Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection
Shelley Adler has written a book that is getting notice from many critics. Horror fans should especially take note of this one. She became frustrated that even clinical works were missing large portions of an historical mystery of nightmares, so she set out to do her own research. Along the way, she encountered tragic situations in which an immigrant population was one-by-one dying. Nightmares were killing them!
In the book Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection Adler describes how 116 healthy Hmong men dislocated from Laos were scattered over a wide geographic region, yet all died in their 30′s. Doctors took a slight notice, and named this phenomenon Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, and essentially filed it away. That was more than two decades ago. Adler, now a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, crossed paths with this data and determined that the Hmong were killed by their beliefs in the spirit world coupled with an odd genetic cardiac arrhythmia that many of their ethic group exhibit.
Her original thesis was determining the folk lore behind sleep paralysis and nightmarish apparitions and whether there were a medical, psychological, or tangible neuro-mechanical trigge that caused these common world-wide experiences.
(It seems likely that H. P. Lovecraft experienced some aspect of this after the death of his grandmother, and thus gave us the horrific night-gaunt of his fiction and poetry.)
Indeed, every place Adler looked every nation, every continent, and every significant sociological sub-group had vast folklore and descriptions of this experience. Each described the same effect: While waking rapidly from sleep, the person can’t move. They have fear, dread, chest pressure, and difficulty breathing. During REM sleep, our brain is supposed to disconnect and allow us dreams. In sleep paralysis, we awake and yet experience the full effects of REM.
In most of these cases, one of several events also occurs. With men, a disgusting, smelly, Old Hag appears and attacks sexually. In women, it is slightly different, but still with sexual excitation. One is powerless to defend against this until – by sheer will-power – one overcomes the invisible bonds. Time is suspended, so it is uncertain how long these events last – seconds or minutes? In 99.9% of all cases, the nightmare passes with no lasting physical effects. Not with the Hmong. They died.
Adler discovered that the Hmong had a mixture of Christian, indigenous, and other folklore and mythologies referred to loosely as tsog tsuam which had many rituals and shamanistic causes and cures to relieve and explain these attacks. Young men who slacked in worship were said to have the most prevalent episodes ending in death. Ancestral and evil spirits were unhappy. Many of these men had fought in guerrilla insurgencies sponsored by clandestine American funding. The Laotian communists won, and the remaining individuals fled ultimately to over 50 different American cities trying to locate areas that were most compatible with their homeland farming, or other practices. Naturally unemployment was high and families were totally isolated from their way of life. Their stress skyrocketed, as did loneliness, guilt, anger, depression. Many young men succumbed to this by experiencing nightmares and fatal chest pains. The survivors ultimately integrated into the lower echelons of society and began to be absorbed into the American experience.
The “nocebo” effect in the book’s title refers to the antithesis of a “placebo”, a negatively induced phenomenon due to a metaphorical sugar-pill. Remember the old adage, “If you are falling in your sleep, wake up before you hit the ground. Otherwise you will die.” The Hmong men, and perhaps many others, died from their psychopompic nightmares.