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Fuseli - The Nightmare

When the Old Hag Kills…

Here’s a fascinating article on the power of belief, framed in cultural beliefs about the night-mare/’old hag’ experienced during episodes of sleep paralysis by the Hmong people of South-East Asia:

They died in their sleep one by one, thousands of miles from home. Their median age was 33. All but one – 116 of the 117 – were healthy men. Immigrants from southeast Asia, you could count the time most had spent on American soil in just months. At the peak of the deaths in the early 1980s, the death rate from this mysterious problem among the Hmong ethnic group was equivalent to the top five natural causes of death for other American men in their age group.

Something was killing Hmong men in their sleep, and no one could figure out what it was. There was no obvious cause of death. None of them had been sick, physically. The men weren’t clustered all that tightly, geographically speaking. They were united by dislocation from Laos and a shared culture, but little else. Even House would have been stumped…

Twenty-five years later, Shelley Adler’s new book pieces together what happened, drawing on interviews with the Hmong population and analyzing the extant scientific literature. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection is a mind-bending exploration of how what you believe interacts with how your body works. Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, comes to a stunning conclusion: In a sense, the Hmong were killed by their beliefs in the spirit world, even if the mechanism of their deaths was likely an obscure genetic cardiac arrhythmia that is prevalent in southeast Asia.

In short, after reviewing all the evidence, Adler “makes the provocative claim that the Laotian immigrants of the 1980s were in some sense killed by their powerful cultural belief in night spirits.”

You can pick up a copy of Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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  1. Alder is right!
    Professor Alder is 100% correct. It is because of my (Hmong) cultural beliefs and our very strong ties to spirits. When we migrated to the U.S., we left almost everything we had behind. Our houses, jobs, families, etc. Our houses were tied with very strong spirits, and you can not just abandon your house. You have to, in a respectfully manner, call the spirits, or at least let them know, that you will no longer be living and migrating to the U.S. Some may have improperly done this and that is why the spirits are coming back for them. I also think that the deaths occured because of the spirits of the dead left back in the homeland. The dead need offerings, money, care for, and if there is no one to do that, they get angry and take it out on them. Causing many Hmong to be sick and some of them (as mentioned in this article) to die in their sleep.

    1. from the Fecund-Variety-Dept.
      Wow, this is one of the reasons I like the internet, being exposed to so many different cultures & worldviews :3

      Do you think the Hmong will ever be able to live in space?

    2. Fascinating
      Thank you for sharing that fascinating interpretation. Did the Hmnong community seek the aid of a shaman to help with this problem?

      BTW, welcome to the Grail 🙂

    3. Sleep Paralysis book
      Thanks so much. The Hmong immigrants I spoke with were the first to explain their beliefs about the spirits to me–and they shared the same information you’ve described here.

    4. Sleeping patterns in a modern world
      Thanks so much for sharing this, HmoobHawj. Australian aborigines experience the same issues when moving from traditional ways to modern Western lifestyles.

      My mother’s step-father is English, a salt-of-the-earth Yorkshire farmer from the Olde country. He remembers his grandparents talking about having a first and a second sleep. Many cultures still tied to the land and natural cycles continue to sleep this way. It makes me wonder what we’re losing with our modern progress of 24/7 lights and technology.

      Personally, I reckon we should bring back second breakfast, elevenses, and afternoon tea as well.

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