Bangungot, or nightmares which involves paralysis and occasionally death, is phenomenon that can be easily explained with science. It seems that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the muscles are paralyzed perhaps as a protective mechanism. What makes it scary is that this is often associated with visual or auditory hallucinations. But it really is pretty much harmless from a scientific point of view.
Others, however, continue to blame bangungot on the paranormal. In Ilokano folklore, it is caused by the batibat, are large female tree spirits that sit on your chest until you suffocate, especially if you happen to have cut down their tree and turned it into a bedpost. Incidentally, sleep paralysis is known as “old hag syndrome” in some references. I just can’t dig out the history behind that, although Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains a brief description of an old hag who influences dreams.
In medieval Europe, this was attributed to the incubus, a small, black, impish creature that sits on your chest until you suffocate. I do not like this idea of sleep paralysis at all, mostly due to the fact that it incubi are commonly known as sex offenders. And because I have once seen a small, black, impish creature in the middle of the night, although I can’t be sure if I actually saw it or dreamt it. (However, one of my “gifted” friends did say it was likely to be just an elemental…)
There are beliefs similar to these all over the world. And that’s not to mention all the people I know who have personally experienced similar things. Sleep paralysis, it seems, is a common predicament.
In several years spanning from high school to college, I frequently had bangungot especially when I slept at home in my room. But this was eventually remedied by taking a shower every night before I go to bed. This is why I don’t believe in what the old folks say about going to sleep with wet hair: nothing ever happened to me except the fact that I had a good night’s sleep. (Plus it meant I was super clean after long shifts that may or may not have involved a lot of human secretions and excretions.)
I had another some time last year. Due to lack of sleep and stress from the piles of activities in the previous weeks, I have taken to taking short afternoon naps at what we call the Peace Room just to refresh my neurons. The Peace Room is a small library at my primary workplace containing books and other references on peacebuilding. It’s a convenient place to work and nap in,because people generally don’t have time to read books here (except for me, because it is in fact part of my job) and it is therefore frequently people-less and quiet. Besides, it’s familiar: Alternately sleeping and studying in libraries is something I’ve been doing since high school. But then, short afternoon naps are not as refreshing when bangungot is involved. I don’t intend to make the Peace Room my Rest in Peace Room.
Word is that invisible little kids play in the Peace Room every night. I can’t attest to this, though. I have, in fact, fallen asleep in the Peace Room one evening and don’t remember any kids running about.
When those little kids were brought up I remembered that one time, Chariya, one of our interns, and I had to sleep in a room in the former municipal hall in Aleosan, North Cotabato. In the morning, she said that she could barely sleep for fear of the spirits in the place. There are generally more spirits in public places, she said. She slept comfortably the next night because the spirits had probably gotten used to us. It occurred to me that the Peace Room was actually a public place.
I brought up the story to my boyfriend, one of the most sensible persons I know, over the phone. He said: “Ah, nanghilabot sa imo ang akong mga migo?” (Did my friends bother you?) And, in his infinite wisdom, he gave this advice: “Sunod, pananghid lang sa.” (Next time, ask for their permission.)
Some of you will think I’m crazy but I do, in fact, believe that there are forces in this world that are out of science’s reach. And these forces, I believe, are at interplay with science itself. I will leave it as that because explaining this will be long and utterly complicated. But please be assured that I am still the science geek you know and love.
His advice was not new either. In Tagalog culture for one, when passing by ancient trees or anthills, children are taught to say “tabi-tabi po” (equivalent to “please let me pass”) to tell the spirit, usually a nuno sa punso, that they mean no harm in passing by. I used to do this as a kid from friends’ influence. But because my family is quite “modern”, scientific and non-superstitious, I had fallen out of the habit.
So the next afternoon, I needed another break. (It was a very bad week for the sleeping department.) So I went up to the Peace Room to read a leisurely book and have a nap before proceeding with working on another report. I opened the door, turned on the light and stared into the empty room.
“Pasensya na gahapon na ningsulod lang ko na wala’y pananghid,” I said out loud. (I assumed whoever was in there spoke in Visayan.) “Kasagaran, wala ra man gyud sa akong huna-huna na naa ang mga tawo parehas ninyo sa usa ka lugar. Pasensya gyud kaayo. Wala unta mo nasuko nako. Mosulod napud ko balik karon. Padayon ra unta mo sa inyong ginabuhat, pero mamalihug lang ko na ayaw lang ko hilabti.” (I’m sorry if I came in yesterday without asking you. Most of the time, I don’t even think that there are people like you around. I’m really sorry. I hope you’re not mad at me. I’m coming in again right now. Go ahead with what you’re doing but can I please ask you not to bother me.)
I read a chapter or two of the book before I fell asleep. And I slept very well.
Perhaps it’s about time I started renewing my relationship with whatever-forces-may-be. I’ve long forgotten about them.