In Wikipedia speak, an urban legend is a genre of folklore comprising stories circulated as true, experienced by a “friend of a friend” or family member, often with horrifying or humorous elements. These stories can be entertaining but may contain mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects. The term was first used by Richard Dorson in 1968. Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah, introduced the term to the general public. However, fairy tales, myths from the Greek and Roman era, and events that are considered miraculous have been around for centuries and predate the emergence of the term.
There are many such tales worldwide, and in Iloilo these are some of the ones I’ve heard over the years.
The tree that transforms into a mansion
A sign beside a gnarled acacia tree by the national highway in Guimbal town says, “The vanishing mansion – sometimes it is a tree, sometimes a mansion.” A statue of a faceless lady in white flowing robes was erected beside it. To give maximum leeway for any spirits in the area, the national highway was narrowed by a lane to give the tree/mansion space, making for an awkward, if not potentially dangerous, curve. People swear of many strange happenings in the vicinity, such as disappearing passengers.
There are other spots in towns along the national highway where trees have not been cut down — instead the highway has been adjusted to make room for the trunk and roots. One other sign you might see along the roads is “Caution: Mari-it (Ilonggo for enchanted place),” and where accidents are said to occur with more than usual frequency.
The strange phone numbers
In the late ’60s, when I was in the elementary grades, the phone company moved from four digit numbers to five, adding a “7” as the first number; so a telephone number that was previously 44-03 became 7-44-03. Soon we began to hear stories about how, if one dialed 7-77-77, an old man with a wizened voice would answer, as though coming from the bowels of the earth, and terrible misfortune would follow. There was talk that this mysterious being a Chinese who lived in a mansion in Tanza district. I remember trying to get through our party line (only those above 50 might recall this) and dial the number, heart pounding, but I never got to hear the voice as I was so scared that I would hang up once it appeared that someone picked up the phone! This stopped when Dad asked, in exasperation, “Why are you always dialing then hanging up?” and an aunt chuckled, “I feel sorry for the old man who has to answer that phone because dozens of people might be calling.”
The man-eating snake twin
One of the most well-known urban legends is that the daughter of a rich Filipino-Chinese family has a twin, a snake, that lives in the basement below one of the fitting rooms in a shopping mall owned by the clan. People enter the fitting room and never re-appear, as there is a trap-door through which the victims fall and become the day’s meal for the snake. The fitting room venue has transferred several times though, to different malls, and was also said to be present in a big department store in Iloilo. Sometimes one wonders if this tale was started by a rival mall chain.
The disappearing, yet growing, image
Stories about religious images and miracles may also form part of folklore. Tales involving religion are considered “miracles” or even “articles of faith,” yet all the tales have the same elements. One is about the statue of the Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candles) housed in the upper level of the front façade of the Jaro Cathedral. People assert that the image has grown taller. I feel this is a literal representation of the growth in the number of devotees and of the faith (the same assertions of size increases are made of Magellan’s Cross in Cebu). It is said that on misty days, the Virgin Mary disappears from her original nook near the apex of the cathedral and bathes her child in the stream that arises from Jaro Plaza.
Another legend is about the discovery of the statue of the Child Jesus (Santo Niño) at the Fort San Pedro area, after a fierce battle between the Spanish and the Dutch sometime in the 17th century. This image is said to be miraculous and helped the Spanish win the battle in Guimaras Strait. The statue is now enshrined inside the San Jose Parish church, and is venerated as an essential part of the Dinagyang Festival celebrations.
Several other common holdings, some shared by different cultures, include the following:
- If a tuko (large gecko) falls on you, you won’t be able to get it off until “matuwad ang Ati sa imo” (a Negrito bends over, sticking their butt right in front of your face)
- Cat meat is a secret ingredient in the tasiest siopao – the “proof” here is that someone used the CR of a Chinese restaurant and saw skinned cats hanging outside.
- they have a philtrum. If they don’t have that dent on the upper lip just below the nose, that is a definite sign. Or if they do not have a shadow.
- Then there are the aswangs of Capiz Province. There are many mythical beings in the Ilonggo universe, such as the shape-shifting, evil aswang, said to come from the province of Capiz, for reasons not clearly known. Classmates from Capiz were often teased about this.
- Don’t buy food from strangers. Vendors outside the school gate would sell candies to kids, and these kids would fall unconscious after eating them, after which they would be kidnapped and ransomed. I think it was a ploy to get students to buy more stuff from the school canteen.
- If you swallow an atis seed, it will grow in your stomach and soon there will be a tree and branches growing through one’s nose and mouth
- There was also the “leaning mansion” and buried treasure. On one corner of Jaro Plaza sits a formidable looking neoclassical mansion that has seen better days, with part of its front tilting. Allegedly there was digging in the cellar to look for a hoard of gold hidden by fleeing Japanese towards the end of WW2. The digging caused the house to tilt slightly to one side. It’s a variant of the Tallano Gold, Yamashita Treasure, and Golden Buddha stories, I think.
- People with HIV would fill a small syringe with their blood and go around movie houses, crowded buses, and trains and inject people to infect them.
- The “unlucky” numbers phobia: 13 and 4. Many high rise buildings do not have a 13th floor. Elevator buttons only have the 12th and the 14th. Many other buildings in Asia do not have a fourth floor. It is said that “four” sounds like “death” in some Oriental languages and thus must be avoided.
- One story concerns the National Hero’s visit to the house of Don Raymundo Melliza in Molo. While Rizal did visit Iloilo and the Molo Church, and had noted this in his diary, there is no evidence that Rizal ever visited the Melliza house, as local historians Nereo Lujan asserts.
The usual storyline for the urban legend is that it has been witnessed or experienced by a friend, relative, or a “friend of a friend”. This adds a personal account and tends to make it more believable. The stories reflect prejudices towards others, prevailing social standards of the time, or serve as cautionary tales. They may make their way into local superstitions – or may be the origins of such superstitions. That these stories span generations is a sign of their longevity and that they are essential parts of local culture and history. Originally they were spread by word-of-mouth, then by print media, and in the past three decades, through video, internet, and social media; they may give rise to “fake news,” satire, and even conspiracy theories. They may get embellished along the way with a re-telling, much like the message relay game, where an original whispered message is sent down the line and becomes almost unrecognizable at the end. – Rappler.com
Vic Salas is a physician and public health specialist by training, and is now retired from international consulting work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.