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The Exorcism of Clarita Villanueva: Demonic Possession or Evangelical Propaganda?

Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who incorporates Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.

Held down by doctors and surrounded by curious onlookers during one of her fits, Clarita became an international supernatural sensation.

Held down by doctors and surrounded by curious onlookers during one of her fits, Clarita became an international supernatural sensation.

The Sad Life of Clarita

Clarita Villanueva was born in 1935 as the only girl and the youngest of four children. She was raised in poverty by a single mother who made a living as a fortune teller and spiritist in Bacolod City in the Visayan province of Negros Occidental. When World War II ended, Clarita's mother suddenly died, leaving her an orphan at only twelve years old with no immediate family to take her in after being abandoned by her elder brothers. Some say this is when she began her career as a child prostitute, despite the lack of supporting evidence. Although she never knew her father, she always wondered if he was still alive or had simply left them. Gathering what little she had and having no clue where to start, she decided to go to Manila to look for the man who may or may not be interested in getting to know his child.

But life in the Philippine capital was much harder than she thought. With no formal education, it was difficult enough to find a place to stay. So she had to put aside the search for her father and worked as a maid for a time and then became a dance hostess in bars and taverns, dancing with strangers to earn a small amount of money. When Clarita was seventeen, she met a guy to elope with until she found out he was married, thus, ending the relationship. Alone and jobless once again, she resorted to sex work to survive. At eighteen years of age, Clarita Villanueva ended up becoming a vagabond.

In the spring of 1953, while sleeping on a street corner in the Malate district of Manila, she allegedly offered sexual services to a plainclothes officer and was arrested for vagrancy. Whether or not she was also booked for prostitution remains unclear. Back then, vagrancy was considered a criminal offense in the Philippines until it has been decriminalized for violating certain cherished freedoms such as the right to association and freedom to move freely. But even so, the police continue to routinely round up street children during special international visits to make the country look more pleasing to our important foreign guests.

Her Nightmare Begins

Clarita was incarcerated in the Old Bilibid Prison (now Manila City Jail), previously known as the Carcel y Presidio Correccional established by the Spanish colonial government in 1865. It was used to hold civilians and POWs captured by the Japanese, and subsequently, Japanese war criminals by the end of the second World War. The prison is notoriously overcrowded, which is constituted as "torture" by the United Nations, not to mention the actual tortures and deaths suffered by the inmates since the colonial era.

Two days after she arrived in jail, Clarita was heard screaming and then collapsed. Upon regaining consciousness, she claimed to have been attacked by two men who repeatedly bit her neck, back, arms and legs. But this was impossible because she was detained in the women's division of the prison, and no jail guards were present during the incident except for her female cellmates.

She described her attackers as evil-looking men clothed in black — collectively called "the thing" by media news outlets. One was a small cherubic figure about 2-3 feet in height, with snow-white hair and a large mustache. The other one was quite large, had two sharp fangs, and was covered in dark curly hair on his head, chest, and arms. Two entities in Filipino folklore somewhat fit these descriptions: the black duwende and the kapre.

Although the concept of vampiric creatures such as the tiyanak and the many forms of the aswang already existed in Philippine mythology since pre-colonial times, the idea of an invading supernatural evil spirit remained foreign until the introduction of Western monotheistic religions in the country. The ritual possessions of the native spiritual leaders called Babaylan were generally considered benevolent and seen as a way to maintain a connection to our ancestors and gods, and assist the community.

The "thing" tormented Clarita every day, causing such a stir inside the prison. During these episodes, Clarita regularly convulsed and would helplessly cry in agony. In some moments, she appears to be in a state of trance and suddenly became violent as if fighting invisible foes that only she could see. According to witnesses and jailers who to came to her aid each time it happens, humanoid bite marks that are impossible to self-inflict started to materialize on her body.

Throughout her ordeal, Clarita exhibited some truly bizarre behaviors. According to her cellmates, she drank from an empty cup when they refused to give her water. She also became intolerant of religious images and attempted to smash a holy statue displayed on a wall of her prison cell. She would laugh as if being tickled and shouted that the "thing" will kill her.

The Medical Diagnosis

What started as an inmate possibly acting out or going mad, became a curious case of demonic possession that gained a substantial amount of media fanfare in both local and international scenes. This worried the then-Manila mayor Arsenio Lacson would portray Filipinos as mentally unwell and ridicule the country as a whole.

On the 18th of May, Clarita was brought to the city morgue for a psychological evaluation in front of a slew of reporters, medical professionals, the usual rubberneckers, and politicians. Just as expected, Clarita flew into a violent fit declaring that the "thing" was biting her simultaneously. Whilst holding her down, the mayor witnessed human teeth marks appearing on Clarita's neck and index finger. When she was asked to draw the entities, the pencil flew out of her hands seemingly taken from her by an invisible force.

The chief medical examiner, Dr. Mariano Lara declared Clarita to be mentally sane and had her examined by different doctors, professors, and other medical specialists. Like the popular method of detecting a witch's guilt, she was pricked with pins by Lara while being surrounded by thirty medical interns there to study her. Clarita was in a partially catatonic state but didn't appear to feel the stimuli when she was probed. She was asked to draw her attackers again, but instead ate the paper and chewed the pencil.

Among the crowd of spectators were two doctors from the Insular Psychopathic Hospital (now known as the National Center for Mental Health). The psychiatrists concluded that Clarita suffered from hysterical psychoneurosis with symptoms similar to a typical demonic possession such as dependency, sexual behavior disturbances, aggressiveness, and repression. Some doctors proposed that Clarita's malnutrition and dehydration caused her violent delusions. For others, she had epilepsy and bit herself while in a dissociative state. While further theories state that the bite marks could be psychosomatic, manifesting as a by-product of her mental state.

Because the experts couldn't agree on a single diagnosis, Clarita did not receive treatment and resumed as a curiousity for scientific studies. Some newspapers reported a total of over a hundred people observed her — all utterly perplexed and at a loss to find a solution.

Unconvinced of the diagnoses given, the mayor reached out to the Rector of the University of Santo Tomas and the Archbishop of Manila, requesting an exorcism. When the Catholic prison chaplain Fr. Benito Vargas was called to observe Clarita, he was also unable to provide a verdict.

Clarita Was Believed to Be a Witch

Two days before her psych eval, a certain doctor named Manuel Ramos came to interview her and was shown inside her prison cell by the chief warden, Captain Antonio Ganibi. When Ramos accused Clarita of faking the attacks to gain attention, Clarita stared at him with sinister eyes and told him in a low growling voice that he will die. True to her word, the seemingly perfectly-healthy doctor died of a heart attack the following day.

After the news of the doctor's passing, Ganibi stated that he too was similarly cursed by Clarita. According to him, Clarita once asked him where the small metal crucifix that she normally wore was. When he said he didn't know, she then suggested checking his pockets. Turning them out, Ganibi was surprisingly terrified to find the crucifix inside that was not there before. Clarita smiled and warned him not to worry her like that or else he will die.

There are allegations that the Ganibi would sometimes kick Clarita while she was having epileptic fits out of frustration. Unlike the skeptical doctor, the jailer survived another day. But in a span of a few weeks, his health declined, and eventually died like a wilted vegetable. This could all be interpreted as confirmation bias, but the question on everyone's mind was whether Clarita was just a victim of demonic possession, or that her inexplicable ability to utter death curses is a sign of her witchery.

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Sumrall performs a prayer for deliverance on Clarita.

Sumrall performs a prayer for deliverance on Clarita.

A White Knight Comes to the Rescue

Upon hearing about the mysterious happenings on a radio station, an American Protestant minister and televangelist, widely regarded as the father of Christian television named Lester Frank Sumrall knew for certain that he had the answer to all of Clarita's woes. He was in the Philippines at the time and in the process of building a worship site for his congregation. In his mind, he is a God-send — the sole reluctant savior destined to save Clarita's soul.

Through his highly-connected Filipino architect and building contractor, he was introduced to the mayor to gain access to Clarita. The mayor agreed on the condition that he would not hold them responsible for anything bad that might happen to him.

On the 19th of May, Sumrall met with Clarita, and when she first laid eyes on the pastor, she allegedly hurled insults at him declaring her hatred toward God in English. But other eyewitnesses to this incident also claim that Clarita only said "I hate you". The confrontation further convinced the pastor that Clarita was indeed demonically-possessed since he was notified that she only speaks her mother tongue — Tagalog and Ilonggo.

Among the many definitive signs of demonic activity is speaking in dead "barbarian" languages surely unknown to the speaker. This is based on the belief that satan, being the father of lies, is capable of speaking in different dialects. On the other hand, glossolalia, or speaking in tongues is also seen as divine promptings of the Holy Spirit by the Pentecostal movement. But what really distinguishes demonic speech from the other? Could it all be depending on who's speaking and what people group they belong to?

The assumption that Clarita could not possibly speak or at least know some English words because she was uneducated, is completely false. In all probability, she may have simply picked up some of these foreign words while working in the nightclubs. The fact is that most Filipinos can speak English, regardless of accent and grammatical accuracy. English has been widely spoken in the Philippines since the American occupation and remains to be our second language to this day. The only drawback is, most do not use it daily for fear of mistakes and being shamed by others who are more particular about the language. Sadly, some Filipinos who grew up in large urban areas like Manila also think that those people from distant provinces like Clarita are nothing but ignorant peasants.

The Exorcism

Sumrall began by telling the authorities that no medication should be given to Clarita, and no other religious men should have access to pray for her so that "Jesus" (meaning himself) would get all the glory. Concerned that he would be made a fool of in the press, Sumrall initially didn't allow reporters during the exorcism. But after finding that they were largely sympathetic to his beliefs, he conceded.

Since Clarita Villanueva was Catholic like most Filipinos, someone gave her a rosary for protection days earlier. She would kiss and caress it each time she felt vulnerable and afraid. But due to his Protestant background, Sumrall had it removed, reasoning that the religious object was infested with evil spirits and that her actions demonstrate idolatrous beliefs.

Assisted by two other Methodist ministers, Sumrall fasted to prepare himself for the spiritual battle ahead. They alternated between singing sacred songs and commanding the "devils" to depart in the name of Christ while Clarita did the same by switching from being meek as a lamb and flying into a rage. While this is happening, fresh dental impressions reappeared on her flesh, too pronounced not to be noticed by anyone in the room.

When Clarita said that the dark entities had gone out through the window, everyone thought it was over. But the so-called demons returned and supposedly spoke through Clarita that they had the right to live in her because she was unclean. The "thing" came and went several times during the entire three days the exorcism lasted.

On the final night of the exorcism, Clarita seemed at peace and joined Sumrall in prayer. He also taught Clarita that she must resist their attack and tell the demons that they were not welcome if they decided to come back. After which, she was given food and was allowed to rest.

Back in her cell, she asked a prison guard for a pocket knife to cut her nails with. But sharp instruments were prohibited as part of the prison regulations, so the jailer offered to do it for her. All of a sudden, Clarita let out a blood-curdling scream and said that she can see the "thing" standing right behind the man. She flailed her arms wildly, appearing to wrestle with her invisible attackers. Thinking clearly and having been present during the exorcism, the guard reminded Clarita of the pastor's advice. She did as she was told and then fainted.

Authorities laid her on a table to be examined, and they found what appears to be coarse black hair about two inches long underneath her clenched fists and fingernails. Dr. Lara, who was already skeptical of Clarita's medical condition in favor of a more supernatural explanation — took a sample under a microscope and concluded that the hair wasn't human. He was also certain that it didn't belong to Clarita, despite the lack of proper genetic analysis which was not available in the Philippines until 1996.

It is important to note that much of the dramatic details about the story came from less-credible news reports and Sumrall's own writings and testimony. To conflate the minister's ego, even more, religious fanatics also claim that Sumrall was able to expel a total of fifteen demons from Clarita. An impressive amount, considering that the records didn't indicate that he was present when she had her final demonic episode. Video footage of the alleged demonic possession and exorcism is said to be kept in the BBC archives, though it remains to be seen.

One of the rare photos of Clarita when she was not helpless and restrained.

One of the rare photos of Clarita when she was not helpless and restrained.

The Aftermath

Clarita Villanueva became an unwilling target of the media spotlight, with sensationalist headlines calling her "Dracula Girl". The public interest and media fervor in the case began to dampen when it was overshadowed by the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II a month later that same year.

Clarita's Rehabilitation

A week after her exorcism, Clarita attended her vagrancy hearing and was ordered by the judge to be sent to Welfareville — a home for the homeless and neglected children to gain proper care, education, training, and occasionally, correction. During her stay there, she ultimately achieved a sense of normalcy that seem to evade her earlier in life. The "demons" finally fled and never returned.

According to Sumrall, he petitioned Clarita to be released, and when she was ultimately granted parole, a Christian family who knew the pastor took her in. Clarita recovered well. But after some time, she left Manila to move to a small town in Northern Luzon to escape the unwanted attention she continued to receive. Eventually, she moved back to her hometown in Bacolod to live in relative anonymity after marrying a rice farmer and having two children with him.

What's wrong with this picture?

In June of 1967, Clarita Villanueva reportedly appeared at the Nueva Ecija Provincial Capitol to request assistance in recovering royalties from people who profited from her life story. Whether or not she also sued the man who claims to be her savior is not clear.

Sumrall initially claims that he didn't ask for anything in return and was merely doing God's work, but later admits to requesting the mayor to let him preach at the vacant lot in front of the Manila City Hall for six weeks, in exchange for his involvement in curing Clarita. The mayor agreed and awarded him the construction permit (with all the administrative charges waived) to build his Manila Bethel Temple, now called the Cathedral of Praise — a full gospel megachurch boasting the largest congregation in the Philippines with over 24,000 members today and has ten branches across the country.

While recounting his victory in front of a crowd of followers, Sumrall repeatedly called Clarita a "demonized harlot" and compared her to the biblical figure Mary Magdalene — who by the way, is no longer considered by many theologians and religious scholars as a repentant prostitute from whom seven demons were cast out. It is a misogynistic interpretation of the Bible that should be left buried in the past.

Sumrall undoubtedly capitalized on Clarita's traumatizing experience. His ministry grew overnight and gained free publicity on various platforms due to the exorcism. He wrote a book on the subject and a subsequent 36-minute documentary film in a one-sided perspective was produced by his organization.

The problem with megachurches like the one Sumrall founded is that they rarely provide personal spiritual guidance to people, instead more concerned on putting on a theatrical show to promote their ideologies. They are focused on expanding their religious empire by milking millions worth of donations from their members "to reach the billions yet untold". It gives a whole new twisted meaning to the phrase "God helps those who help themselves".

The Dangers of Occultism

The immorality of Clarita's chosen lifestyle, as well as her mother's ties to the occult, became a cautionary tale. As a result, various Christian groups believed that Clarita was doomed from birth and accused her of assisting her mother in scamming (in Sumrall's words) "other sinners who consulted with spirits about their future", even when she was only an innocent child at that time.

The word occult simply means "knowledge of things unknown" and humans are naturally afraid of what we don't know. Dabbling with the supernatural is dangerous — not because it is the tool of the devil, but for the logical reason that it is not meant for amateurs and other curiosity seekers who are potentially unprotected and unaware of what they're getting into.

The Power of Prayer and Suggestion

However, the role Sumrall played in Clarita's healing cannot be dismissed. But not because the good reverend had a direct line to God as he claims, but because Clarita was in a suggestible state and not completely faithless. He told her to resist, and therefore, her act of rejecting the negative forces that preyed on her finally severed the connection.

A deliberate suggestion has been proven to influence belief, help in performing memory tasks, and in learning. When an idea has been conveyed to an individual, that idea becomes a reality. Its efficacy has been widely popularized by the practice of hypnotism, which has roots in 19th-century mesmerism. A more subtle, yet the same method is used by propagandists, faith healers, and psychologists in treating their patients to modify their behavior.

Scientific studies have also found that prayer (however informal and regardless of religion or belief system) has significant psychological benefits. It helps reduce stress and anxiety, alleviates pain resulting in a more positive outlook, and strengthens a person's will to live. It provides hope in desperate times and decreases symptoms of some chronic health conditions. But of course, prayer could not work without faith.

Popularity

From horror fans to religious zealots, the story of Clarita Villanueva is consistently covered by many people through various forms of media. But the prime focus is usually on the supernatural demons, often ignoring the real demons that plagued Clarita all her life: she was an orphaned minor forced into a life of self-degradation, her mental health scrutinized by media locusts, and taken advantage of by self-righteous powerful men. No matter how inadequately recorded, it is an interesting piece of history that many consider the first documented case of demonic possession in Asia.

A supernatural horror film titled in her name was released in 2019, directed by Derrick Cabrido, and starred Jodi Sta. Maria. But some viewers felt disappointed that the American exorcist was not depicted in the movie, replaced instead by a Filipino priest. To them, this is a blatant revision of a small part of our history that led in the spiritual conversion of many. But what these people failed to realize is the stark difference between a film that was merely based on true events (which is what the movie is) and an actual dramatization of historical facts.

The popular opinion in the Philippines is that Clarita was possessed and redeemed through divine intercession. Why most Filipinos accepted this narrative without question lies in our deeply superstitious culture and pre-established religious inclinations.

Since the days of decolonization from Spain, the Philippines was liberated (or was rather bought) by the Americans. After World War II, the U.S. once again assisted the Philippines in expelling the Japanese forces from our lands. Just recently, many Filipinos felt confident that the American government would surely become our ally in a possible territorial war against China. This illustrates that time and time again, even after gaining complete sovereignty, the Philippines is still largely dependent on a foreign power to intervene on our behalf. And the same thing happened in the case of Clarita Villanueva.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Ian Spike

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