Since moving to Manila for college, I’ve only been invited to celebrate Halloween once. It was a house get-together and the call came on the day itself, so I had to rush a costume. I eventually decided to dress up as Pepper (my friend and I decided to go as a Salt and Pepper pair). I managed to put together a little black dress, a lace choker, and taped a cardboard letter P to my stomach. I was going for a gothic Pepper, while my partner went for a more business professional Salt. I’d simply have to point to the letter taped to my stomach and at my partner for people to get that we we trying to look cute by dressing up as two essential kitchen condiments.
The way we celebrate Halloween here in the city is often a series of week-long commercial festivities: bars announcing their special Halloween promos, private gatherings and Halloween-themed music concerts and gigs - just a multitude of businesses riding along people’s spirit of fright and make-pretend. Your costume embodied your level of commitment to the whole affair and a lot of my peers rejoiced in the challenge.
Thinking about Halloween makes me nostalgic for an innocent time in my childhood - that particular time when I had Friday afternoons free and weekends that stretched on like forever. I remember all these in Butuan, a town in Mindanao where I had a peaceful, middle-class childhood. The street where I lived in had identical, one-story houses and closely acquainted neighbors who were privy to personal affairs. This set-up in life provided me with a childhood where I was able to explore different households and find friends that accompanied me throughout my many quests for adventure.
I was friends with an interesting group of girls: The one I was closest to, Z was the daughter of a seaman and home economics teacher. We heard whispers that Cherry, the eldest, had a relative who was an escort in Japan. Jo was the daughter of the sari-sari store (locally owned convenience stores) owner whom they said left her first husband. Kath and Kim were sisters and that’s all I ever knew about them. Kath was the pretty one and Kim was the more playful one.
We grew up in the town of Butuan in Mindanao, Philippines. My friends and I had to be creative about the ways we entertained each other as kids.
We started a club and we were known as the “Star Club,” we made up rules for ourselves: 1) As much as possible when we go out to play, we would wear shorts. 2) Never let anyone go home alone late at night. 3) No talking to boys. In a red and blue-lined notebook, we listed down all these rules.
We became imaginative in how we bonded, particularly in the ways that we scared each other. Being the most curious when we were 7, we could not afford fanciful flights of fun as you would as an adult, we had to be imaginative, even more, resourceful.
Along with several other children in the neighborhood, the five of us girls would go to Cherry’s house during Saturdays to catch the tv show, Nginiig. We would switch off the lights in their living room, turn on the tv, and wait until the sky outside would turn an ominous purple. Once the opening sequence started with its chilling theme song that goes, “Banal na aso, santong kabayo, Natatawa ako hihihihi,” (holy dog, a saintly horse, I feel like laughing…) we curled up to each other with the pillows as our fortress against the bad spirits we imagined lurked in the dark part of Cherry’s living room.
Every episode usually featured real horror and paranormal stories that were reenacted based on victims' accounts of horrifying events. The stories revolved around folklore and urban legends: crying White Ladies (ghosts) in public places, floating coffins, haunted houses along the cold, foggy roads of Baguio.
This became our tradition. When the episode was done, the sky had already darkened. This left us with the predicament of wondering how we were going to get home safely, afraid of the shadows and the stray dogs that followed us home. Cherry safely at home, Star Club made an elaborate system where we would all walk Z to her house first, then Kath and Kim would escort me to mine, and finally the sisters would together brave the streets, hugging each other in the dark.
True Philippine Ghost Stories
This book series was introduced to me by a friend at school. We passed it around during recess or when the teacher wouldn’t show up for class. Some of classmates would altogether gather on a wooden armchair, four or five heads bent down toward the pages. At some point, I had become so fascinated that I bought my own copy of one of the books and held onto it like a cursed object all the way home.
I shared it with the Club and on one lazy Saturday siesta, while the whole neighborhood moved slow and the heat took a toll on grandmothers who sat in the patio close to the street, I confidently read the stories out loud to them. I thought that if the book was indeed cursed, sharing the tales to my friends would distribute the bad juju and the evil spirits that lived in every chapter that haunted us together.
Looking back, I was selfish as only a gullible young girl would be. And yet we all felt powerful - we heard the stories and were thrilled by them. We told ourselves that if ever a White Lady ghost or a headless man in a barong (traditional Filipino attire) appeared in front of us at any moment, our collective screams would scare them away. And if not, we counted on our Barbie shoes to help us run as far away as we could.
Buwan-Buwan is a traditional Filipino game that was very common in our neighborhood. We would take a dustpan from one of the houses, collect water from the narrow canals along the streets, and draw a circle on the ground representing the moon. All players had to stay inside the circle while one player would act as the mythical giant sea serpent believed to eat the moon, “Bakunawa.” He may not enter the circle, but attempted to touch players inside it, in order to switch places.
Although when we played it we did not have knowledge about the Bakunawa, we were all just afraid of the prospect of being the person outside the protection of the circle. We pushed and shoved each other, shrieked and screamed to elude the hands of the mythical giant sea serpent that was also one of our friends. We would only stop playing when the water marks had already faded and we were all breathless from the heat.
Improvised horror house
There were times during the afternoon when the Star Club would plan to transform my whole house into a haunted one. We dressed ourselves up, put on baby powder, and borrowed my mom’s old lipstick to decorate our faces with blood. The neighborhood children began making their way through the haunted house from our front door, only to meet Cherry, crawling on the ground, who transformed into a hungry monster in the kitchen. Kath and Kim would be in the living room, both their faces chalk-white and bloodied, their hair messy as they laughed freakishly in children’s faces. For the final act, Z and I waited in my bedroom under the sheets. Once the children arrived, we would charge onto them with our blankets as the rest of us surrounded them with spooky screams and laughter.
Our days would end like that - in laughter, with faces white from baby powder and blushing from expensive lipstick. The children talked about how the Star Club made a horror house all on their own and we catapulted ourselves to neighborhood fame. We were a group of five girls whose antics the neighborhood loved and it quite sad to think that at some point the five of us all grew up and went our separate ways.
During my 7th birthday, I was joined with Star Club members on the right and the neighborhood children on the left while I blew my candles.
Star Club members and a few other neighborhood children join in on a dance number. These were one of the ways in which we solidified our group. Apart from birthdays, we practiced dance numbers for barangay events and was always encouraged by the neighborhood to perform.
Even as an adult, I still fall victim to the belief of an urban legend or two and think twice before watching a horror film inside the cinema. I have become more concerned with safety during my commutes and wary of serial killers when I sleep alone at night. Dark streets have always been a scary place for women. Our fears have risen out of necessity and caution and have taken more sophisticated names.
I think about this and I remember Star Club and the girls I shared a childhood with and hope, especially now, that they don’t face their fears alone. And that when they do, they do so with a bit of laughter and unsolicited grace, just as we once did in a small neighborhood in Butuan.