By Jay D. Balnig
The myth of the aswang is popular all throughout the Philippines. Folk tales handed down orally from generation to generation abound in the Visayan provinces of Aklan, Antique, Capiz, Iloilo, Guimaras, Negros Occidental, Negros Oriental, Siquijor, Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, and Samar, as well as in neighboring islands of Romblon, Marinduque and Masbate.
An aswang is a shapeshifting monster usually possessing a combination of the traits of either a vampire, a ghoul, a witch, or different species of werebeast in Filipino folklore, or even all of them put together. Spanish colonists noted that the aswang was the most feared among the mythical creatures of the Philippines.
Legend has it that an aswang enjoys eating unborn fetuses and small children, favoring their livers and hearts. Some have long proboscises, which they use to suck the children out of their mothers’ wombs when the pregnant moms are sleeping in their homes. Some aswangs are so thin that they can hide themselves behind a bamboo post. They move fast and are silent. Some also make unusual noises, like the Tik-Tik to announce their presence. The name tik-tik was derived from the sound it produces, which old folks say sound louder the farther away the aswang is. Fear of the aswang was the favorite stick used by the elder ones to discipline the younger ones.
Although there is no scientific evidence to show these creatures exist, there is, however, no shortage of frightening stories and alleged frightful sightings and encounters in the rural parts of of the Philippines where people still believe in their existence. The unpleasant image generated by aswangs has led the local government units of some provinces to deny the existence of the aswangs in their areas. Similarly, local residents are generally embarrassed and ashamed to say they come from a place famous for aswangs. A case in point: Capiz Province banned its annual “Aswang Festival” due to strong opposition from the church and businessmen.
There is, however, one city in the northeast region of the United States that capitalizes on its local fearsome myth. The historical episodes with “witches” are used to their gainful advantage by making it a great tourist attraction.
The quaint downtown of Salem
Salem, a coastal city in Essex County, Massachusetts, in the United States, is a New England bedrock of Puritan American history. One of the most widely known facets of Salem is its long history of witchcraft allegations, which in many popular accounts started with Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, and other children who began acting strangely and accused some people in the village as witches who had cast spells on them. The adults believed that the devil came to their place. One hundred fifty people were accused, 19 were hanged, and a man was pressed to death many months later.
The Witch Trail Cemetery
n the 17th century, people generally believed witchcraft to be real. Nothing brought the most fear in the hearts of those belonging to the Puritan community than people who appeared to be possessed by demons. Witchcraft was a grievous felony. Judge William Hathorne was the best known of all the witch trial judges, and he became known as the “Hanging Judge” for sentencing witches to death.
Today, instead of looking at Salem City as a source of embarrassment and shame and removing all notoriety of its lurid past, the city even uses the image of a witch riding her broomstick on the official seals of the city government, the police department, fire department and business establishments. The sheer oddity of it all has attracted thousands of tourists to Salem City during Halloween in order to experience the most exciting and thrilling witch hunting activity. The widespread curiosity surrounding Salem has raked in more than one million tourists from all around the world annually, bringing in at least $100 million in tourist spending each year.
The author, Jay Balnig, at the Salem’s Derby Wharf. At right is the Friendship of Salem, a replica of a 1797 American “East Indiaman” merchant ship, captured by the British in 1812.
Among the curious spots is the Witch House, built during the 1600’s and is the only structure standing with direct ties to the Salem witch trials of 1692. A few meters away from the Witch House are trails where more than 200 witches were allegedly captured, with 20 of them killed by stoning or hanging in 1692. Also in display are the things that people used to hunt and hang witches. Nearby is a small cemetery where descendants of a couple alleged to be witches still visited and offered flowers.
Yves and Andrew Balnig at the Withchouse.
Whether people believe in witches or not, a place of curiosity, notoriety and of the bizarre can have a strong tourist pull when a lot of creativity and innovation, plus the elements of surprise and shock, are used.