Paul Meehan is a contributor here at TheoFantastique as regular readers will recall. He is the author of a number of books including Saucer Movies: A UFOlogical History of the Cinema (The Scarecrow Press, 1998), Cinema of the Psychic Realm (McFarland, 2009), and Tech-Noir: The Fusion of Science Fiction and Film Noir (McFarland, 2008). He has also recently finished a draft of a book on horror and film noir through McFarland. Paul returns with a post that offers a consideration of sleep paralysis as it relates to the phenomenon of alien abduction.
VISITORS IN THE NIGHT: ALIEN ABDUCTIONS AND SLEEP PARALYSIS
by Paul Meehan
Since the 1960s, published accounts of humans allegedly being abducted by aliens and subjected to various medical and psychological procedures have captivated the public mind and have provided inspiration for a number of mass-market books and movies. The question is, do these fantastic tales have any basis in nuts-and-bolts reality or do they originate in dreams and the dark recesses of human imagination? More specifically, do these narratives emerge from the mysterious and little-understood phenomenon of sleep paralysis?
As readers of TheoFantastique are aware, sleep paralysis (abbreviated as SP) is a sleep disorder that occurs during the twilight consciousness between sleep and wakefulness, when the sleeper is either waking up or falling asleep. The sleeper seems to be fully awake, although the body feels paralyzed except for the eyes. Unusual light phenomena may be perceived, along with tingling bodily sensations and sexual arousal. Then a mysterious, usually threatening entity approaches the sleeper, sometimes speaking to them and pressing down upon their chest and preventing them from breathing. SP may segue into an out of body experience (OBE) in which the percipient has the subjective experience of leaving their body and being transported to some fantastic locale. In rare cases, SP may be experienced by more than one individual at the same time. It’s easy to see how an episode of sleep paralysis could be interpreted as an alien abduction by someone who has no knowledge of the SP phenomenon.
During the 1990s skeptics seized upon SP as an explanation for the majority of alien abductions. While there is much truth to this contention, it is not the whole story. Clearly, while some abduction narratives originate with SP/OBE experiences, the abduction phenomenon did not originate with SP, as a historical review of alien abductions will demonstrate.
The 1961 abduction experience of Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple from New Hampshire, provided the paradigm of the phenomenon. Prior to this incident, alien encounters consisted of highly dubious stories told by “contactees” about meetings with human-looking “space brothers,” or by fleeting confrontations with UFO “occupants” who were observed from afar while repairing their craft or gathering plant or soil samples. The Hill case, which involved the abduction of a husband and wife while they were driving from Canada to their home in New Hampshire, occurred while both of them were wide awake and driving in an automobile, and would later provide the basis for the 1975 NBC-TV telefilm The UFO Incident. There was corroborating evidence for their close encounter in the form of an anomalous radar track recorded at nearby Pease Air Force Base that night, an in a circle of warts that appeared on Barney’s groin after the incident.
Interestingly, the Hill case, popularized in John Fuller’s 1963 book The Interrupted Journey, did not immediately spark any further abduction tales for a decade. Then, in the 1970s, abductions began to be reported with more frequency. One of the most well-publicized close encounters was that of Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker, who claimed that they were abducted by robotic “claw men” while fishing from a pier in Pascagoula, Mississippi in October, 1973. Another famous case was that of Travis Walton, a logger who was zapped by a beam from a UFO when he approached too close to the craft and was later found missing in November of 1975. Walton’s encounter with the UFO was witnessed by five other members of the logging crew, and was later dramatized in the 1993 feature film Fire in the Sky. The Pascagoula and Walton cases were widely reported in the media at the time.
In addition to these well-publicized events, a number of more obscure abduction cases also came to light during the 1970s. In August of 1975 Sandra Larson reported being abducted while driving in a car late at night along with her daughter and a male friend, the latter two being immobilized (or, in abduction parlance, “switched off”) while Ms. Larson was taken aboard a UFO and subjected to a medical exam. David Stephens and his friend “Glen” (a pseudonym) were driving around a lake area near Norway, Maine in the early hours of one morning in October, 1975, when their car was immobilized and Stephens was abducted. Three women, Mona Stafford, Louise Smith and Elaine Thomas were returning to their homes in Liberty, Kentucky one night in January, 1976, when their car was reportedly levitated into a UFO and the women were subjected to a series of frightening and painful ordeals. In Essex, England, John and Elaine Avis and their three children reported being abducted from a country road in October of 1974. The abduction of the so-called “Allagash Four” occurred during August, 1976 when four men were abducted while night fishing in a boat in the Allagash Waterway recreation area in Maine.
Note that all of the cases cited above involved multiple witnesses and all of them occurred while the abductees were fully awake. Additionally, there were a number of single witness abductions that took place under similar circumstances. Mr. Carl Higdon reported an abduction while he was hunting in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming in October, 1974. Air Force sergeant James Moody reportedly underwent an abduction experience while watching a meteor shower in the desert near Alamagordo, New Mexico one night in August of 1975. “Steven Kilburn” (pseudonym) reported an abduction and medical exam conducted by gray aliens during the 1970s while driving from Fredrick to Baltimore, Maryland one evening to researcher Budd Hopkins. These types of abductions continue to be reported decades later.
It’s difficult to see how any of these cases could be related to sleep paralysis, but as the abduction phenomenon emerged into public consciousness, researchers began to investigate another type of scenario: the “bedroom visitation,” which was clearly related to sleep paralysis. Perhaps the earliest of these was the experience of Pat Price, a single mom living in Utah who awakened to find two intruders in her room and later, under hypnosis, told a tale of being taken aboard a UFO by spacemen who recorded her thoughts. Ufologist John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, was the first researcher to link what he termed “bedroom invaders” to alien abductions in the early 1970s. But it was Whitley Streiber’s bestselling book Communion, published in 1987, that cemented the link between SP and abductions. Streiber, author of popular horror novels like The Wolfen and The Hunger, wrote that he was asleep in his cabin in upstate New York and woke up to be confronted by a diminutive humanoid creature who paralyzed him. He was then floated out of his bedroom and into an alien craft where he was examined and later returned. Streiber’s book later became the subject of a 1989 feature film..
Streiber’s Communion experiences, which in retrospect resemble an episode of SP/OBE much more than they resemble the earlier abduction stories, served to bring sleep paralysis narratives within the orbit of alien abductions as UFO researchers, who knew nothing of SP, began to interpret SP experiences as abductions. In 1992, a poll conducted by the Roper organization designed to measure the prevalence of abductions within the general population incorporated several questions that are more indicative of SP than of alien contacts. Questions like, “have you ever awakened paralyzed, sensing a figure or strange figure or presence in the room?,” and “Have you ever felt like you are actually flying through the air without knowing why or how?,” and “Have you ever seen unusual lights or balls of light in a room?,” are all indicative of SP and OBE. On the basis of responses to the Roper Poll, researchers concluded that abductions, now conflated with SP, were thought to be fairly prevalent within the American population.
The Roper Poll’s methodology was criticized at the 1992 Abduction Conference held at M.I.T. by folklorist and SP expert David Hufford, who had been invited to present a paper on SP and its relevance to abductions. Hufford’s paper made it glaringly obvious that many bedroom encounters were in reality episodes of SP, but in the wake of these revelations, skeptics like Carl Sagan and others in the media seized upon SP as an explanation for all abductions. Reviewing the UFO literature on the subject, the cases involving SP/OBE become glaringly obvious. One individual who reported awakening from sleep and seeing balls of light in his room, stated that, “My body would be completely paralyzed. I couldn’t yell or scream, but I wanted to. I could feel the pressure of something or someone coming toward me, then I’d feel pressure on top of me, and then I wouldn’t be able to see.” Another alleged abduction report described a woman’s experience as follows: “One night in the 1980s, she was abruptly awakened from sleep to find an entity standing by her bed. It was a type she had seen before and had even painted in oil paints on paper…Although terrified and unable to move, she physically broke through the paralysis and lunged at the creature,” which promptly dematerialized. Anyone familiar with SP will see that these experiences most likely represent SP dream imagery rather than close encounters with extraterrestrial visitors.
In other times and in other cultures these bedroom visitations would be interpreted as encounters with “ghosts,” “witches,” “vampires” or “incubi.” Our technological culture, however, interprets these same experiences as “alien abductions.” Drawing upon imagery derived from pop culture science fiction or UFO literature, these creatures of the night are transformed from supernatural beings into extraterrestrials during episodes of SP augmented by hypnogogic or hypnopompic dream imagery. Oddly, some UFO researchers have reversed this trend. In her 1998 book How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction, respected ufologist Ann Druffel theorizes that these bedroom visitations are caused by jinns, spirit beings in Islamic folklore thought to be creatures that are intermediate between men and angels.
Given the above, it’s easy to distinguish between bedroom visitant/SP/OBE “alien” encounters and the original abduction paradigm of events that take place during a waking state of consciousness, frequently have multiple witnesses and sometimes leave corroborating evidence. There is, however, another connection between these two disparate types of experiences. The trauma of alien encounters have been known to produce sleep disorders in abductees. In the Hill case, for instance, their experiences first surfaced as terrifying nightmares. It appears that abductees can suffer from episodes of SP after having undergone non-bedroom type close encounters as part of what researchers call “Post-Abduction Syndrome.” Abductee “Steven Kilburn,” who had first experienced an automobile abduction, later underwent bedroom visitations that were probably inspired by his initial abduction. Jim Weiner, one of the “Allagash Four,” also seems to have developed SP as a result of his alien encounter. SP alien visitations and non-bedroom abductions do not appear to be mutually exclusive.
There are other links between dream states and abductions as well. Some skeptics theorize that night-time highway abductions are the result of “highway hypnisis,” an altered state of consciousness caused by driving down straight roads at night that reportedly produces hypnogogic dream imagery of ET encounters. It should also be noted that virtually all abductions, bedroom and non-bedroom alike, involve the abductee being put into a state of full or partial paralysis by the aliens. Finally, many abductions are recalled under hypnosis, which is a type of trance or dream state. The relationship between sleep paralysis and alien abduction experiences is complex and multifaceted. Further research is needed into both of these fascinating and enigmatic phenomena in order to define the distinctions between them.