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Scary Monsters


By David Haldane

November 10, 2022


The stories are hard to read.

A young woman from Mexico said she felt the weight of other people’s bodies crushing her. “At some point, my feet weren’t even touching the ground,” Velandia Santaella told the Washington Post. “There was an unconscious guy on top of me, which was affecting my breathing.”

Scraping shallow breaths from flattened lungs, the 23-year-old medical student flowed with the surging crowd as those around her screamed for help. Gradually they fell silent, their limp bodies pressing on her from every side. “I was completely paralyzed,” Santaella recalled. “I couldn’t feel my legs… couldn’t even move my toes… I really thought I was going to die.”

Somehow she didn’t. Unlike more than 150 others who succumbed in agony to the stampede of young revelers celebrating Halloween last week in the streets of Seoul, South Korea. The event was as unprecedented as it was tragic. And what made it especially sad was that, until recently, the Western holiday of Halloween wasn’t even celebrated in Korea or, for that matter, anywhere in Asia.

“They think it’s a foreign culture,” one young Korean told the Los Angeles Times, explaining why so many of the victims’ parents were caught off guard. “It’s not even a Korean thing.”

South Korean Halloween celebrations began gaining popularity in the early 2000s as more and more children attended English-language schools, according to Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, a professor at Kyung Hee University. Taught by native English speakers from the United States and elsewhere, he told the Times, the children learned the American custom of trick-or-treating.

Which reminds me of an experience my wife and I shared several years ago here in the Philippines. Having become enamored of the holiday while living in Southern California, Ivy decided to import its perceived charms to her native village on Siargao Island, then still relatively unscathed by foreign influence. And so, donning gaudy costumes imported from America, she and several relatives descended on its dusty streets one Halloween with armfuls of candy destined for the mouths of children swarming over them like hungry goblins.

“At first,” I wrote then, “a certain amount of puzzlement and confusion creases their young faces. What on earth, they are clearly wondering, are these weird strangely dressed adults doing in our village? Ah, but then they realize that there’s sugar involved. And as the word quickly spreads, so does the excitement.”

Boy, how times have changed.

A recent survey by a cosmetic advice site called Tajmeeli ranked the Philippines fifth in the world regarding its citizens’ interest in dressing up for Halloween, topped only by the United States, United Kingdom, India, and Germany. Interestingly, South Korea didn’t even place in the top 15.

And judging from various online posts, Halloween street parties and events were booming this year, especially in Manila and Angeles City, which, like the unfortunate site of the Korean tragedy, sits near a former U.S. military base closely associated with American culture.

Here in the provinces of Northern Mindanao, the holiday passed with barely a whimper. No trick-or-treaters knocked on our door looking for unclaimed candy. We got no invitations to rollicking Halloween parties. And, as far as I know, not a single Filipino got crushed to death in a surging crowd of spook-crazed revelers.

What occurred, in fact, was widespread adherence to the Philippine custom of spending Nov. 2—All Soul’s Day—in quiet camaraderie and reflection at the gravesites of dead relatives.

Which, to be honest, suited me just fine. South Koreans, please take note.






David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino,” is due out in January. A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he helped write two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.


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