Part of your world: terror in the depths of Lake Baikal

I’ve always loved marine biology. Aquatic creatures and plants are so distinct from what we experience normally that they often border on the fantastic. Deep water life is a special treat: it remains a poorly-known frontier, and so excites wonderful, terrible possibilities. We humans have felt the weight of those possibilities for some time, which is why I think there are so many monster stories that come from the water. This month, let’s visit a few in a Siberia.

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Lake Baikal, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

To call Lake Baikal a mere “lake” might be doing it a disservice. Formed by the slowly yawning gap between two tectonic plates, it is the largest, deepest, and most ancient freshwater body on Earth. To be specific, Lake Baikal has more water than all of the U.S. Great Lakes combined, and reaches a depth of 1,642 meters (or, for us Americans, a little over a mile). At 25 million years old, it has been around more than 4 times longer than the human race.

That’s not the only way Baikal is impressive. The lake is also considered one of the world’s clearest–one source says that you can see as far into it as 130 feet. Surrounded by Siberian mountains, it is teeming with rich biodiversity: over 80% of the life in and around Baikal is made up of creatures that can be found nowhere else on earth.  In short, the lake is an extraordinary place. It’s no wonder people have attributed magic to it.

Let’s start with the happier stuff. If you take a dip in Baikal’s waters, rumor has it that you’ll live a longer, healthier life–provided you don’t suffer hypothermia (in the winter, the ice can get to be over 6 feet thick). The lake is also associated with a couple of historical celebrities: Genghis Kahn was born on one of its islands, and Jesus himself supposedly once visited, as well. Looking out over the waters, he raised his hand, and proclaimed with satisfaction that “beyond this, there is nothing.” (This was said to account for the problems 19th-century Duaria (the land beyond the lake) had with growing corn.)

Frozen Lake Baikal
A frozen Lake Baikal, © Sergey Pesterev via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond that, Lake Baikal has proved to be a bit of a deathtrap. Earthquakes strike every few years. You can walk over the lake when it freezes, but woe to the man who goes unprepared. In 1920, the retreating White Russian Army attempted the cross, only to find themselves buffeted by freezing winds over the open expanse of ice. Many died of frostbite and hypothermia. Their corpses had to be left behind, frozen to the surface until they sunk with the spring thaw.

Locals living around the lake have reported ghosts boats that appear and disappear without warning, as well as boats (and crew) of their own that disappear. As recently as 2011, 4 experienced men piloting the Yamaha vanished near an area of the lake known as the Devil’s Crater. There, whirlpools are said to suck ships down like toys in a bathtub train. At the bottom of the pools, some whisper, lies Hell.

But out of all the delights that Lake Baikal has to offer, my favorites are the extraterrestrial ones. According to UFO enthusiasts, those deep waters are not going unused.

I’m not well-versed in UFO lore, and so was surprised to learn that it’s common to see crafts around–or in–bodies of water (though “in” would make them Unidentified Submerged or Unidentified Underwater Objects). Lake Baikal is no exception: not only mysterious in its own right, it is one of the biggest UFO hotspots in Russia. The surrounding villages have witnessed hovering lights in various colors and formations, as well as silent discs that have floated low in the sky for so long people threw rocks at them from sheer boredom.

On more than one occasion, these UFOs have dove into the lake to escape human pursuit. For a long time, Baikal was too deep and dangerous for anyone to go after them, or indeed to explore very deep under the surface at all. Thanks to modern technology, that is no longer the not the case.

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Some say that the many tight, poorly explored caves under Lake Baikal might be a good extraterrestrial hiding place.

The first reported underwater anomaly came in 1977. A pair of scientists took a submersible some 3900 feet below the surface and turned off their lights to study how far sunlight could penetrate. After a few seconds of darkness, they were blinded by two spotlights shining at them above and at their side. Before the men could figure out where they had come from, the lights went out, leaving them alone in the dark once more.

The second incident happened in 1982, this time with military divers using Lake Baikal as a training ground. In the middle of their drill, a few strange underwater vehicles zipped past them, going much faster than anything the Soviet navy was capable of at the time. The ships were gone long before the soldiers could follow.

Then there was the third–and probably most famous–incident. Just a few days after seeing the strange vehicles, the same navy divers swam right into a group of 3 other, unexpected divers. These were almost 10 feet tall, decked out in silver suits and helmets, but with no other signs of scuba gear.

The men were ordered to capture the swimmers (referred to by the commander as Ihtiander, a shark-boy from modern Russian mythology) . The soldiers tried, but the silver suits evaded them. Each human found himself blasted to the surface of the late, riddled with decompression sickness. 4 of them managed to get in a decompression chamber in time to save themselves. The other 3 died shortly thereafter.

All this came out a few years ago, when (allegedly) military documents describing the event were declassified. The Russian government, of course, claims that nothing of the sort ever happened.

Lake Baikal circles in ice
One of the circles in question. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons and the ISS Crew Earth Observations Experiment

Regardless, interest in the lake and its possible extraterrestrial inhabits persists. In 2009, strange circles in Lake Baikal’s ice led to arguments over what might have created them: global warming or underwater spacecrafts. There’s a lot of stuff to explore, and a lot of people passionate about it. Ex-navy officer and UFO researcher Vladimir Azhazha says it best:

“I think about underwater bases and say: Why not? Nothing should be discarded, skepticism is the easiest way: believe nothing, do nothing. People rarely visit great depths. So it’s very important to analyze what they encountered there.”

 

What horrors have you found at the bottom of the pool? Share your story in the comments below.

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Pour one out for Mr. Brawny: the Hidebehind

Let’s talk about lumberjacks. Even with the advent of modern technology, logging is one of the most dangerous professions out there. In 2008, the rate of on-the-job deaths was at about 108 per 100,000 workers, 30 times higher than any other industry overall. The risks are plenty: you’re exposed to the elements, working with sharp things that can slice you and heavy things that can crush you, often far from help. But nowadays things are much easier than they used to be. Less than a 100 years ago, the difficulty of the  industry required not only that you adopt a profession, but a way of life.

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The casual lumberjack, cerca 1900. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Traditional lumberjacks were the epitome of manliness. They brought down massive trees using only saws, axes, and their own muscle, enduring cold and hardship that would send the rest of us running away screaming. Paid little, lumberjacks lived in primitive conditions. They rarely washed their clothes, and generally did every stereotypical thing that manly men are supposed to do: roughhouse, try to out-eat each other, tell tall tails, etc. Their heroes were people like Jigger Johnson, a man who kicked knots of frozen trees with his bare feet, drank so much he hallucinated, and bit off a man’s ear when he was 12 years old.

In short, lumberjacks were a stalwart bunch. They lived with danger every day, and so were fearless (and fearsome) men.

So what scared the lumberjacks?

The Hidebehind is a monster born from a simple but universal concept. You know how sometimes you’re walking alone and then you worry you’re not actually alone? When.you feel like something’s watching you, but when you whip around to check, nothing seems to be there?

The lumberjacks felt that in the woods. They were capable men who knew the forests well, and so when the trees stood more still and more quiet than usual, they would, too. At a whisper of underbrush any man would whip around, breath in his throat, hands tight on his axe, but he was always unable to locate his pursuer. Occasionally someone would go missing. These men were normally never seen again. If they were, it was when someone stumbled upon their bodies some time later, mouths wide, intestines strewn across the forest floor.

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A Hidebehind illustration so innocuous as to almost be adorable, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Hidebehind” is a simple name to describe a primordial fear: a man-hunter that cannot be seen until it’s too late; a clever, quick monster that tucks itself behind trees, rocks, or whatever else is available as it closes the distance between itself and its prey. Word had it that the creature could make itself thin enough to hide behind trees only 10 inches across. Its appearance (which must have been either conjecture or a tale passed down from a rare survivor) was said to be something like a bear on hind legs, 6 feet tall, covered in black fur, with heavy claws and no discernible face.

The Hidebehind dined chiefly on human intestine, and was picky about the quality of what it ate. After scaring its victim half to death by stalking him through the forest, it would fall on him with a “demoniacal laugh,” either dragging him off to its lair or clawing open his torso then and there to get at the goodies within. One story had it that it would then run the intestines under its nose to smell them before it ate. If it detected any trace of alcohol inside, it would throws the viscera back in the victim’s face and bound away with a laugh.

The details about the exact intensity of the Hidebehind’s aversion to alcohol are a bit hazy. Some stories had it that no matter how much you drank, the Hidebehind would slice you open to get a sniff (as described above). Others said that as little as one beer (a bottle of Uno, according to the source) would keep a man safe “even in thickly infested country.” It seems that many lumberjacks shrugged and drank like fishes just in case. The monster’s odd Achilles’ heel makes you wonder if the whole thing wasn’t invented just to pressure younger lumberjacks to drink.

Regardless, tales of the Hidebehind had an impact. One story tells of a lumberjack travelling alone through the winter woods. The man became nervous when a branch cracked behind him and he could find no natural explanation for the sound. Then he came across the remains of a fellow lumberjack, intestines staining the snow. Instead of being more frightened–or horrified–the man relaxed with relief. He’d heard that the Hidebehind could go for 7 years without eating, and since it had just dined on someone else, he himself was probably safe.

How powerless were these manly men that they only thing they could do in the face of the Hidebehind’s horror was to be grateful that its latest victim wasn’t them?

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Spot the Hidebehind!

The traditional lumberjack has faded into history, but the Hidebehind has yet to go out of style. Versions of the monster have appeared in a number of different mediums, including books, games, television, and, most recently, on the Harry Potter themed news site Pottermore. Plaid flannel shirts may come and go, but much like a little black dress or darkwash jeans, the Hidebehind is truly timeless.

 

What is the smallest diameter tree you can hide behind? Hawk your skills in the comments below.

Courtesy flush: the haunting of the Hotel Galvez

I’m going to be straight with you: this post started with me Googling “bathroom ghost.” I was looking for a monster of a different sort–I enjoyed our Toys-R-Us(™) spirit a while back, and was hoping I could find something similar. Though it’s a little more posh, I came up with the Hotel Galvez.

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Modern-day Galvez seating area, captured by Patrick Feller.

Close up on Galveston, Texas: I’m not on the up-and-up of big vacation hotspots and so didn’t recognize the name, but some of you might. It’s an island in the Gulf Coast, set up to provide the perfect getaway: beautiful beaches, pools, an amusement park, and, of course, luxury hotels. The Hotel Galvez is a king among these, nicknamed the “Playground of the Southwest.” It has been frequented by people like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart. It’s a beautiful, massive building replicated to look just as it did when it first opened in 1911.

At the time, it was heralded as a symbol of renewal. 11 years before, the deadliest storm in U.S. history swept through Galveston and killed somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Word had it that the inhabitants of an orphanage were among the dead–in one case, the remains of a nun were found still tied to those of the children she was trying to lead to safety. There were so many bodies among the wreckage that the remaining Galveston residents decided to bury them en masse at sea. That didn’t work so well: the next time the tide came in, bloated, rotting corpses came in with it. These were hastily burned, and the island resumed its struggle to rise from the sodden ashes.

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The Hotel Galvez in all its glory, brought to you by Galveston.com.

The Galvez helped rebuild Galveston, bringing in tourists and money. It also brought lovers. In the late 1950’s, a woman named Audra stayed there to wait for her fiance, a sailor due to come in from Gulf for their wedding. Naturally (as I’m reporting her story on Monster Meet), Audra’s love was doomed. Her fiance’s ship went down in another terrible storm; Audra was told no one made it out alive. She hung herself upon learning the news–either in the bathroom of her room (501 or maybe 505, depending on who you ask), or in a turret elsewhere in the hotel. Because life is cruel, Audra’s fiance showed up shortly thereafter, in perfect health and anxious to see her.

For those of you keeping track, we now have 8,000+ violently dead, including nuns, orphans, and a heartbroken bride snuffed out at her prime–three types of ghosts so common as to be almost stereotypical. The stage is set: now let’s turn off the lights and watch what happens.

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Galvez dining area cerca 1911, courtesy of the DeGloyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Unless they are in the habit of Googling “is this hotel haunted” as part of their vacation planning, guests at the Galvez may at first have no idea that anything is amiss. Then they might notice a painting in the hall whose eyes seem to follow them, or pass two strange women in 19th-century outfits who vanish before you can look at them twice. The ladies bathrooms can also hold a surprise: on the most casual end of encounters, toilets flush repeatedly over the disembodied sound of children laughing.* On the more intense end, sobs fill the empty bathroom and the stalls rattle violently, making it very difficult for the living to poop in peace.

Guests’ rooms offer even more fun, especially if they’re on the 5th floor. Orbs of light float through walls, footsteps echo down the empty hall, and every once in awhile, someone will wake up to find a woman in white standing at the foot of their bed.  As you can imagine, if you’re not expecting this type of thing to happen and then it does, you might leave some nasty Yelp reviews. One woman on TripAdvisor rated the Galvez 2 stars because something repeatedly blasted her phone’s dial tone as soon as she turned off the lights (her rather sour review is titled “They didn’t tell us it was haunted”). Commenters elsewhere have reported flashing lights; invisible things climbing into their beds; and even something biting them, leaving marks that wouldn’t go away. In many cases, when guests report these mishaps to the staff, the staff just shrug. “That’s how it goes. It’s haunted here.”

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With all the breaking glasses and candles that won’t say lit, bartending at the Galvez must be a pain. (Photo cred to Patrick Feller)

They’ve got good reason to be jaded. If the guests are put upon, the staff are twice so.  One woman’s dusting was interrupted by the erratically flushing toilets and invisible laughing children; she ended up having to yell “I’m in here” to get them to stop. Another came in early for her shift in reception and received a call from one of the rooms that was not only vacant, but also in the middle of being renovated and had no phone in it at all (no one spoke on the other end of the line, and when the poor woman hung up, she realized her phone wasn’t even turned on, either). There have been glasses that fly off of tables and break themselves, candles that blow out on their own, and the presence of a strange man in the corner of the laundry room.

Then there’s dealing with the ghost hunters. The Galvez attracts plenty. Some come in low-key with EMF detector apps on their phone (yeah…I don’t know about that one, either) to see what they can find. One woman said that she communicated with Audra using the app: she asked Audra about herself, and Audra’s response was “Bathroom. Ow.” Other hunters come in with more advanced equipment, with more dramatic results. The Galveston ghost hunters went to stay on the 5th floor while it was being renovated, and witnessed all of the room doors slam against their safety catches for a few minutes. They also captured the image of what appears to be a nun.

Fortunately for everyone, the ghosts of the hotel Galvez don’t appear to have any darker plans than to be mildly irritating. So far. Business at the hotel seems to be doing well, whether in spite of or because of the ghosts. Between wedding pictures and shots of a brilliant blue pool, the Galvez Facebook page showcases a photo of a cocktail named “Ghost Bride,” so they don’t seem to be afraid of cashing in on their unorthodox reputation. Whether you’re looking to tan on the sundeck or poop your pants in long, empty hall of the 5th floor, the Galvez seems like the place to be.

Have you ever heard someone flushing the toilet while laughing maniacally? Have you been that person? Share your story in the comments below.

*Proof that bathroom humor never dies.

LINKS TO PHOTOS:

Patrick Feller, via Flickr

Galveston.com, via Flickr

Southern Methodist University, via Flickr

Hold on to the Handrail: Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Let’s face it: monsters can be pretty complex. A lot of them tend to shapeshift and do contradictory things. They kill us in all sorts of troubling ways, and remind us about aspects of ourselves that we’d rather leave buried. This year alone, we’ve covered monsters whose mouths open sideways, monsters that can electrocute you, force you to carry around a human leg, and that incite otherwise sane, normal people to kill each other. It’s spring now. It’s been a whirlwind few months. Let’s take it easy and get back to the essentials: a straight-up, crap-your-pants boogeyman.

RawHead (or, somewhat confusingly, “RawHead and Bloody Bones”) is about as basic of a monster as you can get. And I’m not talking pumpkin-spice-latte basic. I’m talking horror so distilled that its legacy has stuck around for at least 450 years.

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A different point of view.

Imagine you’re a child again (or, if you are still a child, hello! We would have been best friends growing up.). As a child, you usually have an adult around, but not always. Sometimes you have to do things by yourself. This can be exciting, but there are some things you wish you didn’t have to be alone for, even if that makes you a baby. Things like crossing by a silent, black stretch of water. Things like going up or down a dark set of stairs.

Now imagine you are in England in the 1500’s (or, if you’d rather not, don’t…the story will end the same). You are descending the stairs. You know there is a space beneath them, like many staircases. You hate the way the boards creak over that space. You wish there was a light down there, just to scare away, you know. Mice.

You know you should go quickly–just run and get it over with–but as you reach the middle of the stairs, you cannot escape the thought that there is something down there, waiting under your feet. It would be easy to look at check…there are gaps between each stair. You could do it right now. You do do it right now.

It’s dark, but something glistens in what little light makes it through the gaps. It is a slick dome, a wet mess of red and white with eyes that turn up to look at you. It is a man whose head has been peeled of skin. He sits curled up on a pile of human bones. Child-sized bones.

The man smiles, and then reaches up to grab you.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Steals naughty children from their homes,

Takes them to his dirty den,

And they are never seen again.

pile of bones
Topical photo!

Or so the rhyme went. Parents and nurses warned kids about Rawhead and Bloodybones from a young age. If you swore, he’d get you. If you misbehaved, he’d get you. If you went too close to a pond, or to a dark cupboard, he’d get you. He was the monster du jour (or rather, du siècle) to frighten kids into doing what their caretakers asked.

I imagine that those threats worked, but many worried that the medicine was worse than the disease. John Locke himself implored caretakers not to invoke Rawhead’s name, saying:

“Such bugbear thoughts, once got into the tender minds of children, and being set on with a strong impression from the dread that accompanies such apprehensions, sink deep, and fasten themselves so, as not easily, if ever, to be got out again; and whilst they are there, frequently haunt them with strange visions, making children dastards when alone, and afraid of their shadows and darkness all their lives after.”

In other words, “please don’t scar the children.”

Skinless dude
Rawhead says “go to your room.”

Obviously, parents didn’t heed his plea. Rawhead not only endured, but came to the United States along with British immigrants. Our melting pot made him even stranger. He took root in the south, not as something that lurks under the stairs, but as a bipedal zombie with the head of a razorback boar.

The story goes that that boar was beloved by a witch and then slain by some supremely shortsighted hunter however many centuries ago. The witch brought her friend back to life, and in a terrible way. In some tellings, the zombie Rawhead collapses back into a pile of bones after eating the hunter alive. In others, he’s still wandering the woods.

Rawhead’s bare-boned (see what I did there?) terror has inspired people for generations. Clive Barker wrote a short story about him, which was later turned into a B-movie. Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote an appropriately creepy song. It’s all glorious.

There’s something almost comforting about such a simple monster. Care bear. Bug bear. It’s one in the same to me.

Has your foot ever gotten caught between the stairs? Have you spotted any mysterious piles of bones in your cupboard? Share your story in the comments below.

Photo credit props:

Stairs: Henry Söderlund at Flickr.

Pile of bones:  Indofunk Satish via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Muscle man:  Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt

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.

 

I spit at thee: the Mongolian death worm

Ivan Mackerle–Czech cryptozoologist extraordinaire–was well-known throughout the 1980’s for his work on the Loch Ness monster. But around 1990, his eye turned east, away from wet, green Scotland to the dry sands of the Gobi desert. There was a creature there that the western world had only heard about 50 years before–a species of monster that had never been photographed, and for which physical evidence had never been found, but which the Mongolian nomadic tribes feared and swore was real. Mackerle aimed to find it.

His guide warned him that it would not be safe. Some years ago, the guide said, he had been on a team with another scientist, a geologist visiting the Gobi as part of a field trip. One night the geologist, bored and deep in thought, idly poked an iron rod into the sand. He screamed and crumpled half a second later, dead before he hit the ground. His horrified friends rushed forward to see what had happened, but stopped short when the earth beneath the corpse began to churn.  Something heavy and red crested through the sand, and then out burst a fat, hideous, writhing thing: thick as a man’s arm, eyeless, angry. It was the olgoi-khorkhoi, the large intestine worm, or, as it was known to the west: the Mongolian death worm.

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Juicy!

Mackerle knew the score. The death worm–reported to grow to almost three feet in length–was said to so aggressive and dangerous that you’d be a fool not to flee from it, never mind look for it. It not only spat a thick yellow acid strong enough to corrode metal; it was said to be able to send electric shocks powerful enough to wipe out an entire herd of camel. Indeed, camel and other livestock were some of its main prey: after they were dead, it would lay its eggs in their intestines, baptizing its spawn blood-red for life.

In the 1920’s, Mongolian Prime Minister Damdinzabar desperately asked Mackerle’s predecessor Roy Chapman Andrews to bring him a specimen to study. “It is shaped like a sausage about two feet long, has no head nor leg and it is so poisonous that merely to touch it means instant death,” the minister described. “It lives in the most desolate parts of the Gobi Desert.”

Andrews swept all over the Western and Southern Gobi, but failed to find anything. He concluded that the creature must just be a myth.

Mackerle wasn’t so sure. Contrary to Andrews’ experience, he was finding that people did not want to talk so much about the worm anymore. They seemed afraid. That just made him want to find it more.

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The Gobi desert.

Mackerle gathered enough information to learn that the worm was active mostly in June and July–the hottest months of the year, where temperatures could hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit.  He noted that the worm was said to hang out around the strange parasitic plant goyo, from which it might derive its poison. He thought it might leave marks in the sand as it passed–the only warning a traveler might get before it thrust out, bloated, and exploded acid in their face. He borrowed a page out of Dune and tried to summon the creature with vibrations, then with explosions. Nothing ever came. Still, the whispered rumors of the Mongolian nomads infected him–the creature had to be real, he thought. He couldn’t stop looking.

He came back in 1992, this time with more cameras and video equipment to make a documentary. Monks at a buddhist monastery warned him to stop. The creature, they said, was supernaturally evil, and should not be pursued. His life was in danger. Mackerle didn’t listen. There were too many mysterious deaths, too many second-hand stories that coincided too well. Andrews had failed, but he wouldn’t. He was Mackerle, the great cryptozoologist.

Then, one night, he visited the chilly white sands of the Gobi in his dreams. There, at last, he saw the great, red, terrible beast. When he awoke, there were blood-filled boils down his back.

Mackerle never found the worm. Nor did his successors in 2005, 2007, and 2009. Perhaps the creature lived in the forbidden area along the China-Mongolia border, some said. Others claimed it might be a cover-up: conspiracy theories cited a rumor that someone had actually captured a dead specimen, only to have it stolen away by Russian scientists. Regardless of the reason, no one could argue with the result. There was (and still isn’t, to my knowledge) not one shred of proof that the Mongolian death worm existed: even with all modern technology, not so much as a blurry photograph.

Biologists argue that the worm probably could not exist. There are no known land animals that can produce an electric shock–that’s the domain of electric eels and other fish. They also say that the worm could not actually be a *worm*…something that large would need a vertebrae, never mind some kind of outside protection to be able to survive the arid desert. Perhaps the worm is a misidentified snake, or some kind of legless lizard. But if that’s the case, why have we never seen a body? Wouldn’t the desert preserve it perfectly?

Some argue that if the Mongolian death worm ever lived, the lack of recent sightings signal that it’s now gone extinct. I am not so pessimistic. The Gobi desert is rapidly expanding, swallowing 1,390 square miles of grassland a year on its southern edge alone. As usual, humans are to blame. As the sands creep toward more densely populated territory, other things might creep with them. We might get our death worm picture sooner than you think.

What’s the best Instagram filter to bring out the color red?

 

Have you ever spat into someone’s face before? How about laid your eggs in their intestines? Share your story in the comments below.

 

ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.


 

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.