When you think of voodoo and black magic and ghost stories, you probably think of New Orleans on the home front, and maybe Jamaica or Haiti on the foreign one. Panama typically stirs up images of basking in the seaside sun with the smell of coconut scented suntan oil wafting through the air. Usually, it’s not Panama that comes to mind when you think of terrifying tales. However, I have to tell you, since moving here, I’ve discovered that Panama has a dark side, or at least a strangely shadowy (almost wrote sinister, but that sounds too evil) side.
I don’t want to frighten you with this article. That’s definitely not my intention. Life in Panama is great. But Panama has a lot of history, and just like Valley Forge, Pennsylvania or Salem, Massachusetts, anyplace with history is likely to have some creepy stories.
For being a country with its roots planted so firmly in the Catholic faith, it’s interesting how many Panamanians believe there are witches and other not-so-friendly forces roaming about. This place isn’t like what’s depicted in the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow or anything, but Santeria is practiced by some here in this country. You know, like the Sublime song, “I don’t practice Santeria. I ain’t got no crystal ball.” Santeria is considered a religion, but also has a dark side (like voodoo, which it’s often compared to).
I’m not saying every Panamanian believes in all this freaky stuff, but I can assure you that if you ask 5 Panamanians if they’ve witnessed something supernatural or just plain spooky, at least 3 of them will be able to tell you about something that either happened to them personally, or to a friend or family member. Even in the school folklore class, the kids are tasked at least once a year with bringing in reports on Panama’s scary legends.
At some point in the future, I’ll write a part 2 to this article and tell you some of the scary stories I’ve heard from others, but for now, I’ll focus on some of the strange happenings I’ve encountered here.
When we first moved to Panama, Mar and I rented a two-story house. It was a strange house, with 3 bedrooms upstairs and 2 living rooms downstairs. The back wall of the second living room, which led out to a patio, wasn’t a solid wall. Instead, it was a barred-up, screened-in sliding door. So no matter how secure we were in the house, it always felt a little bit strange, like we were way too vulnerable. It did allow a decent breeze to flow through the house though. Oh and there was a back room right next to that door that we used as a toy room for the kids.
Almost immediately after moving in, we started noticing strange occurrences. Now, I’m not crazy. I’ve seen some odd things in my life, but I’m definitely not the kind of person to quickly blame everything on the supernatural. And I know many people reading this will automatically chalk it all up to an overactive imagination, but I can assure you, these things were not normal, not delusions, and not make believe. Believe it or not, that’s up to you.
First, came the sightings. Victoria, my youngest daughter, who must’ve been about 5-years-old at the time was the first to mention the woman in black. Mar was upstairs napping with the boys one night, while the girls were in their bedroom. The phone rang downstairs so Victoria raced down the stairs to answer it (she’d been waiting for her cousin to call). After a few moments downstairs, she came screaming up the stairs, waking Mar up and freaking out her sister.
“What is it, baby?” Mar asked.
“I was on the phone,” Vica replied, “And I saw a woman in black walking through the kitchen. She made the bags move.”
She was talking about plastic grocery bags we’d had hanging from the cabinets. We were going through an ant problem at the time, so we hung any sweets and bread in grocery bags high up so the ants couldn’t get to them.
Shortly after Victoria’s sighting, the nanny, Christina, who has been with Mar’s family for about 15 years, started mentioning seeing a man in black. The first time was after she saw the shadow of a man walk into the kitchen.
Then, another time she saw the same dark shadow walk out of the kitchen and into the living room. She followed it until she saw it disappear on the stairs.
A third time, she’d fallen asleep on the living room couch. When she woke up, she glanced to her right, and there, in the dining room, was the dark shadowy man, just staring at her. She jumped up and he disappeared.
The boys were infants when we moved to Panama, right around the 9-month mark. We lived in that house for several years, so by the time we left, they were old enough to walk and talk. One night, while Mar and Nico were headed upstairs, they passed the kitchen and were about to round the corner to the stairs when Nico froze in place and looked terrified. Mar crouched down to see what was wrong with him and he said.
“Mama, a woman is in the kitchen.”
Mar figured it must’ve been her mom in the kitchen as she was visiting at the time. “It’s probably just Abuela,” she said.
Nico shook his head and said, “It wasn’t Abuela. There’s a black woman in the kitchen.”
Marlene looked back and didn’t see anything. Later, when Mar asked the owner of the house about it, she kind of jokingly said, “Oh yeah, the man in black has been there since I was a kid. He won’t harm anybody.”
It Gets Stranger
When we fist moved into that house, the boys were just learning to crawl, and definitely weren’t able to climb out of their cribs. One night, I was hanging out with the kids downstairs when Nico fell asleep. I carried him upstairs to the boys’ bedroom where the crib on the left wall was Nico’s and the crib against the right wall was Matteo’s. I am 100% certain I placed Nico in the correct crib because when I went to lay him down, he grabbed one of the bars and I had to kind of pry his fingers off so he wouldn’t hurt himself in his sleep. I covered him up with his blanket, then headed downstairs.
Maybe 30-minutes later, Matteo fell asleep. So I carried him upstairs. When I went to place him in his crib, Nico was there. He wasn’t old enough to climb out of his crib and even if he was, he could never have reached up and pulled himself into the crib on the opposite wall. I thought it was really strange, but just pushed it out of my head and went back downstairs. But I was positive I’d placed him in the correct crib in the first place. It really bothered me.
Then it happened again, on a different night, but the other way around. Matteo was in the wrong crib. This happened several times. Even Mar witnessed it, so it wasn’t just my forgetful mind. One time, I wasn’t even home. Mar was with her mom in the house and went to check on Nico who’d been sleeping upstairs in his crib. When she opened his bedroom door, his crib was empty.
Panic hit her right away because he’d never crawled out of the crib. She looked under the cribs and around the room and he was nowhere in sight. By that point she was getting really scared. Her first thought was that someone had kidnapped him, but how could they? His window was sealed up tight with bars on the outside (typical security in Panama’s older neighborhoods).
She and her mom searched the house, calling out his name. She checked all of the rooms once, then twice. On the second round, she entered my daughters’ room, and just happened to see Nico’s little toes peeking out from beneath Estefania’s bed.
Mar dropped to her knees and had to lie down on the floor because the space between the bed and the floor was tiny, so narrow that it would have taken some effort for him to slide under there (not something you’d easily do in your sleep). She could see Nico, but he was too far away for her to reach, so she rubbed on his foot and called out his name. Mar says she’ll never forget the look on his face when he opened his eyes. He was terrified, like he had no idea how he’d gotten beneath her bed.
One other time, I went into the boys’ bedroom to check on them in the middle of the night, and both cribs were pushed away from the walls, at the same odd angle, in the center of the room. That’s when I really started to believe something was going on.
At the time, I was a trainer at one of the call centers here and during a break I kind of mentioned it to the people in my class. These were all adults. As soon as I started talking about it, they all got very animated and enthusiastic about personal horror stories. They started telling me about witches and asked if we’d baptized the boys. At that time, we hadn’t. We’d baptized the girls, but wanted to wait until we’d moved to Panama to baptize the boys, and just hadn’t gotten around to it.
“You need to baptize them,” one woman told me.
“Okay,” I said, not realizing the urgency.
“Seriously,” she said. “Strange things happen in Panama to children who are not baptized.”
“Come on,” I said.
“Really,” she replied. “Witches go into the homes of babies that haven’t been baptized. They pick up the babies while they’re sleeping, and suck on their bellybuttons.”
I looked around the room, and no one seemed to think the story was strange. In fact, it kicked up a whole discussion about witches and other evil entities. I later told Mar about it and she, who has heard some wild stories, said she’d never heard the one about the bellybutton-munching witches.
Mar wanted to get the boys baptized as soon as possible, but we still weren’t in a major rush. Then, a couple more things happened which kind of pushed up the date a little.
One night, while Mar was alone with the kids (as a trainer I had to teach a lot of night classes), she’d just put them to bed when she went downstairs to get a snack. She immediately felt that something wasn’t right. You know that feeling you get when the hair stands up on the back of your neck? When you feel like you’re being watched? Mar felt that she wasn’t alone. She grabbed her snack and went upstairs with it.
A few minutes later she heard the sound of someone talking. It was a soft, creepy voice far off in the distance. She checked on the kids and everyone was okay, so she crept out onto the staircase and looked down at the dark living room. She could heard the voice and it sounded like it was somewhere in the house. She went back to her room and grabbed her rosary. After praying and forcing herself to relax, she got a bit angry and decided that she was the woman of the house and would not be afraid in her own home. So she got up and went downstairs, flipping on every light along the way.
Once downstairs, she still couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from, but she recognized it. It was a battery-operated Elmo doll we’d bought the kids for their birthday. It was repeating one of its catch phrases over and over again. Mar followed the sound into the second living room where she realized it was coming from the back toy room.
She turned on the living room and bathroom lights, but the problem was the motion light outside that large sliding door I mentioned earlier was not working right, so the back patio was pitch black, and the toy room light, for some reason, could only be turned on from a switch inside the closet, at the back corner of the room. Mar didn’t have flashlight, so she crept past the sliding door, glancing over her shoulder every couple of seconds, half expecting to find the shadow man peering in at her from the patio, and tried to see where the doll was without actually entering the toy room. It was impossible. She needed to enter the room.
And that damned doll kept repeating that creepy phrase. Something about wanting to play. Over and over again, taunting her.
She finally convinced herself she was brave enough to do this, took a deep breath, and ran to the back closet. She flipped on the light and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Only three large boxes full of toys. Then the Elmo stopped talking. It just completely stopped. Mar wasn’t sure which box it had been coming from. She waited to see if it would start blabbing again, but it didn’t. So she started digging through the boxes until she finally found it at the bottom of a box.
She picked up the Elmo and held it at eye level. Suddenly it started laughing and then said, “Goodbye.” She hurried out of the toy room, opened up its back panel, and yanked out the battery. She threw the doll into the garbage and ran upstairs. And the talking started again. The battery-less Elmo was calling out with its catch phrase. Mar called me and then called her mom and asked her to come over and stay with her.
At that point, Mar was completely freaked out and wanted to get out of the house, but we needed to find someplace else to go. We set everything up to baptize the boys, but her temporary fix was to bless the house. So she got a bottle of holy water and her rosary and we went to each room of the house, splashing holy water in the corners of the rooms while she read a passage from her Bible. When we got to the boys’ room and she started blessing it, we suddenly heard a loud bang from downstairs.
I ran downstairs to the kitchen and found Coca-Cola all over the kitchen walls and floor. We’d had a big, plastic-wrapped case of 2-liter bottles sitting on the floor, drinks for an upcoming birthday party. One of the bottles, while still in the plastic wrap, completely burst all on its own. The bottle had exploded and soda was everywhere. Again, each of these things happening on its own wouldn’t seem like a big deal, but added together, they’re kind of strange don’t you think? Shortly after this, we baptized the boys and things started to settle down. Soon after, we moved out of the house and into our next story.
The next house we rented was definitely in need of some love and care. The owner of the place warned us prior to moving in, that the guy who’d rented it before us was a strange bird. He’d cemented up one of her bedroom windows and I think she said he’d painted one of the other windows black. She was convinced that he’d been selling drugs out of the house, but never had proof. When she’d evicted him, he got mad and ripped out most of the cabinets and light fixtures.
We went ahead and took the place because we needed to move out of the first house as someone wanted to buy it (and we were tired of being stalked by shadowy figures and dealing with soda-exploding mayhem). So, I painted the front of the house and all the walls inside, cleaned it up, and made it livable for our family, while the owner had the cement knocked out and the window re-installed. Most of the issues with that house (and ultimately the reason we moved out) were electrical and plumbing issues. We had some leaking in several places in the roof when it rained. But other strange things started to go on too.
It began with strange sounds on the roof at night. It’s common to hear birds and small animals traipsing across the roof, especially since many of the roofs on the typical Panamanian homes are so thin, but this was different. These were heavy footsteps. This sounded like a person was running across the roof.
Right behind our house was a small river. Many Panamanians believe, or have at least heard the stories, that witches gather by the rivers at night. Another story is that they run across peoples’ roofs at night.
Well, whether or not it was a witch, I can’t exactly say, but I can tell you that it was loud enough and happened often enough, that it woke me up most nights. Then, sometimes I’d heard crying outside my bedroom window. It sounded far away, but it was a strange noise, like a mix between someone crying and someone laughing. It was definitely creepy.
I went to bed one night, right after hearing the strange crying, in boxers and a T-shirt, how I sleep most nights. I’ve never sleepwalked in my life. Never. I’ve NEVER done it. I might mumble in my sleep and I sometimes grind my teeth, but I never sleepwalk. And I’m a very light sleeper, so even the softest of noises or movements will jolt me from my sleep.
I woke up late that night, on the living room couch, completely dressed, shoes on and all, with my car keys in my pocket. I remember sitting up and feeling confused, but really groggy at the same time. I wanted to get up and go back to bed, but I felt exhausted, like so exhausted that I couldn’t get up. It was almost like I’d been drugged or something. I laid back down and went to sleep and woke up in the morning, still fully dressed. Mar seemed more scared than I was. I was really confused, but she was actually scared.
In addition to these little odd things going on, the most significant change was in our attitudes. Mar and I argued more than ever in that house and even people who visited seemed to be in a bad mood as soon as they entered the house. My mother-in-law and the owner of the house were great friends before we moved in, but by the time we moved out, were practically at each other’s throats. One of my wife’s cousins visited once and told us later that as soon as she entered the house she suddenly felt drained of energy.
Eventually, we moved out, and as soon as we did, everything started to go back to normal. Mar and I got along a lot better, my mother-in-law and the owner of the house went back to being friends, it all just smoothed out. About a year later, the owner of the house stopped by to visit. She was trying to sell that house. She came by to tell us how glad she was that we’d left when we did. Apparently, when she started fixing up the house to sell it, the workers removed the tile on the ceiling and you’ll never believe what they found.
I get chills just thinking about it. Above our bedroom, where Mar and I slept every night, there was an altar, one of those evil Santeria altars right above our bed. When we lived in the house, I couldn’t figure out why this one light switch in the hallway wouldn’t work. I’d changed the bulb and everything and eventually just figured it was another electrical issue. Wrong. The light switch was working just fine. Only it was turning on the lights at the altar in the ceiling. So there I was turning on the altar and turning it off again, over and over.
Well, that’s the end of the crazy stories I have for now. I was all for buying used houses before, but I think in the future I’ll stick with new construction. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a long punch list of things to fix than an altar above my bed. Just sayin’.
Thanks for reading,
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