The Eternal Nightmare

Case File: The Dab Tsog

You wake, terror beating at you. There’s something insidious in the room with you, creeping closer, intent on doing you harm. You try to run, but your limbs won’t obey your commands. You cannot shout, you cannot scream. The only thing that moves is your eyes, frantically searching the parts of the room you can see while lying prone in bed. Pressure increases on your chest until you can’t breathe, and you realize you are going to die. Panic consumes you. When you can finally scream, you can only release a short cry of warning before your heart gives out. For some, death is a blessing, the end of the nightmare that tormented them. A chance for final rest, an eternal uninterrupted sleep.

We’ve all seen the movies. A scarred, laughing Freddy Krueger with metallic claws reaching out from the darkness to drag you into his nighttime world. Wes Craven created a monster unlike anything that existed at the time, as everyone could identify with the victims in this scenario. After all, everyone has had a nightmare at some point in their lives. Krueger didn’t just spring from nowhere, however. This killer was inspired by real, if somewhat unbelievable, events.
Starting in 1977 and lasting approximately a decade, 117 Hmong men died suddenly in their sleep. Their average age was 33, and all were healthy before going to bed. There was no logical reason for these men to pass away, no outward signs of damage or distress. Some family members mentioned hearing a scream or labored breathing, but nothing else. All complained of being visited by a nightmare creature in the Hmong culture called the Dab Tsog in the weeks before death, and they were known to attempt to avoid sleep in the days beforehand. None succeeded in repelling the Dab Tsog, even though they tried with various methods of sleep-avoidance techniques.
Those who have been visited by the Dab Tsog describe something similar to sleep paralysis, but in the Hmong culture, it is far more dangerous. Once you’ve been visited, you must find a Shaman who can perform certain rituals to call on your ancestors to protect you. Without their help, you will certainly become a victim. All of the victims were recent refugees to the United States escaping from the Vietnam War, cut off from their support systems and their ritualistic beliefs. They could not perform the rituals they believed would protect them.
So what can cause these things? Many believe things like sleep paralysis are brought on by stress, lack of sleep, genetic heart disorders like Brugata syndrome, and a disturbed REM sleep cycle. The Hmong spate of deaths was eventually termed SUNDS- sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome, as authorities and scientists could never find a definite cause. Unfortunately, it seems the Hmong avoiding sleep to prevent being targeted by the Dab Tsog likely contributed to their demise, making them more susceptible.
There is another type of sleep disturbance that’s even more rare, runs in families, and more deadly. Fatal familial insomnia, or FFI. Unlike the rest, FFI causes the brain to never be able to shut down completely, resulting in a sort of coma-like stupor. Once symptoms begin to show, the patient generally has less than a year left to live. A prion disease related to Mad Cow Disease, it leaves the brain resembling Swiss cheese, and shows another reason why avoiding sleep to escape terror is not the answer most are looking for.
Everyone needs to sleep. When we don’t, our brains can conjure up hallucinations and visions we could never dream of while awake. Sleep is healing, and helps to form long-term memories. Without it, the very things that make us who we are disappear, leaving us in a sort of half-life; awake, but unaware. Everyone has had a nightmare at some point. Everyone has had a fear of something in the dark we cannot name. It’s no wonder that every culture has some form of a monster that attacks during sleep. Nightmares are universal, a product of being human.
What happens when our nightmares become deadly? What happens when we can’t escape what’s in our own mind? These are the fears that bring creatures like the Dab Tsog to life, the things that have us reaching for our religion, our cultural practices to protect us and offer us some bastion of light in the darkness. The deaths of the Hmong men show the worst of what happens when we lose our hold on the things that keep us grounded, the beliefs that we feel keep us protected against the demons that go ‘bump’ in the dark. We all need to sleep, we can’t escape it. We don’t need Freddy Krueger to scare us silly… our own minds conjure horrific scenes quite well enough.
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Mandi resides in Ohio, where she shares her workspace with an ornery bassle pup, two lab mixes, two cats, and assorted squirrels. She’s an avid writer, reader and blogger who adores music. She can easily be bribed with peanut butter M&Ms, gemstones, hot lead singers, and gargoyles. You can find her books and social links on her website.
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