Unraveling The Family Folklore Passed Through Generations

Aug 25, 2014

What if you grew up being told that the monster under your bed is real? Seattle is home to a large Filipino Community, and in the Philippines, superstitions and the existence of supernatural creatures are firmly believed. RadioActive's Maria Delmar Caoagdan was born there, and tells us what it's like.

In my family, whenever we walk through the woods, we say the phrase "tabi tabi po." Why? I don't know.

As a child, I did whatever my family told me and believed whatever they said. Occasionally, I'd also watch horror films that introduced me to Filipino mythological creatures. But after hearing my family's own paranormal encounters, I began to wonder if those myths really have some elements of truth.

A family friend, Norin Dumlao, used to live in the province of Dabalsur, a rural area. When she was 12 years old, she was sleeping on a mat on the bamboo floor of her family's home. "I decided to take out the mat that night so the air will come through," she said, "but to my surprise, I saw a little boy. He was writing something on the ground, staring at me. I saw his face with only one eye."

In the morning, Dumlao learned that her older sister had also seen the boy. But, maybe the darkness was simply playing tricks with their minds.

My mother has a story, too. It happened when she was still in high school back in Manila. "In the middle of the night, when I opened my eyes, I saw one creature," she remembered. "It was so scary he was slowly coming close to my face."

It was naturally difficult to believe these stories, so I decided to contact my grandmother who was present during that time. And she remembered that night.

She told me that my mom woke her up and said she had seen an ugly man in her room. After that, they called an albularyo, a person who practices traditional medicine and knows how to deal with spiritual forces, like a witch doctor.

The albularyo told my grandmother that the creatures were there because of a huge tree next to my mom's window. My grandmother had noticed the tree too. Whenever she passed by it, the hair on her arms would stand up. The albularyo told my grandmother that it was because something often sits there resting.

My grandmother gave me a good perspective of the elder's superstitions, and how these beliefs play a part in the lifestyle of people in the Philippines. She told me that in her hometown, the villagers tend to greet you first even if you're still far away. That's because there's a belief that if an evil creature in its human form speaks before you, nobody will hear you cry for help while they drag you away.

What exactly are these creatures? My family told me some of the names for them: tiyanak, encanto, maligno, dwende, tikbalang, aswang.

In the Philippines, aswang is the name of any malicious creature. It has many different forms. This includes the tiyanak, which are said to be spirits of infants that died without being baptized. The encantos are magical beings like the dwende (or dwarves) and nuno sa punso (or goblins).

My investigation led me to more questions than answers, so I consulted professor Vincente Rafael, who teaches history and Southeast Asian studies at the University of Washington.

According to Rafael, ancient Filipinos believed that gods and spirits live in nature. Some of these spirits are good, some are bad. Some spirits can be good, but can also be bad if you do not respect them.

"For example, there's the spirit of the tree," Rafael said. "If you urinate next to it, you do all kinds of things that defile that space, that tree will get even and will punish you. So you have to respect it, you have to ask permission every time you pass."

My grandmother has a story to prove this. Years ago, she was taking a bath outside from a well near a tree. "Before I splashed water, I should have said 'tabi tabi po,'" she told me. "But I didn't do it. As a result, my hand rotted. We went to the doctor but it never healed. Then they took me to the albularyo then yeah! It healed."

So now I know where the "tabi tabi po" superstition comes from. Actually, the phrase closely translates to saying "please step aside."

Professor Rafael said that folklore was created to understand the world. So people make things up, and then pass them down. Ancient Filipinos believed that the spirit world has power over us, and that power is split into good and evil. Therefore, in order to fend off the effects of the bad spirits, people created practices like prayers or superstitions to attract the favor of the good spirits.

But how do we explain my family's accounts in a logical way? Were they real or not?

Professor Rafael said that experiences like my grandmother's can be thought of as a kind of waking dream. "And so, it's not a question of did it actually happen? Well of course the dream was real. Now whether or not the dream itself related to something that exists in the real world, that's beside the point."

Maybe there really are some things in this world that aren't meant to be fully understood. As my mother always says: "The important thing is I experienced everything. They know everything that happened to me, then it's up to them if they believe me or not."

Thanks to Lian Light for providing voice-over translation for this story. Hear more of Maria Delmar Caoagdan's interview with Professor Vincente Rafael here.

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Summer Introductory Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.