They'd come to America from Laos, fleeing a violent civil war...but what was killed off so many young, healthy Hmong men?
Chicago is a bustling city of skyscrapers, busy streets and taxis weaving through heavy traffic.
Home to 2.5 million people.
But not Vang Xiong.
For him, Chicago was just a place to live.
His home was 8, 000 miles away, in the lush green of an isolated mountainside in Laos, southeast Asia.
He’d been born there. But he was never going back.
It was 1975. For the past two years Laos had been locked in a bitter civil war. Royalists against communists.
Vang and the people of the mountain, the ethnic group known as the Hmong, had fought on the side of the royalists.
But the communists had won. And to exact their revenge on the Hmong, they’d captured and executed more than 100,000 of them.
Those that could escaped.
They left behind the mountains they loved, became refugees first in Thailand, and were then sent to the USA and cities like Chicago, Sacramento, Milwaukee…
Vang Xiong was one of 35,000 Hmong starting out in America.
But it was while trying to build a new life in Chicago that Vang had a visitor from Laos.
A spirit visitor. The ancient spirit of an angry old woman.
The Dab Tsog.
Vang later described the night she came.
‘A tall, white-skinned female spirit came and lay on top of me,’ he said. ‘Her weight made it difficult for me to breathe, I tried to call out but could only manage a whisper. I tried to turn onto my side put she’d pinned me down. After 15 minutes, she left. And I woke screaming.’
Vang had survived his visit from the Dab Tsog.
Others weren’t so lucky.
In the years after the Hmong refugees settled in the USA, 100 of them died suddenly in their sleep.
All of them but one were men. All of them in their early 30s. And all of them in good health.
The same pattern repeated itself every time. The victim would cry out in his sleep. And then, he’d die.
A handful, like Vang, claimed to be survivors.
They claimed the Dab Tsog came for them in their sleep because she was angry. Her Hmong people were leaving behind their traditions and cultures to get ahead in the West, where they had become refugees.
Some Hmong had even turned to Christianity. Which would mean a certain end for the Dab Tsog and the other spirit deities the Hmong had traditionally believed in.
It seemed plausible. The only Hmong men dying like this were refugees, either in the USA or Thailand.
The mysterious deaths didn’t go unnoticed by the US authorities.
For them, stories of the Dab Tsog were just that. Spooky stories, but still stories.
So how were these fit, young men dying so suddenly in their sleep?
Autopsies didn’t reveal much about the deaths.
The men’s hearts seem to have just stopped.
And that itself was mystifying. The number of people suffering cardiac diseases and malfunctions in the southeast Asian community is low. Their diet is good, and it’s low in fat.
The American scientists called the phenomenon Asian Death Syndrome.
The Hmong refugees called it Nightmare Death.
Suddenly, young men in the Hmong community in the USA were scared to sleep.
There are reports of some drinking endless cups of coffee, desperate to fight off the fatigue.
But no man can avoid sleep forever.
Sooner or later, sleep was a risk they all had to take.
Four years on, in 1981, 18 men died in one year in San Francisco.
Another examination of the bodies was carried out by Dr. Friedrich Eckner. This time, a more thorough examination.
He found that 17 of the 18 deceased had defects in their hearts’ conduction systems – the fibres that carry electric impulses from the brain to the heart. The fibres were frayed and curled. As if they’d shorted like an overloaded fuse.
The hearts were stopping because of a sudden, electric discharge. The exact same electric discharge created in the brain during nightmares.
The Hmong refugees were being killed by their own nightmares.
Scientists, sociologists, psychologists tried to work out why. Why were these nightmares so frightening they had the power to kill?
The Long Beach Hmong Association in California blamed depression. An estimated 90% of the community’s elders were sufferers.
Hardly surprising given what they’d gone through.
The massacre of friends and family at the hands of Laos’s communists, the terrifying escape to the border…the guilt they suffered at their own survival over that of others.
Added to that was the stress of settling into life on a new continent, in a new country…having to live in a city for the first time and leave behind the traditions and way of life they’d grown up with. Not to mention the racist prejudice many faced.
When they first arrived in the USA, many Hmong didn’t speak English. This once proud and self-sufficient people were suddenly reduced to living on charity and government handouts.
And the situation was worse for the men. In Hmong culture, the father and son are the centre of the family.
It’s up to them to provide for everyone.
Which is perhaps why so many victims of the Nightmare Death were men.
Were they so terrified by their prospects in this new world that they were committing a sort of unconscious suicide?
After 1981, the Nightmare Deaths got fewer and fewer, until today when they are almost unheard of.
Had Hmong men conquered their fears and concerns and found their place in their adopted homeland of America?
Had the old woman spirit Dab Tsog simply given up?
No one knows for sure.
But either way, the nightmare was finally over.
Nightmare on Elm Street
Hollywood film writer and director Wes Craven got the idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street from the newspaper articles he read about Asian Death Syndrome in the 1970s. The 1984 horror film tells the story of Freddy Kruger, who uses razor blades to kill his teenage victims in their dreams, which results in their deaths in the real world. Speaking of the articles Wes Craven read, he said: ‘It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation.’