Some nightmares are more frightening than others. Thankfully, there’s always a way out: waking up. But can a nightmare actually kill you?
Before modern psychology became common, many cultures from all around the world gave different explanations for what actually causes nightmares. The best description is given by the etymology of the word “nightmare” itself. The “night” part is self-explanatory, but the term “mare” has nothing to do with female horses. In Old English, a mare was an evil spirit that had a thing for riding on people’s chests while they were sleeping. In many aspects, a mare is similar to a succubus.
This belief was most likely generated by a condition called sleep paralysis, which occurs just as a person is falling asleep or waking up. During such an episode, he or she might experience a temporary inability to move or speak. But the scary part is that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by ghastly hallucinations. Imagine waking up, not being able to react or say a word and realizing there’s a supernatural intruder in your room. That’s bound to ruin your night.
And it’s more common than you think. It affects about 6% of the general population but thankfully, not all cases are severe.
But there’s another condition and it’s much more terrifying because it actually kills. Called Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS), it usually affects men from Laos, Thailand and the Philippines. As it name implies, it causes unexpected deaths, usually during sleep.
The Hmong people of Laos believe it is caused by dab tsuam, an evil spirit that takes the form of a jealous woman. In an attempt to avoid her visits, some Hmong men go to bed wearing lipstick or even dressed as women.
One of the most famous cases of SUNDS happened in 1960, when 11 Filipino sailors suddenly died in their sleep. All of them complained about having nightmares before it happened. The autopsies performed byDr. Gonzalo Aponte revealed too little and the mystery remained unsolved.
A similar case took place in 1981, when 18 healthy Laotian refugees were found dead in their beds. Dr. Roy Baron of the Center for Disease Control examined the bodies and ruled out foul play. He believed the most probable cause had been cardiac arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat.
There is all kind of speculation, but for the time being, we have no real explanation,” Dr. Baron said. “All these people seem to have been in good health.”
Healthy people unexpectedly succumbing in their sleep means we have reason to suspect nightmares can kill.
Maybe leave a light on tonight.