Last Halloween 2020, 24,000 people tuned in to WanderManila’s Facebook Page to watch as host and head tour guide Benjamin Canapi, “B” for short, took everyone through a virtual tour of Intramuros, the walled city that was considered the entire Manila during the Spanish era. What made this tour different from other Old Manila tours is that first, it happened in the evening, and second, it was a historical tour told from the angle of the Walled City’s long dead.
I got to interview Canapi on how WanderManila started, why he decided to start ghost tours, what WanderManila is up to during the pandemic, and if he has any plans for Halloween this 2021.
World of Wander
WanderManila started in 2015 as a travel and lifestyle website that focused on metro Manila. “That part never really took off, but one of the nice things that came out of that experiment were the free tours we were staging,” Canapi says. “Little by little, more people were hiring WanderManila to stage tours. We eventually transitioned into touring full time in 2018, and we haven’t looked back since.”
Canapi has always had a link to the supernatural. “I wouldn’t say it’s an “interest” but more as a part of who I am. I’ve had a rude awakening with regard to the supernatural during my college days. I’ve always had a partially open third eye, and I had more knowledgeable friends that kind of indoctrinated me with regards into that world, what I’m sensing, why I’m sensing stuff,” he says.
Despite his sensitivity, Canapi has never seen a spirit himself. “I have never seen a ghost, nor do I wish to. But I feel them all around me. I’m sensitive enough to figure out where they’re located, what their general form is, or it’s a negative or benign presence,” he says. “I will share though that every time I bring tourists to the dungeon of Fort Santiago, the hairs on my arms always, ALWAYS stand.”
Tour of a haunted city
The idea for the One Night in Intramuros tour first occurred in 2019. B is a member of the Trese Facebook Group, and he wanted to stage a Trese-themed Halloween tour for them. Trese readers know that the City of Manila is one of the biggest characters in the series. Incidentally, Trese is about to debut as an animated series on Netflix soon.
“The idea was, I was going to take these fans around Intramuros and tell them about the more legit ghost stories I’ve gathered related to the Walled City. I was expecting maybe two dozen people. I then announced the event publicly, mostly to show people that WanderManila was staging a tour for Trese fans. I didn’t expect that announcement to blow up, with non-fans wanting to join. Lots of them. I tried to control the numbers by saying we would be charging a fee for non-members of the Trese fanpage for joining, but I ended up touring 75 people for the first One Night In Intramuros tour in 2019. That tour was easily my biggest tour ever,” Canapi shares.
In the Philippines, anything supernatural in the media is, more often than not, accompanied by a little kitsch, a little nod and wink at how it shouldn’t be taken seriously, how people are in it for jump scares and entertainment. This is not how Canapi does his tours.
A history tour in disguise
One Night in Intramuros is conducted the way ghost tours are conducted in areas like the US and UK where dark tourism, or tourist attractions that involve things like history mixed with ghosts and true crime, make up a significant part of their revenue. Tours like this are entertaining, yes, but in the way that all historical tours are entertaining—filled with facts and little tidbits not often found in history books, historical chismis (gossip), if you will, accompanied by, of course, stories of alleged hauntings.
In tours like this, history altars takes center stage. “The One Night in Intramuros tour is basically a history tour disguised as a ghost tour,” Canapi says. “All the stories I share during that tour either come from real historical events or have been vetted by trusted people.”
The history part is easy enough to research, but Canapi goes deeper than what can be found in history books and online. He’s meticulous about his historical sources both from books and from people. Even the hauntings are double-checked.
“Basically, every time I hear about a haunting, I cross-reference it to the history of the location to see if it makes sense. More often than not, a lot of the ghost stories about Intramuros can be debunked by plain common sense and a bit of research. So, the ones I do have are rooted in actual history, which makes them scarier,” Canapi says.
“I also have two main informants that helped me shape the tour. One of them gave me access to archive stuff and old articles from the Intramuros newsletters from the 80s. The other one can see and feel spirits and told me about specific hauntings in Intramuros. I’ve also been able to use my sensitivity to spirits to vet certain areas.“
Though his job involves giving guests history lessons, Canapi has learned a few things while working as well. “What initially surprised me with tour guiding was how important it is to constantly study history, to be continuously updated. What was considered true last year may be false this year. Also, never underestimate what you can learn from your customers,” he says.
An online tour of haunted Intramuros
Canapi says that 2020’s One Night in Intramuros online ghost tour, “was a classic case of having the right product at the right moment.”
2020, of course, was the year the world stood still. Almost all activities were banned worldwide to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, travel and tourism being one of them. “The One Night In Intramuros online tour became the de facto Halloween event of 2020 simply because nothing else was going on,” he says. “Now having said that, I know we produced a damned good online experience, and I am so proud of myself and my team for pulling it off.”
As mentioned previously, that event drew almost 24,000 viewers that night. Canapi writes about the experience on the WanderManila website.
The webinar’s very warm reception made him realize a few things, not just about the Filipino’s love for hearing about the supernatural, but also about a slowly growing interest in history. “This… taught me never to underestimate the Pinoy’s appetite for ghost/horror stories. I didn’t think I’d get a huge crowd in 2019, but I got it. I didn’t think that 24,000 people (dyuskolord) would watch my online tour, but there you go. Maybe Pinoys love getting scared, no?” he says.
“I also think we’re slowly but surely building an appreciation for our history and heritage. Once upon a time, you couldn’t drag people to Intramuros. Now, people go in droves there and shoot Tiktok videos. While I wish these people would try to experience Intramuros in a more meaningful manner, you can’t ignore the fact that there is interest in that area. People are starting to see Intramuros for what it is, and that’s a good thing.”
The potential of dark tourism in the Philippines
According to Cultura Obscura, the term “dark tourism” was first coined in 1996 and “refers to sites associated with death, disaster and destruction.”
In some areas whose histories are deeply associated with the supernatural such ads New Orleans, Paris, and London, dark tourism is a huge source of revenue, with a significant number of travelers visiting just so they can experience a dark tour. In New Orleans, it could be a tour of the French Quarter or a plantation. In London, it could be a Jack the Ripper tour. In Paris, it could be a tour of the underground catacombs.
“I think there is a lucrative market for Dark Tourism in the Philippines, in Manila in particular. With all the trauma that Manila experienced, I can’t even begin to imagine how many locations in Manila have their sordid tales to tell. And there’s obviously a market for it,” Canapi says.
Dark tourism isn’t popular in Asia. Reasons include the worry that doing so might be insulting to the memories of the dead, or that such tours might scare off potential tourists or the staff of the buildings on those tours. That said, if these things can be overcome, there’s actually big potential not just to make money, but to rekindle an interest in history.
“I think I can safely say that the Intramuros Administration doesn’t actually like to emphasize the presence of ghosts and stuff inside Intra, because they’re wary it might attract the wrong kind of crowd. I 100% agree with them on this one. The IA actually requested a copy of my tour, so they can check if I was going to go all ‘Tales from the Crypt’ on them,” Canapi says.
He adds that with tours that place the dead front and center, maintaining respect and reverence is important to keep it from becoming distasteful. An easy way to do this is to ground it in history, using the alleged stories of ghosts to humanize these events instead of needlessly frighten patrons with superstition.
“I think the best way to embrace dark tourism in Manila is to treat it with respect. Intertwine the ghost stories with actual historical facts, to give people a richer experience. Also, don’t just rely on jump scares and don’t make up stories. I heard stories about a tour operator that employs a fake psychic to freak people out. That’s not right,” Canapi shares.
“The fact is, Manila has so many frightening stories to tell, you don’t even have to invent your own. Massacre sites, mass graves, violent crimes… the list goes on and on.
“And as far as scaring people are concerned, I think striking a healthy balance between emphasizing the dark and the light is key. “
Current activities and future plans
Though WanderManila’s business model relies on on-ground tours, it has managed to shift to online learning during the pandemic. “We did a web series on Manila’s gatekeepers, we did summer kiddie classes on Philippine History and Culture, and we do online tours. We plan to do more video content this summer as we await the end of this pandemic,” canapé shares. “I cannot wait until the day I can tour people live again. Having said that, the online platforms are here to stay.”
When asked if he was going to do an encore of his internet-breaking haunted Intramuros tour this year, he answers, “I am not restaging the One Night in Intramuros tour online this year, because I prefer to do that tour live for October (the fates permitting). Having said that, I am planning a brand new Halloween online experience for this year.”
WanderManial’s One Night in Intramuros shows that showcasing history through the stories of its dead can be a fun, but also respectful way to get people interested in the past. In a country that prides itself on its hospitality and tourist attractions, dark tourism is a yet untapped market that, as this event has shown, has a huge potential for success.