It started as a quote in Maximo Ramos’ The Aswang Complex in Philippine Folklore. Ramos was explaining how rural Filipinos often prefer to sleep on the edge of the room, rather than the middle, for protection against the viscera sucking version of the aswang — the kind who climbs on the house and drops its tongue down between the chinks of the roof to suck out its victims innards.
Sleep towards the edge of the room, Ramos warned, but not too near a post:
for the posts may harbor a tree-dwelling mythical demon like the bangugot or batibat. This is a nightmare-inducing, insanity-causing creature resembling the genii of the Near East. It is said to have refused to leave its tree when it was felled and stubbornly to have gone on living in a crevice of cavity in the wood, emerging to sit on a tenant’s chest and suffocate him by plugging his mouth with its phallus and his nostrils with its testicles.
Huh. That deserves more investigation, I thought.
Ramos’ version of the batibat, based in part on the descriptions by Manuel and Lyd Arguilla (Philippine Tales and Fables, 1957), and in part on his own memories of stories told to him as a child, is a creature that lives in bamboo groves and large trees. When a tree with a batibat was chopped down for a house post, the batibat continued to live in the post, coming in and out of the post through a knothole. Ramos says he remembers Ilokano farmers in Zambales (where he grew up) describing the batibat as a huge, hulking creature. Bangugot, or nightmare, is the sensation of being pinned down or smothered by a batibat.
Almost everything I can find online describes the batibat as a fat old woman who sits on your chest to suffocate you at night; the article at the Aswang Project is a good representative example. Yet clearly, Ramos’s batibat was male. As far as I can tell, the fat old woman description comes from a single Ilokano folktale, “The Fat Woman in the Post,” from the 1957 collection Philippine Tales and Fables. Are there any male batibat descriptions out there?
Alex Paman, in his surveys of Asian supernatural beings, is careful to not mention gender when he discusses batibat.
In fact, the only mention of male batibat I found was from William S. Burroughs, in Naked Lunch. Here’s the quote (from the 2002 “restored text” — emphasis mine):
Bang-utot, literally, ‘attempting to get up and groaning…’ Death occurring in the course of a nightmare…The condition occurs in males of Southeast Asiatic extraction…In Manila about twelve cases of death by Bang-utot are recorded each year.
Victims often know that they are going to die, express the fear that their penis will enter the body and kill them. Sometimes they cling to the penis in a state of shrieking hysteria calling on others for help lest the penis escape and pierce the body. Erections, such as normally occur in sleep, are considered especially dangerous and liable to bring a fatal attack…One man devised a Rube Goldberg contraption to prevent erection during sleep. But he died of Bang-utot.
Careful autopsies of Bang-utot victims have revealed no organic reason for death. There are often signs of strangulation [caused by what?]; sometimes slight hemorrhages of pancreas and lungs–not sufficient to cause death and also of unknown origin. It has occurred to the author that the cause of death is a misplacement of sexual energy resulting in a lung erection with consequent strangulation…One man who recovered said that ‘a little man’ was sitting on his chest and strangling him.
That whole section about erections and victims fearing death by penis impalement is probably more Burroughs than batibat, but the creature is definitely male. Did Burroughs really hear the story that way, I wonder, or did he change the sex to fit his narrative? And what’s a “lung erection”?
Isabelo de los Reyes mentions an (Ilokano) creature called the mangmangkik, who lives in trees. You must ask for permission before cutting their tree down. They are supposed to be vindictive when offended, and can “inflict grave illness,” as de los Reyes says, though he doesn’t specifically mention anything like nightmares. Albert Jenks mentions the belief in the Li-mum among the Bontoc Igorot: the Li-mum is “the spiritual form of the human body” — the ghost of one’s body, not one’s spirit or soul. It can be seen wandering the village or entering homes. According to Jenks, the Li-mum doesn’t cause death or accident, though it is also known to sit heavily on a sleeper’s chest.
At any rate, this little investigation was another reminder to me of the echo chamber that the internet can be. Batibat online are only female — though there must be other stories going around. Poor Jenks (in this context) is merely “an American anthropologist” who wrote “at the turn of the 20th century” — Michael Tan’s description, echoed verbatim is a few other articles I read.
So consider this my contribution to diversifying the online batibat population.
The Fat Woman in the Post
I haven’t read it — the Arguillas’ book is only available on microfiche at libraries near me, nor is the book viewable online. The gist of the story, again according to Ramos, is that a little boy fell asleep next to a crooked house post where the batibat lived, and his mother forgot to move him away. As he slept, he dreamt that the batibat sat on his chest, smothering him. He tried to shout to his mother for help, but he couldn’t breath to scream. Finally, he managed to get his hand to his mouth and bite his thumb. He woke up in a sweat, his thumb bleeding.
Death by Nightmare
Bangugot, sleep paralysis accompanied by the sensation of an evil creature nearby or atop the victim, is a phenomenon that occurs all over the world, with different interpretations of the creature who smothers you. The European nightmare is literally a mare, in Newfoundland they have The Old Hag, and various cultures speak of demons or ghosts. But to be nightmared to death — a phenomenon known as SUNDS (sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome) has a much narrower occurrence. Young, healthy Filipino men (usually in their late 20s to mid 30s) die in the middle of the night for apparently no reason. Frequently, these men suffered bangugot episodes before dying, leading to the conclusion that they eventually died of fright in the middle of another bangugot.
The same affliction (again targeting mostly young males), has been reported among Thai, Hmong, and Japanese populations — the Thai call the batibat the “widow ghost,” and yes, it is female, though as far as I know not necessarily fat. Traditionally, SUNDS/bangugot (the Filipino kind, at least) gets blamed on heavy drinking and eating right before bed, but now researchers believe that it may have a genetic component, related to Brugada Syndrome. Michael Tan pointed out that bangugot appears among migrant populations: rural Filipinos who move to Manila or another country for work, newly-arrived refugee Hmong populations in the United States; so stress may play a factor also.
Adler, Shelley, “Terror in Transition: Hmong Folk Belief in America”, Out Of The Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural, Barbara Walker, Ed. (1995) [link]
Cavanagh, Roy. “Widow Ghosts and the Spirits of Lai Thai”, Thaizer Blog. [link]
Clark, Jordan. “BATIBAT | BANGUNGOT – Frightened To Death By Nightmares”, The Aswang Project [link]
de los Reyes, Isabelo. El Folk-Lore Filipino (1890). Edition with English translation by Salud C. Dizon and Maria Elinora P. Imson, University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, 1994.
Munger, Ronald G. and Elizabeth A Booton. “Bangungut in Manila: sudden and unexplained death in sleep of adult Filipinos”, International Journal of Epidemiology, 1998:27 [link]
Gaw, Albert C., et.al. “Unraveling the Enigma of Bangungut: Is Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS) in the Philippines a Disease Allelic to the Brugada Syndrome?” Philippine Journal of Internal Medicine. 2011 Jul-Sep; 49(3): 165–176. [link]
Jenks, Albert Ernest. The Bontoc Igorot (1905). [link]
Paman, Alex G. “Beneath the Pale Moonlight: The Filipino Supernatural in the Asian/Pacific Context”, Filipinas, Nov. 2009.
Ramos, Maximo D. The Aswang Complex in Philippine Folklore, Phoenix Publishing, Quezon City (1990)
—, The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, Phoenix Publishing, Quezon City (1990)
Tan, Michael L. “Bangungot”, Pinoy Kasi. 29 Aug. 2000 [link]
Image: Pietà, Hippolyte Flandrin (1842). Source: Wikimedia