In 1995 I published a short article titled “The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar,” telling of a bat-winged, cyclopean dwarf that reportedly swept into bedrooms and attacked men—especially those who disbelieved in the creature. The phenomenon had occurred in previous decades but had returned. A colleague handed me an article on the phenomenon and joked, “Here’s a case for you to solve.” Reading a few paragraphs, I replied, “I have solved it.”
According to The Guardian (McGreal 1995), a victim at first thought he was dreaming but felt something pressing down on him—no doubt the Popobawa (the name is Swahili for “bat-wing”) who had come to sexually attack him. (See my accompanying drawing.) I recognized the phenomenon as having the characteristics of a common “waking dream.” This occurs when the percipient is in a state between being asleep and awake, and exhibits features of both: A person has a dreamlike (hallucinatory) experience while seemingly awake; the sense of being held down—called “sleep paralysis”—comes from the body’s still being in the sleep mode. I traced the phenomenon to many places and times, including the incubus of medieval Europe. The hypothesis seemed to explain most of the reported Zanzibarian attacks.
My observations began to be cited (or occasionally borrowed without attribution), finally gaining some prominence in a book, Popobawa by Katrina Daly Thompson (2017), a professor of African Cultural Studies. She reports my insights on the waking-dream (i.e., hypnagogic) phenomenon and acknowledges that I was “the first to put forth this hypothesis” for the Popobawa attacks. But she also seems to resent me for it. She points to a couple of textual simplifications I made in republishing my article and hints at some ulterior motive. Actually, the changes were practical ones in transitioning from a newsletter for fellow skeptics to a book for a general audience (Nickell 2010). Another example of her accusatory tendency is her finding—wrongly—that I was unfairly “associating Zanzibaris with fear and Westerners with skepticism” (Thompson 2017, 174). To the contrary, I actually gave several examples of Western waking-dream panics.
But if Thompson figuratively mussed up my hair, she ran over Benjamin Radford with a truck! Radford, visiting Zanzibar in 2007 took the opportunity to do what he called “the first full field investigation” into the Popobawa (Radford 2008). However Thompson finds his efforts “fundamentally flawed in content and methodology.” She repeats his own admission to having wasted much time at a library, then more seriously accuses him of “misrepresenting secondary sources as if they were primary voices he encountered in the field.” She further insists that his “own information contradicts his claim that Popobawa appears periodically and contemporaneously with ‘Muslim holy days’ or with election cycles” (Thompson 2017, 165–171). Ironically, this is the very information he had gone in search of: the “cultural context” missing from the waking-dreams explanation (Radford 2008). Her evidence appears to undermine his conclusion that there is a simple pattern to the attacks.
What is Thompson’s own view of the Popobawa? She seems to grudgingly accept the psychological explanation of the waking dream, while insisting on the obvious: that it only applies to those cases where the evidence warrants, and that there are also the powerful influences of popular discourse and even jokes (Thompson 2017, 171–177). Indeed, I suggest the list could well include hoaxes, journalistic distortions, elements of mass hysteria, and so on and on. Yes, Westerners should be wary of imposing simplistic patterns on another culture, but they also should not shy away from making scientific observations where appropriate.
McGreal, Chris. 1995. “Zanzibar Diary,” The Guardian, October 2.
Nickell, Joe. 1995. “The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar,” Skeptical Briefs, December, p. 7.
———. 2010. The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 124–127.
Radford, Benjamin. 2008. “Popobawa! In Search of Zanzibar’s Bat-Winged Terror.” Fortean Times No. 241 (November), 34–39.
Thompson, Katrina Daly. 2017. Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.