In the early 1980s the mysterious unexplained deaths of more than 117 Hmong refugees would inspire Wes Craven’s films A Nightmare on Elm Street. As early as 1977 the first case of Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome (SUNDS) was recorded and the deaths would peak in 1981-1982 with a rate of 92/100,000. At the time newspaper articles written about these deaths would circulate across the country and would draw the national attention of medical doctors and community leaders to figure out why this way happening and to determine what was causing these refugees to die in their sleep. The term “Lao or Laotion refugees” was applied to Hmong refugees at this time, some newspaper journalists mistakenly wrote that the Hmong escaped the “killing fields” of Cambodia since most westerners did not know who the Hmong were or about the Hmong involvement during the Secret War of Laos).
These unexplained death occurred after Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 that would resettle many refugee of war from the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Specifically for Hmong refugees the peak year would be about 27,000 in 1980 before significiantly decreasing in number by the mid-1980s. Southeast Asian refugee families were sponsored by American families and religious organizations following the U.S. policy to disperse refugees to more than three dozen states and more than 50 U.S. cities. The dispersal policy was to lessen the economic impact of one region of the country having to resettle all the refugees and with the goal that refugees would assimilate faster, speak English and get jobs. Sometimes this lead to family seperation and isolation. Once in the U.S. most refugees left their primary resettlement locations and would look for relatives or other places that had ethnic communities. In this process of secondary migration Hmong refugee communities would develop in the Twin Cities of Minnesota and the Central Valley of California in cities such as Fresno.
At the time Bruce Bliatout was one of a dozen Hmong students from Laos who had come to study in the United States during the Secret War. He would became the first Hmong person in the U.S. to attain a Ph.D. in Public Health from Tulane University in 1982. Bliatout’s dissertation research on Hmong Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome analyzed some of the causes. This study research sample included 19 traditional and 19 Christian Hmong who died of SUNDs in the U.S. His study suggested both traditional and Christian Hmong were under similar stressed caused by the inability to resolve religious conflicts.
In Dr. Shelley Adler’s book Night-mares, Nocebos and the Mind-body Connection (2011), she conducted field work to try to find answers to explain what may caused SUNDs. Adler had completed a Ph.D. in Folkore and Ethnomedicine her research established a profile of individuals who had died of SUNDS. Of the 117 cases they were all men except for one woman. Families of the individuals all reported that they were generally in good health. The median age was 33, all the individuals had recently come to the United States as refugee of war and died within two years (17 months).
Her fieldwork included in-depth interviews with 118 Hmong men and women in Stockton, CA and included participant observations at community and health clinics, healing ceremonies and attending cultural events like the Hmong New Years. Many cultures experience similar universal “night-mare” traditons such as dab tsog, sleep demon, night terror or old hag but did not experience the number of deaths in the case of the 117 Hmong refugees. She asked participants questions on “dab tsog” to understand connections between cultural beliefs and SUNDs. Could the explanation be due to loss of traditional spiritual ceremonies by shaman or proper ancestor rituals for protection? Was it due to assimilation pressures in the U.S.? The rapid cultural change of assimilation? Could it be due the historical and war trauma? Her study suggested that “the power of traditional belief in dab tsog—compounded by such factors as the trauma of war, migration, rapid acculturation, and the inability to practice traditional healing and ritual—can cause cataclysmic psychological stress” (Adler 133). Why did this only affect Hmong men who died in their sleep? Another unaswered question is why did the deaths taper off and stop by mid-1980s? Later waves of Hmong refugees that arrived after the United Nations Refugee Camps in Thailand closed in 1996 and the last wave of Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabrok in 2004 did not experience similar deaths like the 1980s. Fourty years later this continues to be a medical mystery.
Recently the CW’s Mysteries Decoded aired an episode “Sleep Demons” that investigated the unexplained deaths. This was the first paranormal U.S. show to include Hmong Americans and focus on refugees.