Cultural Beliefs, Spiritual Insights into ‘Nocturnal Deaths’ in Laos

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Cultural Beliefs, Spiritual Insights into ‘Nocturnal Deaths’ in Laos
Shaman Txiaj Vwj Invites Spirits to his Altar, Thaj Neeb Healing Ceremony, Ua Neeb, Namla Village, Luang Namtha Province, Laos (photo: Tribal Music Asia)

Departing from this world during sleep is often perceived as tranquil and painless by some.

Scientifically referred to as “nocturnal death,” such episodes are frequently linked to sudden cardiac arrest or the progressive deterioration of heart function observed in congestive heart failure (CHF). However, in small or rural communities, these events might be attributed to supernatural causes, often involving ghosts and spirits. This is particularly prevalent among Hmong communities worldwide. Originally residing in China and Southeast Asia, including northern Vietnam, Thailand, and the eastern regions of Myanmar, the Hmong ethnic group is now the largest ethnic minority in Laos.

One of the periods most closely associated with the legend of sleep paralysis in Laos is the tumultuous era of the Vietnam War. During this time, numerous young Lao men were reported to have perished in their sleep, succumbing to a mysterious ailment later identified as “Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS).”

According to the Los Angeles Times, SUNDS primarily affected Hmong men who had returned from the war in Northern Vietnam after being recruited by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Between 1978 and 1981, 13 deaths were recorded, with 98 percent of them occurring between 10 pm and 8 am. In 1981, 26 Hmong men died under similar circumstances, raising alarm and sparking speculations about the cause of these mysterious deaths. 

But the most eerie aspect of these deaths was the fact that they exclusively affected men, sparing women and children from such occurrences.

While the evident reasons behind the mysterious deaths during sleep remain unknown, speculations suggest it could be due to exposure to chemical nerve agents during the Vietnam War. However, some members of the Hmong community believed that these deaths were a form of punishment by spirits for leaving and abandoning their homelands.

Most members of the Hmong community practice animism and naturalism. However, some of them also adopt the practice of Buddhism. That was the case for Meng Moua, a 34-year-old Hmong man from Vientiane Province.

Mysterious Passing Prompts Reflections on Spiritual Involvement

“It was during Lao New Year, the 14th of April in the afternoon, when it all happened,” Meng recalled.

Like in many households in Laos, Meng joined in the festivities with his wife and younger sister. However, they soon departed for temples at the invitation of his cousin to perform meritorious deeds for the occasion. Meng’s sister opted to remain behind to oversee the house during their absence.

During their visits to nine temples across Vientiane Capital, Meng received fortunes from five of them. Unfortunately, each fortune foretold bad luck, leaving Meng with a sense of impending misfortune and sadness for the immediate future.

“I could feel that something bad was going to happen,” he said.

A couple of hours later, Meng returned home. “I knocked on the door multiple times with no response from my sister. I could tell that it was very strange because it had never happened before.”

Meng broke into the room to find his sister lying still on her back, as though she were asleep. 

“I tried to wake her up; I shook her body, doing everything I could, but to no avail.” 

As he rushed her to the hospital, he heard a gasp, a sound that, according to the village elders, often signals a person’s final breath. Meng also knew it.

The doctors made every effort to revive his sister. However, she showed no response to any form of treatment, ultimately leading to her passing, he recalled, believing the spirits may have taken her.

In Laos, spiritual beliefs have long been intertwined with cultural practices, with notable phenomena like spirits taking one’s life during sleep being passed down through generations. This phenomenon, characterized by a feeling of being haunted while sleeping, holds deep roots in Lao folklore and history.

Shaman Says, Expert Elaborates

In an attempt to shed light on this phenomenon, a Hmong shaman named Vanghua Moua, who has practiced for over 15 years, offered insights into the spiritual beliefs surrounding dying during sleep among the Hmong people in Xieng Khuang, Laos.

“Their souls get eaten,” Vanghua explained, referring to spirits such as phi pop and phi phong. “These ghosts came from people who practiced black magic but failed to follow its rules. As a result, they turn into such ghosts and feed on humans’ souls, flesh, and blood to survive.”

To protect against these malevolent spirits, Vanghua suggested placing the skin of a hog badger  in front of one’s house and burning it.

“Once you burn the hog badger’s skin, it will send out a strong smell that could chase the ghosts [phi pop and phi phong] away.”

Phi pop is often depicted as a creature that likes to devour human viscera. It is known for its terrifying appearance and is feared for its predatory nature. Phi phong, on the other hand, is a ghost of northern folk beliefs in Thailand and Laos. It is also known as phi phao in the Isan region of Thailand. Phi phong is believed to be a spirit that can cause harm to humans if threatened, especially those who are spiritually weak or unprotected.

While some may view these beliefs as superstitious, Ian Baird, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison who studies Lao society closely, argues that there is a specific reason behind these beliefs.

“Some people, especially in rural areas, benefit from these beliefs,” Baird explained. He cited the example of Nang Thiam, a village spirit believed to possess a woman in the village between March and June annually. When possessed, the woman advises the chief village on how to improve the village and gives advice on various matters.

“If you try to diminish this belief, it’s like you are trying to get rid of women’s rights,” he said.  Baird also emphasized the importance of understanding these beliefs from different perspectives rather than dismissing them as superstitious, as they may hold meaningful ideas behind them.

Ian added that beliefs in spirits and ghosts can serve as a form of social control, preventing people from engaging in harmful actions. 

He mentioned that in rural villages, some individuals are accused of being phi pop by the governor, not because they are actual spirits, but because they may have violated laws or caused disruptions in the community.

“If the village chief can’t legally get rid of those kinds of people, what do they do? They accuse them of being phi pops of course.”

“People should try to be more open-minded about the beliefs of others and try to understand them from different perspectives,” Ian concluded. “These beliefs may hold valuable insights into the culture and society of Laos.”

Despite the advancements in science and medicine, the legend of sleep paralysis and its spiritual connections continue to intrigue and mystify many in Laos and beyond.