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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Slim Fast: The Pishtaco

Last month’s post on el Sombrerón reminded a couple of my friends of a monster their old high school Spanish teacher told them about. They’d forgotten what the creature was called, but  remembered its legacy well enough for it to still disturb them some ten years later. A quick Google search yielded a goldmine of stories about this monster: the Pishtaco, a  400-year-old Peruvian terror who actually resurfaced in the news back in 2009. In him, we have a magnificent example of how monsters can dramatize the very real nightmares of a community.

Let’s roll back to the legend’s birth. In 1571 Spanish priest Cristóbal de Molina noted a specific revulsion among the Inca: they absolutely refused to bring firewood into the homes the conquistadors; not out of spite, but out of fear. It seemed that word had gotten around that during a battle some fifty years earlier, the Spanish, lacking proper dressing for their wounds, had taken Incan corpses, cut strips of flesh from their backs, and used the some human fat instead.

Now, the Inca knew that their people’s grease must be valuable–certainly it was of a better quality than that of the foreigners, as the Inca grew up with a hardier, healthier lifestyle. Fat was important in their culture; they had a whole deity devoted to it. The Spanish were already exploiting them in almost every other way–why not use that quality fat, as well? The Inca were sure that Spanish were willing to kill them for it to use in their cryptic European medicines.

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A small yet horrifying depiction of Pishtacos in action, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculous? Perhaps not. Funny thing: Europeans really did use human ingredients in their quests for self-improvement, and often. Sure, they often got said ingredients from condemned criminals, but did they treat the indigenous Americans any better? Fat especially was considered a remedy for arthritis and gout, and could be used to speed the healing process. Regardless of whether the Spaniards intended to take it from the Inca or not, Incan fears were not entirely unfounded. Thus the soul of the Pishtaco was born.

This fat-sucking devil appears rather human, and rather European–often he’s even described as having blonde hair. Typically handsome and sporting an impressive beard, the Pishtaco changes his clothing to stay more or less modern with the times. He carries a knife; his eyes flash in the dark. There are stories of him raising a hand to his intended victim, only for the victim to realize that the Pishtaco’s fingers are writhing like worms. As the fingers drop to the the ground, the victim then freezes with terror, giving the creature his opening to attack. This is one of many examples that illustrate how adept the creature is at hypnosis; he doesn’t seem to need more than a command or a look to secure his victim’s fate.

The Pishtaco has been categorized by some as a vampire, albeit an odd one. Though it’s true that in some versions of the legends he eats what fat he extracts, more often he seeks to profit from it, usually by selling it to other foreigners. This role is one of the most fascinating aspects about the creature: he’s an outsider, an invasive species. What exactly the Europeans have been suspected to do with the fat he sells them has changed over the years…first it was incorporated into medicine, then friars were suspected of using it to oil their church bells to make them more sonorous, now it could be used in plane engines or beauty products.

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Human fat, courtesy of Bullenwachter over at Wikimedia Commons. You’re welcome.

So how does he extract the fat from his victims? In the more supernatural versions of the tale, the Pishtaco sucks the fat out through his victim’s skin or inserts a tube to tap them like a woodsman taps sap from a tree. Said to be priapic and rather violent, he occasionally rapes them while he’s at it. Sometimes the victim even survives the procedure, finding a strange gaps in their memory and feeling suddenly lightheaded and weak. In the more literal (and recent) accounts, the Pishtaco is less forgiving. He dismembers the victim entirely, then strings their body parts up to hand over an open flame, bottles lined under to collect their dripping fat.

It was a few of these grease-filled bottles that caused such a stir in 2009. The Peruvian police reported that they’d apprehended a group of men who had been trafficking human lard since the 1980’s. There was video footage of the trafficker’s lab, complete with stacks of  bones and a half-rotted man’s head. One of the men confessed to selling the bottles of fat–which tested positive as human–to the Italian Mafiosi for $15,000 a pop. The police said that this grease was to be used in European skin softener. The legendary Pishtaco had suddenly come terribly to life.

Fortunately, this particular incident turned out to be a hoax: there wasn’t really any fat sold to the Europeans (or at least, no one could find anyone who might have been buying it), and the numbers and locations of alleged victims and perpetrators didn’t add up. Unfortunately, the police were the ones perpetrating the hoax, and had done so to cover up a secret governmental death squad that killed 46 people over the span of two years. This was a horror of its own, and did little to quell Peruvians’ fears. People continued (and still continue) to see Pishtacos everywhere. They are the businessman with his briefcase; the fellow with headphones giving you the side-eye. Some say the Pishtacos are planning an onslaught; some even claim they plan to harvest hundreds of Peruvians to pay off the national debt.

Though there hasn’t been any big news since the police scare, I doubt that the Pishtaco’s story is over. Even if human fat trafficking is a stretch, organ trafficking isn’t. What’s more, the perpetrators in 2009  never themselves claimed to be selling things to cosmetic companies–they were more in the line of Satanic candles, which is a little easier to imagine, so there might have be some truth in that tale. Between all this and the terrible historical context of the Andes, it’s no wonder people are jumpy.

Sometimes, the things that go bump in the night come uncomfortably close to reality.

 

Have you seen (or heard) any Pishtaco-type tales? Did you pronounce the word “fish taco” or “pistachio” in your head, and then giggle uncontrollably? Share your story in the comments below.

Blobs in the Deep: The North Carolina Sewage Monster

Warning: My beta reader has referred to the monster of this post as “okay, like, legit disgusting.” If you are eating or are easily disturbed, you might want to sit this one out.

On April 27, 2009, the town of Raleigh, North Carolina contracted South Carolina-based Malphrus Construction to pilot a robotic surveillance camera into the sewers under Cameron Village. They were, they claimed, looking to take a survey of the sixty-year-old system, which had been struggling with infrastructure issues. Later it came out that the company might actually have been looking for a discarded weapon, but once the camera got down below the surface and shined its light into the black, filthy pipes, everyone forgot about that in a hurry.

Imagine, if you will, inching through those conduits: shadows at your back, shadows just beyond the reach of your light. The pipe is small enough that your eyes are nearly at its ceiling, which is speckled with the type of debris one might expect to find in a sewage conduit. Brown water flows steadily over your feet, only to disappear into the darkness ahead. You come across a seam in the pipe that is not as flush as it should be, and cannot fail to notice that there is something bulging out of it, just above the stream of the water.

It is pink and black, bulbous, with tendrils like blood-poisoned veins stretching out to cling to the wall.  Sinewy and visibly slimy, at the touch of your light it shudders and retreats back into the crack, but only a little. It ticks, retracting, and shudders again. Horrified, you try to move forward, only to find two more straight ahead, facing each other across the sides of the tunnel. They sit quietly until you approach, and when you do, retract and retreat again, fighting their own weight, away from the shine of the light.

Think I’m embellishing? Take a look at the video.

When the footage hit the web, many doubted its authenticity. How could such a horror be real? Assuming that it couldn’t, everyone slept a little better. Then Marti Gibson, the Environmental Coordinator for Raleigh Public Utilities, confirmed that it was.  She wrote in addition to i09 and urged people not to worry; the creatures were nothing but slime molds–repugnant, but not worth a panic.

Then, a few hours later, Gibson abruptly retracted that, calling the blobs a collection of worms and stating that regardless, the city of Raleigh was not responsible for the things discovered by a private contractor.

Now it was early July. In the span of four days, the video of what lurked under Cameron Village had been viewed 4.7 million times. Exasperated commenters assured their less well-informed peers that the blobs were just worms–tubifex worms, in fact, the type that people use to feed their fish. Ed Buchan, with the comforting heft of an environmental coordinator position at the Public Utilities Department, assured folks that the tubifex theory made sense. Tubifex worms feed of off debris and are known to cluster in groups about a half inch to an inch in diameter, he said, and conjectured that they’d moved in response to the heat of the light. These worms, he stated, were not dangerous to the water system–were completely harmless. No need to panic.

Biology professor Thomas Kwak at North Carolina State University disagreed. They could not be worms, he said, giving voice to investigators skeptical that Tubifex worms could appear as uniform as the creatures in the pipes did, or move and pulse as one like the blobs had, or never show up individually in the video on or around the mass itself. More likely they were bryozoans, creatures that feed off bacteria, thrive in the dark, and are commonly found both in sea and freshwater environments. But these, he assured everyone, were also harmless. Though they could grow to be the size of a watermelon, they need not be removed from the tube.

Doctor Timothy Wood, bryozoan expert of Wright State University, threw the ball back yet again:

“No, these are not bryozoans! They are clumps of annelid worms, almost certainly tubificids (Naididae, probably genus Tubifex) […] The contractions you see are the result of a single worm contracting and then stimulating all the others to do the same almost simultaneously, so it looks like a single big muscle contracting.”

So the creatures were not bryozoans. And so, the intrepid observer might ask, if they were not those, but also might not have been tubifex worms, what could they be?

An excellent question, and one that seems to have been hastily avoided. Many considered the case closed with the final tubifex argument, but the issue of the blobs appearing to be uniform–without any spare worms around–was never addressed. Nobody went in to take a sample to settle the matter. Nobody pointed out other, less tidy options–the ones you and I might be thinking of now.

Everyone did agree, however, that they wouldn’t take responsibility, and that we really shouldn’t trouble ourselves to go back and bother the creatures again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Would you?