What is the Batibat?
The Batibat or Bangungot is a vengeful spirit found in Ilocano folklore. These spirits are blamed as the cause of the fatal nocturnal disease called bangungot or *SUNDS (sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome). A Batibat takes the form of a huge, old, fat woman that resides in trees. When these trees are cut down to make posts for a house, the home owner may find that they have inherited an unwanted guest. The Batibat migrates into holes found in the posts and gets particularly cranky when someone dares to sleep near it. The Batibat will transform and sit on the chest of its victim until he suffocates.
I find the idea of the Batibat both horrifying and fascinating. Isn’t the darkness that creeps in as the sun sets terrifying enough? The thought of being so frightened that you can’t breathe, or are literally “scared to death” is truly the stuff of nightmares. When I watch horror films, I often think I’d be the first to go – feeding off my phobia of becoming paralyzed with fear and losing my breath. In the case of the Batibat, nobody would have the option of a heroic battle – she is believed to be so heavy and large, that even the burliest of men would be suffocated under her mass.
“The syndrome is called ”bangungut,” a Filipino word for ”nightmare,” and is described in medical literature as ”nightmare death syndrome.” The fatal affliction, Dr. McGee said, has been suggested as the cause of death in similar cases among young Filipino males between 30 and 40 years old.” – New York Times May 10, 1981
The term “bangungot” is medically linked to SUNDS and has been a mystery throughout SE Asia for decades. The deaths are very real. In fact, the New York Times reported on it back in 1981. One of the possibilities being explored at that time was that victims of SUNDS were “frightened to death by nightmares”. When the bodies of the deceased were examined, no cause of death was found.
When one strips down mythical creatures and folk tales, you can generally find it is rooted in something that can be explained rationally. With bangungot, even the most rational of medical minds could historically only surmise that the victims were ‘scared to death’. Other theories existed when it came to single deaths related to SUNDS, but they quickly fall apart when comparing it with all other existing cases. For a long time, the Batibat was one of the rare supernatural beings in the Philippines where it is difficult to accuse people who believe in it of being ignorant or superstitious. An enormous angry spirit smothering a person in their sleep was still a better answer than doctors offering, ‘we don’t know’. Closure can be important for those who lose a loved one, and in the case of SUNDS, the Batibat offered it.
In recent years, doctors have discovered a trend with the men who have died from bangungot – they consumed a lot of starchy food and alcohol right before they went to bed. This is consistent with the behaviour that causes acute pancreatitis. It has been widely agreed-upon by doctors that the lethal consequences of eating starchy food and drinking alcohol, immediately followed by sleep, could be the likely culprit. The pancreas simply fails due to the excess. This is not the reason in all the deaths related to bangungot, but it could be in a majority of them. Sleep apnoea and sleep asphyxiation have also been attributed.
So what can we do to protect ourselves? If you believe in fat spirits sitting on your chest, you can ward off the batibat by biting your thumb or wiggle your toes – which will apparently wake you up from a Batibat induced nightmare. Other than that, who the heck eats starchy food after a night of drinking? I mean, I don’t…every…single…time. o_O Sleep tight!
*Sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome (SUNDS) is the sudden unexpected death of adolescents and adults, often during sleep. In the Philippines, where it is referred to in the vernacular as bangungot, SUNDS affects 43 per 100,000 each year among young Filipinos. Most of the victims are males.