Epistolary horror: Ghosts of Ancient Rome

History! It’s important that we know it, and that we learn from it. One of the reasons that I’m so into ghosts is how they represent history encroaching upon the present: literally, they can’t be ignored. This month has been full of historical events, great and terrible. So let’s talk about some historical ghosts: specifically, some ghosts from ancient Rome.

Very superstitious 

An important source of our knowledge about day-to-day life in the heyday of the Roman Empire comes from a fellow named Pliny the Younger (the Elder, apparently, didn’t make it out of Vesuvius). Pliny was a Roman author and administrator fond of literature, villas, and exchanging correspondence with prominent people. This correspondence–carefully crafted and edited and then published by Pliny himself–included accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius (sorry, Pliny the Elder), one of the earliest written mentions of Christians, and what we’re all here and excited for: ghosts. 

Roman colosseum at night
AMBIENCE

Book 7, Letter 27 of Pliny’s letters addresses one Sura, an influential Roman senator.  It contains not one, not two, but three accounts of the supernatural, varied in their intensity and weirdness. While there are some accounts of ancient Roman ghosts (or disproven ghosts) in other correspondence and plays, this seems to be one of the most famous, and the most fun to look into. 

Some context before we get started: in addition to being great at things like aqueducts and roads and public bathroom-building, the Ancient Romans were pretty superstitious. Like discriminate-against-left-handed-people and put-penis-necklaces-on-children superstitious. Their concept of ghosts was pretty similar to our modern Western one, but had some specific assumptions attached to them: 1) That hauntings were caused by improper burial, and 2) that ghosts, however ghostly, could not be seen in the dark of night: you had to shine a light on them for their horror to be revealed. 

Even given all their superstition, belief in ghosts doesn’t seem to have been a certain thing (or at least, no more certain than it is now, with 45% of Americans believing in presences from beyond the grave). Pliny’s letter starts with a request that Sura help him ascertain whether ghosts really exist based on the subsequent stories. 

“The present recess from business affords you leisure to give, and me to receive, instruction. I am extremely desirous therefore to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?”

Considering that all of the stories rather seem to support the existence of ghosts, we can guess that Pliny has already decided.

Story 1: Pretty Little Truths 

The first story goes something like this: a little-known, low-station nobody named Curtius Rufus joins the entourage of a newly made governor to Africa, only to come nose-to-nose with a startling vision:

“One afternoon as he was walking in the public portico he was extremely daunted with the figure of a woman which appeared to him, of a size and beauty more than human. She told him she was the tutelar Genius that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life: that he should go back to Rome, where he should hold office, and return to that province invested with the proconsular dignity, and there should die.”

Funny thing: all of those predictions came true. Not in the least (and maybe especially because) after Curtius did achieve all that success, he couldn’t help but believe in the last part of the prophecy, too. And so when he arrived in Africa and saw the visage of the ghost again when stepping off his ship, he freaked out. He fell a ill, and though everyone thought he would recover, he so believed in the power of the prophecy that he gave up fighting and died. 

Curtius was a real dude. He really reported this vision (noted by Tacitus in Annals 11), and really died in Africa after climbing up from nothing to achieve his position in Africa. So, as Pliny hints, there is something to the story. 

And then there is the next one. 

Story 2: The Classic Too-Good-to-be-True Real Estate Deal

This tale will feel a lot more familiar (indeed, one scholar notes that it is so familiar as to fit into one of the Aarne-Thompson index, a compendium that classifies tales from around the world into over 2,000 basic types. For your reference, this is type 326A.). It goes like this:

A house in Athens is super dope–nice and spacious, a great deal. The only problem is that anyone who moves into it is promptly driven mad by fear and dies. Every night, the living lie in dread as rattling chains echo through the halls. The sound draws ever closer, inch by inch, until finally an old man appears before them, squalid, shaking his manacled feet and hands. As Pliny puts it:

“The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone.”

So, predictably, no one wants to rent the house. Just as predictably, the property owner lowers the price, with the hope that some poor, out-of-the-loop sap would come in and take it off his hands.

Enter Athenodorus the philosopher (which philosopher it is not entirely clear, but as in the previous story, it might have been a real person). Athenodorus is not a sap; he knows right away when he sees the ridonkulously low price of the house that something is up. But when he is told that something is a haunting, instead of running, he is excited. Finally, something interesting to put his philosopher’s mind to–whether or not ghosts exist! So he rents the house and settles into his office for the night, applying himself to a bit of writing so as to pass the time.

athenodorus and the ghost
Seriously, brah?

In the dead of night, the faint clanking of manacles begins. Athenodorus ignores them. They come closer. Athenodorus continues to ignore them. At last, they sound behind him in his chamber. Athenodorus turns around and sees the old man standing there, exactly as he has been described, beckoning to him.

Athenodorus holds up his hand and tells the ghost to hold on a sec, and continues writing.

The clattering of chains rings in his ears; the ghost is right next to them now, shaking the manacles over his head. Finally, Athenodorus stands up, and follows the ghost in a painful shuffle out to the courtyard, where it vanishes. 

The next morning, Athenodorus has the spot dug up, and finds bones entangled with rusted fetters. He has them properly buried, and then poof! Haunting solved.

It’s funny that even 2000 years ago, solutions to hauntings were as obvious as any cliched horror movie. Humans really feel strongly about properly burying their dead. 

Story 3: DIY Haircuts

The last story is, in my opinion, the weirdest one. It’s also the one that hits Pliny closest to home, happening literally in his own house. 

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Poor bastard.

One of his servants is sleeping in bed one night with his brother, when he wakes to see a figure sitting there with them. The figure picks up a lock of hair from his brother’s head, shears it off, and scatters the hair all over the floor. In the cold light of morning, it’s revealed that the brother has indeed received a terrible haircut, and there really is hair everywhere. 

It happens again to one of Pliny’s slaves. This time, the boy himself watches figures in white come through the window, take his hair, and cut it off. Again they scatter the hair, and then leave the way they came. 

Pliny interprets the event in hindsight:

“Nothing remarkable followed, unless it were that I escaped prosecution; prosecuted I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these things happened) had lived longer. For an information lodged by Carus against me was found in his scrutore. Hence it may be conjectured, since it is customary for accused persons to let their hair grow, that this cutting of my servants’ hair was a sign I should defeat the peril that hung over me.”

As the scholar that I’ve been linking to this entire article points out, this story comes across as a little flimsy compared to the other two. Their argument is that this hair stuff is all just a set up for the real point of the letter, which Pliny so carefully slips in: that Pliny had an informant tell on him against one of the senate’s most hated emperors. In other words, Pliny wants Sura (and everybody) to know that even though he seemed to do just fine during Domitian’s reign, he was one of the cool kids that was prosecuted, too. 

So the whole hair thing could be totally made up–just a cheap framing device to sneak in that little tidbit. Or it could be just a prank the servants were playing on one another.

Or…it could be real. The afterlife could just be that alien. Ghosts could just be doing creepy things for unknowable reasons. In a way, the very weirdness of these kinds of ghostly encounters–that specificity–is perhaps the greatest argument for their truth. 

I’ll close things off as Pliny does:

“I beg, then, you will apply learning to this question. It merits your prolonged and profound consideration; and I am not myself an unworthy recipient of your abounding knowledge. And though you should, after your manner, argue on both sides; yet I hope you will throw your weightiest reasons into one scale, lest you should dismiss me in suspense and uncertainty, whereas I consult you on purpose to determine my doubts. 

Farewell.”

Who would you rather you rather cut your hair yourself or have a ghost cut it for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: Nilesh Rathod for the colosseum that has nothing to do with anything; Henry Justice Ford for the nice print; Vive la Rosière for sacrificing your own hair for the sake of Wikimedia images.

Hit the panic button: 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.

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.