The business of fear

Serpentine creatures abound in many cultures. (Photo courtesy of Mythology Wiki)

It has been theorized that during a period of political turmoil, diversion in the form of the supernatural and the macabre abound so that citizens lose focus on the real problem at hand. That's why in recent weeks, news of aswang (evil creatures usually capable of flight) sightings have been reported in the Philippines to divert public attention from the government's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While walking to the fish market, I thought of the many public scare or fear mongering that has caused panic in Maguindanaon communities for as long as I can remember. In the 1970s, the ilaga scare was rampant for good reason. There have been massacres of Moro civilians, for instance, the 1971 Manili massacre in Carmen, Cotabato province, and elsewhere which were perpetuated by a the ILAGA (Visayan term for 'rats', acronym for Ilonggo Land Grabbers Association), an ultra-right wing extremist, pro-government paramilitary group composed of settlers mostly from Panay Island.

Growing up in Pagalungan, in the 1980s, the story of a deranged woman who ate her children similar to the infamous Maria Labo story of Panay Island made the rounds. Parents had to keep an eye on children lest they be abducted by this character.

There has been health scare too, fueled by deep superstition. For instance, the hepatitis epidemic was believed to have been caused by water elementals. The solution was a ritual called guana or ipat.

When the a political dynasty rose to power in Maguindanao, talking about them, especially in the pejorative manner, was done in hushed tone, otherwise one can suffer the brute force of the family. The methods of killing, they said, ranged from the usual gun sustained wound to being stabbed multiple times using a barbecue stick, or being flattened by a road roller (pison).

There is one public scare that I remember vividly in the late 1980s, and that was the reported introduction of the invasive snakehead fish species to our waters. They were originally from China. The public scare gained a monumental level people avoided bodies of water from canals to rivers. People refrained from eating mudfish or catfish thinking that cross breeding with the snakehead fish might have occurred. According to rumor, isnek pis, as locals called them, were venomous they could kill faster than a cobra. Furthermore, the fish can walk on land. It was talk of the town for months. Soon, when scientific fact was established, it was known that snakehead fish tend to avoid human contact and accounts of attack were limited to instances when nests have been disturbed. Debunking the belief that it was more snake than fish, a sort of chimera, it was found out that they didn't possess venom. The scare might have died down but I will always remember the public hysteria. However, it continues to invade the waters of North America threatening indigenous species.

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