True Weird: Some Themes in Manila Urban Ghost Stories

Each culture has its own themes of the supernatural, stories that occur again and again in different places and different eras, becoming more folklore than coming from fact, the kinds of stories told around a campfire. These stories, like the latest fad, seem to change over time, their popularity driven by community, society, and technology. Here are five such tales that have made the rounds of Manila ghost story circles–everyone in the Philippine capital will have heard a version of each, mostly stemming from childhood, each attached to their own community. No one really knows where these stories began, only that they have been adopted by public imagination and have been made personal in the telling.

Catholic School History

The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, with many schools run by priests and nuns. Anyone who studied in a Catholic school will tell you about how it’s common belief that before their school became a place of education, it was first, in no particular order, a hospital, a church, and a cemetery, which is why it is infested with spirits to this day. What the hauntings are will differ per school, but what seems to be common is the origin story.

Nun in the Bathroom

Students from nun-run all-girls’ schools are familiar with this one. A student cuts class and hides in the bathroom. She is approached by a nun, who tells her, kindly, to go back to class. The girl is confused because she has never seen the nun before. Her confusion turns to horror when she looks down and realizes that the nun is floating–she has no feet!

Demon in the Mirror

This story, perhaps, is more admonition to take faith and prayer seriously more than anything else, but ask around and you’ll find at least one person who knows someone to whom this has happened. A person is making faces in the mirror when their reflection starts making faces back. Scared, the person closes their eyes, makes the sign of the cross and recites the Lord’s Prayer. When they open their eyes, they are shocked to see the demon in the mirror mimicking the sign of the cross and gleefully reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a taunting voice.

Neverending Stairs

This story is usually heard in Universities. A student is late for class, so they run up the stairs to get to their classroom. There are two versions: either the stairs never end or the student realizes that they’ve run up one flight too many and are on a floor that shouldn’t exist. Either way, the student runs back down. When they try to repeat what just happened, the stairs lead them to the proper floor and they never experience the phenomena again.

Hospital Elevator

This one has become a common story in Manila, though the author thinks that it actually started in Thailand or Singapore and has been co-opted into Filipino imagination. A doctor gets into a hospital elevator with a man. They see a patient running to the elevator, telling them to wait. The doctor quickly pushes the elevator door close. The man beside him asks why he was in such a hurry to keep the patient from riding with them. The doctor says that he saw a tag on the patient’s wrist that marked him as dead, so it must have been a ghost that was running towards them. The man holds up his own wrist, which sports the same kind of tag and says, “You mean like this one?” What the doctor does next is unknown.


Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.

One thought on “True Weird: Some Themes in Manila Urban Ghost Stories

  1. In those types of ghost stories popularized by Psicom Publishing’s “True Philippine Ghost Stories” serials, almost everything is built on hallowed ground.

    However, I once heard from an acquaintance in high school that a surefire way to counter the ghost / demon in the mirror is to recite the Apostle’s Creed (if in case the ghoul mocks the Lord’s Prayer).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s