Nightmare Death Syndrome and The Hat Man
“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So, I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
― John Lennon
You wake in a cold sweat, fighting to regain your composure, wrestling for control of the reality you think you know. It’s happened again. The same dream. The same man. The man in the hat…
In the late 1970s/early 80s, 18 seemingly healthy Hmong men living in the United States suddenly died in their sleep. This event in itself wasn’t odd, but 100 more deaths followed in the next decade before dropping off. What did these men have in common? Most notably, they were all of Southeast Asian descent. Apparently, a syndrome is to blame. It’s been called SUNDS or Sudden Unexpected/Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome in the United States. Researchers have come to theorize that the deaths were caused by Brugada Syndrome, a condition that causes irregular heartbeat in people of Southeast Asian descent and causes the sufferer to have an irregular heartbeat, increasing the risk of sudden death. In the Philippines, Thailand, and Laos, places where this event is common, it’s known as Nightmare Death Syndrome. As if it were the dream itself and not the heart issue that caused the individual to expire.
Welcome back to another sleep-depriving episode of The ODDentity Podcast. This week, I wanted to explore the nightmarish vision that is The Man in the Hat, a common figure seen during what many of us know as sleep paralysis. I’ve tackled my rendition of the creature that causes sleep paralysis in my part of the world on a past episode, The Hag and the folklore surrounding it, but I find it very interesting that The Man in the Hat is a commonality in many American cases of sleep paralysis. I wondered if people of other cultures from other parts of the world had seen him and, sure enough, when I went looking for reports they appeared one after another. Google blew up with stories of experiences and it was difficult for me to narrow down some of these stories for this episode. Difficult, but not impossible.
And so, on with the show…
Upon reading about the deaths of the Hmong refugees, Shelley Adler, a medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Francisco, became interested in nightmares and their cultural origins.
In an October issue of Quartz, Corrine Purtill writes, “In an effort to understand Hmong interpretations of these deaths, Adler interviewed Hmong refugees living in Stockton, California. When asked about common nightmares, men and women described a figure called dab tsog (pronounced “da cho”), an evil spirit that visited sleepers at night, pressed upon their chests, and attempted to smother them as they slept. Almost all of the interviewees were familiar with dab tsog (“da cho”); 58% reported having been visited by the nightmare themselves.
But the Hmong were hardly the first or the only people to have an oral record of such suffocating night-time visitors, as Adler describes in her book, Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-body Connection. (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0051NXHEM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1)
For about as long as written records have existed, people have described a frightening night-time vision that paralyzes them with fear and seems to suck the breath right out of them, often by pressing directly upon their chest. Tales of such evil spirits come from ancient Assyria and Greece. Among the Canadian Inuit, the word uqumangirniq (ook-uhman-gear-nique) described this awake-but-paralyzed feeling; in Japan, kanashibari (can-ash-e-bar-e). Folklore from Newfoundland describes an old hag who sits upon sufferers’ chests as they sleep.
“The entity has stalked human beings throughout history, not merely within a particular society or during a specific time,” Adler wrote.”
Before we get into stories about The Hat Man, let’s talk a little bit about what sleep paralysis is and what causes it.
According to WebMD, “Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking. Sleep paralysis may accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is an overpowering need to sleep caused by a problem with the brain’s ability to regulate sleep.”
If you find it generally occurs while you’re in the process of falling asleep, it’s called hypnagogic or predormital. If you experience it when you’re beginning to wake up, it’s hypnopompic or postdormital. So, what does all that mean?
During Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis, “As you fall asleep, your body slowly relaxes. Usually you become less aware, so you do not notice the change. However, if you remain or become aware while falling asleep, you may notice that you cannot move or speak.
During Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis, “During sleep, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One cycle of REM and NREM sleep lasts about 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and takes up to 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move quickly and dreams occur, but the rest of your body remains very relaxed. Your muscles are “turned off” during REM sleep. If you become aware before the REM cycle has finished, you may notice that you cannot move or speak.”
There are 3 phases of non-REM sleep. In phase 1, you’ve just closed your eyes. It’s easy to wake you at this point and you won’t feel any disorientation if someone were to “wake you up.” This phase generally lasts anywhere from 5-10 minutes. In stage 2, your body temperature drops and your heart rate slows in preparation for deep sleep. It’s still fairly easy to rouse you at this point. Stage 3 is deep sleep. If someone were to jostle you awake at this point, you’d likely be disoriented. People like this deserve a high five in the face with a chair, but I digress. This stage is known as NREM sleep, when the body works to repair itself, build bone and muscle, and strengthen the immune system. Studies have shown that the older you get the less deep sleep you get and aging has been linked to shorter sleep periods. My grandfather sleeps maybe 5 ½ hours a night and always wakes refreshed. He’s clearly magic. However, this doesn’t mean you will be as vibrant at the age of 88 if you sleep 5 ½ hours a night. Studies have also shown that you need just as much sleep as you did when you were younger.
So, 90 minutes after all of the above happens, you slip into what is known as REM sleep, the final stage of the sleep process. As you sleep, your REM stages lengthen, the final stage might last up to an hour. Intense dreams are the mark of REM sleep because your brain is more active during this time. Your heart rate and breathing quickens. Fun fact: Babies spend up to 50% of their sleep in this stage.
What do we make of these night frights and the Freddy Krueger-esque feeling of dread we get when we think that our nightmares might kill us? Apparently 40% of people will have at least one experience in their lifetime and around 8% of us experience sleep paralysis regularly. If you have issues falling into or out of REM sleep, and your experience involves hallucinations or you’re unable to move or speak as you begin the waking process, you might be experiencing sleep paralysis.
Psychology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, Christopher French explains, “you’re in this weird kind of hybrid state, a mix of normal waking consciousness and dream consciousness. You know you can’t move. You can see that you’re in your bedroom. So it feels very, very real. When I sat and thought about [the Hat Man], the thing that came to my mind was Freddy Krueger. This notion that you can be attacked when you’re asleep, that’s when you’re vulnerable. And of course, Krueger wears a hat.”
The Hat Man has become somewhat of an urban legend to those of us who experience sleep paralysis and I wonder if the telling and retelling of similar stories and experiences has poisoned the well a little. I don’t doubt what people see. I wouldn’t want that judgement of what I know I’ve experienced. I just wonder. It intrigues me that all of the experiences are so similar. There’s a description of The Hat Man that seems to cover every story I’ve read. He’s tall, dressed in all black, and completely featureless. Sometimes he’s wearing a long black coat or a cloak. He wears a hat with a brim (either something that looks like a top hat or a wide-brimmed fedora.) How is it that so many people have described the same apparition? For the Quartz article, Purtill reached out to several Redditors and listened to countless stories about The Hat Man. People from the United States and Mexico had similar stories. I’m from Canada originally and I have my own Hat Man story which is very similar, if not almost identical, to those I’ve read. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t familiar with The Hat Man until I searched for him the first time…right after I saw him in my room one night.
It was late, likely 2 or 3 am on a weeknight. I was anxious about a test I had (likely maths though I don’t recall specifically) in the morning, first period, and was having trouble sleeping. I awoke at the aforementioned time with the feeling that someone was watching me. I opened my eyes and looked toward the door. I had recently moved into the basement of my grandparent’s house because one of my uncles had bought a house so the room was larger than my previous space. It had 2 areas, a “living” area where I had an old sofa (my uncle had left it behind) and a TV set up, and a sleeping area that contained my bed, a desk, and a dresser. From where I was, I could only see half of the door and I usually kept it closed, but when I opened my eyes, I saw that it was ajar. In the hallway beyond the door, illuminated by the light from the street beyond the windows behind it, stood a man in a hat. He was tall and his form was solid black. He wore all black clothing, a long jacket that came down past his knees, and seemed to be watching me. I couldn’t make out his features and he didn’t move. He just stood there and watched me. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t make a sound. I tried to sit up but it felt as if a weight were pressing down on my chest, pinning me to the bed. I remember being able to wiggle my fingers and toes, but I couldn’t look away from the man in the hat. I was terrified, though he didn’t move and didn’t speak out loud he seemed to exude fear. I could hear a scratching sound in my head. It sounded like someone lightly running their fingernails along a guitar string. It almost sounded like more than one person hissing out the words at once, but I couldn’t make sense of what he was telling me. The next thing I remember is my grandfather shaking me awake. He said I’d been screaming and he’d found it difficult to wake me.
In the years since, I’ve tried to sort this experience out and find the logic in it. I had felt awake, but must have been asleep if my grandfather had witnessed me doing so and had been trying to rouse me. It seemed to me that I had a partial witness to the experience leading me to believe that it must have been a nightmare. To this day I don’t know what The Hat Man was trying to tell me.
I’ve not only seen The Hat Man. I’ve also seen various shadow people, though it’s sometimes difficult to call them that. They’re often just black masses that appear in a doorway or at a window and disappear again as suddenly as they appeared there. I’m not the only person whose seen them. Shadow people are a staple in the folklore and legends of many people and places throughout the world.
From Wikipedia, “The Coast to Coast AM late night radio talk show helped popularize modern beliefs in shadow people. The first time the topic of shadow people was discussed at length on the show was April 12, 2001 when host Art Bell interviewed Native American elder Thunder Strikes, who is also known as Harley “SwiftDeer” Reagan. During the show, listeners were encouraged to submit drawings of shadow people that they had seen and a large number of these drawings were immediately shared publicly on the website. In October that year, Heidi Hollis published her first book on the topic of shadow people, and later became a regular guest on Coast to Coast. Hollis describes shadow people as dark silhouettes with human shapes and profiles that flicker in and out of peripheral vision, and claims that people have reported the figures attempting to “jump on their chest and choke them”. She believes the figures to be negative, alien beings that can be repelled by various means, including invoking “the Name of Jesus”.
Although participants in online discussion forums devoted to paranormal and supernatural topics describe them as menacing, other believers and paranormal authors do not agree whether shadow people are either evil, helpful, or neutral, and some even speculate that shadow people may be the extra-dimensional inhabitants of another universe. Some paranormal investigators and authors such as Chad Stambaugh claim to have recorded images of shadow people on video.”
The thought that shadow people might be from another dimension within our universe reminded me of the horror film Mirrors featuring Kiefer Sutherland. He plays a security guard charged with watching a department store that’s been gutted by a fire. There are scenes in that movie that smack of experiences I’ve personally had with shadow people, catching a glimpse of them in a mirror.
I’m also reminded of the 2015 documentary The Nightmare which interviews several sufferers of sleep paralysis from different parts of the world and investigates some of the experiences they’ve had with shadow people through a cultural lens. If you experience sleep paralysis, this is a must watch. I’d definitely recommend it. You’ll also get the opportunity to hear the Newfoundland accent, which I think is pretty cool. The documentary is free to watch on YouTube. I’ll drop a link into the show notes.
You might remember a past episode of this podcast where Katie told her story about The Hat Man. She’s seen him on several occasions, waiting in a darkened corner of a room or just beyond a doorway. The difference with Katie’s experience is that she also saw this shadow figure while she was driving home, reflected in the window of a nearby car. I have no explanation for this. The fact I’ve seen him myself doesn’t make him real or lend credibility to his existence. It just means that we’ve both had similar experiences that might have been due to high stress, too much caffeine, too little sleep… Apparently, he’s a common hallucination, tacked on to the list of various other critters and creatures including spiders or insects. This explanation doesn’t make these experience any less terrifying and, if you don’t experience sleep paralysis, you’ll soon understand how frightening these experiences can be. I’ve reached out to a few of my Reddit friends and received a few emails about The Hat Man. Some run a little longer, others are to the point.
I was twelve and living with my dad. My parents had divorced and my time was split between two houses. When my grandmother on my father’s side passed away, he inherited her house. It wasn’t long before we moved from a cramped apartment to a three-bedroom house. It was cool having all that space and I immediately claimed the third bedroom, the one in the attic. It was brighter than all the other rooms and had a large window looking out over the neighborhood. We settled in and unpacked.
One night a few months after that I woke up in the middle of the night to a scratching sound. I could hear the sound but couldn’t see where it was coming from. I scanned the room but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I closed my eyes again and tried to go back to sleep. Suddenly, I felt air on my cheek and opened my eyes again. There was a solid black figure standing over me, close enough that I could feel its breath on my face. I tried to move but it felt like I was frozen and I could only look into whatever this dark thing was. It only lasted a few moments but it was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced. I was afraid of everything as a kid, especially horror movies so I know I didn’t watch something before bed that would freak me out. The next day at school I told my friend what I’d seen and she said she’d seen him too in the past.
I haven’t told anyone this but sometimes when I wake up at night, I see a dark figure in my room. He wears a hat with a wide brim and I can’t make out his face. I don’t know why he comes or what he wants, but I always feel afraid when I see him and I hear whispers like my room is filled with lots of voices. Sometimes I sleep at my mates flat because I don’t want to go home.
Sometime around 1976, I moved to Amsterdam with my family. I came here to teach English and stayed after I retired from teaching. I remember several times seeing a figure in my room at night. My wife would be asleep next to me and I’d watch as the figure leaned over her as if it was whispering something to her. I couldn’t move or do anything; I could only watch. In the morning, she would tell me about a bad dream she had about someone in the room. She also would have terrible headaches in the morning after experiencing this the night before. It was very strange and I still have no explanation.
Another time we were visiting friends and stayed overnight because we were a couple of hours from home and had stayed too late. I again saw a man in a hat leaning over my wife while she was asleep and again in the morning she complained of headaches and nightmares. I’m not sure if this is the type of story you’re looking for, but these experiences are very real to me.
I dream of him every night, though I’m not sure it is a dream. He’s often in the doorway to my room that I share with my older brother and he doesn’t say anything. I think it’s a he. I feel like it is. He watches us from the dark corner of the doorway and disappears slowly. It’s almost like he’s made of smoke. It’s like when you put out a cigarette. He’s there and then gone again. I feel fear when I see him, but he’s never hurt me. I feel like he could if he wanted to.
My wife and I bought a house a few years back and it has a storage room that you can get to through a little door. It’s like a trap door with a little handle and it opens out. We made the room with the trap door our bedroom because it was the master and our son who was 16 at the time wanted to live in the basement bedroom. The house was built in the 40s and has some creaks and groans, but is mostly in good shape. We’ve been fixing it up for a few years now.
My wife has sleep paralysis and has gone for sleep studies to try and figure out why she can’t get good sleep. She’s tried many different medications and even warm milk before bed. Nothing will help her sleep better. So she’s up and down in the night time because she can’t sleep at all or has had what she calls a bad dream. I’ve never been one to have bad dreams until recently.
I dream that there is a shadow standing in the corner of the bedroom next to the trap door. He’s tall and wears a hat. He’s solid and you can’t see through him, but it seems like he comes out of the trap door. The door doesn’t open, it’s like he slips through the crack where the door meets the frame. He just stands there looking at me. I’m not sure what he wants, but now I’ve started talking to my doctor about medication because I can’t get what I’m seeing to go away and now I’m not sleeping well either.
Ever since I was very little, I’ve been able to see shadow people. I’ve done a lot of research about them online and read a lot of books about them because I want to understand what I’m seeing. I’ll see them just as I’m going to sleep but I’ve also seen them in my house and in other places like stores and supermarkets. They hide behind displays and peek out around corners. I remember you talking about your being able to see spirits on an episode of this podcast so I thought I’d send my story along. I love the podcast and that it is so supportive of those who have had these experiences. A lot of people think I’m crazy, but once a week I get to listen to the ODD Pod and all that worry goes away! Thanks for that.
Anyway… I’ve always had imaginary friends. I was always the kid who would want to play by themselves because I was never really alone. I found out when I was in my teens that not everyone can see shadow people or spirits. I used to think that everyone had imaginary friends that nobody else could see.
I remember one night when I was in bed, I woke up to someone saying my name. They said it very loudly and it seemed like they were right next to me sitting on the floor and level with my right ear. I looked around but didn’t see anyone. Later that night, I woke up again to my name being called out. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at a black mass. It was like it was all around me and I couldn’t see through it. I felt cold and it felt like hands were pushing me down. My parent’s bedroom was right next to mine but even though I was screaming in my head I couldn’t make any noise out loud. The next morning at breakfast I told my mom about it. She said it was just a bad dream and I should just forget about it.
The next couple of weeks, I kept seeing the black mass in my room at night and I kept having the same experiences. I told my mother each time it happened and my father too, but they didn’t believe me. They did however send me to a psychiatrist who told me I have schizophrenia. I’m not on medication anymore because it didn’t help, but I moved out of my parents house when I was in my early 20’s and have not seen the menacing shadow since. I’ve seen hundreds of shadow people, but none of them have made me fear for my own safety like this one has.
Back in 1998 I went to live with my aunt and uncle because my parents were in an accident and lost their lives. I had never seen anything I would consider weird before then, but when I moved in with them The Man in the Hat would visit me regularly. He never said anything, just watched me. I didn’t sleep well until I went away to college. He left me alone after that.
Rhonda, Cape Town, South Africa
My whole family has trouble sleeping and we’ve been to doctors to have it checked. My father was an insomniac and my mother has trouble getting to sleep. I’ve always had nightmares, I guess some people call them night terrors, and often have dreams about a man that has a wide-brimmed hat. The top of the hat is sometimes pointy kind of like a witch hat, but I think this might be just the way I see him or the way he appears to me. I’ve read a lot about other people’s experiences and about shadow people and I’m not sure if what I’m experiencing is real or not. I know it terrifies me when I see him and can’t move. I never talked to anyone about him because I thought they’d think I was crazy.
I’m an ex-pat living in Central America and have always seen shadows. They look a little like people but more often than not are just black blobs. Sometimes I think they want to tell me something because of the way they appear. Sometimes it looks like they’re gesturing or trying to get my attention. I’m not sure what they want but I don’t try to talk to them. I’m afraid to try because of what I’ve heard and read about possession and communicating with people from the other side. I see them regularly, several times a week. When I see them, I also sometimes see a man wearing a top hat. He doesn’t say anything either but he also doesn’t do any gesturing. I wonder sometimes if he wants them to deliver his message for him.
If you’re interested in reading more Hat Man stories, check out thehatmanproject.com. It appears that many of the links at the top of the page don’t work, but there are a ton of experiences catalogued here. Additionally, Reddit is a great source for spooky stories about the spectacularly spooky. I’ve come across several shadow person stories on the No Sleep subreddit. There are also a bunch of videos on YouTube about The Hat Man and his shadow companions that are sure to whet your creepy whistle. I’ll drop the links into the show notes for anyone who’s keen on freaking themselves out even further.
That’s it for this week, dear listeners. Thanks so much for tuning in and special thanks to those who shared their experiences with me for this episode. I’ll be back again next week with more tales of the creepy, weird, and paranormal.
Until next time, Stay Spooky!
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The Nightmare: Sleep Paralysis Documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY2gh51KdnQ