The ghosts of Fort Santiago (at least some of them, anyway)

I don’t encounter the supernatural very often, nor do I wish to, but they seem to take advantage of the few times that we cross paths, packing a bunch of experiences in the span of a few days, or in this case, hours.

But first, an introduction:

Intramuros and the Manila Biennale

In 2018, an artist, cultural activist, and tour guide named Carlos Celdran organized the first Manila Biennale set in Intramuros. Latin for “within the walls,” Intramuros is a historic walled area in Manila, Philippines. It comprised the entirety of Manila during the Spanish occupation and was considered Spain’s center of education and religion in the region. Today, it’s a historical monument and a tourist destination. Inside its walls one can find sites like the oldest church in the Philippines, a replica of a Spanish-era house, and Fort Santiago, which is where my adventure takes place.

Artist, cultural activist, and tour guide Carlos Celdran was instrumental in revitalizing the interest in Manila’s history.

Fort Santiago was built in 1593 by Spanish navigator Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who was also the country’s Governor General. The bastioned fort is noted for several things, including where Philippine national hero Jose Rizal was detained before his execution, and being used as a prison during the Spanish era and WWII. Many people have lost their lives in the Fort. The area was part of the Manila Biennale, with artwork located all throughout its perimeter.

I was working as the scribe for the Biennale, and was tasked to write my impressions of the exhibits and publish them on social media. On my trip to document the artwork in Fort Santiago, I was accompanied by a high-level psychic, the kind of person who sees spirits on a daily basis and has learned to treat them like regular people. If you’ve read my New Orleans adventure, you know that I’m sensitive, a condition I’m not entirely fond of. This combination resulted in an interesting evening. Here are the highlights:

Children of War 

The first exhibit we visited was Oca Villamiel’s “Children of War,” easily one of the most affecting pieces in the Biennale. Set in one of the Fort’s tunnels, the exhibit consists of one long row of wire birdcages with dolls and doll parts stuffed inside. Everything was scavenged. The cages were handmade using pilfered wire, the dolls were taken from the Payatas dumpsite (google it).

The installation was set in a tunnel in Fort Santiago, the enclosed walls adding to the eeriness of the piece. I was nauseous as soon as I entered the tunnel, and not from the smell of dity wire and rotting toys. Places with heavy negative energies affect me this way. I know it isn’t biological because the feeling goes away as soon as I exit the area, returning once I’m inside again. If I find the exact place where the perimeter of the negative energy starts, I can make myself dizzy by dancing in and out of it.

My companion was taking photos, going deeper and deeper into the tunnel. I followed them inside, trying to hold back my increasing nausea, reasoning that if a high-level psychic can venture into an area with such negative energies, then surely I can, too. As we neared the end of the tunnel, my companion suddenly turned to me and said, “Out. Now.”

I have mild muscular dystrophy and have trouble doing things like run and climb, but my companion swears I brisk-walked out of that tunnel so fast it was as if I wasn’t disabled at all. As we walked to the next exhibit, I asked what caused them to react that way. It turns out that they could see a creature at the end of the tunnel playfully trying to get our attention. Any clairvoyant will tell you that the best way to deal with unwanted spirits is to ignore them, or else they’ll never leave you alone. But this spirit was extra mischievous. The psychic could see that it was getting ready to jump out and scare us, which is when they told me to get out. They knew that I didn’t want to see spirits, and were afraid that if I saw the creature, I’d freak out int he tunnel and possibly wreck the exhibit. 

An image flashed in my mind’s eye and I asked my friend if it was what the creature looked like. They were surprised because it was accurate, and asked it I had seen it after all. I said no, it’s just what came to me at that moment. So we determined that if my mind were a computer, it had a slight lag when it came to processing supernatural information, something that I’m quite thankful for as it would have been embarrassing to explain that I had destroyed an exhibit because I had seen a ghost.

A close up of some of the pieces that make up Oca Villamiel’s “Children of War.”

Puerta Soledad and Turf War

Fort Santiago stands next to the Pasig River, the area’s major river. One of the Fort’s biggest draws are its dungeons, which had openings to let the river water in during high tide, drowning the prisoners, which included over 600 civilians in WWII. 

The gate nearest the river is called Puerta Solidad, after Our Lady of Solitude. We were looking for a piece called “Turf War” and asked the guard stationed for directions. I asked the guard stationed at the gate if he’d ever experienced anything supernatural. He said no, and figured that he wouldn’t mind if he did. A few minutes later, a mango dropped from a nearby tree. “Don’t do that!” the guard said, pretending to be startled. We all laughed, but he very firmly said he go with us to find the exhibit.

We encountered two more guards, both of who joined our party to find the exhibit. We finally found it in a small garden surrounded by crumbing walls. “Turf War” by Lena Cobangbang incorporated plants placed in patterns placed on the ground as a form of beautiful violence against its surroundings. There was barely any light, and my companion, always calm and collected, was getting visibly antsy. Finally, they jerk their head violently in the direction of one of the guards. All of us took it as a signal to leave the area, the guards laughing nervously and declaring out loud that there were no such things as ghosts.

Later, my friend explained that they reacted because they had been startled by a passing spirit poking  its head over the guard’s shoulder, possibly wondering what we were up to.

Orbs at the gate

It was a few minutes before 9pm, the Fort’s closing time, so the guards asked us to make our way out. Before leaving, my companion decided to take a few shots of the arched entrance that separated the Fort from the park outside. They made me stand in front because, as I would only find out this Halloween, they had a feeling they would catch something. So I posed for the photo, then returned to my friend’s side to watch them take more photos of the gate. I watched through their digital SLR’s viewfinder as they took three consecutive photos: the first, a regular one of the gate; the second, the same area suddenly swarming with orbs; the third, a normal photo like the first one. My friend was using a bluetooth trigger, so nobody was touching the camera. I didn’t believe in orb photographs before (they could just be dust; haunted places tend to be notoriously dusty), but to this day, I don’t know how to explain what I saw.

My photo and that of the orbs would be used in WanderManila’s virtual tour of haunted Intramuros for Halloween. No one can explain how that photo happened, only that it’s probably proof that we’re not alone in this world.

The orbs were the biggest signal that we should leave the area. We ended the night scarfing down kebabs at a nearby restaurant, one because we had to make pagpag, te Filipino tradition of stopping by a public place after visiting a wake or cemetery just to make sure nothing follows them home (I had learned my lesson after New Orleans), and two, because encountering the supernatural can leave you hungry!

The Manila Biennale was a success. Intramuros saw its visitors increase by more than 100% during that time, proving that peopler will brave the heat and traffic to see great art and participate in properly curated historical and cultural events. Later, Biennale director Carlos Celdran, who had been arrested in 2010 for “offending religious feelings’ ‘ because of a protest he held in the Manila Cathedral, would exile himself to Spain, where he would die from cardiac arrest in 2019. The Manila Biennale was his brainchild, and because of it, the world got a glimpse, for one short month, of the cultural glory that Intramuros could have been.


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