Understanding Filipino Horror, a tapestry of fears

Understanding Filipino Horror, a tapestry of fears

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At its most basic level, horror as a genre is the business of commoditizing fear. And it’s good business: fear, after all, is universal—a state that’s both familiar and foreign, and by extension, curious, promising thrills we all aim to seek.

The roots of this genre a re storied. From Gothic novels to exhilarating plays, horror has always been a fixture of the culture, a weird bastard child that sets out to both entertain and speculate. In cinema, horror has found its perfect spouse. Being the most prime intersection of art and commerce, cinema is perfectly suited to peddle the shocks and thrills of the genre. 

What compels viewers to buy into this feeling differs from the individual and their cultures, evident in the way that American horror is known for its monsters, bogeymen, and ghouls, who raid the idyll of its seemingly perfect, overprotected suburbia. Violence has no place in suburban America, which is why films like Halloween, Poltergeist, and A Nightmare On Elm Street among others are considered prototypical American shockers. The same can be said about Japanese horror, whose films all but perspire the country’s fear of collapse, be that at a social (as in Kairo) or familial (as in Dark Water) or individual (as in Ichi the Killer).

Understanding Filipino Horror, a tapestry of fears
Dark Water (2002)

What, then, of The Philippines? With literal thousands of islands in the archipelago, our country has a wealth of tales of the macabre, forewarning us of mystical vampires, vengeful white ladies, and headless soldiers. And we have movies to show for it, too. We have movies about vampiric babies, Lovecraftian fridges, and a sentient Holiday ornament. It isn’t boastful to say that we have a varied and interesting pool of horror stories.

But what is it that makes horror movies unmistakably Filipino? What signals the viewers to make the distinction that a certain horror movie has Filipino qualities? To understand Filipino horror, one must have a clearer picture of the Filipino identity—which, as you all may have probably guessed, is where the trouble lies. 

Who are we as a country? What fears do our horror movies reflect to be part of the Filipino identity? Frustratingly, there’s no singularly true answer.

Understanding Filipino Horror, a tapestry of fears
Itm (1977)

Many years of oppression have taught us about monsters aplenty, many coming from those who have colonized our lands: The Spaniards told us to beware the aswangs, vampiric creatures that are out to feed on the young. The Americans introduced us to Christianity, which told stories about scary beasts—and, you know, burning in hell for your sins. The Japanese taught us to fear not the fantastical concoctions of books, plays, and movies, but to fear other humans who are more likely to ravage our bodies and put our heads on a spike.

History doesn’t exactly leave us with a discernible identity, but rather a tapestry of sorts, one that combines, in equal measure, our values with regards to family, tradition, faith, social agency, individuality, and more. 

For instance, Feng Shui—doubtless the most memorable Filipino horror movie of the 2000s—threatens all this. Following a down-on-her-feet single mother (Kris Aquino) who chances upon a cursed Chinese artifact, the film reflects the typical fears and anxieties of a modern Filipino family. The villainess also happens to be a Chinese woman named Lotus Feet, a casualty of cruel circumstance and antiquated tradition. More than the real-world fears veiled underneath its movies, Filipino horror likes to emulate its more established peers. While more akin to Japanese horror, Feng Shui adapts a particularly Western structure similar to other supernatural whodunits like Final Destination

Understanding Filipino Horror, a tapestry of fears
Feng Shui (2004)

This fascination with the genre has been around for a while. Regal Films, one of the biggest film outfits in the Philippines, has in fact built its legacy on cheap thrills. Their anthology film series, Shake, Rattle & Roll, is an easy and sensible bet: each collection features a triad of stories—the Kinder Joy of horror stories, you never quite know what you’re going to get!—that feature everything from a child-eating nanny to an aswang-manned funerary.

That isn’t to say that S.R.R. or Philippine horror as a whole is built strictly with penny dreadfuls. There’s a story about Undin, a sleazy-looking water creature inspired by the matriarchal figure in Oved’s Metamorphoses, and Celso Ad Castillo’s Patayin Mo Sa Sindak si Barbara is an indulgent take on the Jamesian story, “The Romance of Old Clothes”. Some films reflect our guilt about familial diaspora, as in Erik Matti’s Pa-Siyam, or turning back on our faith, as in Mike De Leon’s Itim.

Understanding Filipino Horror, a tapestry of fears
Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara (1974)

Filipino horror, ultimately, is a mix of stories that serve as a map of what makes us who we are, be it borrowed or self-discovered. And at a time where these movies feel like an escape in the unenviable spot we’re all in, this writer can’t help but feel drawn to horror movies with certain catharses, be that punishing fence-sitters in Benedict Mique’s ML or outwitting the literal devil in Dodo Dayao’s Violator. The ability to escape into a contained story where the heroes have the chance—however slim—to vanquish the demons…that’s a gift.

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