Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who loves to incorporate Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.
The Paralyzing Power of Fear
Early last year just before the Covid pandemic started to hit the Philippines, I heard rumors about a group of people going to houses in the middle of the night or early dawn, knocking on people's doors that when opened by unsuspecting residents, will kill them unashamedly.
My neighbors told me that nearby villagers experienced them firsthand.
So we began making sure that our gate was always locked, we stationed dogs outside, and kept the lights on overnight—just in case.
But I hadn't heard anything on the local news that people were getting murdered this way around where I live.
Was it all a hoax?
Posts then began circulating online of alleged armed persons belonging to a certain cult roaming the streets of several places in the province of Misamis Occidental, Northern Mindanao. They claim these people wander from 9:00 in the evening to around 4:00 AM and knocks on doors. As soon as the homeowner answers the knock, they will be quickly killed by the assailant through decapitation.
One viral tweet even claims that the perpetrators were captured on CCTV, with the alleged footage showing people disappearing and reappearing; hinting that the individuals seem to hold supernatural powers.
Some believed they turned into animals even though no such video evidence surfaced validating it.
The story was made even more popular on social media sites, that the Philippine National Police stated they will investigate the rumors to find if it's somehow connected to the rebel group New People's Army.
A netizen from Davao City commented that such incidents already appeared in 2019, but claims about it have since died down. While others urged people not to leave slippers outside the door to imply that no one is inside.
The local authorities thought it's best to be wary of opening doors to strangers especially at night and reminded people to stop roaming around outside as soon as it gets dark.
A local magazine show managed to trace the validity of similar claims from Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao province.
The residents there described the assailant as a very tall dark figure with glowing red eyes, which they locally call Banutok.
One resident swore to his encounter with the said creature on the midnight of January 16, 2020, that he described as very slimy.
The police explained that it might not be a creature after all, but a common thief or burglar who covered its body with grease to make it harder for pursuers to grab him in the event of capture.
Two men (believed to be members of the cult in question) were arrested for their suspected involvement in the murder of a mother and her seven-year-old son in Tudela, Misamis Occidental; for the simple reason that they were caught with mysterious items—which turned out to be just a form of Agimat (talisman), along with some firearms they insisted were used for protecting themselves.
The victims' husband/father stepped forward to clarify that it was actually a rape-slay case and not cult-related in nature.
It's also a known practice for policemen to plant evidence on their suspects to close a case.
Despite this, the locals started putting up "protections" on their doors in the form of inverted broomsticks, salt, holy water, Catholic images and statues, even vinegar and ash to ward off the "demonic powers" of the remaining members of the supposed cult still at large.
According to anthropologist Dr. Carolyn Sobritchea, the spread of this fear might also be helpful in a way to teach young people to not stay out late too much, more especially now in times of pandemic.
Birth of a Legend
When I started to notice the popularity of these events, I was instantly reminded of similar figures in folklore I read about before: the Kumakatok and the Nangangatok.
These two names practically originated from the same keyword katok ('knock') and were distinguished only by their assumed numbers.
According to oral history, a Nangangatok ('one who knocks') is an invisible entity or spirit that knocks on doors, often portrayed as disembodied hands.
People are advised to peek through the windows first before opening doors because they might let the Nangangatok inside unknowingly. Since we can't see them, it's impossible to tell how many there actually were.
While the Kumakatok (mystery knockers) are a trio of robed figures believed by many to knock on doors in the middle of the night and bring bad luck.
They allegedly look like humans but wear hoods that obscure their faces: one resembles a young female, while the other two look like elderly men.
A visit from them is an omen that either the eldest member of the house or someone who is ill will subsequently die. But it might be impossible to accurately tell their sexes due to what they wear.
The lore between these two different figures blended and became a single myth for one supernatural entity.
A visit from this new folkloric figure meant disaster to come, that nobody dared to try and open their doors because they were scared.
Most people just decided to ignore the loud knocks and never even tried speaking to it, in the belief that they will just leave eventually. Therefore having no evidence that they were indeed human or just a wandering spirit.
The folklore transformed once again that some are now claiming that this reaction (or rather inaction) is fruitless. They say that these visits are unavoidable because they will only leave after accomplishing what they came for—to claim a soul.
At a point in time, residents in Luzon and Visayas painted white crosses on their doors to ward them off. This trend was said to cause the entity to switch from private residences to government buildings, hospitals, and even churches.
They are particularly associated with outbreaks of diseases and other large-scale tragedies and reported sightings have significantly decreased since World War II.
One explanation is that many buildings and structures were destroyed at that time, leaving the knocking spirit few doors upon which to knock.
You should never say ‘who's there?' It's a Deathwish. Don’t you watch Scary Movies?
— Ghostface, Scream
Is Anyone There?
In Filipino culture, we utter the expression "tao po?" when we knock on doors, and it was generally understood to mean that the one knocking is simply inquiring if there was anyone inside.
But according to historian Ambeth Ocampo, the practice of saying 'tao po' did not originally mean to say 'is anyone there?'.
It was for the person knocking to identify himself/herself to the people inside that they were in fact real human beings so they could be let in.
This practice dates back to pre-colonial times when our doors didn't have peepholes in them, and our ancestors believed that many dangers lurked outside the safety of their homes.
So before opening the door to let the knocker in, one had to make sure that it wasn't a wild animal, or an Aswang (monster), elementals or evil spirits which couldn’t speak and identify themselves as ‘tao’ (human) to trick the household into letting them in.
Knocks of Doom
I remember being told by my parents to never open the door if you can't see who's knocking. And if I couldn't get up to check who it is, I must pay attention to how many times the knocking sounded.
I used to think this superstition is silly because why would it matter how many times I hear the "knock, knock", right? As if I was observant enough to be able to count them.
Mysterious knocks that often come in threes (also explains the three robed figures in Filipino folklore) are actually considered to be portents of death in many cultures, like Native American, Irish, Scottish, even Arabic, Jewish, and many others—known as death knocks.
It is a worldwide superstition with varying versions such as knocks sometimes being on walls or windows instead of doors, or the person dying in three days, three weeks, or three months.
In some versions of the tale, this signifies mocking of the Holy Trinity, but the superstition is actually far more widespread than just within Christianity.
This is all often attributed to evil spirits, demons, the Grim Reaper, and sometimes even the Devil himself, depending on the local tale and culture.
Even a woodpecker knocking on a house is considered a death omen.
Its most common form basically says that if there are mysterious knocks on the door when no one else is around or outside the door, then that means either someone you love has either died or is going to die.
In some versions of the story, it is an omen of death for the one who has heard the knocks.
But we humans have learned to counter this augury of bad luck by saying the popular phrase "knock on wood" or "touch wood" (for the British people out there).
It was preceded by a Latin version: 'absit omen', meaning 'far be that omen from us'.
In Western countries, the phrase is uttered whenever experiencing good fortune and hope that it will continue because it used to be considered good luck to tap trees to let the wood spirits within know you were asking for their favors back in the day.
My grandmother and my elder aunts however, used to literally rush to knock on anything made of wood that they can find, while uttering the words "simbako palayo" (God forbid)—done out of fear whenever us kids said something bad in order to reverse words that entail impending misfortune.
Knocks as death omens is still often referenced today in horror films; used as a sign that someone is about to die, or something dangerous is on its way.
But Skeptics say that much of this might lie in “confirmation bias”.
That is if one believes in the three knocks of death and someone close to them dies; they are likely to translate and attribute any strange knocking sounds beforehand to a supernatural portent of death.
The Red Devil named Panic
The majority of our superstitions today came from the 19th century—a time when we had very different customs regarding death and burial.
During that time, dead bodies were displayed in houses instead of funeral homes for about three to five days to ensure the deceased was truly dead because it was common for the presumed dead to wake up (called the Lazarus phenomenon), often after a premature burial is done.
So it was commonly believed almost everywhere that a strange knock on the door is made by a manifestation of Death, coming to claim the soul of the departed, while the family and friends are grieving or doing their wait.
But is there a basis to be afraid of cultic activity and behavior?
Let's be honest, cults are creepy and dangerous. And they still exist today because there are people who are dumb enough to get involved with them, even to the point of exploiting their own children for the cult's benefit and its leaders'.
It might have been the remaining fear that Filipinos still carried from the Satanic Panic of the '80s mixed with the cultic massacres of the '60s and '70s that are causing the alarm right now.
Two that actually happened close to home were during the pursuit of Ruben Ecleo Jr. (leader of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association who murdered his own wife), which left 23 people dead in 2002, as well as the militant cult Sagrado Corazon Señor (Sacred Heart of the Lord)—who waged war on people they suspected were communists back in 1987.
And it also seems that nothing has changed over several years because right now we hear people getting "Red-tagged" left and right—the malicious blacklisting of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of a sitting government administration in the country.
In the Philippines, we also have fanatical religious cults worshipping famous figures like the National Hero-martyr Dr. Jose Rizal, as well as those believing in the divinity of Ferdinand Marcos, the president-turned-dictator.
So far, these two cults have not been violent—just really stupid.
There is definitely a reason to be afraid, but we should also remind ourselves that fear feeds on fear. It will become the monster that will devour us all.
People do crazy things, even crazier during times of crisis.
I've seen enough prank videos on YouTube to know that a harmless practical joke (e.g. scaring a bunch of your friends and neighbors for the heck of it) can turn deadly in seconds.
I'm not invalidating the claims of others who experienced these attacks. I'm merely pointing out that we should use our brains first before we let our fear get the better of us.
Posting rumors in the guise of "spreading awareness" without presenting substantial evidence is called fear-mongering. Just saying.
Folklore: Kumakatok, mangkukulam.com
Nangangatok: Door Knocking Spirits, aswangproject.com
Tao Po: Chilling Reminder about Knocks on Doors Prompts Scary Stories, news.abs-cbn.com
Fear Spreads as Stories of "Demonic" Cult Attacks in Mindanao Circulate, thesummitexpress.com
Deadly Omens and Mysterious Knocks of Death, mysteriousuniverse.org
Omens of Death: Folklore and Superstition, superstitiondictionary.com
Omens of Death Around the World, talkdeath.com
Knock on Wood, phrases.org.uk
23 Shot to Death in Philippines, apnews.com
Fighters With Amulets, Machetes: Cult Wages Holy War on Philippines’ Communists, latimes.com
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.