Regular readers of TheoFantastique may recall previous mention of a phenomenon called sleep paralysis in connection with posts on Diary of a Madman, and The Fourth Kind. Given the significance of this phenomenon in the lives of many individuals, and its influence in various aspects of pop culture, I will explore this topic in the first of several posts that delve into differing interpretations and explorations of it.
The groundbreaking and initial scholarly research into this phenomenon was conducted by Dr. David Hufford, Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Hufford began his research in Newfoundland through interviews with individuals who claimed experiences with an entity they called “the Old Hag.” As Hufford’s research continued he connected the dots to similar experiences in other countries and cultures. It is now common to see references to the Old Hag and sleep paralysis as expressions of the same phenomenon. Hufford compiled his research into the book The Terror That Comes at Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982). His research on this topic has continued and a more recent and updated form of his thoughts on the subject can be found in an article titled “Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience” in the journal Transcultural Psychology Vol. 42, No. 1 (March 2005): 11-45.
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Hufford describes the Old Hag/sleep paralysis as including the following features: “(i) awakening, (ii) hearing and/or seeing something come into the room and approach the bed; (iii) being pressed on the chest or strangled; and (iv) being unable to move or cry out.” Consider a few of the stories of those who have lived through these frightening experiences. The first comes from William James as relayed in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience in Lecture III, “The Reality of the Unseen,” as he describes the experience of a friend of his:
It was about September of 1884 …. Suddenly I felt something come into the room and stay close to my bed. It remained only a minute or two. I did not recognize it by any ordinary sense, and yet there was a horrible ‘sensation’ connected with it. It stirred something more at the roots of my being than any ordinary perception. The feeling had something of the quality of a very large tearing vital pain spreading chiefly over the chest, but within the organism — and yet the feeling was not pain so much as abhorrence. At all events, something was present with me, and I knew its presence far more surely than I had ever known the presence of any fleshly living creature. I was conscious of its departure as of its coming; an almost instantaneously swift going through the door, and the ‘horrible sensation’ disappeared.
A more recent experience comes through one of the many interviews Hufford has conducted into this phenomenon, in this case with a Pennsylvania medical student:
What woke me up was the door slamming. ‘OK,’ I thought, ‘It’s my roommate….’ I was laying on my back just kinda looking up. And the door slammed, and I kinda opened my eyes. I was awake. Everything was light in the room. My roommate wasn’t there and the door was still closed….
But the next thing I knew, I realized that I couldn’t move…. But the next thing I knew, from one fo the areas of the room this grayish, brownish murky presence was there. And it kind of swept down over the bed and I was terrified….And I couldn’t move and I was helpless and I was really — I was really scared …. And this murky presence — just kind of — this was evil! This was evil! You know this is weird! You must think I’m a — … This thing was there! I felt a pressure on me and it was like enveloping me. It was a very, very, very strange thing.
While such experiences may be difficult to fathom for those who have never gone through them themselves, I struggled with this in my childhood years as a part of various sleep disorders, as did my brother. Thankfully insomnia is the worst that I suffer from at present. Hufford’s research, and the research of others into this phenomenon, indicates that sleep paralysis is experienced by a significant percentage of the population. Hufford also reminds us that “[u]ntil the seventeenth century the primary referent of nightmare actually was what we call sleep paralysis, and it was consistently associated with supernatural assault.”
Although sleep paralysis is usually explained by researchers as a form of neurophysiological experience, there are a number of interpretations given to the phenomenon, both from those who experience and research it. These interpretations are found across a spectrum from naturalistic to the spiritual. These include physiological explanations, with the vast majority of those who experience the Old Hag opting for spiritual explanations, including Christians who view it as a form of demonic attack, to paranormal interpretations.
Sleep paralysis experiences have had a significant aspect on religion, spirituality, and popular culture. In the history of Christianity those who have experienced sleep paralysis have interpreted the phenomenon as a form of witchcraft (possibly a factor in the Salem witchcraft trials) or demonic activity, and those who understand it as paranormal make connections to out-of-body experiences, alien abductions, and spirit contact. In the history of folklore the experience may have played a part in stories of the incubus and succubus. The experience has also impacted the realm of the fantastic. As I commented previously, Guy de Maupassant had experiences with the Old Hag that inspired his story Le Horla, which in turn was adapted into the horror film Diary of a Madman starring Vincent Price. In science fiction sleep paralysis experiences have impacted portrayals of alien abductions as evidenced most recently by The Fourth Kind. It would make for an interesting project to research the creators of horror and science fiction to learn the extent to which sleep paralysis may have served as an inspiration.
Those who struggle with sleep paralysis experiences often do not share them with others for fear of ridicule. This situation is made worse by a large percentage of therapists who are unaware of the phenomenon, and many who are choose naturalistic physiological, anthropological, and physiological interpretations to the frequent consternation of many who experience the Hag and who understand it as a core spiritual experience. Interestingly, Hufford believes that folk belief concerning such experiences and scientific knowledge can co-exist. He states that “there is nothing specific within our scientific knowledge of SP that contradicts spirit interpretations.”
Those who wrestle with sleep paralysis should know they are not alone. As a way of addressing concerns several resources are available. These include David Hutton’s book, finding an online group in order to share experiences, and finding a professional knowledgeable in sleep paralysis who can discuss ways to address the phenomenon.
In the future TheoFantastique will explore other facets of sleep paralysis, including an interview with Louis Proud, author of Dark Intrusions: An Investigation into the Paranormal Nature of Sleep Paralysis Experiences (Anomalist Books, 2009), and an interview with Paul Taitt, one of the producers of the documentary Your Worst Nightmare: Supernatural Assault (Soul Smack Live).