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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Masters of mumbo jumbo or psychics with a mission? Whatever the answer, the Spirit Questors have clearly struck a spiritual chord in the Philippines

By Wilhelmina Paras / Manila


Go to a report about Manila's haunted Film Center

THE 1988 HOLLYWOOD hit Ghostbusters took a light-hearted peer into the world of the paranormal. But in the Philippines, where everybody seems to have a spooky story to tell, these things are taken a lot more seriously. And there is nobody more solemn about matters spectral than the Spirit Questors.

This Manila-based group of 120-plus seers, shamans and mediums specializes in putting the living in touch with the departed. Its services are free and its members are in big demand in a country where poltergeists have the potential to cause almost as much havoc as politicians. Most of the time, the questors work quietly behind the scenes, but they have captured the headlines on a number of occasions -- most famously when they said they had helped relatives contact victims of the Ozone Disco fire in Manila and when they announced they had talked with dead workers buried in the concrete of the Manila Film Center.

Manila's real-life ghostbusters come from varied backgrounds, but share a common belief in the existence of spirits and in the gift of some people to see "beyond the earth plane." Their tales are extraordinary and, for non-believers, have a ring of fantasy, even hysteria, about them. But, whatever the truth, there is no doubting the questors' earnestness.

Most claim to have had paranormal experiences -- such as Luz Bustos, who says she receives messages from beyond. "I kept having this dream where I saw a close friend suffering," she says. "Then my friend was murdered." One day, says Bustos, she heard a voice on the radio -- even though it was not turned on. She says the voice began chanting: "Katarungan, katarungan, katarungan" (justice, justice, justice). Luz maintains she later saw blood on the wall. "Today," she says, "I am helping solve my friend's case."

A storyline too wacky for even The X-Files? Not in the Philippines, where pregnant women avoid the island of Siquijor because it is said to be a center of black magic. Not in a country where some believe snakes lurk in a department store and gobble up customers in the changing rooms. Even government officials are not immune. Last December, Sen. Tito Sotto hosted a television show that maintained aswangs -- vampires with mile-long tongues -- reigned supreme at night in the province of Capiz. His report caused a stir and drew ire from the provincial governor for the potential damage to the local tourism industry.

As serious as many Filipinos are about the life beyond, most psychics hide their power for fear of ridicule. Second-year college student and questor Aldo Carrascoso says some of his best childhood chums were ghosts and dwendes, or dwarfs. "I used to play with them, though other people, such as my brothers, couldn't see them," says the son of the former manager of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. "When you're a child, you don't think there's anything unusual about it. But when you're older, you realize it's not normal and, if you talked about it, people might think you're crazy."

Martin Honasan, son of the former rebel turned senator, shares a similar story. He says he too played with dwendes as a child and kept quiet about it. But, unlike Carrascoso, he cannot "see" apparitions. "Sometimes I see spirits, but not all the time. I am only half open," he says of his "third eye" or inner vision.

Thanks to 46-year-old Antonio Perez, Carrascoso and Honasan now have a channel for their powers and have found others to share their experiences. Perez is the founder and leader of the Spirit Questors. Since 1995, he has been teaching shamanism and psychic powers at Ateneo de Manila University. He is also a practicing Catholic. "I was born a Catholic, I was raised a Catholic and I'll die a Catholic," he says.

Sporting chunky silver rings, heavy bracelets and spiked silver gloves (plus a Catholic scapular underneath his clothing), Perez says he became interested in shamanism when studying Native Americans. He learned that tribal societies in the Philippines practiced the same beliefs. "It's intriguing that there is no difference between Filipino shamanism and American-Indian shamanism. In fact, it is practiced the same way all over the world."

As part of the graduation exercise of Perez's first class at Ateneo, students went on a ghost hunt on the campus -- where they say they discovered the spirit of a man who had died there. The Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper was intrigued and started a regular column called "The Spirit Quest Chronicles" to track the ghostbusters' adventures. Soon the questors were receiving calls from people across the country who wanted help in dealing with paranormal manifestations or in communicating with the departed.

"Members of the group are either students or professionals who lead busy lives. So we usually conduct our quests after office hours," explains Perez, surrounded by crystal balls, a witch's hat and the other tools of his trade. There is definitely something mystical about Perez. He has a gaze that seems to go beyond -- somewhere into another dimension. Intentional or not, he undeniably has the look of a sorcerer.

Present on most questor missions is Charmaine Cruz, 23, a manager at a top real-estate company. Cruz is a graduate from Perez's first class and is one of the questors' best mediums. "I used to dream of events before they happened," she says. Cruz claims to have foreseen the 1989 earthquake that shook the Philippines and says she dreamt of a volcano exploding three days before Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991. "I kept telling myself that the dreams were mere coincidence," she says. "But Antonio said I had the gift. He says everybody has the capability for ESP [extra-sensory perception], but some have it to a high degree. You can develop it either by studying or by joining the quests."

Rosa Panlilio, 32, a mother of four, says she was drawn into the realm of the paranormal when she discovered her baby had attracted the attention of two spirits. "Toby was alone upstairs in our room when we heard an enchanting melody," she recalls. "We rushed upstairs to see who it could be. To our horror, Toby was not on the bed where we had left him, but asleep in his crib -- which had been full of things when we left him in the room. The clothes that had been scattered in the crib were neatly folded and placed at the foot of the crib. After that, I never left Toby alone."

Even so, the haunting continued. "One day, I took off my headband and put it down on the bed where Toby was lying. Suddenly, the headband moved all by itself to Toby's head. That day I lost all my maids. They said they couldn't stand it any more."

A psychic was called and discovered the friendly spirit of Claudia Zobel, a movie starlet killed in a car crash in 1991, was in the family home. Zobel, who was pregnant at the time of the accident, had been taken to the Makati Medical Center, the hospital where Toby was born. Says Panlilio: "Claudia took an instant liking to my little boy, so she followed him home. She said that if her baby had been born, he would have looked like Toby."

Zobel was identified as the spirit who moved the headband. But she was not alone. The ghost of an American woman who had died in the exclusive Bel Air district of Makati, where Panlilio lives, had also taken a shine to the baby. Says Panlilio: "This woman was the one who moved Toby from the bed. She said she was trying to protect him from dwendes who wanted to take him." The two spirits were finally persuaded to "move on to the light" -- and peace returned to the Panlilio home.

"When the American woman left, she passed on her 'gift' to Toby. That's why my son is highly intelligent and psychic," Panlilio says. The experience also left the mother with psychic powers. She joined the questors after meeting Perez through friends. "When our eyes met, he knew and I knew," she says. On one occasion, Panlilio took Toby with her on a quest, where she says they met aliens, or "spirits on a higher plane." She says Toby later drew the spirits he had seen.

Panlilio was the principal medium at a quest in a mausoleum, where a grieving woman wanted to contact her son and grandson, who had both perished in a fire in the family home. When the two spirits responded, says Panlilio, other ghosts crowded around, asking permission to speak. Perez politely turned them down. After the seance was over, the group left a candle burning on top of a tomb. Panlilio says that when she looked back, she saw spirits rise from the tombs and surround the burning candle, as if in solace.

The Ozone Disco in Manila was the scene of a fire that caused the death of 162 revelers on March 19, 1996. The burnt-out shell of the club still lies vacant and undisturbed -- except, apparently, for ghosts. Passers-by report strange noises and sightings. Investigators, grieving relatives and friends of the victims say they have seen apparitions. Some photographs appear to show floating, whitish figures.

In a bid to put the spirits at rest, Joseph Stephen Santos, who lost a cousin in the fire and heads the Justice for Ozone Victims movement, invited the questors to hold a seance on the site. Questor Josie Buenafe, a teacher at an exclusive boys' school, called up the spirit of Ed. He said that while the victims wanted to be remembered, they urged their loved ones to let them go. Ed said there were only 60 spirits left in the Ozone and asked the questors to return for another meeting on the first anniversary of the fire.

In March this year the questors were back. This time they tapped into the spirit of Joey, who told them the details of what had happened on the night of the fire. Thought to be the deejay, Joey explained that when disco-goers saw smoke bellowing from his booth, they assumed it was just part of the show. Joey grabbed an extinguisher and tried to douse the flames, but was finally overcome and engulfed in the fire. He said he could "find the light" and move on to the next world, but had stayed to help the other spirits who were having trouble leaving.

Today, the Ozone's old neighbors have gone. A once-flourishing design shop next-door now stands vacant. On the other side, separated from the Ozone plot by a wall, is the restaurant and club of a recently built hotel. Workers in a glass shop two doors down say they don't hear anything unusual, but no one works late. "We all go home at night," they say.

Perez says there are far fewer spirits in the remains of the Ozone Disco than there used to be. "But many still remain, mostly because they are concerned for the welfare of their loved ones, who are still grieving. Unless the living learn to let go, the spirits will stay in the disco and will not find peace."


Haunted?

The case of the trapped workers

AS IF IMELDA MARCOS DIDN'T HAVE enough problems fighting graft charges and trying to keep the air-conditioning running in the crypt of her late husband, Ferdinand. The Philippines' former first lady must now apparently contend with the irate spirits of dead workers thought to be entombed in the concrete of the Manila Film Center. The dead men are said to blame her for their inability to transcend to the next spiritual plane.

Some of the ghosts have apparently been spooking guests of nearby buildings. In one story making the rounds, a stranger approached a passer-by, gave him a calling card and asked him to telephone his family. He asked him to tell his family he was all right, but "going away." When the passer-by made the call, a startled voice explained that the stranger was dead -- his body encased in the film center.

Last year, more than 80 questors gathered at the center, which is now a government building. After sacrificing a rooster on the front steps, they moved inside for candlelit seances. In the still of the night, they say they heard the unmistakable noises of construction work. The ghostbusters reported that the atmosphere was less heavy than on a previous quest, when at least 30 "very angry" spirits complained that their bodies had not been given a proper funeral.

The questors say their investigations show that the bodies of 169 workers were abandoned in the building after scaffolding collapsed on Nov. 17, 1981, burying them in wet cement. Attempts to remove the bodies were reportedly halted by then Metro Manila Governor Marcos because she wanted to ensure the building opened on schedule for the Manila International Film Festival.

According to some reports, Marcos asked to attend last year's quest, but her advisers said it was not safe. She has always claimed she had no knowledge of bodies being abandoned in the building.

-- By Wilhelmina Paras


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