives that we associate old houses or buildings, churches, cemeteries (well, this is too obvious) to the paranormal, the scary, and the haunted. Personally, I’m 30 and very exposed to anything heritage, yet there is this lingering image that old houses and sites are full of ghosts and miasmas. Medyo immune na ako sa mga antigo at mga lumang bagay, but when it comes to place-making, these heritage sites are often the “victims” of bad publicity. Why it that these heritage sites are often associated with the haunting?

Lumang Bahay = May Multo, etc.

Perhaps one of the biggest sources of this perception is from the mass media itself: from movies to TV shows. Every time there is a heritage building, an old mansion—especially those unkempt and seemingly abandoned—evokes haunting. It’s a visual cue that “malignant spirits are here” to the audiences.

Laperal House earned its infamy as a haunted house along Leonard Wood Road in Baguio City. It is inscribed as an Important Cultural Property by the National Museum in 2015. Went there, felt something odd, but nothing to be feared of.
We remember Bob Ong's critique on Philippine Cinema on the book (and later the movie) "Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin" on why whenever there is a stereotypical Filipino horror flick, the protagonists end up in an old yet usually abandoned house where they end up being haunted by different ghosts and poltergeists.

This isn’t a sole Filipino phenomenon. Other cultures, especially the West and Hollywood, have used abandoned or old houses as a setting for horror stories.

In the Philippines, the stately mansions, houses, and buildings are often used as a setting for something sinister. Well, not exactly sinister, but something that produces fear of the unknown.
Buildings, especially houses, have good and bad stories to tell.

Inside one of the Rodriguez Houses in Sariaya Quezon. Ghost stories should not impede people from exploring their past. Perhaps, these "ghost stories" may add up to a greater and better narrative of the place.
Residences, especially, to which the Filipinos call it tahanan has a close association with kinship, ties, and intimacy—to which is one of the biggest virtues of this nation. Each family or people have stories to tell…well not everything.

Owners of big mansions, which are usually owned by the elite, are riddled with so much chismis and controversy, which you might thought that it only happens on telenovelas? While some rumors are true, some are just inventions, these “stories” that are often associated with the stately architecture and the intimate space of the tahanan, and it becomes kwentong bayan in the long run.

Nakaksira talaga ng buhay ang tsismis at kontrobersiya—hanggang sa kabilang buhay, susundan ka pa rin ng tsismis. Speaking of chismis...

Urban Legends, Folklore, and Gossips

How do you ruin somebody? Chismis of course. Fabricate stories that are sometimes out of this world and basically not true--especially for prominent people. Our politicians and celebrities are aware of these things nowadays, hence they have PR to clean it over. Image is everything. However, how did a chismis somehow tainted the image of a place. I'm quite familiar with the town of Duenas in Iloilo.

Duenas Church in Iloilo. It is the hometown of "Tinyente Gimo." In this section, we will see how an urban legend or gossip may have tainted the reputation of the town itself.
The story of "Tinyente Gimo," said to have been popularized by mass media through radio drama and readings, has become notorious in associating with the town of Duenas in central Iloilo, where the said lieutenant came from.

There were a lot of stories attributed to him. One of which is the townsfolk found a dead body of a child with innards exposed in Tinyente Gimo's field. The famous one was when a friend of the daughter of Tinyente Gimo "saw" him taking the body of his own daughter to a big cauldron to be eaten. She escaped from the house and spread the news in the city.

The story was so infamous, that Duenas suffered the labels of "aswangan," "airport sang mga manananggal," "taga-dira si Tinyente Gimo," and all other negative imagery that strike fear among the many.

For most Duenasnons I've known and encountered, this is all a sham to destroy Gimo's image. The townspeople are so mad about this labeling that they even filed a persona non grata ordinance to a giant media corporation based in Manila. The councilors said that this media company deceived the descendants of Tinyente Gimo and the townsfolk to conduct an interview for clarifying the urban legend, only to be shown on national TV as something otherwise.

Narinig ko nang galit na galit ang pari noon nung may isang researcher ang pumunta doon para klaruhin ang urban legend na ito.

As for the descendants of Tinyente Gimo, who really exists, they have become somehow anti-social and feared for being aswangs too by the people, even if they are not. For them the urban myth that they believe came from a demolition job and is a burden that their family has to carry on. An injustice that was brought by tsismis.

That is how place making made Duenas as it is today, and the people of the town are fighting the injustice that the negative image the "tsismis" has brought upon them.

A History of Agony, Despair, The Unknown, and Death

Historical sites are places that remind people of an event that may have shaped the local community or the entire nation or even the humanity. These events may be triumphant, but it is those of bravery, valour, sadness, and death that seemed to touch the human’s consciousness more.

Places such as colonial churches, cemeteries, hospitals, asylums, and prisons, are often in the list of the "most haunted" in the country, because these places invoke sadness, despair, agony, death, the spiritual, and the unknown.

A photo posted by Berniemack Arellano (@habagatcentral) on

The stories about grief, despair, and death are often associated with anger, sadness, and sometimes rage. Look no further, as Manila and a lot of places in the Philippines has some local horror or sad story to tell—and is often associated with violence and death.

The Battle for Manila at the end of World War II took more or less 200,000 people’s lives, mostly innocent civilians who were wedged at the crossfires of the Japanese and the Allied Forces. The destruction of the city, with stories of mass murders especially in the southern districts of the city, reminds people of the days their loved ones died, the stench of death was everywhere, and the face of despair was just too much to bear.

The ruined convent of Paoay in Ilocos Sur. At the time we went there, it wasn't clean and was left to ruin.
Baguio is another city that seems to have double whammies in tragedies—of World War II’s atrocities, and the 1990 Luzon Earthquake that have killed a lot of people in the city. The city’s tall pine trees and cooler air may have added that “haunting” or “chilling” effect—that may have been influenced either by Western media and our folk beliefs.

Perhaps the “Bahay na Pula” in Bulacan is a controversial topic in heritage conservation and place making. While it is aesthetically beautiful and somehow unique (and protected by law due to its presumption), the local community perceives it as a harbinger of bad memories of the people there, and they believe that they still hear the wailing of the ghosts in agony. It is said that the Japanese made it as a house for comfort women. Some heritage advocates say “preserve the house! It’s your history!” while the local community has somehow felt negatively on it. How do we treat it?
Personally, it may have been a shrine to honour those who have perished. It’s the least we can do to serve justice and appease the local community or retain “the spirit of the place.”

Old buildings, those that have survived the Great War, or those that have been reconstructed, are frequently used as settings for haunting stories. Is it because it reminds us of the atrocities that humanity has ever done to its kapwa?

Being a concentration camp back in World War II, the main building of the University of Santo Tomas is said to be haunted. However, if we are to look on another perspective, the "haunted" reputation may be a way to remind us of the humanity's atrocities in the past, and may be teaching us a lesson. By the way, it is a declared cultural property and a historic site.
If we are believers to the paranormal, are these ghosts reminding us of their unfinished businesses, or are they ghosts of humanity’s greatest blunder? Were they reminding us of what may eventually happen to us if we are to repeat the follies that our ancestors did before?
As a student of history, personally, ghosts are reminders—of the agony and ecstasy of our story as a nation, as species. 

Nakakatakot nga namamg isipin ang nakaraan na masaklap at masama, na maaaring mangyari sa atin uli. Ang pagmumulto kaya ay isang paraan ng pagpapaalala? Isang aral ng kasaysayan?

An event that happened in a particular space, with perception of both the past and the present, is already place making.

Fear of the Unknown

Perhaps one of the greatest fears the humanity has faced is “facing the unknown.” It has baffled and sometimes horrified us for generations and generations, to which only those who are fearless and the great conquer. Life beyond death is one.

The Dominican Hill and Retreat House, also known as the Diplomat Hotel, has earned its notoriety as a haunted place. It is a marked historical site and a declared Important Cultural Property. There is more to this place than those ghost stories.
Filipino culture and the belief system are a very colourful, vivid, and often interesting. It is syncretic and has merged the folk religion with the prevailing Judeo-Christian, Islamic, or even Far Eastern influences. It may have influenced how we perceived the “unknown,” the afterlife, as an explanation of something that doesn’t make sense in our perception. 

Most of the perceptions about the haunting of these heritage and historical sites were created by people—of both fact and imagination. We people of today rely on these “signals of perception” or akala to describe the place itself. 

"May namatay na diyan, may maligno diyan, may kapre diyan, may kwan diyan.” These are just some of the frequently used statements associated with heritage buildings or sites that often linger in the “unknown.”

However, in place making, there are times that those who produces perceptions, silence some of the events that may either be too mundane to mention, or was deliberately done to malign or benefit the place’s perception. Hence, what we hear or perceive are usually that of “filtered perception.” Kumbaga, hindi kumpleto ang buong detalye ng istorya. We are left in the darkness, having to fear or conquer what lies beyond.

To Fear or To Face, It is the People’s Decision

If we are to discuss this further in a more academic way, it will take more than a thousand word essay or blog post to do it. Ang dami kasing kailangang pag-usapan kumbakit ganun na lang ang takot natin sa mga lumang bahay, buildings, at kung ano-ano pang antigo ang makita natin. There will be psychoanalysis, space analysis, ethnographic methods, perceptions, and surveys involved if we are to dig deeper. 

The Molo Mansion in Iloilo, now restored to its grandeur. Back in the day when it wasn't cleaned up, the people thought of it as a haunted house.
The bottom line of these things is that the people still produces perception or experiences within a particular space that makes it a place. Place making processes continue. Kumbaga, tayo ang gumagawa ng perception ng isang espasyo na maaaring maimpluwensiyahan ang pananaw ng iba. We create the "spirit of the place," if we are to quote Professor Ozaeta of UP Diliman.

Fear of some places especially that of historic and cultural significance may stem on our national trauma of the atrocities of the colonial past. It may also have to do on how our current educational system may have influenced these perceptions of atrocities—to the point that we would rather shun and run away from it, rather than face it. Hinahabol nga ba tayo ng multo ng nakaraan, parang ex mo?

This was a former provincial prison. Today, it is the gallery and the office of the National Museum of the Philippines in Heritage Town of Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
How about the media? To be honest personally, I do not support the mass media’s move to create a “traumatizing” experience these heritage and historical sites as places of haunting. How will the people learn from its past when we keep on running away from them? There are stories worthy to be added in the narrative that is often silenced to benefit or malign the place. We may have to cross that “unknown” and explore more about ourselves and accept who we are.

There is an old saying, "mas matakot kayo sa mga buhay kaysa sa mga patay." Fear more of the living rather than the dead. Because the living are the ones creating places and perceptions.