Previously: Kreischer Mansion, Staten Island, New York.
It was supposed to be a grand cinema palace, a tribute to filmmaking that would make the Philippines’ capital city of Manila into a rival capable of going toe to toe with Cannes, France. But beneath the veneer of glitz and glamor lies the truth about the Manila Film Center. Built during the Marcos regime, the Manila Film Center has been haunted for its entire existence — and by more than just ghosts.
Like many places with a certain reputation — Toyama Park in Tokyo and the Bic Camera Namba store in Osaka, Japan; the Highland Towers apartment building in Malaysia; a certain house in Los Feliz, California — the Manila Film Center comes by it … well, I’m not sure if “honestly” is really the word for it, but it will serve. The alleged haunting is inextricable from the place’s history, and from the history of the Philippines itself.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
It’s heavy stuff. But it’s stuff that bears repeating — and that desperately needs to be remembered.
In this case, the truth of the Manila Film Center haunting is as horrifying as some of the legends that have spun out from it are.
The Marcos Dictatorship And The CCP
Even before the tragedy that would cement the Manila Film Center’s reputation as a haunted, cursed location, the building was mired in controversy. A project of Imelda Marcos, then First Lady of the Philippines and wife of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it’s an example of the Marcos regime’s “edifice complex” in action — a strategy of control in which buildings and architecture are constructed largely as a show of power, making them functionally pieces of propaganda. Expensive propaganda.
Marcos had gained power in 1965 with his election to the office of President of the Philippines; then, in 1972, just prior to the end of his second — and what should have been final — term, he granted himself dictatorial control over the nation by declaring martial law, allowing him to revise the constitution and maintain that control even after the declared “end” of martial law in 1981. He was finally ousted in 1986 after a third term as president, with the dictatorship’s legacy being a severe economic downturn and a truly staggering record of human rights abuses.
At the start of what would become 20-plus years of the Marcos dictatorship, Marcos issued an executive order creating the Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas — the Cultural Center of the Philippines, or CCP. A government-owned and controlled corporation, the CCP’s function was (and is — it’s still active today) to promote and preserve Filipino art and culture.
Imelda Marcos was placed at the head of the CCP, unanimously elected to the position of chair by the organization’s seven board members. Per a 2017 retrospective published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Imelda’s position as chair of CCP gave her “the mandate to negotiate cultural affairs and act as an art patroness on behalf of the state”; additionally, however, it was “a way to remove Imelda’s image as a mere politician’s wife” — that is, it further cemented the Marcos regime as a virtually unstoppable force.
The Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex was inaugurated in 1969 as the main base for the country’s national arts program, late and far, far over budget. At the time, it consisted solely of the main building; over the next several decades, more buildings would be added — including the Manila Film Center, for which planning began in January of 1981.
Initially, those plans were grand: Headed up by Imelda Marcos and supervised by another government spouse — Betty Benitez, wife of Jose Conrado Benitez, then deputy minister of the Ministry of Human Settlements — the Manila Film Center was meant to house six major components and several more smaller ones.
Ultimately, though, only two components were greenlit, per UNESCO documentation of the plans: The auditoria, with one main auditorium intended to seat up to 1,600 people and a handful of others with much smaller capacities, and a film and audio-visual archive facility.
But Imelda didn’t just want the Film Center to built to particular specifications; she also wanted it to be built for a particular event: She intended to hold the first Manila International Film Festival at the Manila Film Center on Jan. 18, 1982 — which presented what might generously be termed a challenge in terms of the construction timeline. If the Film Center was to be completed in time for the film festival, it would need to be constructed in much, much less time than a project of this scale would typically command.
But, as the mantra went, “What the First Lady wants, the First Lady gets,” and construction was hurriedly pushed forward. Thousands of workers rotated through three different shifts 24 hours a day, making the construction almost constant. At this breakneck speed, work that would have ordinarily taken six weeks was completed in just a handful of days.
Then came the accident.
And then came the ghosts.
The Manila Film Center Tragedy
The facts are scant, and remained unreported and suppressed by the dictatorship for a significant period of time. As such, there are holes in the story — details that we still lack, and likely always will. But what we do know is this:
On Nov. 17, 1981, part of the in-process Manila Film Center collapsed. According to some reports, the accident occurred at about three o’clock in the morning and involved a collapsed scaffolding; according to others, it was at two o’clock and involved a caved-in roof. Regardless, there was a collapse on the building site, and workers plummeted down as the ground fell out from beneath their feet. Many were injured. Many were killed.
The precise numbers, however, are unclear, particularly of those who died in the accident. Reports vary: The architect of the Film Center, Dr. Froilan Hong, went on record in 2017 as saying the deaths numbered seven, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. But a UPI report published at the time of the accident in 1981 stated that workers had recovered a total of 26 bodies from the wreckage with hospital sources stating an additional 41 had been injured. And still other reports estimate as many as 169 deaths occurred as a result of the accident.
There’s no way to know for sure which, if any of these numbers are correct. Furthermore, the disparity between reported numbers emerged pretty much immediately: Remember how workers reported to UPI in 1981 that they had recovered the remains of 26 workers? That same report also includes comment from the government — and the numbers according to the Marcos regime were much lower: Only three deaths and 34 injuries. This, “despite the workers’ count,” stated UPI, and “after a 15-hour news blackout,” at that.
But every death is a tragedy, and no matter the number. The fact remains that part of the Film Center collapsed, and workers died as a result.
And still: Work didn’t stop.
What the First Lady wants, the First Lady gets.
The Film Center was completed, and the first Manila International Film Festival was held as scheduled. There may still have been literal cement dust in the air, reported the New York Times in February of 1982, shortly after the festival’s conclusion, but the star-studded event went on as planned.
And the press fawned over it — not just over the films, or the stars, but at the spectacular and over-the-top ball that was held during the festival. Imelda “looked the queen … in a white terno with multicarat diamond teardrop earrings, three diamond-studded bracelets and a two-foot diamond necklace,” reported the New York Times. She and her husband, the President — the dictator — “presided … over a medieval pageant complete with procession of native dancers, beauty queens, and religious floats carrying bejeweled figures of the infant Jesus.” There were fireworks, and a dinner for 2,000. And dancing, of course. Dancing with the stars.
This, as the country’s economy began to collapse due in no small part to her lavish spending — to her and the regime’s edifice complex.
This, as those who built the cinema palace in which the festival occurred lay in their graves.
No matter how much the details might be embellished over the years — we’ll take a look at how in just a minute — the facts of the matter are horrifying enough as it is.
The Rise Of A Legend
As time went on, certain… stories began emerging about the Manila Film Center. These stories tend to fall into two camps: Embellishments about precisely what happened on Nov. 17, 1981, and tales about what visitors to the site might experience today — that is, stories that deepen the tragedy further, and stories that make the building itself into a haunted one.
In the first camp, the most prevalent stories involves the fate of the workers who died in the accident.
Sometimes, for instance, it’s said that they fell into quick-drying cement that had been poured just prior to the collapse, and were unable to be rescued from it. When the building resumed, it resumed on top of those who had been trapped in — who had died in — the cement that held the Film Center up.
Other times, it’s said that someone — perhaps Imelda Marcos, perhaps Betty Benitez; it varies by the telling — actually ordered the cement to be poured, covering up the true toll of the accident and entombing the workers who had fallen during the collapse.
In both cases, the end result is the same: Not only did workers die during the construction of the Manila Film Center; they were, supposedly, buried within the very structure they died making. According to these embellishments, the Manila Film Center isn’t just a shrine to cinema, but a tomb for the dead.
There may be some truth to the possibility that the workers fell into already-poured cement. In 2016, Rogue Magazine spoke to three people who claimed to be eyewitnesses to the accident in 1981, and one — Nena Benigno, the former public relations officer for the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and Manila International Films Festival and daughter of Teddy Benigno, former press secretary and columnist — said she saw workers being dug out of cement when she arrived onsite.
“From a distance I could see people in stretchers being carried out, frozen in cement. When I got there, they were still digging out people; it [the cement] was not completely hard. And there was a guy that they were trying [to] keep from going into shock. Half of his body was buried. He was alive, but half buried. I don’t know what it was, but to keep him awake, alert, not to go into a coma or shock, they kept him singing Christmas songs. I was watching this.”
But although Benigno did directly witness this part of the incident, she could only make suppositions about what had actually happened. Said Benigno:
“What I understood was the fourth floor, they had put quick dry cement on each floor, and you’re supposed to put that layer by layer until it dries, then you put another layer. Because of the rush, they poured over too much cement and it fell over the night shift . . . the workers.”
Could the cement issue have actually occurred? Yes — but it hasn’t been confirmed in any definite sort of way.
Furthermore, some of the gorier details often attributed to these stories are, again, largely hearsay, even from the interviewees Rogue spoke to. When asked by Benigno, “Do you know what happened to the guy who was half-buried?”, Mila Llorin, marketing head of Manila International Film Festival, had this to say:
“I was told that they just cut up all of the ones that were exposed . . . remove and build over . . . which is why the seats are very steep. It was a rush job. So these people were just, you know, they had to finish it, period.”
Again: A possibility, but nothing definite, and nothing confirmed. Just rumors, which may or may not be true — or may be a mix of both.
The official line, of course, is that there is “no truth to such stories,” per Dr. Froilan Hong via the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
But then again, the official line has… not endeared itself to many.
The Ghosts Of The Manila Film Center
Meanwhile, in the second camp of stories, we move from the horrors of humanity to the horrors of the supernatural: In these stories, the Manila Film Center is not just the site of a tragedy, but the site of a haunting. The spirits of all those who died in the accident are said by some to have remained in the building — although to what end varies depending on the story.
One tale connects the real-life death of Betty Benitez to the Film Center’s ghosts. Benitez did die in a vehicular collision not too long after the Film Center tragedy; according to this legend, however, the collision was actually caused by the spirits of the dead, who “appeared in the middle of the road to meet their car, sightless, all dressed in black” right before the car crashed, per Philippines news outlet the Summit Express. Allegedly, a medium Imelda Marcos later brought to the Manila Film Center to exorcise the building went into a trance during the exorcism and said, “Now there are 169. Betty is with us.”
Other stories detail activity reportedly experienced by those who have visited the Manila Film Center over the years. Noises, voices, and poltergeist activity are among the most commonly reported; every so often, reports of full apparitions, visions of blood dripping down the walls, and the sight of arms or hands reaching desperately from underneath doorframes emerge, as well. It’s said that most security guards don’t last more than a week or so on shift here before asking to be reassigned.
Some tales specifically describe visitors hearing “cries for help” coming from the walls of the building — cries which are presumed to be the spirits of those who were allegedly trapped in the cement and literally built into the remainder of the building.
Sometimes the voices aren’t crying for help, but revenge — revenge on the former First Lady, whose vanity project resulted in their untimely demise.
In 1996, a large paranormal collective calling themselves the Questors attempted to perform a séance within the walls of the Manila Film Center in an effort to reach the spirits of what they believed to be at least 30 souls who were supposedly trapped in the building. According to the Associated Press, one group among this larger group “was able to contact a spirit named Charlie who explained that some other victims did not wish to participate and that he was not ready to leave yet because of ‘unfinished business’”; this result may or not be indicative of a successful séance, but then again, what counts as success when it comes to séances depends largely on how you feel about séances as a whole.
The Spectres Of The Past — And The Future
All of these stories have proven to be incredibly persistent. Time and time again, the Manila Film Center finds itself among lists of the most haunted places in the Philippines, or mentioned as one of the most notorious Pinoy urban legends.
But whether or not there really is blood dripping down the walls, or spectral hands reaching out, the basis of the tales is true: The tragedy did occur. And, in many ways, I suspect that the ghost stories serve a purpose beyond simply sending a shiver down listeners’ spines.
The ghost stories make sure the memory of those who were lost during the construction of the film center — those who were destroyed by the Marcos regime — will never be forgotten. The stories grant these souls literal life after death, and ask that the past not be repeated again.
In 2021, at the 40th anniversary of the Manila Film Center collapse, labor leaders in the Philippines urged the nation not to forget it, and to do whatever possible to prevent such an event from occurring again. An election was looming at the time; said labor organizer Walden Bello in a powerful statement, “The true ghost of Martial Law is creeping upon the country’s seat of power. Let us continue seeking justice and finding ways to end this rotten system against our laborers, in the hands of the elite.”
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., later won the presidential election in 2022. He’s currently the President of the Philippines, taking up the post from Rodrigo Duterte; Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is Vice President.
And for those who lived through the senior Marcos’ regime, telling the stories of that time — keeping the stories alive — is more essential than ever.
As for the state of the Manila Film Center itself? The building was badly damaged in the 1990 Luzon earthquake, but was later restored, which in part allowed for the 1996 séance to happen. The building has played host to theatrical spectacle the Amazing Show on and off since 2001, although the current state of the show is not clear. (A fire in 2013 caused the show to stop for some time, although it did reopen again later. It may have closed in 2020, due to the state and safety of performing arts worldwide at the time.) There was once some talk of it becoming home to the Philippine senate, but the plans never fully materialized.
In the meantime, it’s still there — whether or not visitors are currently allowed inside.
And as far as anyone knows, the ghosts are still there, as well.
Follow The Ghost In My Machine on Twitter @GhostMachine13 and on Facebook @TheGhostInMyMachine. And for more games, don’t forget to check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available now from Chronicle Books!
[Photos via Michael Francis McCarthy, Brutalist Pilipinas/Flickr, available under a CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons License or public domain; Patrickroque01, Ramon FVelasquez (1, 2, 3)/Wikimedia Commons, available under CC BY-SA 4.0 and CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons Licenses.]