A century has passed since Maria Paz Mendoza Guazon, MD, published her “Notes on Bangungot” but medical science has yet to determine the cause of these “nightmare deaths” and find a cure.
E-mail response to last week’s column on bangungot arrived in a stream and three that stood out were from: Corinna Benipayo Mojica who sent a moving account of how bangungot struck her family not once but twice; Inquirer columnist Jaime Licauco who explained that bangungot might be caused by the astral body separating from the physical body and not being able to return; and Arturo C. Ludan, MD, who explained that bangungot might be related to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood resulting from high rice or carbohydrate intake before sleep (in other studies the cause was said to be fish sauce or patis); hypoventilation or reduced respiration which can be caused by sleep apnea, intoxication caused by alcoholism, drugs, etc.; substance abuse like shabu which increases the sensitivity or irritability of the heart to arrhythmia from the raised CO2 levels.
My interest in bangungot began in childhood when I read of it in the illustrated children’s book “Creatures of Midnight” by Maximo D. Ramos. Then my father who was a fan of the Perry Mason detective novels pointed me to the introduction to Earle Stanley Gardner’s “Sun Bather’s Diary” (1955) that was dedicated to Dr. Alvin Majoska, the Hawaii coroner who created a panic after he wrote about the relationship between Filipinos and nightmare deaths. Gardner did his own investigation on the cases and wrote:
“The fact that prior to 1900 no less than 51 of these ‘Nightmare Death’ cases had occurred in the Hawaiian islands (and Heaven knows how many more there were that had not been correctly diagnosed) shows the seriousness of the situation. There is a feeling among some of the Filipinos that these deaths occur in connection with a reflex sex mechanism, and I have in my possession a photograph, which unfortunately cannot be published, showing the elaborate mechanical precautions taken by one of these victims to safeguard himself against this form of death.
“In addition to the weird mechanical contrivance which he invented, he arranged to have someone sleeping beside his bed who could arouse him the instant he started to moan. These elaborate precautions did no good. The photographs of the device which I have were taken when the man’s body was in the morgue. The most thorough post-mortem investigation, the most complete autopsy that could be performed failed to disclose the cause of death.
“At about the time I went to Honolulu to study these cases, they came to an abrupt end. Now, I understand, they have again started, a peculiar sequence of stark terror which strikes in the tropical night. I was able to find only one instance of a man who had made a recovery, and it is, of course, impossible to determine whether his experience was the same as that of the men who had died. This man was sleeping in a room that he shared with a young, alert and very muscular Japanese. In the middle of the night the Japanese heard this Filipino emitting the peculiar moans associated with this dreaded type of death. Acting with rare presence of mind, the Japanese hurled himself physically upon the Filipino, as though coming to grips with an unknown force, and he succeeded either in awakening the Filipino from a nightmare while he was still alive or in fighting off the invisible forces of witchcraft, whichever you wish to believe.
“I managed to locate this Japanese. I interviewed him, photographed him, and secured not only his story but the story that had been given him by the Filipino after he had awakened from his all-but-fatal ‘nightmare.’ These nightmare deaths are tremendously interesting, and the fact that they exist at all is a challenge. It shows the need of giving more and more attention to legal medicine and of educating a greater number of forensic pathologists.”
I hope to find Gardner’s photographs some day to add to my growing digital files on bangungot.
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