Belmont Club

The Old Bethel Temple

When I was growing up, Manila was a haunted city. The scars of the Second World War were still everywhere in evidence. There were shrapnel marks on public benches. Every now and again new construction would unearth a set of skeletons, which was only to be expected in a city that suffered more civilian casualties than either Hiroshima or Nagsaki. The bodies were everywhere. They would never find them all. Not far from where I lived, a group of men from the provinces, believers in some strange occult faith, charged police demanding land reform. They were wearing amulets that they thought conferred immunity to bullets. They were wrong. Thirty three men belonging to the Lapiang Malaya died just down the street. Not that it bothered me.

Anyone who grows up in the Third World is exposed early to the sight of death. I remember finding a man dead early one morning on the street as I was heading off to my fourth grade class. The man had electrocuted himself while trying to steal electric wire. I knocked on the nearest door and asked the householder to call the cops and went straight to school, ate my lunch and went right back home to watch Gunsmoke or something. School itself had a chapel where a plaque marked the spot where 70 people, including 16 German and Italian religious, were bayoneted by the Japanese. It didn’t bother anyone because in our childlike faith, we assumed they were all in heaven, together with the heroes of Bataan and Corregidor. Nobody gave anyone “counseling” back then in the matter of death and dying, and nobody seemed to need it.

As I grew older I decided to find out a little more about the backstory of these Manila mysteries. That eventually led me to visit the remnants of the cults based in Calamba, Laguna and to descend into the “holy” caverns of the mysterious sects which are burrowed into the side of Mt. Banahaw, an extinct volcano, which I did at 3 pm on a Good Friday, naturally. The caverns were lit at intervals by stumps of candles, by whose fitful light you could read as you grasped the guide ropes in tunnels no wider than a couple of feet, the mysterious inscriptions in pig-Latin, decorated with occult symbols. What the inscriptions meant, God only knew. I never divined the tenets of that faith, though I spoke to many a survivor. They spoke in riddles. Maybe they did not know themselves. But whatever their doctrines were it had been it enough to send the Lapiang Malaya charging against the M2 carbines of the police.

Even the Japanese battlegrounds attracted my attention. I would wander in the hills around the area of the Battle of the Dams. While tramping the trails, I met an old farmer who showed me where some unit of Japanese Naval Infantry had been overtaken and killed. I realized that the Japanese unit had been trying to walk 300 miles north over the Sierra Madre range to join with Yamashita, who himself was doomed. Anyone who has tried walking 30 miles in that terrain knows how singularly hopeless effort that must have been. The fact they even tried it filled me with awe and not a little sadness. It left me with renewed respect for the Japanese soldier and the Army dogfaces and Filipino guerillas who ran them to their deaths.

Yes it was a haunted place. But the most mysterious place of all was the Bethel Temple which stood silently on the corner of Isaac Peral and Taft Avenue in Manila. For it was connected with an incident whose legend was repeated throughout my childhood: the strange case of Clarita Villanueva. The tiny Baptist church, built as I learned from subsequent research, from the steel salvaged from a bombed out B-17 hangar, had been pastored by one Lester Sumrall, who in 1951, years before I was born, was widely believed to have faced down and expelled the devil himself.

In 1951 the city had been rocked by sensational accounts of an attack by “unseen being” on a 17 year old girl called Clarita Villanueva. The attacks continued for days, despite the presence of an increasingly large number of prominent people until Lester Sumrall performed an exorcism. It wasn’t something I could readily believe. But everyone had head the story; and I was hooked on it, in part because it involved places with which I was intimately familiar. I knew the city jails and entertained myself, if that is the word, by attending trials in the Courts of First Instance most of which were located in the old Mehan Gardens beside the City Hall.

There were advantages to growing up in a world without Xboxes. You looked under bridges, followed brass bands, gawked at carnivals, pushed coins into jukeboxes and walked everywhere for amusement. And in an around those tramps, I asked myself, what really happened to Clarita Villanueva?

I determined to find out as much as I could about it. I visited the press morgues of newspapers which were still largely headquartered in the Old Walled City. Leafing through the newspapers to year 1951 there it was: Clarita Villanueva. The news stories were there. The undeniable fact was that some extraordinary report had gripped the dailies and had drawn the famous mayor, Arsenio H. Lacson, into the incident.  The realization that Lacson himself was affrighted by the Villanueva case made my hair stand on end.

Lacson was as tough as they came. He had been a guerrilla in World War 2. He was a lead scout in the Battle of Manila. He subsequently fought Yamashita in the Cordilleras. “For his service during the war, Lacson received citations from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Sixth United States Army. Years later, when asked by Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi if he had learned Japanese during the war, Lacson responded, ‘I was too busy shooting at Japanese to learn any.'” After the war he fought off several attempts on his life. He disarmed his attackers on two occasions and survived an ambush designed to take him down. Anything that could scare Arsenio H. Lacson would by definition, scare almost anybody.

The bare story of Clarita Villanueva was that of suspected prostitute picked up on a charge of vagrancy who was attacked by unseen beings in the presence of multiple witnesses.  The stories vary, but the common theme was that she was under attack by an invisible, hairy monster.

When police found her she was the center of a small crowd on the street corner, screaming that she was being attacked and bitten.

Dope perhaps? Absinthe? Insanity? Whatever it was police left it to others to determine. They seized the screaming girl and took her to a cell. Clarita fell sobbing to the floor as the door clanged behind her. The police ignored her pleas to look at the 8 sets of teeth marks where she said the Thing had bitten her. The Thing? What Thing? Clarita could only describe it as a thing that looked like a man, except that he had big, bulging eyes and was wearing a loose black cape, and he seemed to float in the air when he desired. Just then she began to scream again, shreiking that the Thing was coming again, right thru the bars.

The policeman unlocked the cell door and led the girl into the hall, screaming at the top of her voice. And right there, before his eyes, more teeth marks appeared on her upper arms and shoulders… livid marks surrounded by what appeared to be saliva. The officer called for his Captain, his Captain called the Chief. …

Next morning, as the police prepared to take her into court to face vagrancy charges, the girl began screaming again. The Thing was back, biting her! Two policemen each grabbed an arm and before all of their astounded eyes, the teeth marks sank deep into her arms, the palms of her hands, and her neck. This attack lasted for at least 5 minutes until the girl fainted and fell to the floor. Medical
Examiner Mariana Lara examined her again and reversed himself. This girl was NOT having epileptic seizures at all. The bites were real, but NOT self inflicted. He asked that the Mayor and Archbishop be called at once.

It was some 30 minutes before the Mayor arrived and by then Clarita had regained consciousness. The bites on her arms were badly swollen and the palm of one hand was thick and bruised where the teeth prints had been deeply embedded. As the Mayor and the ME accompanied her to the prison hospital, Clarita began shreiking that the Thing was after her again; this time he had a helper, another bug-eyed creature. Mayor Lacson later testified that, as he watched, livid teeth marks appeared simultaneously on opposite sides of her throat, on her index finger, and one set of teeth prints was deeply indented on the girl’s hand even while the Mayor held it.

That was when Lacson got scared. “The 15 minute trip to the prison hospial was a nightmare for the Mayor of Manilla, the ME, the girl, and the driver of the automobile. But once there, the attacks ceased and Clarita began her slow recovery. She never again underwent such an experience. Said Mayor Lacson, “This is something that defies explaination.” Said Medical Examiner Dr. Mariana Lara, ‘I was just scared stiff!'” These accounts were more or less consistent with the oral history I overheard from childhood. Sumrall’s subsequent claim to fame rests on his exorcism, described here.

After we all gathered in the chapel, Dr. Lara asked that Clarita be brought in. She observed each person slowly and closely as she entered the room. When she came to me at the end of the line, her eyes widened and she glared at me saying, “I don’t like you!”

These were the first words the devil spoke through her lips to me. The demons used her lips constantly to curse me, to curse God, and to curse the blood of Christ. She did this in English, yet after she was delivered I had to converse with her through an interpreter, as she could not speak English. I had her sit on a wooden bench, and I drew up chair in front of her.

“Clarita,” I said, “I have come to deliver you from the power of these devils in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The account of the exorcism has been criticized for factual errors. His flock did not, as a consequence of the exorcism, notably increase. Nor was there any consensus that the attacks stopped as the consequence of the exorcism. Some accounts say they merely stopped. Clarita Villanueva herself vanished into obscurity. Nobody knows if she is still alive. She has probably deceased. It would probably have been impossible, even in the 1960s, to find out anything about the “true facts” that set Manila on its ear. Was it mass hysteria? Could it have been stigmata?

Stigmata are primarily associated with the Roman Catholic faith. Many reported stigmatics are members of Catholic religious orders. A high percentage (perhaps over 80%) of all stigmatics are women …

Modern research has indicated stigmata are of hysterical origin, or linked to dissociative identity disorders, especially the link between dietary constriction by self-starvation, dissociative mental states and self-mutilation, in the context of a religious belief.

Maybe it was just one more thing coming on the heels of the Second World War.  There may have been griefs so deep, hurts so profound or a despair so great that nothing but the images of Heaven or Hell could have described it. Whatever it was is now gone past the point of recall, along with the Lapiang Malaya and all the ghosts of that still haunted city. We can barely hear them now. Like the siren which once sounded every year on the anniversary of the Fall of Bataan, their voices are faded and stilled. We remember them no more.


Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” print edition
Link to Wretchard’s novel “No Way In” Kindle Edition”