Here’s a little story for you, as you prepare to go to sleep in your nice, cozy, bed with its wooden headboard, posts, and footboard, in your snug, secure house with its wooden frame, with your glass of water on your wooden side tables: It’s from the Ilocano people in the Philippines, and it has to do with trees, sleep, and death.
People in the Philippines, as well as in some other Asian nations along the Pacific coast, have reported a form of death called bangungot. Bangungot comes to young men, unexpected, in their sleep. Ilocano tradition has it that this form of sudden death while sleeping is caused by the batibat.
The batibat is a kind of large female spirit who lives within trees. As long as the trees are left alone, the batibat keeps to itself, mostly. When its tree is cut down for use as timber, however, the batibat takes its revenge. It slips back into the dead wood of its tree, wherever it is being used, and it waits for someone to fall asleep near the wood, whether that wood has been used to make a bed, or simply as part of the wood frame in the construction of a house.
When the batibat’s victim falls asleep, the batibat comes back out of the wood, and sits on the victim’s chest or face. Given that the batibat has the form of a very large woman, the victim cannot move, or even scream out. However, if the victim wiggles a thumb or toe, escape is possible.
The batibat stories have telling similarities to old stories of the paralyzing succubus and more recent tales of oddly disabling night visitations by aliens from outer space. For those of us who are materialist in outlook, the stories all point to pre-medical attempts to explain the experience of sleep paralysis, in which a person wakes up with the feeling of being unable to move or make any sound, and the sense of crushing weight on the chest.
If the Ilocano folktales are true, and batibat spirits will kill anyone who sleeps in a bed, or in a house, made with wood from a spirit tree, why aren’t more young American men suffering from sudden death in their sleep? We Americans are fond of wood-frame houses, and wood-frame beds, and for a long time, a great deal of our lumber came from the Philippines. We ought to have angry batibats all over the place.
My explanation is this: The batibats are not yet savvy to the system of global commerce. The transportation and marketing of lumber these days is too complex for their forest sensibilities to comprehend. I suspect that they end up getting trapped at places like Home Depot, frustrated that they never run across anyone who is ready to go to sleep.