Search and Hit Enter

What scares Filipino horror writer Yvette Tan, really?

Above: Yvette poses for promotional photos of “Trese: After Dark.” Photo taken from Yvette’s Instagram account.

I expected my interview with the celebrated horror writer to tackle the unknown, but I didn’t predict that it would take such unexpected turns.

Contrary to what one might expect, nothing went out of the ordinary while I was interviewing Yvette Tan for this article. There were no internet fluctuations, mysterious orbs appearing, or a biting chill in the air as we talked about the supernatural.

Quite the opposite happened. We were laughing as we talked about the “Jun-juns” of call centers; Yvette’s uncanny ability to write things into existence; and the current white onion shortage, which forced a bar I went to two weeks ago to serve red onion rings—the horror! (Okay, perhaps this isn’t frightening at all. But trust me, this will make sense later.)

But horror was still at the core of our conversation, and rightfully so—Yvette had just recently launched “Seek Ye Whore,” her second collection of stories after “Waking the Dead,” released around a decade ago. The pun might escape foreigners, but Filipinos should be able to identify the location from which the latest anthology takes its name (tip: read the title quickly)—a province with a mystical reputation.

The front and back cover of “Seek Ye Whore.”

Express Ticket to Darkness

Beyond its picturesque shores, diving spots, and natural formations, Siquijor has always been regarded as an island of wonder and the supernatural. Its reputation has both attracted and repulsed tourists, depending on their appetite for the uncanny. 

 In 2010, Yvette was on the island for a travel magazine feature. While she didn’t experience anything out of the ordinary throughout the trip, she felt the effects of a “hex” when she returned to Manila. Her right thumb started twitching—she couldn’t use her keyboard properly. A friend of hers, who had warned her prior to the trip that she might get hexed by a mother and child on the island, helped in praying the twitch away. (The full story may be found on her website.)

But what got her attention more at that time—and what piqued my interest—was that some of the locals were quick to dismiss anything mystical, uncanny, or horrific about their island. 

“Every time I asked them about anything supernatural, they would go, ‘Ma’am, walang ganyan dito’ (“Ma’am, there’s nothing like that here”),” Yvette shared. She found it regretful that some locals were not embracing an integral part of their culture. She also understood that some locals might think of the horror elements as detrimental to tourism. 

However, Yvette thought the opposite. These aspects of their local culture could help drive growth and commercial value to the locale. The demand for the uncanny has been going strong, especially among adventure-seekers and citydwellers. “It’s actually interesting to see the same beliefs evolve into something different, based on the area or milieu that they find themselves in,” she noted. 

For instance, the playful spirits that trick people in nature have an urban counterpart: “Jun-jun,” supposedly a kid who haunts call centers across Manila and messes with the employees. 7-11 stores have become popular stopovers for pagpag, or the belief that one should never go home directly after attending a wake, lest you allow evil spirits to follow you. 

The Aswang Project has a comprehensive compendium of creatures from Philippine folklore and mythology.

There’s also the mananaggal scare of May 1992: the severed creature had allegedly been wreaking havoc in Tondo, Manila, attacking unsuspecting residents. News of the sightings competed with election-related news on tabloids, newspapers, and among rumormongers then. “That’s why for a time, it was a running joke that whenever there’s an election, a manananggal will be on the loose,” Yvette said. 

“It’s something that we observe not only in modern stories, but also in folklore: the monsters that come out tend to embody or mask current fears.” In the case of the mananaggal, many sociologists have linked the phenomenon to the several anxieties that Filipinos had during the 1992 elections, among other problems that plagued the country—an unsettling period that had been chronicled on international titles like The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

Bran Castle, Romania. Outside of Transylvania, it’s more commonly known as “Dracula’s Castle.”

Then, there’s the rise of “dark tourism”—visits to sites of death, tragedy, and the macabre (the castles of Transylvania, the Catacombs of Paris, and our very own Intramuros, to name a few) have gained worldwide traction in recent decades. Ideally, these trips are more educational than they are gimmicky and exploitative, allowing visitors to learn lessons from grim periods in history.  

“Dark tourism, when done properly, can be a respectful way to commemorate a complicated past while maintaining hope and optimism for a better future,” Yvette wrote in her account of her Intramuros Tour last year, spearheaded by touring and experiential group Wander Manila. 

While not exactly a ghost tour, the trip—more so the historical accounts linked to the various sites—had its fair share of dark and creepy stories, from bloodied nurses within the halls of a certain university to a plaza where, centuries ago, an adulterous woman and her lover were killed by her enraged husband. 

Yvette shares snaps of her Intramuros tour in this Instagram post.

When I asked her why urbanites flock to these kinds of tours, Yvette offered a few possibilities. “I think people in urban spaces don’t really believe in these supernatural phenomena, so it’s a different experience for them. Besides, they’re easily bored, so this is something exciting,” she quipped. 

Horror can also be a way for cityfolk to get out of the realm of technology, with which they are surrounded by. Perhaps the perceived “predictability” and “efficiency” within an urban space have taken away the insecurity toward the unknown, or have replaced it with other horrors (Manila traffic, anyone?).

In contrast, the provinces—with their expansive fields, proximity to nature, and the unsettling quiet—are rife with stories of the uncanny. “At the root of it, much of our folklore stems from our fear of the unknown. We tell these stories to alleviate the anxiety we have toward the darkness, ‘forever,’ death, or even a bad harvest,” she said. 

“I have not been back to Siquijor—not because I don’t want to, but because there haven’t been any opportunities to do so,” Yvette shared. She doesn’t know if the locals’ attitudes toward the supernatural have changed over the decade. She hopes, however, that the island could embrace its folklore more, if only for dark tourism done right: based on history, respectful of traditions, and free from exploitation. 

On Writing the Uncanny

From Siquijor, we returned to the book partially inspired by it. “Seek Ye Whore” is conveniently divided into two sections: “Demon Summoning Made Easy: Introduction” and “Advanced Demonology Booster Pack.” 

I bookmarked several pages while reading Yvette’s books.

The first section contains “general patronage” stories. “Fold Up Boy” narrates a high schooler helping a ghost from centuries ago find his way home, while “The Last Moon” tells the story of a young girl and a tikbalang (a half-man half-horse creature) zooming across the archipelago to warn the leaders and inhabitants of the Old Land about the impending threat of the moon-eating monster, Bakunawa. (Fun fact: commissioned by the National Book Development Board for Book Philippines at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2021, “The Last Moon” is the first NFT book to be dropped at the world’s largest and oldest trade fair for books.)

The latter part of the book is meant for mature audiences, and Yvette doesn’t hold back with the R18+ themes. The ending scene of “All the Birds,” though poignant, made me feel queasy and apprehensive. (Without spoiling much, the protagonist ingested something that she probably shouldn’t have, but she was too in the moment at the time.) And after reading “The Club” and “Her Room was Her Temple,” I couldn’t look at Poblacion—and any district with many late-night workers, whatever trade they may be in—the same way again. 

An unused cover of “Seek Ye Whore.”

The titular story finds itself in the second part of the book. It tells the story of Foster, an American guy who buys a mail-order bride from siquijorbrides.com (If you’re Filipino, the website’s URL speaks for itself).

Readers have described Yvette’s work as “horror-ish” in that her stories are more creepy than they are scary (“All the Birds” is a good example of this). Yvette said that the way she writes about the supernatural has always been how she has seen the world, and that this has never changed throughout her writing career. 

“Some foreigners have called my work ‘magic realism,’ which I don’t really agree with,” she noted. “Actually, it’s easy to tell people that my work is ‘horror,’ but internally, I think what I write is just the Filipino way of living.”

“I’ve mentioned in many interviews how, back in the 1980s, you’d see news like ‘isang buong classroom, nasapian’ (One whole classroom got possessed) in between political news without any delineation,” she recounted. This, coupled with the stories she heard as a kid and her own research on folklore and horror growing up, have influenced the casual acceptance of the supernatural in her work. 

Yvette also admitted that she is quite “sensitive”—a condition that she had only been aware of recently, but had already been manifesting itself in certain ways even in the past (she had written about her perception of “energetically compromised locations” in this account of her New Orleans trip in 2017). Although, she has stressed that this “sensitivity” has nothing to do with her writing, she gets fair share of creepy experiences and ghost stories; however, they have not birthed works of fiction. 

Yvette poses with the reissued copy of “Waking the Dead.”

This isn’t to say that nothing uncanny has ever happened in her writing career. 

In “Waking the Dead,” Yvette identified two stories that are linked to strange phenomena: “The Bridge” and “Sidhi.” In these stories, she had written about locations that unbeknown to her, do exist in real life—down to the last detail.

“After I published ‘The Bridge,’ I was able to go to the ‘Malacañang of the North’ in Ilocos Norte for the first time,” she recalled. “When I got to the second floor, I realized that the mansion that I had imagined in my story had exactly the same layout—except that the rooms were flipped, and my story was set in Leyte.”

What made this stranger is that “The Bridge” alludes to the presidential family that once resided in the Malacañang of the North. 

The same thing had happened to “Sidhi,” where Erwin Romulo told Yvette that the buildings she had written in her story look exactly like the Syquia Apartments—again, at the time, she had never been to the place before. “Actually, this used to happen in high school. I used to write fan fiction starring me, my friends, our crushes, and New Kids on the Block,” Yvette remembered. 

For primary and secondary school, Yvette went to the Immaculate Conception Academy in Greenhills, San Juan.

May isa akong friend na kung anong sinusulat ko, yun yung nangyayari sa buhay niya. E may jowa sya nun. So, if okay sila sa story, okay sila in real life. Nung nag-away sila sa story, nag-away talaga sila! One day, she told me, ‘Yvette, can you just write us back together?’ And ayun, nagkaayos sila (I had a friend who would experience the things that I would write. She had a boyfriend then, and whenever they were okay in my story, they’d be okay in real life. When they would quarrel in the story, they’d also quarrel in real life! One day, she told me, “Yvette, can you just write us back together?” And they became okay again).”

With these strange phenomena and her chosen subject matter, does Yvette ever get scared of her own work? Quite the contrary: she gets giddy and excited whenever the frightening scenes come up. “I think it’s the same feeling for any writer when they’re in the zone,” she replied. 

But does she ever get conscious of attracting “dark” and “negative” energy? “Only because other people keep telling me about it. If they didn’t it wouldn’t be a thing.”

“That said, there are some people who believe that you attract these things if you continuously immerse yourself in that world,” she continued. “So, just to be safe, I just shield and cleanse all the time. But again, in my case, my sensitivity is completely separate from my work.”

Keeping the Real Evils at Bay

Yvette isn’t keen on using white sage for cleansing rituals.

Naturally, I asked if she does cleansing rituals.

“Just the usual, nothing vague. And no white sage!” Yvette quipped, citing the practice as unsustainable and an act of cultural appropriation. (Several articles have been written about how the irresponsible burning of white sage endangers the plant and offends Native Americans, the legitimate performers of the ritual.)

On Yvette’s website, she had written about Philippine plants that local practitioners use to cleanse spaces. The list includes garlic and sugar apple, more commonly known as atis. As we talked about the article, I quipped that the list was in line with the #LoveLocal movement, especially for Philippine agriculture. 

But my light-hearted remark was more than comic relief. It alludes to another aspect of Yvette’s writing career—that of being the editor-in-chief of Agriculture Magazine and Manila Bulletin’s agriculture section editor. 

And let it be known before you ask: Yvette is aware (and tired) of people wondering why a horror writer is into agriculture. On her site and at the back of her books, she writes: “When asked how a horror writer ended up interested in growing food, her reply is, ‘farmers and horror writers both keep the apocalypse at bay.’”

An issue of Agriculture Magazine. The fourth photo shows Yvette’s Editor’s Note for the latest issue.

After all, food insecurity scares Yvette. “That’s why I’m in agriculture—I don’t want to starve. That’s why I help farmers in the way I know how, and that’s through writing. Ayoko magutom. Matakaw ako (I don’t want to starve. I eat a lot),” she joked. “I want everyone to have food that is enjoyable, healthy, and culturally appropriate.”

The agriculture editor admitted that there are several factors influencing our current food crises (yes, the white onion shortage is a crisis; so are the potato problems and salt shortages, and our longstanding problems with rice supply, of all things)—things that we have little control over. While the issues are systemic, Yvette said that there are still things that we can do to keep this hunger horror story at bay.

“First, please don’t waste food. Only buy and eat when you can,” she began. “Also, if you can—and this can be quite difficult—buy local and know where your food comes from. Try buying food that gets to directly support our farmers. Also vote with your fork: get behind causes, organizations, and lawmakers that support our farmers.

“These bigger, looming things scare me: food insecurity, our loss of freedoms, loss of economic advantage,” Yvette added. “We’re already a Third World country. My biggest worry is that we sink into our ‘Third World-ness’ that a ‘Fourth World’ category might be made just for us. It’s a big fear of mine.”

Agriculture and food security are some of Yvette’s passions.

These sentiments partially answer why it takes Yvette quite a while to write fiction (“one book a decade,” she quips): she’s busy making money (“I don’t want to be poor again.”), and she’s hard at work supporting the agriculture industry through writing. 

“I really only write fiction whenever I have ideas; I know it’s anti-’writing is work,’ but that’s how I already deal with my job in media. I don’t have the luxury of doing that with fiction—unless everyone wants to support me so I can write fiction full-time, wink wink,” she cheekily remarked.

But this isn’t to say that there aren’t any stories on the back burner. Yvette teased that she has two novels and a few short stories in mind. “Parts of them are written already. I just need to find the time to finish them.”

“I’ve been asked if I wanted to write screenplays, actually. I turned them down for now because I have so much work in my day job. Pero dito muna ako. We’ll solve the hunger problem first.”