Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Essay: No Ghosts in Balete Drive

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Nick Mamatas just posted the guidelines for a new anthology he and Ellen Datlow are working on: Haunted Legends. Now it made me wonder what haunted sites the Philippines has. It's not that we have a shortage of regional folklore. For example, the province of Pangasinan is known as the home of aswangs (further research into aswang lore also results in various interpretations on what an aswang is, everything from hex-cursing warlocks to fetus-eating women whose upper torso detaches from its lower body and flies). However, as far as specific locations go, I'm sure everyone knows of a haunted house or two (since many of the private schools are run by priests or nuns, I expect that each school has a haunted location) but as far as famous places that have joined the zeitgeist, there's only two that I know of.

One is Maria Makiling, a beautiful maiden spirit (a diwata) who haunts the forests of Mt. Makiling. Much like the aswang, the tales of Maria Makiling are varied. On one hand, she is a male fantasy as wanderers who disappear into her forests have fallen in love with her and spend the end of their days in bliss. On the other, she is the spurned lover, and is a force to be reckoned with, irregardless of whether you're male or female. Other incarnations include being a defender of nature (woe to thieves and loggers) and a helpful guardian (aiding those who are lost or who have fallen ill). Maria Makiling ends up being a flexible icon and perhaps the only consistent thing about all the stories is her beauty.

As rich as Mt. Makiling's legend is, it is a far-off place for urban Filipinos, and it is not something we always associate with abject terror. One place closer to home is Balete Drive, a haunted street in Quezon City. The most common story associated with Balete Drive is that it is haunted by a "White Lady" (for all intents and purposes, a ghost). The one I heard goes like this: if you're driving alone at night, the White Lady appears, either in the rear view mirror, as a passenger (keep all those seats occupied!), or in front of the vehicle. As for the source of this supernatural phenomena, they are varied, everything from the old, haunted houses in the area that date back to the Spanish colonization, the prominence of Balete trees (which are said to house various spirits), or simply the result of a tragedy (an unavenged rape). Balete Drive is one of those places that Filipinos associate with White Ladies and even had a movie based on it.

If you've actually been to Balete Drive, it's really just a small street. It's not like the other, more popular streets in the country such as Roxas Blvd. or the highway EDSA which spans several kilometers. Today, Balete Drive is surrounded by several key locations such as St. Luke's Hospital (which I'm sure has its own ghost stories that are privy only to the med interns), two private schools (an all-girls school and a Filipino-Chinese school), and the night-life haven that is Tomas Morato (full of endless bars and restaurants). Despite that, you don't need to pass through Balete Drive to get to those destinations. Instead, it's a small detour, a short-cut for those who want to avoid the traffic of the main route.

I've passed through Balete Drive several times, mostly through ignorance. In high school, I just acquired my braces and my dentist was in the area past Balete Drive. Our driver would pass through the unused routes to get to the location faster and apparently one of them was Balete Drive. I wouldn't find out it was THE haunted street until our high school prom and the editor-in-chief of our school paper (I was the news editor) was having problems with transportation. It was only then that the editorial staff discovered he actually lived in Balete Drive and he described the location I frequently passed through. As expected, high school students loved to gossip so we popped him the question, what's it like living in a haunted street? Our editor-in-chief merely shrugged and told us wistfully that he's never seen a White Lady--at least not on his street. Which was a shame because it was a slow news day and we wanted a good story, fictional or otherwise.

While I can claim I've regularly passed through Balete Drive, it was always in broad daylight. Also, I was ignorant of the fact that it was a haunted site so that probably helped. I feel robbed of a good haunting story. Anyone up for a stake-out of the place (which involves driving back and forth in the street--I only ask because 1) I have no car and 2) I have no driver's license)?

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