Ian is a full-blooded Filipino visual artist who loves to incorporate Pinoy myth and folklore in his work.
Just before the Covid pandemic scared a lot of people in 2020, rumors began to spread in the Philippines about a group of mysterious people going house to house, knocking on people's doors, and instantly killing those who answer by decapitating their heads off.
Online posts warned citizens of alleged armed persons belonging to a certain cult roaming the streets of several provinces in Northern Mindanao, declaring that these people wander from around 9:00 in the evening to around 4:00 AM looking for victims. A few people have also indicated that such incidents already appeared before, but have since died down.
It didn't take a while for the media to get on board and the alarming story exploded. The Philippine National Police started to investigate the rumors to find if it's somehow connected to a certain rebel group but nothing came out of it, while local government authorities advised people to stop going out as soon as it gets dark.
Two men were arrested for their suspected involvement in the murder of a mother and her seven-year-old son. They were caught with some firearms that they insisted were used for protecting themselves, along with mysterious items which turned out to be just a form of agimat (talisman). Even when the surviving family of the victims clarified that the case was not related to any cult whatsoever, it did not stop gossip from associating the arrest with the earlier incidents.
Taking a Bizarre Turn
One viral tweet even claims that the perpetrators were captured on surveillance cameras, with the alleged footage showing people disappearing and reappearing; hinting that the individuals seem to hold supernatural powers. While some people believed they turned into animals.
A local magazine show managed to trace similar claims from Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao province. But the residents there described the assailant as a very tall dark figure with glowing red eyes, which they locally call "banutok". One resident even swore to his encounter with the said creature on the midnight of January 16, 2020, that he described as very slimy.
Aside from keeping gated premises locked, locals started putting up protections on their doors in the form of Catholic images and statues, salt, holy water, inverted broomsticks, even vinegar, and ash to ward off the "demonic powers" of the remaining members of the supposed cult still at large.
Most likely that the alleged banutok was not a creature, but a common thief or burglar covered in grease to make it easier to slip through in the event of capture. According to one anthropologist, the spread of this fear helped keep people indoors during the pandemic.
Birth of a Legend
Just as there are two sides to this narrative (the realistic and the fanciful), there are also two types of fearsome characters in Filipino folklore that might have inspired this panic. Both practically originated from the same keyword: katok ("to knock") and were distinguished only by their assumed numbers.
Nangangatok ('one who knocks')
According to oral history, a Nangangatok 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. After all, driving them away might even be harder than accidentally inviting this spirit into the home. Since we can't see them, it is impossible to tell how many there are.
Kumakatok ('mystery knockers')
The Kumakatok is a trio of robed figures knocking on doors in the middle of the night that allegedly look like regular humans but wear hoods to obscure their faces. A visit from them is considered a bad omen that either the eldest member of the house or someone who is sick will subsequently die. Though it is difficult to accurately tell their sexes due to the clothes they wear, stories claim that one resembles a young female, while the other two look like elderly men.
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 an attempt to open their doors because they were scared. Most people would just decide to ignore the loud knocks and never even tried speaking to it, in the hopes that it will just eventually leave. Therefore having no substantial evidence that they were indeed wandering spirits or mere humans.
At a point in time, residents in Luzon and Visayas regions 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.
Over the years, the folklore transformed once again that some are now claiming that this inaction is fruitless, asserting that these visits are unavoidable because they will only leave after accomplishing what they came for, and that is to claim a living soul.
You should never say ‘who's there?' It's a Deathwish. Don’t you watch Scary Movies?
— Ghostface, Scream
Knock Knock Who's 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 themselves 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 doors didn't have peepholes and our ancestors believed that many dangers lurked outside the safety of their homes. One had to make sure that the rapping noise from outside isn't coming from a wild animal, or various other supernatural entities like an aswang (a folk monster), elementals, or evil spirits which couldn’t speak and identify themselves as ‘tao’ (human) to trick the household into letting them in.
The number of times the knocking sounded also matters. Mysterious knocks that often come in threes (which would explain the three robed figures in Filipino folklore) are considered to be portents of death in many cultures, like Native American, Irish, Scottish, even Arabic, Jewish, and many others—called 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 far more widespread than just within Christianity.
Its most common form states that mysterious knocks on the door mean that either someone you love has either died or is going to die. In some versions, it is an omen of death for the one who has heard the knocks themselves. 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.
But we humans have learned to counter this augury of bad luck by saying the popular phrase "knock on wood" or "touch wood". 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 on trees and let the wood spirits within know you were asking for their favors back in the day.
But the elder folks in the Philippines—particularly from the Visayan regions, would rush to anything made of wood that they can find and knock while uttering the Bisaya words simbako palayo ('God forbid'). It is done out of fear whenever we said something bad to reverse words that entail impending misfortune.
The majority of our superstitions today came from the 19th century—a time when we had very different customs regarding death and burial. Dead bodies used to be displayed in houses instead of funeral homes for about three to five days to ensure that 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 widely believed 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 waiting to confirm the death.
Knocks as death omens are 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.
But is there a good reason to be afraid?
Psychologically speaking, feelings of anxiety over mysterious knocks on a door is a natural bodily response to the fear of the unknown, and it is not uncommon. Our heart rates increase and we tense up because we don't know what to expect, never knowing whether to prepare to fight or flight.
The word 'cult' was originally defined as the care and worship owed to specific deities. In modern English, it has evolved to describe a deviant group with an excessive devotion to a particular personality or goal or having unusual spiritual or philosophical beliefs united by a common interest. Cults also utilize mind manipulation techniques to keep adherents from disbanding and blindly obedient, making them even more dangerous.
It's easier to point to the Satanic Panic of the '80s and the famous cultic massacres of the '60s and '70s such as the Manson murders causing the alarm right now. But in the context of Third World revolutionary turmoil, State-approved cultist vigilantes (which usually combine Catholic tenets with Animism) against communist insurgency are also commonplace and further instilled this fear in the Filipino psyche.
Back in 1987, the militant cult Sagrado Corazon Señor (Sacred Heart of the Lord) waged war on people they suspected were communists. Sadly, nothing has changed over several years because people are still getting "Red-tagged", that is, the malicious blacklisting of individuals or organizations critical or not fully supportive of the actions of a sitting government administration in the country.
In 2002, the pursuit of Ruben Ecleo Jr. (leader of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association who murdered his wife) left 23 people dead. There are also local jihadist groups from the late '90s up to the present that claimed responsibility for the attacks, kidnapping, and murder of many people, both native and foreign.
Regarding these knocks of death, a pattern emerges hardly noticed by many; that they usually happen during times of uncertainty and paranoia. Just as the combined myth of the Nangangatok and the Kumakatok became popular during World War II, the so-called "cult killings" also happened amidst a worldwide pandemic.
Conspiracy theorists will readily tell anyone that explosive and intriguing headlines such as these are mainly fabricated by the government to misdirect the attention of the masses from the more serious issues they are facing, or that it's a way to control the narrative and keep ducks in a row.
Media outlets are not blameless too, by mostly reporting facts that will serve their best interest and omitting those that are deemed too sensitive for some people. When a piece of controversial news is touching people from high places, it is usually brushed off. Transparency is only clear if it is fueled by personal motivation or vendetta.
The general public isn't devoid of sin either. Online posts and social media sites have become a vital source for fake news that is accepted as the absolute truth by many. How ironic that in the age of information technology, people forget to do their research and only rely on what has been presented by less credible sources.
Believing in unsubstantiated rumors in the guise of spreading awareness is just lazy. People do crazy things, especially during times of crisis so 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 if we let it.
- 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
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.