By Carmela G. Lapeña, GMA News – It scares children into coming home before dark, and gives even the toughest-looking grown-up the shivers. It can be blamed for anything and everything that seems wrong – from strange neighbors to mysterious murders. It’s the personification of all things evil.
There are varying opinions on what it looks like, or even what it is, exactly. But millions believe it exists. Almost everyone in the country has an aswang story to tell.
The aswang can turn into a big dog or pig. It can sever its upper body and fly away, leaving its lower half on the ground. It has an extremely long tongue, all the better to suck a baby from the mother’s womb.
In the Philippines, the existence of this supernatural creature is often taken for granted. Little kids are warned by their parents to stay inside, or else the aswang will get them.
400 years of fear
Canadian filmmaker Jordan Clark first encountered the aswang in Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann’s 1994 film “Aswang.” Six years after seeing the film, Clark visited the Philippines, where he observed how Filipinos were both religious and superstitious. Wanting to understand how these two seemingly contradictory beliefs could be held at the same time, he began to research on Philippine folklore, and again came across the aswang.
“This creature seemed able to do anything. It could transform into animals, fly, cast magic spells, heal itself, and really didn’t seem to need a specific foodsource. Pregnant women, the sick, or children, it was a perfect subject for a film,” said Clark, who returned to the Philippines to film his own interpretation of the folklore.
“In the end I felt I had a pretty strong film but was always troubled by the lack of consistent information regarding this creature. I realized while screening it that without a generalized understanding and acceptance of the aswang, like many Filipinos have. So I flew back to the Philippines to answer this lingering question: what is the aswang?” Clark said in his documentary “The Aswang Phenomenon.”
As Clark discovered, asking this question led to several other questions. Finding the answers took Clark on a journey to several parts of the country, including Capiz, the aswang’s rumored home.
“After learning about the various manifestations of the aswang described by Dr. Maximo Ramos (vampire, viscera sucker, witch, ghoul, and were-dog) I wanted to know why there were so many, why they were predominantly women, where the manananggal came from, where the word came from, and why Capiz was suspected as their home,” Clark said.
One creature, many descriptions
What intrigued Clark was how the aswang, unlike the other creatures in Philippine Lower Mythology, had no consistent image or behavior associated with it. “I usually jest that there are as many descriptions of the aswang as there are Filipinos,” Clark told GMA News Online.
“The Aswang Phenomenon” is a comprehensive survey of information on the aswang, told from the unique perspective as someone who didn’t grow up hearing the stories. But apart from what can be seen in the documentary itself, what Clark has done is provide a venue for further exploration of the subject.
“The Aswang Phenomenon” is 77 minutes long, but it goes beyond the running time, as many of those who view the film have their own tales to add to the narrative.
“I love that people are taking the time to comment on YouTube to share their experiences and expand on the subjects I have touched on in the film. If one was to watch the film and read the comments, their understanding of the aswang would be pretty solid,” Clark said.
He describes “The Aswang Phenomenon” as a compilation of information. Since the documentary came out in 2009, Clark has received several emails from people who became interested in the aswang, including students who were assigned to do work on the subject.
“Its purpose is to create a starting point for those who wish to conduct their own research,” Clark said.
The aswang and Pinoy culture
The aswang is often depicted in horror movies and stories as a fearsome creature, but it’s not often that people get to go beyond the spooky tales and exchange views on how it figures in the lives of Filipinos. Clark shared that the most striking thing he came across was how intertwined the aswang is with Philippine history.
“There is this enormous evolution that the aswang has been taken through – it’s use in pre-colonial indigenous and animist beliefs, social control by the church, de-sexualizing women, attempting to end matriarchal societies, unchecked papers through the turn of the 20th century, and finally through amazing artistic interpretations. It is truly astounding,” said Clark, who covered the evolution in his film.
One of the most important parts in the film sheds some light on why Capiz is believed to be where aswangs come from. “What I discovered as the reason I believe Capiz is suspected as their home was both eye-opening and heartbreaking,” said Clark.
After completing the documentary, he decided to put it online. This decision was partly due to his experience conducting research for the documentary, where he met some resistance from members of the academe.
“There are volumes of incredible research in the Philippines that will die on old dusty bookshelves because of this elitist mentality. It is my opinion that research is to educate everyone — which is why I made the documentary free to the public,” he said.
Clark shared that in contrast, the arts community was very helpful. The documentary includes clips and information from Regal Films, horror director Peque Gallaga, author Gilda Cordero Fernando, and comics writer Budjette Tan.
“There were so many Filipinos who embraced my research, took me into their communities, shared their connections and trusted me with their stories. The Philippines has an incredibly rich and fascinating culture. To experience and start to understand it, one needs only to look as far as the artists who represent it,” Clark said. – KDM, GMA News
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