Hold onto your butts: The Popobawa

Content warning: Sexual violence and supernatural endowment.

Smiles are contagious, but so are screams. In February 1995, fear spread like a disease among the inhabitants of Pemba, one of the two main islands that make up the Zanzibar archipelago. Much like the killer clown hysteria that hit the states last year, as the panic escalated, so did the violence.

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An example of a nighttime visitor, courtesy of Wikimedia commons

If you’re the type of person to read Monster Meet, chances are you’re familiar with the concept of incubi and succubi, horrificly rapey nighttime visitors that like to wake people by crushing their lungs. The Popobawa is an incubus on steroids. Its name translates roughly to “bat wing,” but other than maybe casting a shadow in that shape, the creature does not conform to its label. A popular Western misconception is that the Popobawa looks like a one-eyed goblin with wings, but in reality it is a shapeshifter that has appeared in various forms: animal, humanoid, amorphous shadow, etc. It attacks everyone, from strapping men to small children, and unlike many other Zanzibar spirits, cannot easily be expelled or protected against.

Much of the West’s information about the outbreak of ‘95 comes from anthropologist Martin Walsh, who happened to be living on Pemba at the time. It was March 12th, just after Ramadan ended, and until then Walsh hadn’t paid much attention to his neighbors’ anxious talk. He slept through the worst of what happened that night, but in the morning, his watchman Salim filled him in.

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Mood dressing courtesy of Indrajit Das, Wikimedia Commmons

The Popobawa had been disturbing the inhabitants of Pemba for about a month, smothering sleepers or scaring the bejeezus out of them with poltergeist-like shenanigans. People were frightened enough to abandon their bedrooms and start sleeping outside in groups, next to large, bright fires. But Salim could not be in a group that night. Instead he stood alone, on watch duty for the open entrance to Walsh’s compound. On edge in the dark yard, he saw movement and looked up to find a white dog right in front of him, staring at him and shuddering.

Salim felt his hackles go up. He loudly shooed the dog away, and was relieved to have it gone. But a few minutes later another strange animal took its place, also trembling and peering at him. Salim forced that one away, too, and then returned to his post, doubtless starting to sweat. He turned at a noise and found a dwarf staring at him now, shaking as uncontrollably as its predecessors. Bursting with adrenaline, Salim made a run at him; the dwarf hopped around some Land Rovers in the lot before disappearing into the dark. Scared shitless, Salim finally abandoned his post. He ran to check on his family, and didn’t tell Walsh what had happened until the next day.

When Walsh heard Salim’s story, he knew he had to investigate. In one night, the Popobawa (or mapopobawa, plural) had not only visited his compound, but had lead a frenzy of assaults and possessions that made people run wildly through the streets and into nearby rice valleys. With the help of his neighbor Jamila, Walsh began to collect stories from the people on the island with the hope of figuring out what the hell was going on.

It turned out that the Popobawa wasn’t new. Its first attacks came in 1965, shortly after a bloody revolution in 1964. Back then, as many as ten people a night were being assaulted in their beds, sodomized and terrorized until Karume (President at the time) came and challenged the Popobawa to attack him directly. The creature didn’t show, and the attacks dwindled after that.

But now it was back, and at the same time as an election cycle. This made people suspicious.  There were a number of explanations for why the Popobawa might be attacking, from jilted sorcerers wreaking revenge to the spirits of Karume reminding people of their power, but the theory that stuck most was that the ruling party (CCM) was instigating the attacks so as to tip the election in their favor.

The night Salim was visited, a group of young adults spotted what they thought was a CCM car driving erratically up the road toward town. This was third day such cars had appeared. The cars’ veering and tottering made people suspect that they carried evil cargo. The youths hurled insults at the car, damning its drivers for bringing the mapopobawa into town. That night, their bravery was rewarded with violent retribution. No one was surprised. The people of Pemba tended to favor the opposition party: this terror must have been an effort to distract or punish them.

But if the attacks were political, the CCM party would soon get its comeuppance. As the assaults on Pemba dwindled, the Popobawa migrated to the CCM stronghold of Zanzibar town in Unguja, where it continued with new vigor and violence. Poltergeist hijinks morphed into brutal sodomy, usually of men. To add insult to injury, the monster whispered to its victims that if they didn’t share their horror with their neighbors, it would come back. That made the panic spread even faster.

Unfortunately, being frightened tends to bring out the worst in people. As the assaults spread, mobs formed to attack anything (and anyone) that might be mistaken for the monster. Several people were killed. The most infamous was a young man who had come to Zanzibar for treatment for his mental illness. When the news displayed his body on television–along with his grieving parents–instead of repenting, people decried the segment as a government cover-up, and demanded to know where the real Popobawa they’d killed had been hidden.

No human stopped the attacks. After around 70 different assaults, they fizzled out on their own. There would be another spike of terror in the early 2000’s, but nothing on the scale of ‘95. Nowadays, people mostly joke about the Popobawa and its supernaturally large, dangerous dick. But there’s still fear there. It might easily come back.

How does something like this happen? If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you might be thinking “sleep paralysis”…I know I was. The hallucinations and dread that can accompany it fit the Popobawa victims’ experience perfectly. Add a spoonful of social reinforcement and a dash of harrowing political climate, and you’ve got yourself a good recipe for Mapopobawa’95 (also Clowns2016. *cough*).

That’s the easy explanation, if one can be had. The other is that Zanzibar has a very long, very rich history of myth and magic; maybe there really was something there. But that’s probably not what you want to hear, especially if you like to sleep. So yes: definitely just a hallucination. Nothing to worry your head about.

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Okay, maybe just one bat picture. Courtesy of Frank Vassen, Wikimedia Commons

Have you seen a Popobawa? How about a killer clown? Share your story in the comments below.

 

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Grisly Green Giants: On Monstrous Plants

I love the outdoors. I love camping, hiking, and walking around without a flashlight at night while trying to guess the shape of the shadows next to me. But whenever I sleep under the stars, there’s a small part of my brain that remains wide awake, watchful of anything that might approach. I always feel safer under the cover of trees. But maybe the trees are what I should be afraid of.

In honor of this month’s Supermoon, let’s do something a little different. Instead of focusing on one specific type of monster plant, I want to give you an idea of the range and themes of what’s out there. Though the plants can be found all over the world, some have a number of similarities. This list will focus largely on the ones with human (or potential human) victims, because you’re visiting a monster blog, and things wouldn’t be as fun without the potential for death or dismemberment.

Like true botanists, let’s categorize our plants into groups:

1. Stranglers

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Image courtesy of Jonathan Williams on Flickr.

These are the most basic of the three types. Many monster plants seem to employ at least some degree of physical grabbing or binding to keep their prey still while they work on them; pure stranglers just squeeze and squeeze until their victim has breathed their last, then drop the corpse and soak up the blood and nutrients therein.

One good example of a Strangler is the Brazilian Devil Tree. It’s said to camouflage its branches in nearby foliage until its prey gets close enough to grab, then snaps out, wrapping quickly around the victim’s torso and throat, and tightens, boa-constrictor-style, until the victim is dead.  

Then there’s the account of a planter from Mississippi who visited the Filipino region of Mindanao cerca 1925. The man and his guide came upon a large, gray tree surrounded by bones and the smell of rotting meat. The Mississippian noticed a human skull among those bones, and started to approach it before his guide called out in warning. He then looked up to find the tree leaning toward him, gracefully, confidently, branches swaying like cobras on the approach. Mesmerized, the man stood completely still. One branch got as close as the his eyebrow–close enough that he could see the spines along its leaves and smell the stench of carrion that emanated from it–before his guide pulled him back out of reach. The tree grasped for them still, straining, as they turned heel and fled.

2. Vampires

Undead hotties and mosquitoes aren’t the only ones who can suck a little blood. Some say plants can thirst for it desperately, be it from a rat, dog, or human.

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The Yateveo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous vampire plants  is the Yate-veo of Central America (thanks to my bachelor’s degree, I can share that “ya te veo” means roughly “I can already see you.” Charming, right?). Like the Brazilian Devil tree, this monstrous plant hides its weapons–this time long needles lined with spikes–under leaves or even underground. Then when an animal (or human) walks by, the Yate-veo snaps up to impale them. The needles draw the victim’s blood up into the branches; presumably if he doesn’t get away quickly, he can be bled out where he stands.

Another account comes from naturalist Mr. Dunstan, who sought to gather plant specimens in Nicaragua some time ago (no word on the exact date…most of these stories take place in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, so let’s call it 1900 even). Dunstan was wading through a swamp with his dog and a team of helpers when he lost sight of the former and heard him start to whine and yelp. He turned back to find his poor canine trapped in a nest of black vines, all covered in a sticky, malodorous pus that seemed to ooze from the plant itself. Dunstan and his men tried to cut the dog away, but quickly found the vines wrapping around their own arms and hands, leaving blisters and burns wherever they went. Once the plant had latched on, it was nearly impossible to remove without also tearing off your skin.

The team did manage to get the dog out, but barely–the little guy could hardly walk, and was super disoriented. Dunstan, being a crazy plant person, went back later to try and study their attacker (locals informed him it was called the Devil’s Snare), but given the nature of the beast, it proved difficult to get very close. Here’s what he did find:

“The plant’s power of suction is contained within a number of infinitesimal mouths or little suckers, which, ordinarily closed, open for the reception of food. If the substance is animal, the blood is drawn off and the carcass or refuse then dropped. A lump of raw meat being thrown to it, in the short space of five minutes the blood will be thoroughly drunk off and the mass thrown aside. Its voracity is almost beyond belief.”

Needless to stay, Dunstan didn’t stick around much longer after that.

3. Druggers

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Generic scary tree image from Pixabay!

Our final group is possibly the most frightening one. These are the plants that lull their victims to sleep, stupor, or madness before devouring their unresisting bodies alive. The earliest tale of this type comes the 1500’s, when an explorer in the South Pacific reported a ginormous flower that exuded pheromones to make anyone who came around it very sleepy. Like idiots, its victims would purportedly lie down on the plant’s soft petals, whereupon the flower would close and digest them while they slept.

The other example of a Drugger plant is probably one of the most famous monster plant stories around. In 1874, German explorer Karl Liche reported a sort of giant Malagasy pineapple that people would supposedly sacrifice women to. The victims would be forced to drink its sap, which would both drug them and drive them insane. Here’s Liche’s description:

“The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.”

Of course, Liche’s account was called into question for being so shamelessly sensationalist. Most scholars now believe that the explorer didn’t even exist–that a journalist made both him and the (rather xenophobic) story up (though, in an interesting plot twist, there may be no evidence that journalist existed either). Still, people kept up the search for that killer pineapple for a few generations. Later expeditions revealed either everyone knowing about the plant but no one having seen it, or (later) no one having heard of the plant, but knowing instead about another carnivorous plant, this time one that exudes poisonous gas. So the world turns ‘round.

***

How much stock should we put in these stories? If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice the common thread of white explorers being freaked out by foreign flora and/or telling wild tales that exoticize their experiences abroad and make them look like heroes. Given that, it may very well be that many of these stories are just stories.

Then again, there have been accounts of man-eating plants from all over the world, independent of these explorers. This post has really only scratched the surface…there are many more out there, one as recently as 2007 (a case of a cow-eating tree in India). We know of existing plants that can eat things as big as rats.  Who’s to say there might not be something even worse?

Until next time…I’ve got to go feed my ferns.

 

At the Everett Children's Garden in the New York Botanical Garden.
Courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

 

Have you ever been roughed up by a tree root or passing rosebush? Does Mother Earth have a vendetta against you for all those desk plants you’ve killed over the years? Share your story in the comments below.

The Kongamato: Destroyer of Boats, Soiler of Underwear

You might remember our visit a few weeks ago to the billabongs of Australia, when we encountered everyone’s favorite dog/sheep/serpent/flippery thing.  Now we travel to the Jiundu backwaters of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo, where something else waits to burst from the murk–a prehistoric monster that should have went extinct, but never did. As it turns out, a lot of scary things can come from swamps.

Accounts of the Kongamato date back to 1745, though given that this “breaker of boats” is essentially a pterosaur and that the locals were already well acquainted with it then, it’s likely to have existed long before. What’s a pterosaur, you ask? A pterosaur is like a pigeon, if the pigeon had a seven foot wingspan, an elongated head, a snout, needle teeth, black eyes, and leathery red or black scales instead of feathers. Also, the pigeon would not only fly, but walk flat-footed or run on all fours, like the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal. The pigeon comparison doesn’t work for you? Fine. Imagine instead the pterosaur subspecies that Jurassic Park has made so popular–the pterodactyl. That is what is living in the Bangweulu swamps. That is what the fisherman there have feared for centuries.

Ivan T. Sanderson, an accomplished biologist and cryptozoologist from the early 20th century, became famous for bringing his account of this hellish reptile back to the Western world. As was usual for kongamato sightings, he encountered the creature at night. Sanderson had just shot a fruit bat, which had then fallen into the water. He was reaching for it when his companion warned him to duck.

“Then I let out a shout also and instantly bobbed down under the water, because coming straight at me only a few feet above the water was a black thing the size of an eagle. I had only a glimpse of its face, yet that was quite sufficient, for its lower jaw hung open and bore a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from each other. When I emerged, it was gone. … And just before it became too dark to see, it came again, hurtling back down the river, its teeth chattering, the air “shss-shssing” as it was cleft by the great, black, dracula-like wings.”

As mentioned, the sighting was not unexpected for the local Kaonde, nor for any number of other tribes near the swamp. Many viewed the Kongamato simply as a danger to be avoided–in the same category as a lion or a rogue elephant, if more rare and more frightening. Though white cryptozoologists were never able to locate bones or other such proof of the creature’s existence, numerous, consistent eyewitness accounts and grevious wounds spoke to something out in the reeds. The kongamato was said to upset boats, attack children, dig up corpses to feed on. It was a fact of life, if an unhappy one.

But for Western tourists, the kongamato was a fascinating treat. Sanderson was far from only one to report back on them; Frank Welland emerged in 1932 to also affirm their existence, emphasizing the compatible accounts from the local people:

“The evidence for the pterodactyl is that the natives can describe it so accurately, unprompted, and that they all agree about it. There is negative support also in the fact that they said they could not identify any other of the prehistoric monsters which I showed them.”

Sightings continued through the 1950’s, with one engineer’s report making it into the newspaper after he saw two “prehistoric” dark birds glide overhead when he went to get his canteen out of his trunk. A year later, another man would be hospitalized nearby with wounds to his chest. When asked to sketch the creature that attacked him, he drew what looked like a pterosaur. Even as late as 1998, Steve Romandi-Menya, a Kenyan exchange student visiting Louisiana, affirmed that the kongamato still haunted the bush-dwellers remaining at home.

Is there something else these could be? Sanderson referred to his kongamato offhandedly as “the Granddaddy of all bats.” Considering that the largest known bat is otherwise the Philippines’ Giant Gold-Crowned Flying Fox–whose maximum wingspan is 5 feet 7 inches–the suggestion that the kongamato is actually a heretofore uncategorized species of them is not implausible, though hardly less horrifying. Another theory is that the kongamato could be a giant stingray which, when disturbed, overturns boats and flaps a bit out of the water, though that does not account for sightings of the kongamato high up in the air or running before taking off, and is not entirely reassuring, either. The simple answer is often the best one; perhaps legends are real. It was just off the coast of Africa that fishermen caught the coelacanth, a marine contemporary of the pterodactyl. Who’s to say the pterosaurs couldn’t have survived mass extinction, too?

In 2010, the Creationist group Genesis Park traveled to the swamps to look for evidence of the kongamato themselves. They interviewed local fisherman and held night-long vigils, but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps it is time we took up the torch. After all, the swamp’s other claim to fame is that they are a popular site for bird-watching. Perhaps we will spot a lovely sparrow in addition to our flesh-eating friend.

Would you come on an ornithological trip to search for a prehistoric hell beast? What three items would you bring, besides a pair of binoculars and your trusty khaki shorts? Share your answers in the comments below.