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The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 5.4, December 1995

The scene is modern-day Zanzibar where a terrible monster — the infamous “popobawa” — is swooping into bedrooms at night and raping men — particularly skeptical men. The demonic beast’s name comes from the Swahili words for bat and wing, and indeed the creature is described as having, in addition to a dwarf’s body with a single cyclopian eye, small pointed ears and batlike wings and talons. According to local villagers, it is especially prone to attack “anybody who doesn't believe.” (McGreal 1995)

One 1995 victim was a quiet-spoken peasant, a farmer named Mjaka Hamad, who said he does not believe in spirits. He first thought he was having a dream. However, “I could feel it,” he said, “something pressing on me. I couldn’t imagine what sort of thing was happening to me. You feel as if you are screaming with no voice.” He went on to say: “It was just like a dream but then I was thinking it was this popobawa and he had come to do something terrible to me, something sexual. It is worse than what he does to women.”

The demon struck Zanzibar in 1970 and again briefly in the 1980s. According to The Guardian: “Even those who dismiss the attacks as superstition nonetheless admit that for true believers they are real. Zanzibar’s main hospital has treated men with bruises, broken ribs and other injuries, which the victims blame on the creature.” (McGreal 1995)

I was given an article on the Zanzibarian affair by Matt Cherry — new Executive Director of the Council on Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) — who half-jokingly remarked, “Here’s a case for you to solve.” I read a few paragraphs and replied, “I have solved it.”

One needs only to read Peter Huston’s “Night Terrors, Sleep Paralysis, and Devil-Stricken Telephone Cords from Hell,” which appeared in the Fall 1992 Skeptical Inquirer, to learn that the popobawa is simply a Zanzibarian version of a psychological phenomenon known as a “waking dream.” One of the characteristics of such a dream, known more technically as a hypnopompic or hypnogogic hallucination (depending on whether one is, respectively, waking up or going to sleep), is a feeling of being weighted down or even paralyzed. Alternately, one may “float” or have an out-of-body experience. Other characteristics include extreme vividness of the dream and bizarre and/or terrifying content. (Baker and Nickell 1992)

Similar feelings were also common to persons in the Middle Ages who reported nighttime visitations of an incubus (a male demon who lay with women) or succubus (which took female form and lay with men). In Newfoundland the visitor was called the “Old Hag” (Ellis 1988). In the infamous West Pittston, Pennsylvania, “haunted house” case of 1986, tenant Jack Smurl claimed he was raped by a succubus. As “demonologist” Ed Warren (1989) describes it: “He was asleep in bed one night and he was awakened by this haglike woman who paralyzed him. He wanted to scream out, of course — he was horrified by what he saw, the woman had scales on her skin and white, scraggly hair, and some of her teeth were missing — but she paralyzed him in some manner. Then she mounted him and rode him to her sexual climax.”

Such accounts come from widespread places and times. For example, consider this interesting encounter which occurred in the seventeenth century. It concerned one Anne Jeffries, a country girl from Cornwall. According to Ellis (1988): “In 1645 she apparently suffered a convulsion and was found, semi-conscious, lying on the floor. As she recovered, she began to recall in detail how she was accosted by a group of six little men. Paralyzed, she felt them swarm over her, kissing her, until she felt a sharp pricking sensation. Blinded, she found herself flying through the air to a palace filled with people. There, one of the men (now her size) seduced her, and suddenly an angry crowd burst in on them and she was again blinded and levitated. She then found herself lying on the floor surrounded by her friends.” (p. 264)

This account obviously has striking similarities to many UFO abduction accounts — some of which, like those of Whitley Strieber’s own “abduction” experiences which he describes in Communion (1988), are fully consistent with hypnopompic or hypnogogic hallucinations. (Baker and Nickell 1992) Still other entities that have appeared in classic waking dreams are ghosts and angelic visitors (Nickell 1995).

As these examples illustrate, while the popobawa seems at first a unique, Zanzibarian creature, it is actually only a variant of a well-known phenomenon — one that western skeptics, at least, have little to fear.


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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at