Over the past decade, numerous anonymous people have mentioned queer ghost stories worth looking into: bridges known locally for high suicide rates, scary sites of hate crimes, haunted bars in various cities around the world, and plenty of rumored-to-be-gay individuals haunting well-known places. Without specific details (and sometimes, no specific locations), these vague recollections still haunt me as unsolved, undiscovered mysteries and stories that might be worth retelling. But every so often, places I thought I knew everything about can reveal an even stranger forgotten story that captures my interest.
When I first heard about ghostly activity at Manila National Film Centre in the Phillipine capital of Manila, its only LGBTQ connection to my knowledge was the spectacular drag queen and transgender troupe who made this Marcos relic their home. The Amazing Show sadly left their 10-year home in 2011, bringing what I believed to be an end to its overlap of queerness and preternatural phenomena. Yet it was not the Amazing Show’s short-lived return in November 2012 that changed my mind. It was a casual conversation about ghosts with a gay man from Manila.
Ghost stories are quite abundant in the Philippines, from folklore to abandoned buildings with ghostly legends attached, and often bearing stark similarities to popular ghostly themes in the United States: ladies in white, headless specters, and even phantom hitchhikers. (And multo, or ghosts, often appear in popular culture, such as one of my all-time favorite LGBT-themed campy movies Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings.) Many famous landmarks across the country have some spooky tales attached to them, and given its dark history, the Manila Film Centre—one of many construction projects spurred on by Dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-addicted wife, Imelda—is a prime location for a haunting.
In fact, it’s one of the best-known hauntings in the Philippines, and it’s been said to be haunted since it first opened. And with good reason: it’s literally a concrete tomb.
With the 1981 International Film Festival fast approaching, the Marcos regime demanded hasty construction and an often unsafe building environment in the race to finish on time. At 3:00AM on November 17, the interior scaffolding collapsed, hurling exhausted workers into the freshly poured quick-drying cement beneath them. Officials refused to allow emergency responders into the building for nine hours. By then, an estimated 168 workers were killed or lost in the now-hardened cement. Betty Benitez, wife of Assistant Minister Jose Conrado Benitez, gave the order to pour more cement over the bodies and continue construction. Their remains have never been recovered.
Betty died a few months later in a freak automobile accident. Many Filipinos blamed it on the revenge of the dead workers. When a medium was sent into the Film Centre to see if it was haunted, he went into a trance. “Now there are 169,” he said. “Betty is with us.”* Since opening day, people have reported cries and moans in the auditorium. All manner of rituals were performed there over the years in attempts to get rid of the angry ghosts. There was even an unsuccessful exorcism. In one remarkably strange story, a visitor was approached by a man who gave him a calling card and asked him to call his wife. When he called that number, the woman who answered told him that her husband was one of the dead men buried in the concrete back in 1981.
The Amazing Show returned in November 2012, but a fire on February 19, 2013, gutted the building and left the building derelict again along Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City. But there’s another story that managed to evade all mention in any headlines of its haunted history.
When I spoke to a local gay Manila resident years ago, I naturally turned the conversation to ghosts. And when I brought up the hauntings at the Film Centre, he mentioned something I hadn’t been previously aware of: since around 2001, taxi drivers routinely experience a strange encounter with an elegantly-dressed, distraught apparition.
Details are hazy about the actual crime, which I’ve never successfully found mention of in any news outlets. But if you ask a local cab driver and he’s willing to talk about any weird experiences he ever had at night in the parking lot at Manila Film Centre, the story might reveal a darker time of prostitution and illicit activity around the place.
Soon after The Amazing Show began its regular performances, taxi drivers who found themselves at the building after the crowds had gone home reported the same chilling experience: a bloodied, bruised woman would appear from the shadows near the building, hailing the nearest taxi. After quickly climbing into the back seat, she would ask the driver to take her to the hospital. But by the time the taxi driver arrived at the hospital, he would find the back seat empty.
From what vague information the local man could recall, he had heard that some time in the late 1990s, a transgender MTF (or possibly a transvestite prostitute) was murdered in the Manila/Pasay City area and her body dumped behind the Manila Film Centre. The police did not thoroughly investigate the murder, writing it off as presumably a drug deal gone bad (in a time when the Filipino LGBT community was still largely suppressed in society and considered more of a nuisance than a portion of the population worthy of equal treatment). It’s believed by some locals that this unknown murder victim is the same one hailing taxis in a fruitless attempt to seek treatment for her fatal injuries. Who she/he is—and what exactly happened to her/him—is still a mystery. And as for whether or not she’s still stopping taxis late at night today, only the taxi drivers know for sure.
With the murders of trans people reaching epidemic levels throughout the US and the world in recent years, this story stands out as not only a tale of an unsolved homicide but also one of the only recent cases I’ve been made aware of which has resulted in a modern transgendered ghost story. And it’s my sincere hope that one day, we can finally identify the actual person behind this mysterious multo and give a voice to her tragic ending.
[An earlier version of this article was originally written for Week in Weird]
* Romulo, Beth Day. Inside the Palace: The Rise and Fall of Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987: 167-68.