Perhaps one of the most haunted locations in the Philippines is the abandoned Diplomat Hotel, perched high on Dominican Hill overlooking the city of Baguio. I had the opportunity to visit the creepy site in 2019 and learned of its tragic history.

The Diplomat Hotel

The castle-like edifice was constructed in 1915 as the Colegio del Santissimo Rosario, but in 1917 it became a retreat and vacation house for a Dominican order of priests. Up until 1940, the priests were able to relax, pray, and meditate in the house’s lovely fountain-splashed courtyards and cool, stone corridors far from the crowds of the city below. But that peace was brutally shattered when the Japanese army invaded the Philippines in 1941, landing on Batan Island (not to be confused with the Bataan Peninsula). American and Filipino forces fought a strenuous defense, but by early 1942 were forced to surrender the Philippines to the Japanese. Still, Filipino guerillas were effective in harassing the Japanese army during its occupation, especially in the mountains and jungles.

The author inside the Diplomat Hotel.

From 1940 until the liberation of the Philippines in 1945, the Dominican retreat house was used as a refugee center. But for the Japanese Imperial Army, “refugee” was a relative term. There is no definitive record of how many people were tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers at the retreat house, but it is said that priests were beheaded, nuns were raped and killed, and many civilians, including children, were murdered by the soldiers.


In February 1945, American forces that had returned to the Philippines, launched an attack on the Japanese army at Baguio.  After heavy fighting, the city fell to the Americans in April. It has been reported that some of the Japanese soldiers defending the retreat house committed hara-kiri (suicide), rather than surrendering to the Americans.


After the war, the Dominicans repaired the retreat house and occupied it until selling it to a hotel group in 1972 that renamed the structure the Diplomat Hotel. That was a short-lived venture; in 1986 the hotel closed, and it has remained a deteriorating derelict ever since.


The Diplomat Hotel (as it is still called today) is considered a national heritage landmark and is open to the public, as there is really no way to stop anyone from entering its premises. It’s a favorite haunt of local ghosthunters who claim to hear children crying and people screaming and have reported apparitions of headless ghosts.


Another haunted site in Baguio used by the Japanese army is the Laperal Guest House, originally built in the 1930s as a summer retreat for a wealthy businessman. The Japanese soldiers who occupied it during the war committed atrocities there also, raping and killing women, and torturing and killing people they accused of spying for the Americans. These poor souls linger there still according to local paranormal investigators.

The Laperal Guest House.



A few years ago, I led a small group of tourists to Oaxaca, Mexico for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival. Following that, I spent a few days in Mexico City where I rode in a gondola through the raucous party-on-the-water in the Xochimilco canals. But, in all that Corona-swilling, mariachi-playing craziness, the Isle of the Dolls is a creepy, haunted site that chills the bones of even the most inebriated reveler. I know it chilled my bones and I’ve visited some damned scary places around the world.

Here’s an article, with photos, about the Isle of Dolls that I recently came across in the Washington Post:


“The dolls are nailed to walls, nailed to trees, beheaded and impaled on bamboo stakes. Some are headless, some are heads alone, and some have heads that are twisted around backward, “Exorcist”-style.

They are muddy, filthy, burned and smashed. They look back with blue eyes or brown eyes or no eyes at all. A blond Disney princess in a blue dress smiles, tacked to a wall. A plastic knee swings in the wind.

The Island of the Dolls is muddy and smells faintly of manure from the surrounding cow fields. It is not a happy place, but it attracts a steady stream of the curious, who disembark from party boats plying the 50-plus miles of Mexico City’s famed Xochimilco canals.

Anastasio Santana will tell you the story for $2. After his uncle, Julian Santana, found a drowned girl here in 1950, a doll washed ashore. He hung it up to appease the dead girl’s spirit. But then some pretty unpleasant haunting started, and Julian began hanging more and more dolls from the trees to ward off the spirits of lots of dead girls.

Or something like that.

Now, 2,200 dolls later, La Isla de Las Munecas has become a touristic monument to creepiness and kitsch, visited, presumably, by true believers. But maybe more often by happy party-boaters filled with $1.50 Coronas who don’t mind paying $2 to be stared down by a mud-stained Betty Boop on an island that also happens to have remarkably clean outhouses.

Julian Santana died of a heart attack in 1951, in the exact same spot as the little girl of island lore.

“We can’t explain it,” Anastasio says.

Crosses mark each spot: mud-splattered tributes to a girl, a man and an opportunity.”


July 22, 2017


Count Dracula is, undeniably, the most well-known vampire in popular culture. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, he created a vampire type that differed significantly from traditional folkloric notions of vampires. Part of the explanation for his creativity stems from his drawing upon the real-life 15th century Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes Dracul, also known as “Vlad the Impaler.”

Statue of Vlad Tepes in Targoviste, Romania

In the summer of 2017, I spent two months in Europe, visiting seven countries as I researched my book, Shapeshifters: A Cultural History. Part of that time I was in Transylvania in Romania, the home of Stoker’s Count Dracula, as well as Prince Vlad.

Romanians have a mixed view of Vlad. For some, he was a national hero, a stern but capable leader who defended his lands from invasions by the Ottomans. To others, he was a ruthless murderer. To be sure, Vlad kept law and order in his domains in a ruthless manner, with impalement being his favorite form of torture and punishment. At one point, he impaled 20,000 Turkish prisoners of war along a road upon which enemy troops would advance, striking fear in them. It is estimated that he executed at least 40,000 people during his reign and possibly as many as 100,000, leaving many of them on display in a forest of the impaled.

Vlad Dracul was born in 1431 in Sigishora and soon learned all the military and political arts necessary for a young prince to master. His father, also named Vlad Dracul, had made an alliance with the Turks and had accompanied the Turkish sultan, Murad II, on savage raids in Transylvania, which led to the family Dracula’s bloodthirsty reputation. When the senior Vlad Dracul died, his son became a prisoner among the Turks, where he became an officer and learned both Turkish military tactics and torture methods. In 1456, when he was barely 23-years-old, Vlad Tepes Dracula escaped the Turks, becoming the official prince of Wallachia.

His reign was marked with constant warfare against the Turks, against neighboring princes, and even against the Saxon boyars of his domains. He brooked no opposition and was brutal in repressing it, giving more credence to the bloody stories about him. In addition to his executions of prisoners and criminals, there were also rumors of sadistic practices and murdering of boys and girls in rituals designed to keep him young and healthy.

It is not clear how Vlad Dracula died; some say he was killed by the Turks, others by an assassin, nor is the exact date of his death known. It might have been in December 1476 or January 1477. His burial place is a mystery as well, although the most likely location seems to be in the monastery on the little island in Lake Snagov, about twenty miles outside of Bucharest.

The monastery on Lake Snagov where Vlad Tepes Dracul is buried.

I visited the monastery on a beautiful, sunny day, walking over the long pedestrian bridge that connects the little island with the mainland. The lake is pristine, calm and peaceful, with the homes of wealthy Romanians ringing it; Nicolae Ceausescu’s vacation home still overlooks the blue waters of the lake.

The monastery is small, really nothing more than a chapel, but it is richly decorated with icons and paintings and an elaborate, golden iconostasis. The burial place of Vlad Dracula is in the floor directly before the iconostasis and is covered with a large stone slab. A single vigil light burns upon it, placed before a portrait of Prince Vlad. I was the only person in the chapel and I knelt to touch the stone, wondering only partly in jest, whether his energy would still be palpable after so many centuries.

The author at Vlad Tepes Dracul’s burial site.

A few days later, I was in Transylvania. In Cluj-Napoca I stayed at Hotel Transilvania, the hotel where, according to Stoker’s novel, the fictional Jonathan Harker stayed as he made his way to visit Count Dracula. In the novel, the hotel is named the Continental but all the references and directions clearly point to Hotel Transilvania being Stoker’s model for his Continental Hotel. In the novel, Harker orders chicken paprika for his lunch at the hotel; today the hotel serves “Johnathan Harker chicken paprika.” The updated hotel is small, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard and the manager told me that he is in the process of creating a Jonathan Harker suite that will be outfitted in Victorian-era furnishings and Dracula memorabilia.

Hotel Transilvania

In Sigishora, a UNESCO World Heritage City, I visited the house where Vlad was supposed to have been born. It is now the Casa Dracula restaurant and is loaded with Dracula kitsch; dinner plates are emblazoned with a dragon—dracul means “dragon” in Romanian—you can buy a bottle of Dracula merlot wine, there are miniature busts of Vlad everywhere, along with portraits hung on the walls. But the piece de resistance is the upstairs room, drenched in red light, where the young Dracula was born. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust from the darkness into the red glare but when they did, I found myself in a room that was the worst spook house ever. An open coffin lay on the floor with a guy wearing fangs lying in it. He sat up and moaned, half-heartedly, I thought, when I entered the room. I told him to go back to sleep and went back downstairs.

Vlad Tepes Dracul’s birthplace in Sigishora


A corny vampire at Vlad Tepes Dracul’s birthplace

The little walled city is historically interesting, with many of its 14th and 15th century buildings still intact, but also catered to the tourists, many of them American, with all kinds of Dracula swag for sale. I found the same emphasis on marketing Dracula at Bran, where I had to walk through an entire bazaar to get to the ticket booth where I could purchase tickets to enter Bran castle. Stoker saw pictures of the castle in the British Museum and used them as the model for Count Dracula’s castle although, Prince Vlad didn’t use the castle.

Dracula kitsch


Bran castle

My last stop was Targoviste, the capital built by the senior Vlad Dracul and later used by his son. The ruins of the palace can be visited and the Chindi Tower, the watchtower from which Vlad “the Impaler” Dracula watched his victims suffering in the courtyard below, is still intact.

The Chindi Tower in the Dracul family’s capital of Targoviste

Bram Stoker took a lot of liberties in his novel, but that’s what writers do, and by doing so he created a vampire that has become the model against which all other vampire books and movies are compared.

In my Shapeshifters: A Cultural History, I discuss the differences between Stoker’s Count Dracula and the traditional vampires of folklore. I hope you’ll read it.