Malacañang: The ultimate haunted house?

A prominent photo spread in the definitive Malacañan Palace: The Official Illustrated History features a panoramic view of the Palace’s State Entrance, with the accompanying balete tree [strangler fig]—and, it seems, the headless figure of one of the members of the Presidential Security Group. The image has sparked much speculation, feeding suspicions of the Palace being the ultimate haunted house—and prompting many of the book’s owners to splay its pages open to visitors. However, when asked if he had truly captured a specter on film, photographer Wig Tysmans offered a simple explanation: long exposure. The now-immortalized security personnel must have held his pose throughout the exposure, only to move his head before it ended.

Despite more innocuous rationales, the Palace remains rife with such supposed hauntings. The conservative supposition of the probable age of Malacañan Palace places its beginnings from 1746-1750. Being thus a structure so old and so laden with history—having gone through centuries’ worth of residents, countless skirmishes, a handful of wars, reconstructions, and the myriad influences of culture—almost ensures the proliferation of ghost stories about the Palace. From sightings of mysterious faceless personages, to the mainstay kapre puffing away his cigar on the famous balete tree declared a National Heritage Tree in 2011; to the ghosts of dead Presidents roaming the state rooms and their househelp haunting the balconies and halls.

Even soothsayers have made occult cameo appearances in the Palace, as Carlos Quirino recounts,
a local soothsayer stopped at the Palace gates to tell the guards that a severe typhoon would destroy the Palace should any of them “wear a beard.” The tale was repeated to Mrs. Taft who, apparently to forestall the manghuhula or sorcerer, forbade the servants from growing beards—even scraggly mustaches that some of the muchachos had affected. The prohibition apparently worked, for the severe typhoons that rainy season failed to destroy the Palace.
It comes, as they say, with the territory. As Linda Garcia-Campos, only child of President Carlos P. Garcia, noted, “Malacañang is an old house. And it creaks. And my first night there, whenever I heard a creaking, I would wonder: Is this it, is this the ghost?” Fertile imaginations of its residents and the Palace’s ominous decor notwithstanding, we strive to argue, of course, for more grounded explanations.

Supernatural sights and sounds in the Palace

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, principal aide of Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur, and assigned an office in the Executive Building (in what is now the Presidential Broadcast Studio where Secretary Jesse M. Robredo’s wake was held in Kalayaan Hall) by President Manuel L. Quezon, returned to Manila on a State Visit to President Carlos P. Garcia and recounted that during his stay, a mysterious valet brought snacks to his room at midnight. Decades later, President Ferdinand E. Marcos would tell his children of a shadowed aide haunting the room the President used as his study, responding to neither summons nor the physical constraints of solid walls.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office was part of Presidential Broadcast Studio, which was recently used for the lying-in-state of Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Jesse M. Robredo.
President Ferdinand E. Marcos and Vice President Fernando Lopez in the Presidential Study.

In fact, a wealth of ghost stories are provided by the Marcoses—they, after all, stayed in the Palace for 20 years. Presidential son and now-Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. relates how other ghosts may be the lost souls of people slain during World War II; adding that the Japanese Army used Malacañang as headquarters. Another thread is of an American chaplain known as Father Brown—who could be malicious or benevolent, depending on who was relating the tale—who had been supposedly killed by Japanese troops. However, the Japanese Army had used what is now the U.S. Embassy as their headquarters.

Former Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye relates an amusing tale of creeping suspicion of supernatural ongoings—the sound of footsteps, the intuition that one is being followed—as he wove his way in and out of the halls of the Palace: “My first view of The Thing from a distance was of a white-haired man wearing a dark suit. The Thing must have sensed my presence because he immediately turned around. He said: ‘Toting, paano ba lumabas dito?’ [Toting, how do you get out of here?] Secretary Raul Gonzalez seemed as relieved as I was.”

Raul S. Gonzalez, whose father, Arturo M. Gonzalez, was the first Engineer of Malacañan Palace, and who later became Press Secretary of President Diosdado Macapagal, grew up in the Palace. In a series of articles published in the 1990s, he recounted,
The house we moved into was a green and white Swiss chalet tucked into a corner formed by the Pasig and the wall that separated Malacañang from what is now St. Jude’s and environs.  It had four big bedrooms; wide, wide windows; and a long, long porch where, in the dark of many a night, I sat enraptured by  and shivering from tales told by our cleaning man, Mang Bernabe, shriveled and stooped from serving too many Spanish masters and American governors—tales about disembodied friars in cowls and sutanas intoning the litany as they plodded along the Palace corridors, about great balls of fire circling the old majestic rubber tree that once stood on what used to be the Palace parade field, about an eccentric European (Kaminski…) who once stayed in this very same chalet and from this very porch, even in foulest weather, scanned the heavens for some nameless planets beyond the reach of the sun.
Incidentally, the chalet where Engineer Gonzales lived, and its twin, where traditionally, the commander of the Presidential Guards lived, from the Quezon to Marcos administrations, was demolished before martial law when President Marcos enlarged the Administration Building (renamed Mabini Hall by President Fidel V. Ramos).

The crouching children and phantom flowers of Mabini Hall

Mabini Hall
New Executive Building

Office of the President employees in Mabini Hall are fond of recounting the apparition of a woman dressed in a black frilly dress, looking out the window at the Pasig River, or seated at one of the desks in the Correspondence Office. Other employees recount moving chairs in the Correspondence Office and the smell of flowers wafting in the air, or hearing sounds of typing, children playing—or even the sound of someone eating chicharron. Across the hall is the Information and Communications Technology Office of the Department of Science and Technology where a person claiming to possess clairvoyant powers is said to have seen an old lady stopping the flow of sand on an old hourglass. On the third floor, men’s restroom of Mabini Hall, a boy crouches in a corner with his head bent down.

Oddly enough, despite at least two killings on the premises: the shooting of Engineer Gonzalez and two others by a Presidential Guard run amok, and supposedly, of a Marcos loyalist during the EDSA Revolution, no stories identified with these individuals has gained currency.

On the other hand, the New Executive Building, which was the original home of the San Miguel Brewery, has two ghosts associated with it: that of children–a little girl following people around and a little boy moaning and crying at the passage leading to the guesthouse. There has also been mention of sightings of a Chinese gentleman standing still at the corner on one of the rooms on the third floor. The most unusual story is of a Dopplegänger—a shapeshifter—which impersonates people to confuse others, particularly from dusk to late at night.

The Music Room was originally the First Lady’s library. It was converted into a Music Room during the Quirino Administration.

Its current resident, President Benigno S. Aquino III, relates how the palace guards have spoken of “pianos [that] start playing by themselves” and of the sound of footsteps marauding the halls. The Music Room is particularly fertile ground for hauntings, it seems. (One of the previous incarnations of the Music Room was that it was used as a bedroom during the Spanish Colonial Period.)

In Nick Joaquin’s history of the Palace, Irene Marcos shared a story about “the Fabian de la Rosa painting of a cellist which hangs in the Music Room. On certain nights the sound of a cello playing can be heard in the room underneath. And one guard even swears he has seen the cellist in that painting turning one of the music pages.”

The Presidential ghosts

The ghost of President Manuel L. Quezon seems to be haunting a host of rooms and structures. He was reportedly sighted in Mansion House, the Presidential retreat in Baguio, colorfully cursing in Spanish. However, President Quezon never lived in the Mansion House, using it only for Cabinet meetings as he preferred his private residence on Legarda Road.
Closer to home, here is Raul S. Gonzalez recounting a story told him by his father:
Past midnight of an August day in 1944, Father tumbled out of bed, wakened by something he couldn’t then tell which seemed to push him out of our house and direct his steps toward the Malacañang garage, a cavernous structure beside what is now Gate 4.  Inside the garage, he heard sounds of a car door opening and slamming shut… It was the [Chrysler] of President Quezon.  He looked It over, found nothing wrong, and went back home to sleep.
A couple of nights later, he rushed to my mother from where he was listening to his short-wave radio. “Anching,” he said, “the President is dead.”
Mr. Quezon died at exactly the same time Father heard the [Chrysler’s] door opening and closing.  No one would ever be able to convince him it was not the President he loved so deeply who summoned him from his sleep to his favorite car.
President Quezon’s ghost has likewise been sighted in numerous state rooms all over Malacañan Palace—he was once reportedly seen by Presidential daughter Imee Marcos in the Presidential Study, adding that her father contemplated holding a seance to summon Quezon to advise him concerning troublesome negotiations with the Americans. Curiously enough, Nick Joaquin, in his history of Malacañan Palace writes, “Nonong Quezon [only son of President Manuel L. Quezon] says he saw none of the ghosts supposed to haunt the palace; the horridest happening there that he remembers is a snake being caught in his room.” Popular historian Ambeth Ocampo meantime posits that President Quezon’s ghost would “[pace] the Palace during times of crisis,” inspiring the Marcoses to rebuild the Palace. Other palace employees continue to claim that the lights in the Quezon Executive Office in Kalayaan Hall spontaneously switch on late at night.

Upon the deaths of President Manuel Roxas and Ramon Magsaysay, the househelp hardly ventured into the Aguinaldo State Dining Room given their fear of ghosts—some claimed to have seen the deceased Presidents “leisurely puffing a long cigar at the cabecera or head of the dining table.” Curiously, of the two only President Roxas was a known smoker.

President Roxas, though, has also spooked the Marcoses. Nick Joaquin relates how the Marcos children would avoid the State Dining Room, as this was where the body of President Roxas had reportedly lain in state. Imelda Marcos would insist that one of her children escort her to the bathroom whenever they ventured near the State Dining Room. However, the lying-in-state of President Roxas—as with other Presidents who lay in state—was held at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall.

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. even relates more hauntings in the State Dining Room, curiously enough, as this was the site of pajama parties and movie viewing—a tradition began by President Roxas himself.

The Malacañan Palace ballroom was converted into the State Dining Room during the Quezon administration. It was then rebuilt in 1978. Above, the State Dining Room during a luncheon tendered by President Elpidio Quirino for Mrs. Aurora Aragon Quezon.
President Manuel Roxas began the tradition of movie nights. Above, via LIFE, President Roxas with family and friends, watching a movie in the State Dining Room. 1946.

Ruby Roxas, daughter of President Manuel Roxas, has attested, “By the way, if there are ghosts in Malacañang, my mother [First Lady Trinidad Roxas] would have felt their presence because she is the nervous type, but fortunately, none of us are superstitious. But the househelp were always talking about a woman in white, with long hair, wandering about at night.”

Trusted aides and attendants of the Presidents have likewise haunted the Palace, from a “phantom Chinese valet from the days of President Roxas who walks the long narrow corridors.” Senator Marcos relates a tale passed on by “a guest from Italy [who] recounted being awakened by a Chinese servant at around 3am and [had been] told to attend Mass with the Marcoses. The first family asked around and was told that the ghost had been known to appear as early as the time of President Manuel Roxas.”

Vicky Quirino, daughter of President Elpidio Quirino who served as his First Lady, relates, “The wing we occupied was said to be haunted. There was a certain balcony where scary noises were supposed to be heard at night. And behind the bedrooms was a pasillo going to the laundry room and the tableware closet, and on that corridor the Quezons’ Chinese cook, Aching, was said to have died of a heart attack. So there was supposed to be a Chinese ghost on that pasillo.”

His name is Brown—Mr. Brown

Juliet Labog-Javellana’s article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “Malacañang is country’s top haunted house,” enumerates a handful of the ghost stories from those who have stayed in it, including its current resident President Benigno S. Aquino III. President Aquino himself—who resides in Bahay Pangarap—has commented on the ominous atmosphere of the Palace, and the years of related stories on hauntings, beginning with a looming balete tree in front of the state entrance.

President Benigno S. Aquino III before the balete tree said to be the home of a kapre. The balete was proclaimed a National Heritage Tree in 2011.

Coincidentally, it’s not the first time the balete tree has fed the imagination of Filipinos as it has housed many of the local enkantos of lore. Neither is it surprising that a number of these trees are referred to as strangler figs known to start upon other trees, later entrapping them entirely until the host tree is dead.

The Palace balete is said to be home to a kapre, calmly puffing cigar, [Quirino] recounts one such story from previous residents of the Palace.

The story goes that household aide Mariano Dacuso, now deceased, was relaxing and reading the papers in the Tea House (where a mosque now stands) when he found himself being lifted along with his chair. “He was lifted almost to the ceiling so he told the kapre, ‘Please put me down.’ Then he ran to us,” Rozon said. Then there was a cabbie who got the scare of his life when he asked for a light and looked up to see the kapre chomping on a cigar. Shaking in fear, the cabbie ran to the quarters of the servants, who told him he had found Mr. Brown. Rozon also said that when the social secretary’s staff worked overtime typing letters, they would hear someone else typing in the next room, which was empty. “Whenever something mysterious happened, it was always blamed on Mr. Brown,” he said.

Elmer Navarro, who lived in the old servants’ quarters as a child, said the kapre was “feared even by the military.” He recalled, “Sometimes, you could see smoke wafting from the tree.”

A passage from Nick Joaquin recounts another kapre, offered by the Marcos children: “A more malevolent one is an enormous kapre who inhabits the balete tree just outside the main entrance. On dark, muggy nights, security men were sometimes startled to see their fellow guards frantically running about the grounds as though being chased by some invisible demon. The victims claimed later the gigantic kapre had wakened them, then had gone about gleefully dropping ashes from his enormous cigar on their heads.” One of the Palace help during the Commonwealth, the late Anastasia de Joya Calalang, who lived in the Servants’ Quarters (converted by the Marcoses into the Premier Guest House in 1975), to her dying day insisted she had been chased by the kapre one dark night as she went home, remarking on his coal-red eyes.

* * *

A ghost captured on film? The shadowy figure on the left caught on camera by a guest at Heroes Hall.

Having begun with a photograph, we end with a photograph. From Spanish times to the beginning of the Commonwealth, Malacañan Palace was a typical bahay na bato: the bedrooms and principal state room were on the second floor, and the ground level was a silong. In the first years of the Commonwealth, President Quezon had the silong transformed into what he intended to be a clubhouse for entertaining members of the National Assembly; it came to be known as the Social Hall and during the Macapagal Administration, it was further embellished and named Heroes Hall. In the 1978-79 rebuilding of Malacañan Palace, it was rebuilt and fully enclosed.

In 2010, during one palace event, a staff member of Raffy Nantes posed for a photograph in Heroes Hall using his mobile phone and was startled to see a ghostly figure hovering behind him clad in pre-hispanic garb. What could simply be a pattern of shadows in low light conditions taken with a low-resolution phone camera, has gained fame as a photo of a ghostly apparition. As Robert L. Ripley, who once visited Governor-General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in Malacañan Palace might have said, “Believe it… Or not.”

    1. Palacio de Malacañang: 200 Years of a Ruling House by Nick Joaquin
    2. Malacañan in History — VI “The Tafts and the Palace Ghosts” by Carlos Quirino September 30, 1989, Philippines Free Press.
    3. ‘Mr. Brown’ lives in RP’s most haunted house, Palace” by Juliet Labog-Javellana, Philippine Daily Inquirer, first Posted 08:08:00 10/31/2010.
    4. Memories and Malacañan, Raul S. Gonzalez
    5. The Evening Paper, June 27, 1995.
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