Nightmares, Sleep Paralysis, and the Supernatural

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I have been plagued by horrible nightmares since my childhood. Just last week, I had a dream that my oldest dog was bitten by a wolf and bled to death in front of me. The dream was so realistic and upsetting that upon waking I realized I had been crying in my sleep.

While in my teens, a family member passed away and strange occurrences began to happen in our home. Electronics would turn on in the middle of the night, for example. One night, I woke up to a dark figure standing in my bedroom doorway. Frightened, I tried to speak and move, but no sound came out and I was paralyzed. While the black figure moved towards my bed, I tried to tell my brain to free my frozen limbs. I felt pressure on my chest, as if someone was sitting on me. At this point, the figure was standing next to my bedside and I heard sinister laughter. I closed my eyes tightly and asked for the creature to leave. When I opened my eyes, he had disappeared and I had control of my body once again.

Sleep is a very vulnerable state, where we hand over our mind and body to the night. Wes Craven addresses this very vulnerability in his Nightmare on Elm Street series. And, while Freddy Krueger is frightening, the inspiration behind him is even more so. In an interview, Wes Craven explains:

I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S. Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street.

This article, titled “Medical Experts Seek Clues to ‘Nightmare Deaths’ That Strike Male Asian Refugees,” begins with the scary sentence: “Since April, 1983, at least 130 Southeast Asian refugees have left this world in essentially the same way. They cried out in their sleep. And then they died.” Frightening! Medical experts cite stress and genetics as possible causes. Science, too, has given us some explanation on sleep paralysis, the thing that caused me to imagine a supernatural attack in my bedroom.

In “Ridden By the Hag: My Sleep Paralysis Visitors,” (The Hairpin) Jenah Shaw writes: “Reduced simply, sleep paralysis occurs when, in transition between sleeping and wakefulness, the mind is alert but the body still sleeping.” She continues:

For most people, this happens during their waking process; while REM sleep allows for sight and hearing, movement is suppressed. Typically, this muscle atonia is accompanied by the idea of a direct threat: the hallucination of an intruder in the room, or something or someone pressing down physically on your chest.

It is a very common occurrence with 3 million U.S. cases per year (source). Sleep paralysis often happens to people who have narcolepsy or sleep apnea. It is also common among young adults and people with a history of mental illness (source). Possible treatments include improving sleep habits and focusing on mental health issues.

While science has provided a reasonable explanation, it should not underestimate the stories of those who have dealt with it. Imagine, if you will, experiencing this terror before the time of modern medicine. How else would you explain it than through a supernatural lens? Surely, that was my initial reaction.

In her article, Jenah Shaw explains sleeps paralysis’s historical link to dreaming:

The word “nightmare” can be traced back to old Norse and Germanic words (“mare” or “mara” or “mahr”) that were used to describe the hag that sits on peoples chests while they sleep and brings them bad dreams; the spirit was also thought to ride horses in the night, leaving them exhausted by the morning. (Norwegian and Danish words for “nightmare” are mareritt and mareridt, which translate to “mare-ride.”) A Persian medical text from the 10th century describes a nightmare in which “the person senses a heavy thing upon him and finds he is unable to scream” and suggests that “the nightmare… is caused by rising of vapours from the stomach to the brain… The therapy includes bloodletting from the superficial vein of the arm and from the leg vein and thinning the diet, especially in patients with red eyes and face.

Lore attached this occurrence to the Old Hag. Generally, it is a supernatural creature, in the form of a hag or witch, that sits on the chest of their sleeping victim so they cannot move. The hag appears in a variety of cultures.

Newfoundland gives us the terrifying expression of being “hag rid,” or ridden by the hag. In Chinese culture it is called, in pinyin, guǐ yā shēn (“ghost pressing on body”), in Turkish karabasan (“the dark assailant”), and in Vietnamese ma đè means “held down by the ghost.” The Hungarian term boszorkany-nyomas means “witches pressure”, while German has alpdrucken, or “elf pressing.” (source)

Sleep paralysis was also tied to witchcraft as seen through documentation on the Salem Witch Traials. Jenah Shaw explains:

In the Salem witch trials, John Louder recounted how, after arguing with the accused Bridget Bishop, “he did awake in the night by moonlight, and did see clearly the likeness of this woman grievously oppressing him; in which miserable condition she held him, unable to help himself, till near day.” In 1595, in another trial, Dorothy Jackson accused several neighbors of witchcraft, saying she was “ridden with a witch three times of one night, being thereby greatly astonished and upon her astonishment awaked her husband”; in the late 17th century, Nicolas Raynes provided testimony at the trial of a purported witch and said that his wife, “after being threatened, has been continually tormented by Elizabeth, a reputed witch, who rides on her, and attempts to pull her on to the floor.

Along with the hag and witch, history has attributed this experience to demonic behavior or more specifically the incubus and succubus. The Encyclopedia Mythica describes this horrific being:

In medieval European folklore, the incubus is a male demon (or evil spirit) who visits women in their sleep to lie with them in ghostly sexual intercourse [I must interject to say most often without consent]. The woman who falls victim to an incubus will not awaken, although may experience it in a dream. Should she get pregnant the child will grow inside her as any normal child, except that it will possess supernatural capabilities. Usually the child grows into a person of evil intent or a powerful wizard. Legend has it that the magician Merlin was the result of the union of an incubus and a nun. A succubus is the female variety, and she concentrates herself on men. According to one legend, the incubus and the succubus were fallen angels.

In a 2015 Vice article on sleep paralysis, Brian Barrett talks to James Allan Cheyne, sleep paralysis expert and professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, about the types of sleep paralysis. Sleep Paralysis can be divided into three categories: (1) Vestibular and Motor, (2) the Intruder, and (3) the Incubus:

Cheyne cautions that these categories are broad, and the experiences the describe can vary greatly. On the other hand, he also is one of three authors of a landmark 1999 scientific paper, published in Consciousness and Cognition, that helped define them.

Vestibular and motor incidents—Cheyne calls it “Unusual Bodily Experiences” in his 1999 paper—are relatively harmless, potentially even enjoyable. “It’s fancy term for feeling like your body is being moved without its volition,” Sharpless explains. “You could feel like you’re floating, or levitating, or your arm is being lifted.” Not so bad, right? Your standard Sigourney-Weaver-in-Ghostbusters scenario.

The other two, Cheyne says, have no such upside potential.

“For Intruder experiences, the main sensation is the sensed presence—a feeling of something in the room,” he recently explained over email. “That something may then also be seen, heard, or physically felt. It may move around the room, approach the bed, and sometimes climb onto the bed.” […]

“The Incubus experiences often continue this sequence by climbing on top of the ‘sleeper,’ Cheyne continues, “perhaps smothering, and even assaulting them physically and sexually.” This is how your brain works.

As we learned in my Ouija Board post, the mind is just as scary as supernatural creatures. While I’m still trying to explain the spooky behavior in my childhood home, I was relieved to learn my intruder was stress personified and not a dark mass of evil intentions. Sleep well, folks!

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