It’s Halloween — a time for Frankenstein monsters and vampires and werewolves. But many of us have our own monsters from different cultures, and when we threw out a call to our readers asking what ghost stories and folktales they grew up with in their own traditions, we got back stories of creatures stalking the shadows of Latin American hallways and vengeful demons from South Asia with backwards feet. (And that’s before we get to the were-hyenas and the infernal bathroom stalls.) Below are some of the best we’ve found or that were told to us from Code Switch readers.
Read on…if you dare.
The Night Demon
An evil creature stalks the Tanzanian island of Pemba in the Indian Ocean. It can change shape — a bat sometimes, a human-like form at others. It prefers to come out at night, but some say they have seen it during the day. The popobawa — “bat-wing” in Swahili — is indiscriminate in its targets. But in a common retelling, the spirit.
The popobawa story is rather new — only dating back a few decades from a time of civil unrest following the assassination of the country’s president. The popular thinking goes that after a popbawa attack, victims must spread the word to others on Pemba. Otherwise, they will continue to be visited by the popobawa.
Reports of attack send some locals into a panic. A few years ago, a series of night-time sexual assaults were blamed on the popobawa.
“Some men are staying awake or sleeping in groups outside their homes,” the BBC reported in 2007. “Others are smearing themselves with pig’s oil, believing this repels attacks.”
A peasant farmer named Mjaka Hamad claims popobawahe was attacked by the in 1997.
I couldn’t see it. I could only feel it. But some people in my house could see it. Those who’ve got the spirits in their heads could see it. Everybody was terrified. They were outside screaming Huyo! It means the Popobawa is there. I had this bad pain in my ribs where it crushed me. I don’t believe in spirits so maybe that’s why it attacked me. Maybe it will attack anybody who doesn’t believe.
The Girl In The Bathroom
In Japan, the schools contain an infernal secret. If you go into the girl’s bathroom on the third floor of the building, and walk to the third stall, you might find her.
“You have to knock 3 times and call her name,” a Code Switch reader named Jessic tweeted at us. “When you open the stall door, a little girl in a red skirt will be there.”
The little girl with the bob haircut is Hanako-san. She wants friends to play with, maybe. Or perhaps she wants to drag you to Hell — through the toilet.
“Depending on which part of Japan you live in, she may have a bloody hand and grab you, or be a lizard that devours you,” Jessica said. “Although I am getting scared just thinking about her right now.”
Hanako-san has become a fixture of Japanese urban folklore over the last 70 years. The most popular origin story for the tale holds that during World War II, a schoolgirl was using the bathroom when a bomb fell on top of the building. The school collapsed on top of Hanako-san, who has been trapped there ever since.
But Hanako isn’t the only schoolgirl who haunts Japan’s school bathrooms. Kashima Reiko, another young girl, was said to have been cut in half by a train. Now her disfigured spirit inhabits bathrooms, asking children who enter the stalls where her legs are. The legend goes that if Kashima Reiko is not satisfied with their answer, she will rip their legs off.
The Woman Of Your (Worst) Dreams
In Brazil, a tall, skinny woman with long yellow fingernails and red eyes creeps along the rooftops, and watches families inside of their homes. She watches them as they sit at the table for dinner. She watches them while they eat. La pisadeira.
After the meal, when someone goes to sleep on a full stomach, la pisadeira sneaks into their bedroom. Then she sits on their chest so that they cannot move. The pisadeira that has attacked them watches them as they begin to panic — the victim’s eyes partly open, but they’re neither fully asleep or fully awake — helpless and trapped in a body that won’t move.
Sleep paralysis is a well-studied disorder. “The worst thing is when you try to fight or call for help,” a Redditor said in a conversation about what the experiences with it were like. “Your voice doesn’t work and your body will not respond. You just feel helpless.”
And among those who suffer from it across many cultures, there is one, unsettling common experience — a sense that a malevolent force is hovering over them in their immobile stat.
“The earliest one I can remember is with my mother in the room and she’s sitting on my bed, her face morphs into a demon like thing,” a Redditor shared in a thread on sleep paralysis. Or: “A large dark figure, kind of a human silhouette, emerging from the foot of my bed and staring down at me.”
(Could her “mom” or the silhouette have be a pisadeira?)
They went on. “Ugh, I need to stop trying to remember these things. I’m getting chills.”
The Weeping Woman
Her name was Maria. She lived in Mexico. She had long, dark hair and a covetous heart. The man she loved would not have her, so she took her children in a fit of rage, took them down to the river, and drowned them, one by one. When the man she loved spurned her again, she realized what she’d done. She took herself to the water and threw herself in, to subject herself to the same fate as her children. But heaven would not have Maria, and she was condemned to wander the world in perpetual grief. She is La Llorona — the wailing woman.
The people who have seen her said they can her walking, soaking wet, wearing all white. And she can be heard crying out for the little ones she killed. “Ay, mis hijos!” she weeps. (“Oh, my children!”) Some say that she snatches other young children as she walks, mistaking them for her own young children she knew.
Children along the Mexican border grow up with her story, which traces itself to stories about several different female spirit of the Aztec empire.
“My earliest memory [of her] is being in elementary school and being in the girl’s bathroom,” says Terry Martinez, who grew up in Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. She and the other young children would try to summon La Llorona in a bathroom mirror.
“The lights had to be out,” Martinez says. “The door had to be closed.”
They’d splash water on the mirror and say her name three times.
La Llorona. La Llorona. La Llorona.
“It was just seeing who could stand being in the darkroom and seeing how long we could stand there waiting for her to come out of the sink,” Martinez said. “It usually ended with a bunch of little girls screaming and running out of the bathroom.