Horror means profit
By Vincent Cabreza Inquirer Northern Luzon Bureau BAGUIO CITY--The summer capital's signature fog lends atmosphere to old stories about its wandering ghosts, and that always means profit for local businesses. Frequent visitors from Manila still look for the now closed "Spirits Disco" the moment they arrive for the long All Saints' Day weekend, believing they can finally glimpse the facility's elusive specter. But they will more likely encounter street dancers wearing garish monster masks and makeup outside one of the homegrown Tiong San Bazaar buildings here. Werewolves and vampires, who moonwalk to Michael Jackson's song "Thriller," have been a good formula because they have raised the bazaar's weekend sales by 20 percent since 1990, says store manager Junelyn Dasargo. And like all good business practices, the dancers have been exported to the bazaar's La Trinidad branch in Benguet, which Dasargo helps manage. She says Baguio businesses do not just dress up their shops for Halloween as malls often do, "they thrive on the stories, too." Urban legend What has become profitable for Baguio businesses is the fact that the urban legend about the "white lady" here has become part of the country's memories about Baguio, say officials of the Baguio Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI). Instead of driving tourists away, the "white lady," who is said to haunt a road that leads to Camp John Hay and the Philippine Military Academy, invites adventurous visitors to a midnight haunt and a snack or drink downtown, says Jacquelyn Acoba Ver, 70, BCCI assistant board secretary. These stories are rarely forgotten because they are often stuff reinvented over the Internet or reenacted in films, she says. Holiday economics Officially, the brisk tourism Baguio generates because of the "horror stories" is the best example of how Malacañang's "holiday economics works," says Carlos Honorio Estepa, board director of the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA). "People will always spend more time on holiday if the holiday is longer. Japan has recognized this theory," he says. But Estepa acknowledges that Baguio fog has given the city a marketing dimension no other town can beat. He says fog is the same reason why marriage counselors and wedding planners still recommend Baguio for weddings. "The fog and the chill may mean romantic weddings, but it also means a fantastic adventure for this generation who still see Baguio ghost stories flashed on television this time of the year," he says. Baguio business has had a quiet partnership with "its ghosts since the 1950s," Acoba Ver says. Quiet partnership Most of the popular Baguio ghost stories date back to the 1950s and the 1960s, and are often tied to wanderings spirits of Japanese or Filipino soldiers who died at the end of World War II. Baguio was designed and built by the American colonial government, but Halloween was never openly celebrated here, except inside Camp John Hay, Estepa says. Halloween in the 1970s were often initiated by American servicemen and American expatriates, who ended up partying by themselves downtown, he says. But Baguio ghost stories thrive because even traders are compelled "to live with their ghosts, and it has not affected their businesses at all," Acoba Ver says. "Teachers Camp [which is celebrating its centennial in 2008] has been the subject of various ghost stories. The camp rents out dormitory rooms to teachers and students -- and I live there as a teacher. Yet, students still camp there today even if the ghost stories persist. They come expecting a fright-filled evening and end up in each other's embrace," she says. Vallejo Hotel, an old American-style building near the Baguio Cathedral, inspired many ghost stories in its heyday because of the architecture. "But people still booked rooms there [until it closed seven years ago]. Stories passed down to Manila folk involve visitors feeling an invisible presence nudge their hand or their back. But like many Baguio horror stories, these spirits are harmless, never malevolent," Acoba Ver says. Made up stories Many other ghost stories attributed to other stores were made up, but traders used those to their advantage, she says. She says "Spirits" was created by businessman Alex Mina in the 1980s, and it became popular because of stories shared by customers that the disco house hosted "a presence." "People came looking for the ghost. I never felt anything at the time. But young people came again and again, so it became popular," she says. Tiong San Bazaar also had no ghost stories to rely on. But it was conscious about the city's haunting reputation, so Joseph Cabarle, the bazaar's marketing expert in Baguio, convinced store clerks and attendants to volunteer as the store's Halloween dance troupe, says Dasargo. The dance troupe helped sell the store's inventory of masks (priced at P200 to P300 apiece) but it soon noticed a considerable rise in sales between Oct. 28 and Nov. 2, she says. The troupe has altered its cast, but continues to dance at the store front on Harrison Road here each year, Dasargo says. The volunteers are not paid extra for the chore, "but they love doing it because it helps their promotional prospects and it helps management pick out the talented workers," she says.
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