1953, May 9-19 (ca.): The Invisible Fangs

From approximately May 9 to May 18, 1953, a young woman named Clarita Villanueva in Manila, Philippines, was apparently attacked and bitten by two strange beings that only she could see. All initial information on this bizarre event came from just two press releases that hit newspapers worldwide on May 19 and 20 of the same year. The story, as told in this initial release, runs thus:

        The Mayor of Manila, Mr. Arsenio Lacson, had heard that an 18-year-old woman being held in the city's jail on vagrancy charges had claimed for the past nine days that she was being attacked by invisible creatures that would bite her. She described her invisible attackers as "a very big dark man with curly hair all over the body" and "a body with an angelic face and a big mustache." On Monday, May 18, the ninth day of Villanueva incarceration, Lacson called to have her brought to his office so he and the chief medical examiner, Mariano Lara, among other observers, could talk to her and see the wounds for themselves. Within 15 minutes of arriving, Villanueva started to scream she was being attacked again, while Mayor Lacson was sitting next to her... "she writhed and then laughed as if she had been tickled," and stated the 'things' were taking turns biting her.

Clarita Villanueva being restrained during an attack
[Larger version here]

        Lacson was shocked to see what appeared to be human bite marks that he knew Villanueva had not made herself, one on her neck, and one on her index finger that appeared while Lacson was holding her hand; his palm was covering the digit when the wound appeared. Lacson later stated that Lara, who was not a superstitious man, was scared stiff by the events. A photo that was run in just a few papers reporting the event appears to have been taken by newsmen who were present for the examination... Clarita Villanueva is the person being restrained in the foreground by a police doctor and nurse; Mayor Lacson is the man with glasses on.

         After the strange attacks appeared to have ceased, Villanueva was asked to try to draw what her attackers looked like but, according to Mayor Lacson, the pencil flew out of her hands so no image was ever drawn. Lacson was quoted as saying: "What it is is beyond me. This is something that goes way back to the dark, dim past." Lacson planned on asking the archbishop to perform an exorcism. Only one article I've encountered added that Lara commented "I always thought of this world as a visible thing but here is something unknown, a force unseen yet felt," implying Lara agreed with Lacson's assessment of the problem as supernatural. The same article claimed Lacson said Villanueva had been examined by specialists and pronounced mentally sound.

The Next Examination

        Only a few papers reported a further examination made of Clarita Villanueva on the day after her visit to Mayor Lacson's office. On Tuesday, May 19, Villanueva was in the center of a crowd "of about 100 medical specialists, nurses, and Pressmen," when she was described by Rodolfo Nazareno, one of the 'Pressmen' there for United Press, as tensing up, collapsing, and going into trances. Also present at this gathering were Dr. Zaguirre and Dr. Goduco, both from the National Center for Mental Health (established in 1928, and referred to variously as the "National Psychic Hospital" or "National Hospital for the Insane" by the newspapers).

Clarita Close-upClarita Villanueva [Larger version here]

        During her trances, Zaguirre pricked Villanueva with pins; she gave no response. Villanueva told Dr. Goduco that she was being "punished by a very big dark, hairy handsome man who tells me to do things... I see him often - morning, noon, and night." Zaguirre observed a "bite-like" mark on the right side of the nape of Villanueva's neck. Goduco and Zaguirre concluded that instead of being bitten by invisible attackers, Villanueva was actually suffering from a nervous disorder known as a 'hysterical fugue' or 'hysteria psychoneurosis,' and that what was being mistaken for 'bite marks' on her skin were actually "only changes in skin coloring caused by the nervous fits." This mental state, they claimed, was brought on by Villanueva's desperate need to escape from the life she was trapped in. When Villanueva was given a pencil and paper on this occasion, she bit and chewed the paper, and tried to bite the pencil. One of the two doctors -- newspapers didn't specify which -- claimed he could cure Villanueva if given enough time. Mariano Lara, the chief medical examiner who was present on May 18 to witness the 'attacks' in Mayor Lacson's office was reported to disagree with the assessment of Drs. Goduco and Zaguirre, and was quoted as saying of the marks "I think they are the work of some unearthly being."

        The idea that Villanueva was in a 'hysterical fugue' is an interesting one, the implication being that the marks on her body that were being interpreted as bite marks were in fact bruises and wounds imprinted into her skin by her own mind. While this sounds like it would be a good explanation for where the wounds were coming from without requiring an invisible attacker, there's only one major problem... the very belief that the human mind can cause wounds to manifest on the human body is still unproven, and still hotly debated. So the 'explanation' offered by the doctors from the National Hospital didn't actually explain anything; it just sounded good.

        All of which sums up as much of the matter as was ever spread worldwide by newspapers. No followup ever appeared in the news services that first ran the story... which is not the same as saying the story ended, mind you. In fact, this incident was expanded on more than once, which has led to much confusion since.

Lester Sumrall to the Rescue! (as told by Lester Sumrall)

Sumrall's Book

        Early in 1954, a Protestant minister named Lester Sumrall released a small book (only 120 pages) entitled "The True Story of Clarita Villanueva" and, in a certain social circle, it sold very well.  It was reprinted many times, sometimes in a shorter form, and sometimes under variant names -- "Bitten by Devils: The True story of Clarita Villanueva," and sometimes just "Bitten by Devils." The book presents a thrilling tale of how Lester Sumrall called on God and Jesus to successfully exorcise demons attacking Villanueva, and its story became a keystone in his later ministry. Sumrall claimed to have been responsible for 150,000 people in the Philippines converting to Catholicism, specifically after being inspired by his ability to save Clarita Villanueva from demons.

        The book starts with translations of articles from newspapers native to Manila, which apparently did not get international distribution... and it focuses mainly on the time frames from very early in Villanueva's incarceration, and just after the story went international. These articles supply surprising new details, such as Villanueva was under arrest not only as a vagrant, but as a prostitute. It's stated that most of the examination of Villanueva's fits by medical men and local priests happened in the range of May 12th to the 14th, not later in the Mayor's presence as the international accounts stated; Dr. Mariano Lara is said to be the person who pricked her arm with a pin to test her during a trance, and this happened on May 14th. We are also told that at these earlier examinations it was noted that the 'teeth marks' were "wet with saliva" when fresh. Villanueva is characterized as acting largely insane at times, not just in pain and desperate, but described as becoming violent and attacking statues of the holy family in the jail, then just as suddenly acting normal again.

        From the 14th of May, the articles then jump to the 22nd, 28th, and 30th of May, well after the time that the international accounts covered. These later articles describe how a concerned Lester Sumrall visited the jail to try and exorcise the attackers from Villanueva, and how Villanueva was being fully possessed by these beings who would then talk and act through her -- in short, the articles tell how the invisible biting attackers suddenly started to act like a demonic possession, and then how Lester Sumrall, through the grace of God and his son Jesus, exorcised the demons and saved Clarita Villanueva.

        The book then reprints notes said to be written by Dr. Mariano Lara at the time that Villanueva was in prison, which largely tell about the same story as above, but also endeavor to show how he went from being skeptical of the supernatural to a believer.

        From there, Sumrall's book is a blow-by-blow account from Sumrall himself about how he got involved, determined he was dealing with demons, and drove them out. He also tells how one skeptic who pronounced the attacks to be a hoax died mysteriously within a day of saying it and that another suffered horrible bite wounds when the devils were driven from Villanueva. Dr. Lara apparently only felt safe once Sumrall had brought the presence of God to the situation.  We are told that Sumrall was taken to Mayor Lacson's office after saving Villanueva, and that Dr. Lara there declared to Lacson that Sumrall had saved the day and that Lacson overflowed with gratitude.

        The book ends with a list of seven important facts about demon possession, which drives home Sumrall's main premise that Villanueva was possessed by demons.

An Odd Publication

        It's hard now to determine just how much of Sumrall's book might be true -- assuming the cover photo actually shows him with Villanueva (which is an assumption at this point) -- but given that the book's contents are largely in conflict with the story that was published internationally and that they are highly self-centered on how wonderful Sumrall himself is, it's a very suspicious document.

        Several glaring problems appear in this re-telling of Clarita Villanueva's story. First, Sumrall manages to tell the story of Villanueva's stay in jail and her subsequent exorcism with only minor mention of Mayor Lacson, who mostly only appears after the problems have been solved. In Sumrall's account, Dr. Mariano Lara is the key actor in the examinations of Villanueva instead, and one of the details of the story distributed worldwide that was most striking -- that of Lacson describing how a bite mark appeared on Villanueva's hand under his own palm as he held her hand -- is retold as happening to a lackey of Dr. Lara's while Lara is watching. It should be noted, of course, that Sumrall mentions the names of many of the town's officials as being involved in the incident, people who were not mentioned in the international version of the account; but it almost seems like Sumrall is just name dropping both to prove he knew who should be in charge, and to distract from the most obvious missing name: Arsenio Lacson.

        Second, and a big problem to get past, is that I can't prove any of the news articles Sumrall extensively quotes in the start of the book actually exist. I have some feelers out to see if I can confirm or deny the existence of certain key articles that Sumrall's account relies on, but the simple truth is that anyone quoting these articles as evidence now only got them from Sumrall's book: I can find no one who has seen the original articles in their original newspapers, if they exist. This point may explain the third problem, which is the simple fact that Sumrall's account of Villanueva's story of her early imprisonment is radically different from the details of the internationally reported version of the account.

        So overall Sumrall's version of the story appears to be a rewrite of a going newspaper account that had no public conclusion, with an eye to providing the conclusion and forwarding his ministry at the same time. Sumrall's account of the Villanueva case never replaced the version of the incident reported previously in international newspapers; but a few small details from Sumrall's account do appear to have become part of the growing public legend of the case.

Stranger Still

        Overall, public interest and memory of the Villanueva incident faded after 1953. The story did receive a half-page mention in a late 1954 issue of FATE Magazine, which mostly summed up the details of the original international news version of the tale, leaving out the actual date and the names of the participants, simply noting the attacks occurred in Manila and were reported by Reuters news service... and it's a bit interesting that FATE, a publication devoted to sensational stories of a strange and paranormal nature, didn't make more of the incident.

         Frank Edwards, however, did make more of the incident with the publication of his 1959 book, Stranger Than Science. Edwards, a well-known radio personality in the United States who often told stories of strange and paranormal matters, had great luck with his published collections of stories from his radio programs. Stranger Than Science presented the Villanueva case under the title of "The Invisible Fangs." Due to the book's worldwide popularity and long time in print -- it had at least 17 editions, and I've even found a copy printed in Japanese in 1990 -- Edwards is now almost entirely responsible for most modern re-tellings of the Villanueva case... which is important, because Edwards version of the story has differences from both the original international news release and Sumrall's account of the incident, making up a third version of the story.

        As Edwards tells the tale, Clarita Villaneuva -- note the mis-spelled last name -- was arrested on the night of May 10, 1951 -- note the wrong year -- partially for vagrancy, but mostly because she was screaming and acting insane as a crowd of onlookers watched. Jailors, the Chief of Police, and Mayor Lacson all saw her being bitten, but the Chief Medical Examiner Mariana Lara  -- note the mis-spelled first name -- refused to believe it was anything other than Villanueva biting herself during epileptic fits... until the attack occurred in front of him. She was bitten on the back of her shoulders and neck, and the bites were "livid marks surrounded by what appeared to be saliva."

        In Edwards' account, Villanueva described her attacker as a man with big, bulging eyes, black cape, and the ability to float in the air and pass through walls. After a harrowing night, Mayor Lacson and Dr. Lara were escorting Villanueva to the prison hospital in a car when she was attacked again; this time by two creatures, she shouted. She was bitten on both sides of her neck as the two men watched, and her hand was bitten even as Mayor Lacson was holding it. The attack lasted fifteen minutes... but it was the last time the attacks occurred, and Villanueva made her recovery at the hospital. Edwards ends by quoting both men. Mayor Lacson: "This is something that defies explanation." Dr. Lara: "I was just scared stiff!"

        So Edwards' version of the story includes elements from both the original international news release and from Sumrall's account of the matter... but then adds new details and events while inexplicably getting Villanueva's and Lara's names and the year of the occurrence wrong. Most of the stories in Edwards' Stranger Than Science originally appeared as articles in FATE Magazine; Edwards' was both a frequent contributor and an ardent fan of the magazine. The Clarita Villanueva attacks, however, only got minimal coverage in FATE as far as I can tell. I have about 85% of the issues between 1953 and 1959, and only found the one mention of the incident in Manila that I noted above. So the main unanswered question is: did Edwards get his version of the story from another source (which I haven't been able to track), or did he create it himself? Whatever the final answer, Edwards' version of the story has proven very influential on later repeaters of the tale.

Attack of the Variations

        After Frank Edwards' Stranger Than Science popularized the story of the Villanueva attacks, the tale began to pop up in many other books and magazines concerned with paranormal topics... and the tale got stranger and stranger. New authors started picking and choosing details from all three of the previous versions of the story to make their own mixes, often sculpted to best fit a theory that 'explained' the attacks. And these theories got weirder and weirder as well.

        The strange man -- fewer and fewer authors remember that there were two attackers -- started to be equated not just with demons and vampires, but also with ghosts and poltergeists, as well as extraterrestrial and/or extradimensional aliens. Reasons for the attacks are rarely proposed. Instead, the overall tale has been sculpted into a sort of culturally acceptable idea of a perfect paranormal event: an innocent young victim, mystified authorities powerless to explain or help, and a skeptic who is forced to accept the reality of the paranormal situation.

        Another new variation to the story likely started when internet researchers ran into poor computer scans of old newspaper pages, resulting in Clarita's name being reported as "Chinta Villanueva." This name change, coupled with the interchageability of 1951 or 1953 as the year of occurrence and the ever-changing details of the legend itself, has led some researchers to conclude that the story of the Clarita Villanueva attacks must be an urban legend with no original basis in fact!

        About the only thing that is now clear is that something did, in fact, happen to Clarita Villanueva during her prison stay in 1953. Unfortunately, all three of the earliest versions of Villanueva's story -- the international news release, Sumrall's exorcism, and Edwards' adventure -- likely fail to describe what the actual original events were. What is now needed to further clarify this incident are articles from Philippino newspapers regarding the events in May 1953; original articles, not the supposed reprints found in Lester Sumrall's books. These articles likely hold the keys to this incident; they could confirm or deny any or all of the three known accounts of the attacks on Clarita Villanueva... and so, someday, I hope to find out.

        I'll let you know when I do!

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