Aswang’ redux: Time for a makeover
The passengers heard a splash on the side of the ship, which has slowed down as it prepared to dock. It was barely dawn, and the town had not yet stirred from slumber.
According to eyewitnesses, two big black dogs were seen swimming away from the ship toward the shore. Each of the dogs was carrying two pairs of shoes—brightly colored and heeled—in its mouth as its head bobbed above the water. They disappeared into the darkness. It was not the last time the people heard of them. It was only the beginning.
Vampires are traditionally portrayed in Western art, especially in films, as fashionable creatures, although some are stuck in Middle-Age garb. For instance, Count Dracula insists on wearing a cape every time he is out of the coffin to feed on virgins in his territory, even during summer (but then again, he only comes out at night!). These blood-sucking creatures are often imbued with much sexiness.
Contrast this with the depiction of aswang in Philippine folklore. They are usually in dirty clothes, and suffer from a genetic skin disease that makes them shed it, like a snake, under the moonlight. The last aswang film I watched had Lovi Poe as a burrowing aswang. Her character had an earthy feel, consistent with the dry fields of her surroundings. She goes around town in an immaculate kamison, which never seems to get soiled (I wonder if a detergent had a product placement in the movie). Still, her character fit the bill of this supernatural creature as imagined by Filipinos.
Why should aswang be less fashionable than its European counterpart? Kate Beckinsale, as Selene in the “Underworld” films, looks icy cool in her tight-fitting suit. Edward Cullen, with his coven, looks like they suffered from an overdose of glutathione.
We have Erich Gonzales in “Corazon” wearing a baboy damo head gear as she devoured children. How unfashionable! Couldn’t she have put on a mink coat instead?
In Western concept, these supernatural creatures usually belong to the aristocracy. Elizabeth Bathory, a countess, killed virgins in her territory and bathed with their blood, in the belief that it would rejuvenate her. It must be noted, too, that Count Dracula, as popularized by Bram Stoker, is loosely based on an actual historical person who had the habit of exsanguinating his enemies.
It seems that folklore, evolving from oral tales among peasants, developed these supernatural beings as a metaphor for the atrocities of the ruling class.
Our aswang are often cast as misfits of society, from the lower rungs of the social totem pole. They usually live in isolated areas, for instance, in the far end of the woods like Alma Moreno’s aswang did, physically challenged like a hunchback, or old hags, wonderfully played by Lilia Cuntapay.
Although she was a landowner, Lovie Poe’s character was on the brink of bankruptcy (even in the film, the aswang are the working class). It seems like our aswang are doomed to subsistence living.
It’s an interesting contrast to the Western vampire, nighttime creatures who seem to be regulars of high society. When the vampire-werewolf tale “Twilight” became a publishing phenomenon and a popular film series, fashion magazines rushed to ride the trend, with covers featuring blood-drenched waifs.
The socioeconomic context explains the unfashionable portrayals of aswang in Filipino culture. How can you wear Prada when you have to till the land? But with the economy growing, you would think even these creatures could afford a wardrobe update.
These may have prompted a TV network to cast popular matinee idol John Lloyd as a vampire, rather than go for a local flavor with aswang. Hey, if your character is hip, you may just get another clothing endorsement. You wouldn’t want an aswang endorsing your favorite brand. Or would you?
When tales of aswang in heels first broke into the drinking scene, it was indeed an engaging tale. Aswang na may takong! Imagine, two supernatural creatures chasing you across open field in high heels. How comical can you get! It’s scary to think they’re after you to tear your innards out. And it’s interesting to think just what brands these creatures prefer! They’re sure to be durable. Those shoes would have been made for hunting people.
It’s a little callous to think of aswang this way. (They might just write a letter to the editor.) But the thought remains: it’s time our aswang got reimagined. It’s time we upgraded our favorite local supernatural beings. They might just bag a product endorsement or two along the way.