MANILA - Antonio Abrille takes people looking for a "different" experience through a Philippine city's creepiest places, offering a glimpse into its bloody past dating back to the Japanese occupation of the country in the 1940s.
About a 4-hour drive from the capital Manila, Baguio City is home to many such heritage sites and included in the supernatural safaris organized by Abrille, who goes by the name "Mr. Fright."
The founder and sole operator of physical and virtual tour provider Pine City Fright Tours claims to have lived in a number of haunted houses growing up.
"I've always had a deadly fascination with the supernatural since I was a very little boy," the 42-year-old said.
Number one on his tour -- provided mostly virtually these days due to the coronavirus pandemic -- are the cobwebbed chambers of a massive, underground tunnel network constructed by the occupying Imperial Japanese Army.
Some Japanese soldiers died inside the tunnels, and visitors have reported seeing silhouettes, and hearing disembodied voices and whispers, Abrille says.
"They don't necessarily hurt anyone," he said of the purported ghosts. "The most they do is grab you, pull your hair or tug on your shirt."
Mr. Fright says such encounters are mostly playful and harmless.
Another popular stop in Abrille's tour is the Laperal White House -- an old, Victorian style, wooden mansion built in the 1920s that was originally owned by the Laperal family.
The property, which was used as a military house by the Japanese forces during the war, is believed to be inhabited by the restless soul of a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender and committed suicide to avoid captivity.
It supposedly haunts the second-floor balcony, from which the soldier plunged to his death head first to the pavement below when American soldiers stormed the house.
But even long before the Japanese occupation, the Laperal White House already had a grim reputation among locals and occult aficionados.
Extreme bad luck seems to have befallen its owners and residents, with a string of tragic circumstances beginning in the mid-1920s, after the youngest of the 6 Laperal children died in a horrific accident.
While briefly away from supervision, the 3-year-old wandered out of the gated compound and was mowed down by a passing vehicle in front of the house, according to local lore.
This was followed shortly by the suicide of the maid who felt guilty with the girl's untimely demise.
Later the second son committed suicide in the house for unknown reasons. The eldest daughter was killed in a vehicular accident while on the way to the house, while the second daughter would die from a congenital heart disease.
In the years that followed, the youngest son was gunned down with his wife in their sleep by the woman's drunk former flame. The oldest son was also shot while in Manila, with the murder allegedly linked to his gambling activities.
The lady of the house then died of a heart attack while staying in the house, or so goes the lore.
"They are all sharing one house. That's a lot of ghosts in one place," Abrille says of the many otherworldly inhabitants of the mansion.
The Diplomat Hotel, an old Dominican retreat that has fallen into ruin, is another part of the tour.
The site was used as a garrison by the Kenpeitai, the military police arm of the Japanese army, which is said to have held brutal interrogations and executions within the premises of the century-old building.
Mr. Fright claims headless specters can been seen roaming the grounds at night and disembodied faces appearing in photographs taken by tourists during the day.
Despite the unnerving nature of his tours, Abrille says there is a strong and growing interest from people, a morbidity he attributes to the desire of many tourists to experience something extraordinary.
"A lot of people want to get 'that' feeling. They want to get the thrill and not just do some regular, boring, mundane tour," he explains.
Ivan Anthony Henares, an assistant professor at the Asian Institute of Tourism of the University of the Philippines, thinks the same, saying that Filipinos have always had a fascination for the occult.
"This can be seen for example in the assemblage of mythological creatures in folklore from different parts of the country," he said, adding that there is also the excitement of encountering the paranormal, and the opportunity to outdo each other by telling personal stories about those experiences.
But whether ghosts are true or simply a figment of the imagination, he said there are positives and negatives for attaching the occult to heritage sites.
"While the Diplomat Hotel or Laperal House may benefit from dark tourism, other heritage properties suffer from the stigma as places that should be feared," he said. Such stigma may accordingly lessen the value and care people put on those sites.
The Catholic Church, which has huge sway over the predominantly Catholic nation of 100 million, advises extreme caution over the belief and interest in the occult.
"That may be part of Filipino lore and culture, but then again, the Catholic Church doesn't believe in ghosts," Rev. Jerome Secillano, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, said.
"It undermines God. Rather than that, they should go to the Church to pray and offer their good intentions to the dead."
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