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A Deeper Look Into the Shopping Mall Snake Man Legend

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Screengrab of the 2014 movie "Shake Rattle and Roll," Episode 39, titled "Ahas" (snake).

Screengrab of the 2014 movie "Shake Rattle and Roll," Episode 39, titled "Ahas" (snake).

A snake monster lurking in an underground chamber and terrorizing a group of people into a panic ... It may sound like the plot of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but I'm referring to an urban legend that circulated widely in the Philippines during the early '90s and is still going strong today.

The Urban Legend

In January of 1990, the 5-level Robinsons Galleria Mall (also known as the Robinsons Ortigas branch) was built along the EDSA People Power landmark in Quezon City, Metro Manila.

Alice Dixson Escapes

Filipina movie star Alice Dixson was changing in one of the fitting rooms of the mall one day when a trap door opened underneath her and she fell into a tunnel basement of the mall. This tunnel allegedly led to a secret dungeon where a half-man, half-snake monster resides. The monster supposedly tried to attack Dixson, but she got away when she found an exit leading to the hotel next door.

John Gokongwei's Son?

This snake monster is said to be the son of Filipino-Chinese business tycoon John Gokongwei, the mall's owner. The monster is named "Robin" by imaginative individuals, derived from the mall's name. Robin is also said to be the twin brother of Robina Gokongwei-Pe—one of the five children of the Gokongwei patriarch and now the president and COO of Robinsons Retail Holdings.

Or a Family Pet?

Like a snake shedding its skin, this urban legend also underwent many transformations over the years. Some claim that Robin was the Gokongwei family pet, capable of laying golden eggs and the primary source of their wealth. Others believe that the mall is constructed specifically for the snake monster to pick and choose its victims among the unsuspecting mall shoppers regularly.

They even concocted an entire storyline about the snake monster saying that it used to live in the Gokongwei household but grew so large that it needed to be kept somewhere else. Alternatively, they used to feed it with smaller animals and livestock until it developed an appetite for human flesh.

Robinsons Malls Across the Country Suffer

When news broke out about this alleged incident, business in the mall diminished and shoppers refused to go into the mall fitting rooms and bathrooms without being accompanied by mall employees. The urban legend not only became associated with the Ortigas branch but with all the Robinsons malls across the country.

In a 1991 interview, Robina Gokongwei expressed her frustrations about the rumors and stated that she would gladly give the entire mall to anyone who could prove the snake man's existence.

It Became a Conspiracy Theory

For three decades, Alice Dixson remained silent about the issue and declined to even talk about it in interviews. This led to another rendition of the legend that says Alice was about to speak about her experience in a talk show once, but somehow the broadcast was cut off. When the show returned, she was no longer there and was replaced instead by another actress named Rita Avila. This is when Avila's name also became linked to the urban legend as one of the alleged victims of the snake monster.

Dixson was accused of receiving hush money from the Gokongwei family to keep their secret and later fled to Canada to escape the hot seat until public interest subsided. In 2020, she finally broke her silence on her YouTube channel, stating her side of the events.

But it seems that some people are still disinclined to believe her. Their proof? Dixson became the mall's endorser in a 2018 ad campaign parodying the ridiculousness of the whole story.

The Ongoing Appeal of the Snake-Man Story

Similar to the snake biting its tail as the symbol of rebirth, this seemingly dead urban legend, and its subsequent conspiracy theory, have seen multiple resurgences.

There are several (obviously photoshopped) images of the supposed Robinsons snake man slithering around the internet. In 2012, a low-quality video of a "mummified snake monster" gained 1.2 million views on YouTube, purported to be the mall monster's carcass. Despite it being an apparent fake, reminiscent of the Feejee mermaid hoax, many people still bought the story.

The beloved Filipino horror anthology series that started in 1984 called Shake, Rattle, and Roll also featured an episode based on this urban legend in 2014, titled "Ahas" (snake). Alice Dixson—the actress who started the legend, ironically played the role of the mother who gave birth to the snake monster in the film.

The Disappearance of Jovellyn Galleno

In August 2022, insensitive people with too much time on their hands speculated that the disappearance of a young criminology student named Jovellyn Galleno was the work of the snake monster. She was last seen on surveillance footage entering one of the mall branches where she had a part-time job.

It didn't help that the mall representatives refused to cooperate with the police in providing more CCTV shots that might assist in the investigation. The case was highly publicized and sensationalized before it was closed and declared a rape-slay crime.

Oryol, the demi-goddess of Ibalong folklore.

Oryol, the demi-goddess of Ibalong folklore.

Snakes in Mythology and Superstition

Part of the reason why this urban legend persists is that snakes are central to many worldwide myths and religions, perhaps due to real fears already embedded in the human psyche. In Christianity, for example, the devil and his demons are often portrayed as serpents from hell.

Symbols of Wisdom and More

But before they were regarded as the universal symbol of evil and deceit, however, snakes represented secret wisdom (as guardians of the underworld), healing (the Caduceus), sexuality (due to its phallic look), and infinity (the Ouroboros) among other things.

In antiquity, mythological snakes (such as serpents and dragons) are associated with feminine energy (the earth and water) to balance the male essence of mighty birds (like the eagle or the phoenix symbolizing fire and air). Together, they create harmony between the natural forces of the universe.

The Gokongwei clan of Robinsons malls is a Filipino family with Chinese ancestry, so I will focus on the snake mythology of these two cultures.

Snakes in Chinese Mythology

In Chinese mythology, humans were descended from a snake mother goddess named Nuwa (also called Nü Gua). She was also credited for repairing the pillar of heaven after a battle between deities destroyed it.

In a later creation myth, Nuwa had a twin brother-husband named Fu Xi, and both had human heads and serpentine bodies. But this later evolution of the narrative is also said to be influenced by the cultural movement from an earlier matriarchal society to a patriarchal one.

As one of the animals in the Chinese zodiac, people born under the year of the snake are characterized by their natural intuition, decency, and sophistication. They are also described as very eloquent and smart.

The Legend of the White Snake tells the story of a snake spirit capable of transforming back and forth into a human and falling in love with a young man unaware of her true form. It is considered one of the four great love stories of ancient China.

Snakes are considered bringers of good luck and fertility because they are lesser forms of mythical dragons that symbolize greatness and power. It is believed that a snake becomes a serpent in 500 years, and a serpent becomes a dragon after a thousand years.

Snakes in Filipino Mythology

In pre-colonial Filipino spirituality, snakes are among the most sacred animals. Their scales are replicated in textile patterns and tribal tattoo motifs representing the ever-watching ancestors' eyes. In indigenous beliefs, snakes were seen as either the messengers of the ancestors or ancestral spirits themselves.

Snake figures are carved onto the hilts of daggers and swords to imbue the weapons with their divine abilities. If a snake is seen within the house, they are trusted to eat all the evils that may come to all the person living in that household. They were also brought along on sea voyages and raids in the belief that they usher good fortune, especially in battles.

There are also a lot of serpent deities and snake-like creatures in Philippine mythology. Ulilang Kaluluwa (Orphaned Spirit) is the primordial serpent god present in the Tagalog creation myth. In Bicolano myths, there's the Marinaga—a freshwater mermaid creature having the half body of a water snake or eel. The contrasting figure named Oryol is also mentioned in the Ibalong epic as the daughter of the god of chaos Osuang. Oryol is a Nagini—a semi-divine half-snake woman of Hindu-Buddhist traditions.

Colossal snakes dwelling below the earth that function as guardians of the Underworld are a common theme in mythologies across the globe.

In Panay, Luyung Kabig is the guardian goddess of snakes and reptiles that keeps the gates of Idadalmun (the lower world) from invaders and escaping souls. Her Manobo counterpart is Dagau, the creator goddess who acted as a sentinel to the pillar supporting our world, together with her giant serpent that causes earthquakes each time it moves.

But the most famous is Bakunawa, the serpent dragon that rises from the depths of the sea to swallow the moons in the sky, causing an eclipse that heralds the end of time.

Visayan tattoos based on snake-skin patterns

Visayan tattoos based on snake-skin patterns

Having a Snake for a Twin

The dual nature of the snake, seen as both a god and a monster, is perhaps the reason why they are associated with twins.

The concept of having a snake twin is nothing new in Filipino folklore. In the writings of 17th-century Spanish historian and Jesuit missionary Father Francisco Alcina, he mentions that this belief is so strong in ancient Visayas that he met a woman who gave birth to a son and a snake. The woman was a converted Catholic and was very afraid of the snake that she tried to get her son away from it. But the snake would always find a way back to its twin brother. So the mother, in her desperation, moved the family miles away to escape the strange animal, and nothing was documented after that.

For the pre-colonial Visayans, the snake twin was perceived as a deified ancestor reincarnated as a snake. They share the womb with the human they were supposed to protect and provide them with supernatural powers and good fortune their entire life. Today, they are locally called "kambal ahas" or snake twins. But back in the day, they were the Umalagad (an animal companion or familiar spirit guide) of people destined for greatness.

The root word "alagad" means "to serve" in Bisaya pronounced with a stressed second syllable, and "minion" in Tagalog with no syllable emphasized. But the relationship between the snake and human twin siblings is not that of a master and servant. But instead, they are a partnership sharing equal power.

A Filipino period drama series that portray this very mythos aired in 2011 titled Amaya. Set in the 1500s Visayas before the coming of the Spaniards, the fictional warrior-princess turned babaylan named Amaya vowed to avenge her father's death and seek to change a culture dominated by evil men—assisted by her twin snake Umalagad named Kapid.

A 102-year-old woman named Conchita Encabo from the municipality of Macalelon in the Quezon province became famous because of her extraordinary healing abilities for those who get bitten by animals, especially by snakes. She was originally from the Visayan region of Eastern Samar and claimed to have a snake twin sibling named Wanda. But Wanda died during a flood caused by a terrible typhoon when Conchita reached maturity and realized her "special gifts." Conchita Encabo's remarkable life story was also featured in a biographical drama series in 2013.

In medieval Western folkloric beliefs, these monstrous births are regarded as the result of sinful acts of bestiality and a sign of a major cataclysm. But humans giving birth to non-human animals is, in fact, not scientifically possible due to the vast genetic difference between the two species. Even if humans try to mate with their close cousins, such as apes and primates, the offspring will not likely survive.

Actress Marian Rivera as Amaya

Actress Marian Rivera as Amaya

The Natural Predator

In their way, our ancestors knew that snakes are beautiful and play an essential part in the larger ecosystem by controlling the population of smaller animals that may carry diseases. While the snake is viewed positively, it is also feared because it is one of the major predators in the country.

The Philippines is home to the longest snake in the world—the reticulated python, locally known as "sawa." Compared to the Anaconda—which can achieve more massive girth and mass, these non-venomous constrictors can grow up to 8.7 meters in length and are fantastic swimmers. Although they are known to be quite aggressive in the wild, captive breeding has found that they are easy to care for and very intelligent.

But sadly, due to the destruction of their natural habitat and rising temperatures brought on by climate change, these cold-blooded creatures are now moving into urbanized areas and city slums. They are hunted and sold to illegal wildlife trade or killed outright. Pythons are even among the ingredients of some exotic delicacies in the Philippines.

For this reason, the reticulated python is classified as one of the species under threat and will likely be moved to the vulnerable category soon. Defending ourselves from these deadly beasts is only natural, but this scenario illustrates that humans are still the most invasive and dangerous predators on the planet.

The Philippine reticulated python is called Sawa.

The Philippine reticulated python is called Sawa.

Real Dangers That Inspired This Legend

The alleged disappearances of the supposed victims of the Robinsons snake man reflect some of the Philippines' most prevalent crimes: human trafficking and kidnap-for-ransom, which usually take place around malls.

In 2021, the Philippine Statistics Authority recorded 77 kidnapping incidents involving 118 victims, 29 of whom were killed. As of 2022, they happily reported a decrease in reported kidnappings, but that does little to change the people's fears because a large number remains unreported.

Human trafficking cases, on the other hand, are a cause for concern. The most at-risk populations belong to indigenous groups, displaced persons, women, and children with whom their own families are the perpetrators.

Fake News

The constant revisions of the legend also parallel the disturbing spread of misinformation and disinformation in the Philippines today. According to a recent Pulse Asia survey, 90 percent of Filipinos recognize fake news as a problem in the country.

The rampant use of social media platforms allowed users to voice their opinions democratically. But instead, it became a primary hub for proliferating wrong information for various uses, whether that's intentional propaganda or seeded by cognitive bias. These illegitimate minds are often the loudest, thus, silencing those who are more credible authorities on the topic.

The masses' understandable distrust of the rich and powerful also fueled online conspiracy theories and other outlandish beliefs. People refuse to admit that they can be wrong, so they only listen to other opinions that agree with them. But as the famous warning from Voltaire goes:

"Anyone who can make you believe in absurdities, can convince you to commit atrocities."

Economic Disparity

Like a snake unhinging its jaw to swallow its prey whole, the snake monster of Robinsons Galleria also became the symbol of capitalist greed, driven by the consumers' ever-changing demands.

The mall culture in the Philippines can be described as "exuberant." The country prides itself on having the third-largest mall in the world—the SM Mall of Asia. They are not just structures to buy necessities but have become leisurely community centers where all sorts of services and entertainment are available.

Within Filipino malls, you find not only grocery stores, movie theatres, and gyms, but also large stadiums, government satellite offices, and even churches.

Despite the continuously rising cost of living, poor Filipinos still flock to the malls to buy things they don't need or can't afford. Hence, shopping malls are also one of the Philippines' economic boosters. But this prosperity rarely trickles down on its most impoverished citizens. While the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

She hatched in the dank basements of our gullibility, warmed in the gasp of our telling. Curling in the tongues of housewives and clerks. How she fed on our thirst for wonders, fattened on our fear of vacant places. Slowly, we embellished the patterns of her scales and admired the sinuous grace of her spine. And as the gleaming temples of her worship rose in the midst of our squalor, how we trembled at the seduction of her voice. O what adoring victims we became.

— Marne L. Kilates, Python in the Mall (incomplete), 1993

  • The Role of Birds and Serpents in Philippine Mythology by Daniel de Guzman, aswangproject.com
  • The Real Life Monsters of Manila that created the Snake-Man of Robinsons Galleria by L. Po, medium.com
  • Mall Culture and Consumerism in the Philippines by Jore-Annie Rico and Kim Robert de Leon, longreads.tni.org

© 2022 Ian Spike