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.

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Choo choo: The Snallygaster

 

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Ambient creepy image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the deep cold of February, 1909, a group of men near Sharpsburg, West Virginia crowded around a homemade incubator, close enough to feel its heat. They might have held their hands out for warmth, but I doubt any of them would have gotten too close. Carefully hidden away from the eyes of the town, that incubator housed a egg the size of an elephant. The gentleman were attempting to hatch the spawn of the Snallygaster, dreaded terror of the Middletown Valley.

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One of the said seven-point stars.

Though its name sounds like an invention of Lewis Caroll, for generations of folks living in the hills around Washington DC and Maryland, the Snallygaster was no laughing matter.  In the 1730’s, German immigrants reported a dragon-like schneller geista “quick ghost”–that came out of the sky with tentacles and a metallic beak to suck men’s blood or carry them away. The beast was half-reptile, half-bird, and had teeth sharp enough to part flesh like butter. It kidnapped children and decimated poultry. The Germans painted seven-pointed stars on their barns to keep the Snallygaster at bay; you can still see some of those stars today.

Tales of the Snallygaster seemed to abate in the late 1700’s, but reappeared, weaponized, less than a century later when white settlers wanted to scare away freed slaves. People offered the “Snallygaster” food sacrifices and hid their families indoors, but the carnage continued. For decades, white countryfolk blamed the racial atrocities they committed on the creature. That would shortly come back to bite them, as by 1909, the legend had got out of their control, and the Snallygaster began to appear and attack in places they hadn’t meant it to.

Now the Snallygaster roamed the countryside, large as a dirigible, wreaking havoc wherever it went.  It could change shape, but one man summarized the consensus that it usually had “enormous wings, a long pointed bill, claws like steel hooks, and an eye in the center of its forehead.” It passed through the sky silent as a cloud, and then would swoop down to attack with a whistle “like a locomotive,” or, as another man put it, like a “cross between a tiger and a vampire.”*

The creature left footprints in the snow of New Jersey, and scared the bejeezus out of a man who found it hanging out near his kiln. It was shot here, found roosting in someone’s barn there, seen drifting through the sky, tentacles writhing, always huge, always “headed this way.” Then there were the eggs. The Snallygaster’s eggs were the size of horses–of small cars!–and were found laying around where Snallygaster was known to have passed. Our friends from the beginning of this post never did manage to get that egg to hatch, and that’s probably a good thing for them. They might have ended up like Bill Gifferson, found drained of blood with a hole in his neck.

By now the sightings were so common (and such a nuisance) that the Smithsonian put a price on the Snallygaster’s hide to the tune of $100,000 a foot. Teddy Roosevelt himself thought about coming to collect, but then sightings of the creature abated again. Finally, the Snallygaster reportedly drowned and was subsequently exploded in a 2500-gallon vat of moonshine. Fitting dramatic end to a dramatic life, right?

You forgot about the eggs.

This is where things really get weird. In 1932, the Snallygaster (or rather, one of its children) decided to give a local resident an existential crisis. The poor man reported seeing the creature swoop down from the sky on a penny-farthing, wearing water wings and shouting Balance the budget!” Later, in 1973, the Snallygaster appeared as a land-bound ape-thing that screamed bloody murder in the middle of the night and made a mess out of the heads of cattle. After several sightings, an extensive hunting party set out to find the creature with tranquilizer darts and a large steel cage. They returned empty-handed.

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Not Eastern Racers, but alarming enough nevertheless. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where is the Snallygaster today? There doesn’t seem to be any recent sightings. Certainly the horrors that inspired it are still around–racial violence being the obvious one, but also the nasty clusters of Eastern Racer snakes (which apparently can get up to five feet long and move quite fast) that might have made people see tentacles. The last real Snallygaster sighting was over 40 years ago, and as I’ve heard tell that the Snallygaster’s lifespan is 20 years, it might be gone for good. But it’s difficult to say for sure.  Feel free to go out and try to find one, if you like.

I’ll stay here and look out for any suspicious clouds.  

 

 

Have you ever seen something strange in the sky? What do you think a “cross between a vampire and a tiger” sounds like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*I’m not quite sure what this means, as the sound my mind conjures for “vampire” is “slurp.”

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.

Hungry Enough to Eat His Own Arm: The Nachzehrer

Photo courtesy of Guliolopez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Welcome to our first full moon MONSTER MEET, and to the 11th post on this site! Now that we’ve covered some creatures that you’ve probably never heard of, I’d like to celebrate this occasion by discussing a variation on a more traditional monster: the vampire.

Meet the nachzehrer, whose name roughly translates to “after devourer” and who has had people pooping themselves for centuries. Though often classified as vampire, the nachzehrer bears little resemblance to the wealthy, well-dressed, highly sexualized characters we know and love/throw up over today.  Some argue that it might better be called a ghoul or revenant, but I’d like to stick with the term “vampire” for now, if only as an educational tool–we are so removed from what vampires meant to us originally; it might be nice to remember what terrified us all those years ago.  

To begin with the simplest definition, the nachzehrer is a German revenant born of a person who committed suicide or died a particularly nasty accidental death. It should be noted that “accidental death,” in this case, even extends to dying of a plague: rumor had it that after his burial, the first victim of disease would wake up underground and begin his hellish life anew, bringing sickness, rot, and death to the community he left behind. In general, this was the the nachzehrer’s purpose: to destroy its family and the people it had known best. And what a comprehensive job it would do!

After opening its eyes to dirt and worms, the first thing a newly minted nachzehrer did was to writhe until it could get its mouth close enough to begin chewing off and eating its burial clothes. Once those were disposed of, it would move on to savagely devour chunks of its own flesh. The more it ate, the sicker its family became. So voracious was in the nachzehrer in its task that people told tales of walking through an empty, quiet graveyard, only to hear grunting and snuffling noises coming from under the ground as the creature tore against muscle and tendons. One can only assume that any listener would have done well to turn and run; once the nachzehrer ate enough of itself, it would move on to the bodies around it, and then–in some versions of the legend–to physically devour what family it had left alive. At any rate, it was not something you wanted to run into once it climbed out of the grave.

Once it was out, the legends diverge as to where and how the nachzehrer went about its business. Some said that it transformed into a pig to attack its family, biting them and snorting up their blood with its squishy, piggy snout. Others told of how it would dart up into the church tower to ring the bells; if you heard them ring, you would die (in this case, I suppose the best advice for people at the time would be not only “ask not for whom the bell tolls” but “worry deeply about who tolls the bell.”). Less common stories warned against letting the nachzehrer’ shadow touch you–if it did, you would drop dead (though, as mentioned above, if the creature was close enough to cast a shadow on you in the first place, you were probably dead, anyway). Unlike other vampires, the nachzehrer “disease” was not communicable if it bit you and you escaped, but also unlike other vampires, the nachzehrer was not interested in reproducing so much as it was mindless, merciless destruction.  

If you’re thinking that this sounds like a nightmare people would try to avoid, you’re correct. Villagers took many measures to try and avoid the creation of nachzehrer, from cutting the nametags off of burial clothes (it was rumored that leaving the deceased’s name on their cloth might bring them back to life), to shoving coins and even bricks into the mouths of their loved ones before burying them deep underground. But these precautions were not always enough, and when they failed, the creature had to be hunted and killed in order to keep it from destroying entire neighborhoods. The only way to manage this was by somehow getting a coin inside its mouth (this was said to render the nachzehrer immobile), and then beheading it. Never mind how difficult this would be were the challenger to catch the revenant outside its grave; even when under the ground, the nachzehrer never really slept. Villagers would dig up suspected trouble-makers only to find the corpse flush with blood, dirt collecting in its self-inflicted wounds. It was said to always rest with its left eye wide open, thumb cradled in its opposite hand.

It seems that legends of the nachzehrer are a thing of the past; I was unable to find any modern tales of the creature, though that’s not to say they couldn’t exist. As with other vampires, some attribute the old stories of flushed corpses and the spread of disease to our predecessors’ poor understanding of the processes of decay and communications of viruses and bacteria. The chunks missing from the nachzehrer’s clothes and flesh might be explained away by rats; the sightings of the creature as a pig or in the bell tower might come from mere uneducated fancy.

They might. Or, we might be so afraid of possibility of the nachzehrer that we’ve hurried to explain it away.  

Happy blood moon, everyone.

Have you ever been hungry enough to eat your own clothing? Do you think the nachzehrer is actually a form of retribution for all those excessive bacon-eaters out there? Share your story in the comments below.