01 Feb The Grand Mausoleum
Since its discovery by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, the Philippines has seen its fair share of horrors and tragedies. From the oppressive 300 plus year rule of the Spaniards to the brutal occupation of the Japanese during World War II, the soil of the some 7000 islands that dot the Philippine archipelago have been soaked in the blood and tears of countless filipinos who wanted nothing more than to live peaceful lives.
One of the darkest periods in the country’s history occurred from the early 1970s up the the late 1980s. You see, in 1972, then president Ferdinand Marcos formally placed the Philippines under Martial Law. This period was what many considered to be the lowest point in the country’s history. While some revisionists and pro Marcos factions still contest such a claim to this day, the consensus is that this Martial Law period saw various atrocities committed upon the filipino people. What made it all worse, I think, is the fact that unlike the spanish and japanese occupations, these atrocities were committed by filipinos on filipinos. The late strongman held an iron grip on the country. Free media was silenced, propaganda reigned supreme, billions were plundered from the national treasury, and human rights became nothing but an afterthought. Records are, at best, difficult to come by, but some tallies point to over 3000 plus extrajudicial killings, more than 35,000 documented cases of torture, innumerable enforced disappearances, and over 70,000 incarcerations.
Now I’m not here to dwell on what the late dictator and his family did or did not do to this country but a lot of people forget that the politically motivated atrocities were not the only tragedies that befell the country during this time. You see, in 1981, first lady Imelda Marcos, in a bid to show off the cultural heritage of the Philippines, pushed for the construction of the Manila Film Center. The Center was meant to host the 1982 Manila International Film Festival. The 25 million dollar endeavor was supposed to not only showcase the cultural treasures of the country but, if some are to be believed, also reinforce the classy, intellectual, and sophisticated image that the first lady wanted to project.
Construction began in 1981 and with such a tight deadline, work had to be done round the clock. Some 4,000 workers toiled for 3 shifts across 24 hours. Some records show that work intended to be done over the course of a couple of weeks were achieved in a matter of days. While I will always commend the effort, competence, and sheer will power of the filipino worker, disturbing evidence shows that the speed at which they were able to work on the structure could not be completely attributed to their skill and hard work. Many believe that in order to meet the deadline (and pocket some of the funding), the planners of the building used substandard materials and methods in the construction. Worse, it was alleged that in order to facilitate faster construction, floors were built even though the underlying concrete had yet to fully dry and take hold. All this culminated on November 17, 1981. At around 3:00AM the upper scaffolding collapsed and around 170 workers plummeted to the floors below. From here, records are scarce given that the government at the time had a complete stranglehold over the media. As such, it may have well been in their best interests not to divulge the true extent of the losses to life and property. Many have stated that the higher ups sought to cover up the whole thing. In fact, rescuers, ambulances, and media personnel were only allowed on site some 9 hours after the incident, at which point many of the victims were already dead, having either been crushed by falling debris, killed by the impact of the fall, or as some witness accounts state, impaled on the steel bars below.
One of the more grisly, yet enduring legends regarding the Film Center revolve around what was done to those workers who fell from the scaffolding. It is a widespread belief that in an effort to meet the 1982 deadline, and to save face with the public, the entire accident was covered up…quite literally. It is said that construction was made to continue on the building. When asked about what should be done about the bodies, workers were told to simply build over them. Many believe that the deceased, and even some survivors, were buried alive in wet cement so that the construction could proceed as scheduled. Whether or not this is true is anyone’s guess. Officials involved have maintained that the bodies of the deceased were recovered and given the proper rites while eyewitnesses and workers insist that no such recoveries were made. Regardless, one thing is for certain, there are things still bound within the walls of the Center. Patrons, workers, urban explorers, and ghost hunters all insist that they experienced paranormal activities, ranging from seeing shadowy figures to hearing unnatural sounds, during their stay in the building. Even the grounds around the Center seem to possess such horror since taxi drivers passing by have reportedly seen, and at times picked up, passengers looking bloodied and distressed, only to find the back seat of their cabs empty upon checking again.
It’s 2016 and I’m about a few months from finishing my first year in college. One particular class required us to group ourselves and make a documentary about anything in the city of Manila. We were a group of five consisting of myself, Rex, a high school friend of mine who also went to the same college, Tina, a rather shy girl, Modo, a loud upperclassman who was in the same course as Rex, and Kat, a similarly loud and brash girl who, I swear, cursed more than anyone I had ever met. After much deliberation we decided on making a horror documentary, akin to shows like The Most Haunted Places on Earth starring Linda Blair. Given that our school was located near a number of historical sites, we decided to narrow down our choices to two: the chapel in our very own school where hundreds of priests were said to have been beheaded during the Japanese occupation, and Fort Santiago, a nearby…fort…built by the spaniards in the walled city of Intramuros. We eventually decided on the latter since we felt that we would get bonus points for going out of our comfort zone as well as the fact that Fort Santiago was a renowned historical site in the country.
A little backstory might be in order. Fort Santiago was a garrison constructed by the Spaniards during their occupation of the Philippines. It served as a military installation and a prison. In fact, Fort Santiago once held Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, before he was executed in the nearby Luneta Park. During World War II it served the Japanese a similar function and hundreds of both Filipino and American citizens, combatants and otherwise, were said to have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed within the walls of the Fort. Seems perfect for a history class documentary, no? Well, we thought so. That’s why a week later we all got into cabs and made our way to the walled city of Intramuros to film what we thought would be an A+ documentary.
Intramuros itself is magnificent to say the least. It’s a city within a city. Towering walls of stone separate it from the rest of Manila. Stepping inside is like stepping into a time machine. Cobblestone streets as far as the eye can see dance and weave across the city. Similarly made stone houses and buildings dot the sprawling grounds , many of which have been beautifully preserved and now function as museums and tourist spots. Horse drawn carriages called kalesas can be seen everywhere, the hooves of the horses making a distinct sound as they strike the stone streets. Aside from a number of modern establishments , people wearing modern clothes, and the occasional car, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that you had suddenly been thrust back into the 1800s.
Unfortunately, the beauty of the place was only matched by our sheer stupidity. In our zeal to get this project over with we forgot one very simple thing: Fort Santiago, and much of the places in Intramuros, were now technically tourist attractions and, as such, were bound by certain rules…namely an opening and closing time. The guard at the entrance told us that we had arrived some 15 minutes before closing time, obviously not enough to make a full blown documentary. We begged with the guard to let us stay past closing time but he said his hands were tied. He directed us to the main office and told us that maybe we could strike a deal with the management officials. Sadly, nothing but a closed sign greeted us as we arrived at the main office.
Now, technically speaking, this wasn’t supposed to be such a big deal. All we had to do was come back the following day. However, we were college students. Lazy, work ladden, busy…and lazy college students. We had already planned to finish our documentary tonight and none of us wanted to have to make our way back here the following day, or any other day for that matter. We just wanted this over and done with. As our group sat by the sidewalk weighing our options, I couldn’t help but admire the way the walled city looked. It’s cobblestone streets and towering stone buildings radiated a pale orange underneath the setting sun. “Postcard worthy” is what I thought as I looked out at the scene before me. My preoccupation with the sight is probably what made me forget all about Kat who had apparently separated herself from the group and had just made her way back.
“Guys, I think I have a plan B” she said, making all of us look up. “My dad is the…he’s kinda the caretaker of the Manila Film Center. It’s not as nice as Intramuros but I think it’s an okay substitute. He said we can film there. He’d even give us the tour of the place”
We all looked at each other, nobody saying anything for a few moments. Suddenly Rex jumped up and clapped his hands.
“That’s perfect! Think about it. Our project is a horror documentary. People probably weren’t executed there like they were here but we all know how fucked up the film center was when it was built. Plus, it’s an old abandoned building at night. It just screams horror documentary.”
We all realized just how perfect the situation had become.
“Wish you’d given us that option at the start, Kat. We could already be halfway through our documentary by now if we had gone with the film center from the beginning” I chimed in. We all had a quick laugh and immediately hailed an incoming taxi.
The film center was not far from where we were and we got there in about 20 minutes. The front of the center is what you would expect from any big theater oriented building. The main entrance is located in the center of a ramp. You can drive up either side to get to the main doors or walk up a flight of stairs located in the center of the ramp. The building itself is massive. A white concrete structure designed to resemble the Parthenon. I say “white” because I guess that’s what it was intended to be. Given the many years the building has left to rot and fester you could clearly see dark green, almost black trails of mold and watermarks running every which way across the once pristine white walls. When we got down I realized that I could finally ask a question. which had bugged me about the place for the longest time.
“Kat, what does ‘Amazing Show’ mean?” referring to the red and blue letters which spelled “Amazing Show” above the entrance. Kat laughed and gave what was probably one of the biggest surprises of the night.
“Some company, I don’t know if filipino or not, kinda rents this place. They use it for a show or some production, I don’t really know what to call it. Obviously it’s called the ‘Amazing Show’ and it’s…it’s basically a huge theatrical drag show” she said with a laugh. We all looked at her as if she was crazy. She continued. “ Im serious! There’s like a troupe of transvestites who regularly hold shows here! You’d be surprised to know that there is actually an audience…mostly aging asian men, japanese, korean, chinese, who seem to get a kick out of it. Also, the occasional filipinos who I’m sure are just dirty old men” she said again laughing. None of us believed her at first but after a quick google search, everything she said was verified. The fact that a group of transvestites were routinely holding musical level theatrical shows for the benefit of dirty old men almost took the mystique out of the place and we all spent about a good five minutes outside just laughing at the absurdity of that image.
We eventually made it inside and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. Far from the decrepit interior I was expecting, the lobby was just what you’d expect from any theater. The walls were made of wood and obviously meticulously detailed. A number of posters showing old school films hung from the rafters. One or two ornate sculptures served as additional displays across the lobby. The floor was carpeted with a velvety red cloth. I was honestly impressed. At the end of the lobby where a couple of massive wooden doors. The actual stage and theater must have been right behind them…together with the transvestites.
One thing really bothered me though…actually, it was completely unnerving. While the lobby itself was magnificent, the floor above was…I…I don’t know how to describe it really. So the lobby was basically an atrium which mean that the floors above could see down towards it and by extension, you could more or less see the upper floors from the lobby. That was what put me off. The amount of effort put into making the lobby look as grand as it did was clearly not put into any other part of the building. From where we were standing, we could clearly see the point where the place transitioned from the grandiosity of the lobby to complete and utter…all I could think of was decay. The upper floors looked completely run down. The walls were a dirty white, either the pain that once covered them had long since peeled or they were never painted to begin with. Even from our vantage point we could see the filth that covered the floors. The ambient light from the lobby cast a weird pale glow on the upper floors which made it possible to see all the floating dust that was in the air on those floors.
And the darkness. Clearly there were no functioning lights on those floors but the darkness was just…different. I had never seen or felt anything like it. Looking into those dark floors and hallways from the safety of the well lit lobby made a pit form in my stomach. It looked almost…solid. This wasn’t like the darkness of the night. It was an oppressive kind of darkness, like if you locked yourself in a box or a closet. There was absolutely no ambient light up there. Just looking at it made me feel like the darkness was swallowing me whole.
My thoughts were interrupted by Kat who led us up the grand staircase that adorned either side of the lobby into the mezzanine. We were led down to a surprisingly lit hallway and ushered into a big room. This room, and the man inside, would turn out to be the second biggest surprise of the night, following the whole transvestite musical thing. It was as if we entered into a 1930s mob den. It was an ornately decorated room. Wooden walls, carpeted floors, a wooden table located near the back center of the room. On the walls were various film industry memorabilia, placed in pristine glass cases. The man at the table stood up and walked towards us. He was dressed in an impeccable white suit and looked like one of those italian gangster stereotypes. We all stood there not knowing what to do until Kat met him halfway and gave him a hug.
“Pa, these are my blockmates.”
That was…Kat’s dad? When she said he was the caretaker I assumed he was just something along the lines of a security guard making sure that no trespassers made it inside or that he just made sure that the place didn’t completely fall apart. I was not expecting what looked like a 1900s mob boss. The rest of us threw each other confused looks until the man spoke. I won’t bore you with what he said, although what he said wasn’t boring at all. It’s just that he spoke a bit too fast and had an accent that I can’t place. He basically told us the history of the place, how he came to manage the property, and a bit about himself. Apparently, he was a singer or something in the past. A producer maybe? Something related to music and that’s how he found himself in the entertainment business. He pointed us to one of the many LCD screens on the walls and told us that the band playing in the videos was his old band. In fact, we did recognize him. We recognized Kat as well! Apparently, they would sometimes record songs together. Halfway through his little speech he offered us a drink, pointing to a mini bar which was stocked with what was obviously top shelf alcohol. Me, being the heavy drinker that I am, almost took him up on his offer, but Rex, who had known of my drinking habits since high school gave me a stern look which basically said “don’t even try”.
After a bit more chit chat Kat’s father stood up, clapped his hands, and said it was high time to start the tour. He mentioned that he wanted to get this over quickly so we wouldn’t miss the show. We all gave him a confused look until he explained that he had gotten us free entrance into the Amazing Show that was going on tonight. Our confusion , however, was quickly replaced by shock. Kat’s father took out two silver pistols and tucked each into the holsters he had under his coat. He probably recognized our surprised but, with a wave of his hand, put it off like it was normal..
“ We have to carry firearms whenever we do our rounds here. You see, this building is pretty much abandoned. But it’s still the government property and it’s still being actively managed. We’ve had problems with people breaking in and stealing shit here. Everything from leftover furniture, scrap metal, copper wires, the film and music props which were left behind, everything gets taken and sold for scraps. That’s why we carry these. So that if we ever encounter trespassers…” he just gave a quick laugh which honestly freaked me out more than the gun. Another surprise came in the form of him handin Kat a pistol as well. Again he registered our shock and brushed it off. “Kat’s been firing since she was a kid. She even has a license. Don’t worry. You’re safe with her” he said with a laugh. Kat chuckled as well. With our minds thoroughly blown, and our tour guide armed to the teeth, we made our way out of the office to begin the tour.
We made our way out of the mezzanine floor and up the elevators I mentioned earlier. When we got to the top we stopped at that mark. The mark where the light gave way to absolute darkness. I’ve never been one to cower at the mere lack of light but even in a group, even with 2 armed individuals escorting us, I was completely unnerved by the darkness. I was trying to manage the knot in my throat and the pit in my stomach when Kat’s father turned on an abnormally powerful flashlight which cut a swath through the darkness. How straight and defined the beam of light was against the darkness only reinforced how deep and how solid the latter actually was. At that point, our camera started rolling and Rex, our designated “host” and “narrator” began his introduction