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An Exotic Land and a Curious Account of Bloodthirsty Supernatural Creatures

Since time unremembered our kind has ventured out over the horizon to explore strange, unknown and uncharted lands, keeping records that serve to shed light on the customs of their peoples and the various strange wildlife and wonders that inhabit them. Yet every once in awhile a truly odd anomaly will pop out in one of these accounts, hinting at something far stranger going on in these far flung, unexplored realms. One such encounter was recorded from the island of what was once known as Cagayan Sulu, presently called Mapun, which lies in the Sulu Archipelago of the southwestern Philippines. Lying closer to Malaysia than the Philippines, the isolated, 276 square kilometer island of Mapun was once visited by an explorer who wrote of the flora, fauna, and customs of the people, as well as a strange encounter with bloodthirsty, supernatural beasts.

The account in question lies buried within an otherwise rather normal travel paper published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1896 and written by an adventurer, naturalist, and anthropologist by the name of Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly, who was also a British Navy lieutenant and a fellow of the Entomological Society of London. The paper in question, entitled Cagayan Sulu, its Customs, Legends, and Superstitions, is for the most part quite pedestrian, detailing the customs of the native people, as well as listing some of the various unique flora and fauna of the island, which at the time was largely unknown territory, an uncharted and unexplored expanse of thick jungle sparsely inhabited by a few tribes of scattered natives. It is an interesting paper in some respects to be sure, but also rather nondescript and fairly mundane, certainly nothing particularly wild or bizarre, that is until the narrative careens right off the tracks into the world of the weird with an eyebrow raising tale indeed.

Historical sketch of Cagayan Sulu

Apparently during Skertchly’s expedition Cagayan Sulu was experiencing quite a bit of turmoil in the form of a conflict between two tribal chiefs, a Hadji Mahomet and Hadji Brahim, who each ruled a half of the island and were squabbling over territory. So far pretty typical petty fighting and human shenanigans, but a strange story began to congeal out of all of this, when it came to Skertchly’s attention that there was one lone village where there was supposedly no fighting and no conflict, mostly because no one wanted it. Curious, Skertchly inquired as to why neither of the chiefs would go near this mysterious village, and he was told that it was because this was the domain of terrifying entities they called the Berbalang. These beasts were described as looking very much like normal human beings, but possessing large cat-like eyes with vertical slits for pupils.

The Berbalangs were said to mostly keep to themselves, but that they also had the tendency to become overwhelmed with an uncontrollable urge to feast upon human flesh, preferring the organs. In most cases, the Berbalangs were said to raid graves to satisfy this hunger, ripping the entrails out to leave the rest behind for the scavengers, but would also on occasion actively hunt down and kill people as well, at which time they were said to astrally project themselves from their bodies and take the form of bat-like flying beasts appearing as human heads with glowing eyes and feet placed where their ears should be. The locals claimed that these beings could befuddle the human mind and put images in people’s heads, such as projecting the illusion that they were in front of you when they were really behind, or making themselves seem to be farther away than they really were. A sure sign of the Berbalangs in the area was the presence of their unearthly wailing and moaning echoing through the jungle; a sound like no other creature on the island, and they were generally considered to be something to avoid at all costs. Skertchly would describe them in his paper thus:

In the centre of the island is a small village the inhabitants of which owe allegiance to neither of the two chiefs. These people are called “Berbalangs,” and the Cagayans live in great fear of them. These Berbalangs are ghouls and must eat human flesh occasionally or they would die. You can always tell them because the pupils of their eyes are not round but just narrow slits like those of a cat. They dig open the graves and eat the entrails of the corpses; but in Cagayan the supply is limited, so when they feel the craving for a feed of human flesh they go away into the grass, and having carefully hidden their bodies hold their breath and fall into a trance. Their astral bodies are then liberated in the form of heads with the feet attached to the ears as wings. They fly away, and entering a house make their way into the body of one of the occupants and feed on his entrails, when of course he dies in fearful agony. The Berbalangs may be heard coming, as they make a moaning noise which is loud at a distance and dies away to a feeble wail as they approach. When they are near you the sound of their wings may be heard and the flashing lights of their eyes can be seen like dancing fire-flies in the dark.

According to the villagers, the Berbalangs were immune to all weapons humans possessed, and the only real way to fight them was to utilize something they called a “coconut pearl,” which was a kind of gem said to have the power to ward off the marauding flesh-eaters, or to use fresh lime juice, which also supposedly had the ability to drive away the creatures, much like the garlic of vampire lore. If lime juice was placed on bodies or graves, they would not be fed off of, and weapons soaked in lime juice were said to be able to actually inflict damage on the beasts to some degree. Even then, their power to confuse the human mind allegedly made them formidable adversaries, with Skertchly saying of this:

Should you be the happy possessor of a cocoa-nut pearl you are safe, but otherwise the only way to beat them off is to cut at them with a kris (a type of dagger), the blade of which has been rubbed with the juice of a lime. If you see the lights and hear the moaning in front of you, wheel suddenly round and make a cut in the opposite direction.

Skertchly was skeptical of these stories, but at the same time quite curious. He decided that he had to go and investigate these wild claims for himself, and to this end he went about putting together some men to join him for a foray to the forbidden village, but perhaps to the surprise of no one there was not a soul who wanted to accompany him out there. With a bit of cajoling, Skertchly was finally able to convince one person to go with him, the chief’s own son Matali, who insisted that they first coat some kris daggers with lime juice. As silly as this seemed to Skertchly, he went along with it, they anointed their weapons with lime juice, and then headed out into the dim jungle to meet the fearsome Berbalang.

As the two approached the village, Matali became visibly scared, and refused to take one step further. He said that he would wait for Skertchly there, but that he was on his own with regards to entering the village itself. As Skertchly set off with his lime juice smeared dagger, Matali said some prayers and offered him one last warning. He told Skertchly that the Berbalangs might appear to him as normal people, and that they would courteously offer him food but that this was most likely human flesh disguised by their psychic powers of illusion. The only way to break this spell and expose the food for what it really was was to first sprinkle it with lime juice. Matali then gave the ominous warning that if Skertchly were to eat the flesh offered him, then he too would transform into a Berbalang, doomed to eternally hunt humans and eat the rotting flesh of graves in the night. Although decidedly spooked by these scary warnings, Skertchly thanked him and stalked off towards the village looming nearby. He would describe what happened next thus:

Taking the kris and limes and leaving Matali praying for my safety, I soon arrived at the village. It consisted of about a dozen houses of the ordinary native type; but with the exception of a few fowls and a solitary goat there was no living thing to be seen. I was surprised at this and entered several of the houses, but all were alike deserted. Everything was in perfect order, and in one house some rice was standing in basins, still quite hot, as though the occupants had been suddenly called away when about to begin their evening meal. Thinking perhaps that they had run away I halooed but received no reply, and though I made a thorough search of the vicinity could discover no one. I returned to Matali, and on telling him of the deserted state of the village, he turned pale and implored me to come back at once as the Berbalangs were out and it would be dangerous to return in the dark.

According to Matali, the village had been abandoned because the Berbalangs were out hunting and scavenging for corpses, and that if they did not leave soon then they would become the quarry, as the sun was on its way down. They hurried through the ever darkening jungle, and as they did they purportedly heard a strange moaning pervading the night, which Skertchly was told were the Berbalangs. As the eerie wailing seemed to be getting fainter, Matali claimed that this meant they were drawing nearer, and he quickly pulled the adventurer down into some tall grass with him to hide. At this point Skertchly was still rather unconvinced, but his skepticism would quickly fade when he heard what he described as the sound of large wings flapping and the sight of a “reddish light” menacingly floating overhead, after which the moaning became louder, meaning that they were going away. However, when they stood to continue on their way the sound got fainter again, and Matali urged them to run. As they made haste towards the relative safety of Matali’s village they passed the home of a man named Hassan, where the moans became almost inaudible, meaning that the creatures were converging there. Hassan was an acquaintance of Skertchly, but Matali assured him that the man was in the possession of a coconut pearl and would be safe.

Skertchly and Matali eventually did make it back to their village without further incident, although they were seemingly stalked along the way, with dancing red lights occasionally visibly through the trees and the otherworldly moaning growing fainter and then louder the whole time. When morning came, Skertchly decided to go back to Hassan’s house in the safety of broad daylight to see what happened and get any testimony from the man on the previous evening’s strange events. His mind was still swirling from the bizarre events he had experienced, and he hoped that perhaps Hassan could peel back some layers of the mystery. What happened next would chill Sketchly to the core, as he reported:

Shortly after day-break, I started off alone, as I could get no one to accompany me, and in due course came to Hassan’s house. There was no sign of anyone about so I tried the door but found it fastened. I shouted several times but no one answered, so, putting my shoulder to the door I gave a good push and it fell in. I entered the house and looked round but could see no one, going further in I suddenly started back, for, huddled up on the bed, with hands clenched, face distorted, and eyes staring as in horror, lay my friend Hassan—dead.

So no coconut pearl after all, it would seem. Skertchly would apparently make no further efforts to go back to the lost village, and the whole experience would supposedly haunt him for the rest of his days. He was never able to come to terms with what he had seen, and even writes at the end of his paper, “I have stated above the facts just as they occurred, and am quite unable to give any explanation of them.” In the end, the whole report is so incredibly odd and so jarringly out of place with the rest of his paper that one can easily imagine more than a few stuffy anthropologist scholars perusing the paper only to spit out their tea when coming to this part. In later years, the case would be brought to the popular imagination with the mainstream publication of the 1928 book Oddities, by Rupert T. Gould, a collection of weirdness, from which most latter accounts of these events draw their information but which is lacking some details, namely that it describes the astral projections of the Berbalangs as bat-like humanoids rather than the flying heads originally written of by Skertchly. Interestingly, this mostly obscure creature would later become one of the monsters of the popular tabletop role playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

It is hard to know what to say of this bonkers account, but it is curious in many respects. One is that it is a rather dramatic and anomalous encounter perched within an otherwise normal travelogue of the people and wildlife of the island. Would Skertchly simply make something weird like this up and plop it down into the middle of his otherwise standard paper? If it is not all fabrication, then just what was going on here, what did he really see, and what were the Berbalangs, if they ever existed at all? Is this just spooky folklore or something more? Considering that this one account seems to be the only written testimony of the Berbalangs we will probably never know for sure. It remains a rather curious story buried down in the various records of the explorers of out weird planet.