Chasing Monsters in the Philippines
Circus Living presents "The Aswang Project"
The mythical creatures a particular culture believes in says a lot about its people. The evolution and development of the stories surrounding these creatures offers a deeper look into the history of the people who tell them. Jordan Clark, film-maker and researcher, in his documentary 'The Aswang Project' delves into Filipino beliefs surrounding the various incarnations of the terrifying creature, the aswang. In his quest to gain a deeper understanding of the different beliefs and superstitions surrounding the aswang, Jordan in a sense is re-writing history. Jordan found through his research that beliefs in creatures such as the aswang, long believed to have been introduced by Spanish colonization, existed long before the Spanish influence.
Jordan Clark is a cynic when it comes to the superstitions surrounding the aswang, and admittedly, so am I. Like Jordan, however, I too have experienced phenomenon when I lived in the Philippines that I cannot explain in scientific terms. There is just a certain energy in the Philippines difficult to explain that lends itself to feelings of magical and otherwordly elements. Travellers to the Philippines may experience a similar phenomena. Regardless of whether or not we believe in the end, however, understanding the beliefs surrounding these mythical creatures, and where they stem from, is a crucial step to understanding the culture we are visiting and in my case, the culture I grew up in. The monsters a culture believes in says a lot about its people which quite simply cannot be ignored or taken for granted.
I had the opportunity to interview Jordan Clark regarding his upcoming web series which will focus on various popular creatures found in Filipino folklore.
How did the idea for this web series come about?
There is very little known about the creatures in Philippine Mythology. Dr. Maximo Ramos, an English major from the Philippines, conducted a rather large study in the 60's as part of his dissertation paper "The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology". This has been canon ever since. Unfortunately, it is only a collection of stories and physical descriptions, so there is nothing about the origin, history and evolution of these creatures. It contains social implications, but no historical threads. There have been some fairly important archaeological discoveries in the Philippines since the 60's which has turned modern beliefs about cultural influences on its head. While some of these influences have been tied to the epics in Philippine Mythology, none have been applied to the evolution of the creatures. Philippine Historians have long blamed the Spanish for demonizing the animist beliefs of the natives and creating these monsters. This web-series will show historical evidence to the contrary. While the Spanish played some part, Filipinos believed in these creatures before the Spanish arrived, and many believe in them today. It is a window to the past. The belief in these creatures connects Filipinos of today directly to their ancestors.
Can you tell me a bit more about the Aswang Phenomenon? What inspired you to make the documentary?
The simple answer is I wanted to watch a documentary about the aswang and found that there wasn't one. The long answer is I was looking to make a horror film, but wanted a foreign creature. I happened across the aswang folklore. Since the aswang has different regional interpretations it was a tough subject to research. In hindsight, I can see the differences usually get lumped into one description rather than breaking it down into the 5 categories that have come to be accepted. The first (and most popular) is the Mananaggal, a beautiful woman who separates at the waist, sprouts batwings and flies off in search of unborn babies. She inserts a elongated proboscis tongue to eat the fetus. This is what people in Manila and surrounding areas consider an "aswang", although the rest of the Philippines consider it different. The corpse stealing ghoul classification of aswang is believed more in the Eastern Visayas. The shape shifting aswang (transforming into a bird, or large dog) is believed in the Central Visayas and Mindanao - although stories pop up from all areas now that there are so many people moving to larger cities in search of work. The witch classification is believed throughout the Philippines. This is the most damaging classification. News reports show up every year in the Philippines of some old lady getting murdered because the town folk thought she was an aswang. Lastly, there is a vampire classification, but these characteristics were taken from other creatures like the danag and mandurugo. I think it was adopted to the aswang so Western Vampire tales could be told using a very recognizable term. There is a general understanding among Filipinos about what the term means. For an outsider, it's difficult to decipher. None of the foreign films or TV shows featuring the aswang have gotten it right - and neither did I with my drama "Aswang: Journey Into Myth". You need to pick a category of the aswang and stick with it.
Have you ever travelled to catch a glimpse (that is, if you believe in their existence of course!) or learn more about aswangs or known mythical creatures of the Philippines? If so, can you tell me more about your experience(s)?
No, I don't believe in any of these creatures because I can tie their roots directly to animist beliefs and cultural influences. That said, I have had "experiences". It's actually ties into this real cultural quirk in the Philippines. Most Filipinos will laugh off the existence of these creatures and make fun of the "uneducated and ignorant provincial folk" who believe in them. However, once they find out I am actually treating the subject seriously, they will add, "There was this one time when I was younger..." and proceed to tell me their story about the aswang, kapre, tikabalang, or whatever they encountered. For me, while in the Philippines, I have had the most terrifying and bone chilling moments in the darkness - because of...nothing. This hasn't happened anywhere else I have travelled. I can't attribute it to anything. I believe there is an energy in the Philippines that activates the imagination. If I had grown up there, I can say with certainty that I would attribute it to these creatures and nature spirits.
Prominent Filipino director Peque Gallaga and Jordan Clark
Any challenges or obstacles you have had to overcome in making the Aswang Phenomenon or the web series?
There has been a fairly extensive historical revisionism in the Philippines. It is starting to correct itself now, but it seems at every turn, there is a road block placed by a romanticized version of regional history. I go where the evidence and historical documents lead me, and not everyone is happy about what it shows. A large percentage of the academe has preconceptions about what they want history to show and are not open to reinterpretation. Very little written documentation from the Pre-Spanish Philippines still exists. Much of the art and archaeological discoveries are in private collections. So it really was wide open for revision during the last century. With the internet and sites like Project Gutenberg, there has never been more information readily available - which is why I think the youth of the Philippines and the artists are starting to realize how proud they should be of their history and culture.
What can we expect from your upcoming web series?
My goal is to create a discussion point on the cultural significance of these creatures and to break the preconceptions of their origin. At the same time, I want to emphasize that Philippine Mythology should be a point of national pride and not a sign of ignorance. I would like to see Philippine Mythology taught in Philippine public schools. Only through education can you maintain the identity of the culture and create a populace of critical thinkers to wean it from the superstitions.
Out of all the known mythical creatures in the Philippines and the beliefs surrounding them, which would you say you are most fascinated by, and why?
I would say the Kapre and Tikbalang have been really fascinating as of late. I'm very excited to share what I've found out about them. The aswang will always hold my main point of interest though. I spent 5 years of my life on the subject. I know I only scratched the surface in the feature length documentary and I may feel inclined to re-visit it. In fact, I know I will. For now, I am completely focused on the 6 creatures in the web-series. The fact that they have transcended time, colonialism and religion is proof of their historical relevance and importance. It's all fascinating to me.
After the aswang web series, any other upcoming projects we can look forward to?
If there is interest, I will keep moving through the pantheon of Philippine Mythology with the web-series. I'll probably re-visit the aswang in the next round. I think the format of the web-series would lend itself nicely to fill the gaps in the documentary.