The nightmare called ‘bangungot’
Bangungot is known by many complicated medical names: acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis, sudden arrhythmic death syndrome or sudden adult death syndrome (SADS), bed death, sudden unexplained death syndrome (SUDS), Brugada Syndrome, and sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS). Bangungot is the Tagalog word for “nightmare,” but it can also refer to a malevolent spirit or elemental in Filipino folklore: Also known in Ilocano as batibat, it appears in the shape of an overweight man (bangungot) or overweight Botero-like woman (batibat) who sits on the chest or head of the victim (always male) and suffocates him to death. According to witnesses, the victims groan (ungol in Tagalog) while struggling against the bangungot, and if they do not rise from sleep (bangon in Tagalog), they die. It is useless to try to push away the bangungot or batibat, but one can survive if one is able to wiggle a big toe and wake up.
A Foundation for Bangungot Research was set up in the 1950s by the owner of Benipayo Press after his son died of bangungot. More than six decades later one can find a lot of literature on the subject online, but no real cure or explanation has been found to explain the malady. It was previously believed that only Filipino males were afflicted with bangungot , but there are words in other Asian cultures that refer to bangungot: Dab tsong in Hmong is a ghost; lai tai in Thai refers to death in sleep; dolyeonsa in Korean; digeuton in Indonesian; pokkuri in Japanese; and bei gul ya in Chinese, that means “crushed by a ghost.”
While much of the current medical literature is focused on Hmong deaths in the United States in the 1980s, the earliest medical references to bangungot are Maria Paz Mendoza Guazon’s 1917 journal article “Algunas notas sobre bangungot” (Some notes about Bangungot) that appeared in the Revista Filipina de Medicina y Farmacia (Philippine Journal of Medicine and Pharmacy) and A.V. Majoska’s “Sudden Death in Filipino Men, an unexplained syndrome” that appeared in the 1948 Hawaii Medical Journal.
Dr. Alvin Majoska was a forensic pathologist who rose to become the chief medical examiner in Hawaii. His inquiry into bangungot caused a panic in Hawaii in the early 1950s—another footnote in the history of Filipinos in Hawaii. Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the famous Perry Mason detective novels, dedicated his 1955 “The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary” to Majoska with a foreword that made reference to bangungot:
“I have spent many hours with Dr. Alvin V. Majoska in Honolulu, discussing the strange ‘Nightmare Deaths’ of Honolulu. I first heard of these deaths when I was attending one of Captain Frances G. Lee’s seminars on homicide investigation at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. Dr. Milton Helpem, the famous forensic pathologist of New York, was lecturing there and remarked that it was not always possible to determine the cause of death. He cited as an example that he had recently been called upon to examine vital organs from bodies sent him from the Hawaiian Islands, and that in each case it had been impossible to discover a cause of death. There was no sign of poison; the heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, and all of the vital organs were in perfect working order. These men simply had ceased to live, and medical science was powerless to find out why they had ceased to live.
“[…]Driven by intense interest, I finally went to Honolulu and tried to find out about these strange deaths. What I found amazed me. The deaths occurred only in young Filipino men who were in the prime of life and the best of health. These men invariably died at night, under circumstances indicating a nightmare. They would go to bed apparently in the best of spirits. During the night they might be heard to moan. Before help could reach them, they would be dead.”
Bangungot medical literature was built slowly over the years from the work of Mendoza Guazon and Majoska. A 1998 article in the International Journal of Epidemiology by Ronald G. Munger and Elizabeth A. Booton is based on a review of bangungot deaths recorded in Manila from 1948 to 1982; 96 percent of the victims were male, the mean age was 33 years old and the modal time of death 3 a.m., with cases peaking in December-January.
In time we will come to a full scientific explanation of what all Filipinos know from folklore as bangungot.
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