The cultural impact of True Philippine Ghost Stories

Photos by Gian Nicdao


There was this one story I believe of a woman who was walking home and she felt like a
manananggal was stalking her,” writer Renz Torres recounts, thinking about the one True Philippine Ghost Stories tale that truly effed him up in his childhood. “Before she ran into her apartment, she glimpsed the half-creature perched on a basketball hoop at a basketball court near her place.”

Ask anyone who’s read the early issues of the series, and they might give you a single story they still can’t shake off: the bulalo restaurant that cooks its customers, the evil spirit that can mouth your prayers back to you, the infamous Bloody Mary ritual. Personally, I learned about the idea of doppelgängers through TPGS, and for years I was terrified of looking into a mirror for too long, lest I invite my reflection to move on its own. That’s just how it is — for those who grew up with TPGS (at least the early issues) the place that the horror series occupies in their psyches lies somewhere between entertainment and trauma.

One can’t help but wonder, the way one would reckon with a noise in the hallway during witching hour, how TPGS did what it did, and influenced the way many of us look a local horror and folklore.

A spirited attempt

Publishing house Viva PSICOM, which began as a distributor of a computer magazine, launched the first issue of TPGS in 2002, after boss Arnel Garcia went on a trip to Singapore and encountered True Singapore Ghost Stories, another popular title. “He saw it was a hit there, so he tried bringing it here,” says Claudine Gabriel, head of sales and marketing, and daughter of Arnel.

“You could say it’s one of his precious babies,” Claudine tells me in PSICOM’s meeting room, alongside current editors Angeli Serrano and Leni Sabado. “Without True Philippine Ghost Stories, PSICOM wouldn’t be here.” For the longest time, TPGS was PSICOM’s bestseller, and the title that does the most for the publishing house in terms of brand recognition.

 

Keep in mind that TPGS was also thriving in super ideal conditions: the local print industry was doing way better than it is now, and the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today.

 

Keep in mind that TPGS was also thriving in super ideal conditions: the local print industry was doing way better than it is now, and the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. Musician Roy Macasaet remembers him and the other boys in his class all reading the series together. “I remember we read the issue with the Ikot story or the bloody eye through the doorknob issue after class. No one orated the stories — we’d just read at our own pace, four or five heads all reading a tiny booklet, tapos may mag-tatangina in advance and you’d get excited to read that part. And since we were a small school, the stories would spread quickly among us.” Imagine a time when a book could still be communally enjoyed, like a show or a movie.

And of course the stories would spread quickly. They were all labelled “True,” after all, and Roy considered the series a confirmation of sorts of the scary stories he’d hear from his grandparents, a reliable cross reference for creepy anecdotes normally kept in the realm of rumor.

A mysterious presence

It would be inaccurate, however, to attribute the believability of the series purely to good marketing. This is where PSICOM’s paranormally charged editorial process comes in.

Over the course of TPGS’s existence, PSICOM has worked with multiple writers, a pool which Claudine claims was partly comprised by a team of “paranormal experts,” before the series started gaining popularity and receiving submissions from fans. And while old editors are difficult to detect, and authors sometimes submit under pen names, one key figure stands out: a certain Sharron Naverra.

“She has a third eye,” Claudine tells me.

Sharron first started being referred to as a source by one of TPGS’s old editors at age 18, for her clairvoyance abilities. The way Sharron describes it to me in an email interview, “They said I am good at bi-location. Meaning I can go to your house without leaving my seat. Tipid pamasahe.” The standard definition for clairvoyance is the ability to see things beyond the normal senses, from points of view beyond the clairvoyant’s body. The way Sharron’s “powers” work, she gets psychic impressions from what she reads, and is therefore able to verify the stories PSICOM gets from fans, and their pool of paranormal contributors. “It is like the movie (Sixth Sense). I see dead people walking like normal people.”

 

“It is like the movie (Sixth Sense). I see dead people walking like normal people.”

 

It’s hard to believe, I know. This woman’s job, when you get right down to it, was basically to fact-check ghost stories. But when I asked Sharron, a self-described “inborn” clairvoyant to go more into detail about her abilities, she tells me something that makes me almost jump out of my seat.

“The best example I can give is this. When you messaged me, I felt something. A recent dead woman actually dressed in blue with a sash on the waist. Always with you.”

There are a few reasons to doubt this claim, of course. While I trust Claudine as a source, I wouldn’t put it past someone working in sales and marketing to sensationalize the abilities of her professional network. One source claims that he submitted a fake story and it still got published in TPGS 8. “I just made sure it was written horribly,” he tells me. It also occurs to me now, writing this, that maybe Sharron could have — I don’t know — bi-located to my house for a face-to-spectral-face interview.

 

But I consider (and perhaps you should too) the kinds of stories and superstitions we entertain in our day-to-day lives.

 

I don’t know. It is hard — probably impossible and maybe naive — to journalistically verify supernatural claims and abilities. But I consider (and perhaps you should too) the kinds of stories and superstitions we entertain in our day-to-day lives: the girls in Catholic school bathroom mirrors, the way we say “Tabi-tabi po” before taking a piss on soil, the cases of demonic possession that your tita claims to have witnessed, those creepy-ass houses your batch might’ve stayed overnight in for your senior retreats. No matter how well we suspend our disbelief, there will always be the little compartment of your brain that tells you that the way to escape being trapped in a forest is to turn your shirt inside-out. You keep that knowledge anyway. Because why wouldn’t you?

Not quite dead

While TPGS enjoyed a heyday in the early 2000s, a few factors contributed to the decline of the series. “Sobrang daming ghost stories sa market, wala nang demand for it,” says Leni, current editor-in-chief, who has been working for PSICOM for two and a half years. These days, ghost stories are free and easy to encounter — consider content like Reddit creepypastas and shows like Buzzfeed Unsolved, or even Twitter threads and viral Facebook posts.

Since TPGS’s last issue (TPGS 36, published in 2013), PSICOM has attempted to release other horror-related titles. Spookify and The Dark Files have tapped into different editors and writers, but none have captured the imagination as much as TPGS.

 

Consider our giddy fascination with astrology, tarot cards, witches. It is almost as though, in realising the absurdity of our political moment, we jettison old value systems and cling instead to the equally unfathomable — the supernatural, the magical, the horrific.

 

When Claudine tells me that PSICOM plans to bring TPGS back, I thought about how TPGS might reverberate today. Mainstream cultural criticism in the west will tell you that horror is in the middle of a golden age – with films like Get Out, The Quiet Place, Hereditary, The Haunting of Hill House, and the soon-to-be-released Suspiria remake enjoying immense press coverage — owing the genre’s moment in the spotlight to how it resonates with the nightmarish quality of our political context. I think about how maybe this political hellscape reproduces a particular sensibility in my generation. Consider our giddy fascination with astrology, tarot cards, witches. It is almost as though, in realising the absurdity of our political moment, we jettison old value systems and cling instead to the equally unfathomable — the supernatural, the magical, the horrific.

Maybe a TPGS revival might go well — for many, the series was a gateway to understanding Filipino folklore and mythology, and it bode similarly to a new generation of readers. Maybe the series’ return might be met with lukewarm reception — we have our own monsters to deal with after all, most of them in government. I, for one, will continue to think fondly of the chills TPGS sent down my spine when I was in grade school, and maybe book an appointment with an albularyo or a priest, for whether or not I should worry about the lady with the blue sash.