Stranger Than Fiction: A Real "Dream Killer" Claims Scores of Lives Every Year
01.28.13 by BJSprecher
Dreams have fascinated and bewildered humanity for millennia, yet even with the incredible technology at our disposal today, we are little closer to understanding them than were the Sumerians in Mesopotamia who were among the first to chronicle their dreams some 5000 years ago. What exactly are dreams and what significance are they to our waking lives? Are they merely a form of entertainment to keep our brains from getting bored while we slumber? Are they complex coded scenarios created by our brain to help work out our day-to-day problems or regulate our emotions? Are they memories of previous lives, as those who believe in reincarnation contend, or possibly glimpses at alternate realities? What happens if we die in one of our dreams?
In most movies about the subject, a dream death equates to death in real life, but that’s just Hollywood capitalizing on our fears, right? Maybe not. A real "dream killer" has claimed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of otherwise healthy young men while they were blissfully asleep, inspiring one of the most iconic killers in the history of cinema.
The Strange Truth
Young men in Laos, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and even here in the United States are going without sleep, sometimes for several days on end, and with good reason: an unknown, unseen killer claims the lives of scores of sleeping men each and every year. Doctors call the strange phenomenon Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS), but the cause of it, and the risk factors for diagnosing it, are still a complete unknown. It was first identified among Hmong refugees in the U.S., but a retrospective study of death records in Singapore revealed that 230 healthy Thai men died suddenly in their sleep in an 8-year period. In the Philippines, SUNDS is known as bangungot and afflicts a staggering 43 out of 100,000 Filipinos each and every year. Cardiac activity during SUNDS episodes reveals irregular heart rhythms and ventricular fibrillation, but victims typically do not have heart disease or structural heart problems.
While Western medicine has yet to come up with an explanation for SUNDS, there are numerous folk traditions among the afflicted populations that do explain the deaths. The Hmong people of Laos blame the deaths on an evil spirit called a dab tsuam, which takes the form of a jealous woman. Truly superstitious Hmong men will even go to sleep dressed in women's clothing in an attempt to confuse and evade the spirit. In the Phillippines, SUNDS is known as bangungot and is said to be caused by the demonic batibat, which often takes the form of a fat old woman. Tree dwellers, batibats come into contact with humans whenever their trees are cut down for use in home construction. If a person — typically, a male — sleeps too near a wooden post that used to be a batibat's home, the batibat will emerge while he is sleeping and sit upon his chest until he suffocates.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Hollywood horror master Wes Craven explained in a 2008 interview with Cinefantasique that the idea for his dream killer, Freddy Krueger, didn't come to him in a dream; rather, it was inspired by the stories of several immigrants who succumbed to SUNDS:
The third [victim] was the son of a physician. He was about twenty-one... Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: "You must sleep." He said, "No, you don’t understand; I’ve had nightmares before — this is different." He was given sleeping pills and told to take them and supposedly did, but he stayed up...something like six, seven days. Finally, he was watching television with the family, fell asleep on the couch, and everybody said, "Thank god." They literally carried him upstairs to bed; he was completely exhausted. Everybody went to bed, thinking it was all over. In the middle of the night, they heard screams and crashing. They ran into the room, and by the time they got to him he was dead. They had an autopsy performed, and there was no heart attack; he just had died for unexplained reasons. They found in his closet a Mr. Coffee maker, full of hot coffee that he had used to keep awake, and they also found all his sleeping pills that they thought he had taken; he had spit them back out and hidden them. It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation.
Thankfully for all of us horror fans, Craven also drew inspiration for Freddy from cave bears (claws) and DC Comics' Plastic Man (striped sweater, shapeshifting), rather than from the folk traditions of the victims or the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise would have an entirely different, ahem, complexion.
Now that you know a little bit about the origin of one of cinema's most famous "dream" characters, Rate the Top 10 Best Movies About Dreams.