Cover Image Courtesy of Villains Wiki
Be forewarned should you ever travel to the east African island of Zanzibar. There’s a monstrous, “bat-wing” demon there, itching to rape male skeptics. That’s the literal translation of popobawa, from the original Swahili, describing a fearsome creature that roams the countryside.
Or not. The only time it’s really seen is in people’s bedrooms, and the descriptions aren’t very consistent. Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer, traveled to Zanzibar in 2007, where a guide told him, “It has bat wings, but not always. Sometimes it is a very tall person. It can change according to the situation, what it wants to do” (Radford 2008).
First “seen” in 1965, rumors of the popobowa didn’t reach North America much until 1995, when there was a veritable (reported) epidemic of assaults. It was then that the phenomenon came across investigator Joe Nickell’s desk, who quickly called the “creature” out as another aspect of an old phenomenon (Nickell 1995).
The popobowa is a clear analog of an incubus, a demon that, as the myth goes, holds people (usually women) down and rapes them at night. Modern alien abductees often claim similar bedroom attacks, which Nickell identified as “waking dreams,” hallucinations that can occur when a person is just waking up or falling asleep. Also more descriptively known as “sleep paralysis,” it’s a genuinely terrifying but ultimately harmless condition that as many as 40 percent of all people may experience.
The skeptic preference is a new wrinkle, but as Radford found in his on-the-ground investigation, it makes sense. Zanzibar, part of Tanzania, is an almost completely Muslim region, so faith is an important virtue (Radford believes the creature is a version of jinn or genie, described in the Koran). The cultural disdain for homosexuality makes the activities of the popobowa especially sociologically relevant, including the monster’s insistence that the victim announce his shame to everyone else, lest he fall prey a second time. The 1995 wave even coincided with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
All those clues, combined with the fact that no one’s ever found physical evidence of the popobawa or even taken the customary blurry photograph, indicate pretty clearly that this is a cultural phenomenon, not a real creature. That didn’t stop a children’s cartoon about cryptids from featuring the raping bat-demon in a 2009 episode.
The Secret Saturdays was always a weird show. The brainchild of Emmy-winning Canadian cartoonist Jay Stephens, it focused on a family of scientists (whose last name was Saturday) who, using mystical artifacts such as a staff called “The Claw,” try to save the world from Argost, an evil creature-feature type TV host, in the vein of Svengoolie or “Grandpa” Al Lewis.
Argost wants to raise an army of cryptozoological animals to do his bidding, and the series had appearances from the Lake Worth goatman, Africa’s dinosaurian mokele mbembe, and the Honey Island Swamp Monster. That’s not to mention the pets of the Saturdays themselves: a pterodactyl relative, a Komodo dragon that can turn invisible, and a bipedal “monkey cat” inspired by the “Fiskerton Phantom” anomalous big cat.
With all those deep cuts and more (according to the online fan wiki, over 200 cryptids made appearances in only thirty-six episodes of the series), it’s clear that Stephens must be a big cryptozoology buff. Nevertheless, the Saturdays popobowa is vastly different from what’s been reported.
Episode 6 of the series, “The King of Kumari Kandam,” opens not with a humanoid telepath but a screeching, pink, possibly quadrupedal animal with a collar of fur around its neck. When asked by Justin Mullis from the “Of Epic Proportions” blog on myths in popular culture about the popobawa, Stephens brushed off the clearly sociological origin of the “creature”:
There have been many modern sightings of a bat-like creature that have been identified by locals as the Popobawa. If such an unknown creature exists, it is highly unlikely that the legendary proclivities attributed to the mythical Popobawa are true … it is (if it exists) merely an unknown winged mammal, nothing more or less. This is the view of several real-life cryptozoologists, and the unknown animal (or ‘cryptid’) that appeared in our cartoon is based upon this research.
I chose to dismiss the accounts of rape as pure myth, just as anyone who features a ‘Bigfoot’ in their cartoon ignores the many reported cases of rape associated with that much more famous cryptid. In any event, the Popobawa in our Secret Saturdays world was portrayed as a female, egg-laying creature, clearly incapable of the deed. (Mullis 2009)
It’s unclear what sightings he’s talking about or who these cryptozoologists are (about the only “serious investigation” that treated the popobawa like an animal was an episode of cable channel SYFY’s “Destination Truth”). I reached out to Stephens through email for clarification, but after several exchanges in which he agreed to an interview, he never responded when asked for a particular time.
Given all these differences, why even bother using the “popobawa” name? Why not just make something up? That’s exactly what Cartoon Network did when they caught wind of the animated cryptid’s sordid “real-life” behavior. While the original version with “popobawa” did air (and you can still find it on YouTube), the DVD version changed the creature’s name to the completely fictitious “devil’s cave bird.”
But it was too late for toymaker Mattel, who introduced the pink, furry popobawa action figure at the 2009 New York Toy Fair. It was never sold in stores, and Mullis reports that when the rest of the Secret Saturdays line hit shelves, at his local Wal-Mart at least, an ad for the popobowa toy on the back of the packages was covered by a green sticker. Much like the “animal” itself, out of sight seems to be out of mind.
Of course, as these things tend to do, some of the unsold editions of the pink popobowa action figure found their way into the world, and as of this writing, one can be yours for the low, low Buy It Now eBay price of $349.99. But before you pull the trigger, it might be prudent to heed the words of the Saturdays’ patriarch, Solomon, when warning his son while on their hunt for the brightly-colored, carnal creature: “Keep it together, Zak. We don’t want anyone getting hurt.”
For more on cryptid depictions in pop culture, check out AiPT! Science’s “counter-programming” for Animal Planet’s Monster Week, beginning May 20!
- Mullis, Justin. 2009. “The Secret Saturdays” Popobawa toy pulled? Of Epic Proportions: A Blog on Myth and Mankind (August 20). Available online at http://ofepicproportions.blogspot.com/2009/08/secret-saturdays-popobawa-toy-pulled.html.
- Nickell, Joe. 1995. The skeptic-raping demon of Zanzibar. Skeptical Briefs (Winter 1995/1996).
- Radford, Benjamin. 2008. Searching for the ghost-demon of Zanzibar. Fortean Times (October).