Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why anecdote isn't enough: the strange story of Clarita Villanueva

When I was a kid, I was big fan of books with names like Strange True Tales of the Supernatural and World of the Weird.  These books often had seriously nightmare-inducing cover illustrations, stories that were (to a twelve-year-old, at least) pantswettingly terrifying, and that important little word on the spine: "Non-fiction."

I still enjoy many of those stories, all these decades later, but now it's solely for their entertainment value.  Some of the most memorable ones have all of the hallmarks of a great Tale For Around The Campfire -- a scary monster or ghost, an innocent victim, brave people trying to combat the forces of evil and bring order back to the world.

One of the ones I still recall to this day is the tale of Clarita Villanueva.

According to the best-known version of the story, Clarita was a young Filipina girl in her upper teens, living in poverty in Manila in 1951.  One night in May, she was found on the street, having an apparent seizure, by a policeman, who (not knowing what else to do) took her off to the local jail to "sleep it off."  But during the middle of the night, the girl began to shriek, claiming that a "bug-eyed man" all in black had floated through the bars and was biting her.  The policeman ran to her cell, and found the girl writhing on the floor, and bite marks -- surrounded by saliva -- were appearing on her arms, and in one case, on the back of her neck.

Whatever was biting her, though, was invisible to everyone but Clarita herself!

The policeman got the girl calmed down, and summoned the medical officer on duty in the jail, one Dr. Lara.  Dr. Lara arrived just in time to see the girl go into hysterics again, this time saying that the bug-eyed guy in black had returned, this time bringing a friend.  The doctor, too, saw bite marks appear on her skin.

The doctor, in an understandable state of fear, had the girl transferred from jail to a local hospital, where he saw to it that her wounds were treated.  She gradually relaxed, and the attacks weren't repeated.  She remained at the hospital for six weeks, gaining strength, and her fear of the strange creatures diminished.  Eventually, she was released, and (as far as the story tells) led a completely normal life thereafter.

The reason for the attacks, and who the mysterious creatures were, were never explained.

So, anyway.  See why this one scared me?  Everything about it is classic backbone-shivering horror, even down to the fact that no one ever figured out who her attackers were.  But now, forty-odd years later, I've come to think of this as the perfect example of why skeptics should not rely on anecdotal evidence.

Because if you do a search for "Clarita Villanueva," you'll come up with (literally) hundreds of versions of the tale.  The one I've related was the one popularized in those books I was so fond of as a child, but it's not the only one.

You have your religious versions.  Those seem to have been launched by a Christian evangelistic minister named Lester Sumrall, who had worked in Manila and probably heard the story there, but who claimed he actually saw, and treated, the girl.  In his version, Clarita Villanueva was a prostitute whose mother had been "a fortuneteller by vocation... holding seances, communicating with the dead, and using clairvoyance to predict to sinful people what they could expect in the future."  In this version, Clarita was not just being tormented by the monsters, she was (more or less) possessed by them; at one point, she shouted out "in a cold and inhuman voice" at one of her jailers, "You will die!" and the guy died four days later.  Dr. Lara finally called in a minister -- in Sumrall's original version it was Sumrall himself, but in others it's a Catholic priest -- and the minister after a "three-day confrontation with the devil inside her" expelled the evil spirits, and she fell to her knees with a smile and said, "The evil one is gone."

Then you have the "Reptilian Alien" version of the story, in which Dr. Lara is female (her first name is given as "Marianna"), and the creatures are interdimensional aliens from another world.  Cautions are given that these extraterrestrials are "non-emotional creatures intent on performing acts that are considered by humans as evil or malicious."  In this version, no religious folks of any kind were involved; the attacks subsided on their own.

A third version takes a psychic angle on the whole thing.  Here, Clarita Villanueva was a "vagrant" who was arrested for living on the street.  It occurred in 1952, not 1951, as the other versions claimed, and the attending doctor was male again -- "Dr. D. Mariano Lara."  In this version, she also was given an exorcism, but before that was apparently receiving information as well as bite marks from the creatures -- prior to the exorcism she was speaking in English, but afterwards didn't understand the language at all!

And so on.  Some versions call her "Carlita," not "Clarita."  The girl's age varies from 15 to 23.  The outcome differs wildly, from her returning to her poverty-stricken existence, to her finding Jesus and devoting her life to religion.  Even the inimitable Jack Chick took a crack at the story, in his bizarre ├╝ber-Christian "Chick Tracts:"


All of this is why anyone who is interested in more than a quick scary story -- i.e., fiction -- needs more than anecdote to be convinced.  Human memory being what it is, not to mention the human capacity for embellishment and outright lying, a story by itself proves nothing.  In order to believe something -- or even to determine if there's anything there to believe -- we need hard evidence, something beyond the vague reports of one, or ten, or even a hundred people.

And the problem goes deeper than that, because (of course) these aren't all independent reports.  A researcher, with adequate time and energy, might be able to track all of these versions backwards and see where they'd come from, developing (as it were) a cladistic tree for this odd urban legend.  Ultimately, we might find the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all of the versions of the Clarita Villanueva story, and see what form it took.

But even then, there's no guarantee that it was true in the first place.  There may have really been a girl named Clarita Villanueva who lived in Manila in the early 1950s and had some bizarre experiences; but if she did, my bet is that she was either epileptic or schizophrenic, and everything else about the story (including the bites on the back of the neck) were later additions to add a nice frisson to the tale.  The fact that the story is still making the rounds, sixty years later, doesn't tell you anything about its truth or falsity.

As Gary Taubes put it, speculations and assumptions do not become the truth simply because they are endlessly repeated.  And anecdotes, however much they are embellished, and however often they end up in "non-fiction" anthologies, remain tall tales without much in the way of real value to skeptics.  In science, we need more than just a good story to convince us.

9 comments:

  1. To corroborate your point:

    "Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing."

    couple of sources:
    http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/WhatWouldYouDo/story?id=4521253#.UYFrSEpvadA
    http://www.innocenceproject.org

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    Replies
    1. Next you're going to be telling us that carbon dating is accurate. Pfft ;)

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    2. Depends on what you consider "accurate" :P

      Using it on a sample from the Jurassic Period, for example, will only be accurate within a range of a few million years.

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    3. So... it ended somewhere between 145 and 150 million years ago? I'm okay with that.

      What percentage error would there need to be to get us to, oh I don't know, between 145 million and 6,000 years ago?

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    4. The shorter the time frame (from the present), the more accurate the carbon dating is. Carbon dating things from 7,000-50,000 years ago would have a very high quantifiable accuracy with a very low +/- tolerance in years. So 6,000 years ago gets trumped by "What about 7,000 years ago?" or "What about 9,756 years ago?"

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    5. Here is the original book by Lester Sumrall giving an account of what happened, including the picture of him praying for Clarita on the front. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B0007J3JZW?pc_redir=1404446085&robot_redir=1

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  2. Interestingly, here is a link to a non-sensationalist newspaper entitled The Barrier Miner, a former (1888-1974) daily English newspaper from New South Wales that covered the REAL story briefly:

    http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/49265252

    The article there says:
    "Dracula" Girl
    WRITHING UNDER a "vampire" attack. Clarita Villanueva, 18, of Manila
    (Philippines), is watched anxiously by the city's mayor (with glasses) as
    she is held by a police, doctor and a nurse. Forthe past 17 days since she was gaoled (and later acquitted) on a vagrancy charge, mysterious teeth
    marks have appeared on the girl's arms during her struggles with the invisible "vampire." Two Government doctors say the marks are the result of an attack of hysterical fugue, a nervous complaint. -United Press picture.

    So it's definitely not entirely an urban legend. The shit is real, but may perhaps be the result of mental suggestion having physiological effects on her.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Interestingly, here is a link to a non-sensationalist newspaper entitled The Barrier Miner, a former (1888-1974) daily English newspaper from New South Wales that covered the REAL story briefly:

    http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/49265252

    The article there says:
    "Dracula" Girl
    WRITHING UNDER a "vampire" attack. Clarita Villanueva, 18, of Manila
    (Philippines), is watched anxiously by the city's mayor (with glasses) as
    she is held by a police, doctor and a nurse. Forthe past 17 days since she was gaoled (and later acquitted) on a vagrancy charge, mysterious teeth
    marks have appeared on the girl's arms during her struggles with the invisible "vampire." Two Government doctors say the marks are the result of an attack of hysterical fugue, a nervous complaint. -United Press picture.

    So it's definitely not entirely an urban legend. The shit is real, but may perhaps be the result of mental suggestion having physiological effects on her.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Beaver Valley Times (Now The Beaver County Times) also covered the story in 1953:
    https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1981&dat=19530520&id=6F0tAAAAIBAJ&sjid=DNoFAAAAIBAJ&pg=742,5825273&hl=en

    ReplyDelete