Spooky Nighttime Visitors: Paranormal or Parasomnia?
As Halloween approaches, Rebecca Fuoco, visits the haunted history of sleep paralysis and the supernatural.
Sleep paralysis is an inability to move or speak for a few seconds up to ten minutes when falling asleep (hypnagogic) or upon awakening (hypnopompic). It is often accompanied by potentially terrifying visual, auditory, tactile, or other sensory hallucinations. Sleep paralysis is common among individuals with narcolepsy but can occur in individuals without narcolepsy as a result of sleep deprivation, erratic sleep schedules, stress, physical fatigue, or certain medications.
Medically, sleep paralysis arises from a temporary discordance in the architecture of the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase (the phase in which most dreaming occurs). This discordance happens when normal REM muscle atonia (suppressed muscle activity) sets in before sleep onset or persists into wakefulness, leaving the awake mind seemingly trapped in a paralyzed body. But for the centuries preceding our medical understanding of the phenomena, these experiences were interpreted in a number of culturally-specific contexts, with explanations ranging from witchcraft and demonic spirits to space aliens. In fact, the word nightmare derives from the Old English word maere, denoting a malevolent figure who lies upon and immobilizes or suffocates sleepers.
Here are five of the most common spooky visitors (and classic Halloween costumes) believed to cause sleep paralysis in history and folklore:
1. The Witch
Strikingly similar tales of witchy bedtime intruders have originated from all over the world, including the United States, Brazil, Newfoundland, Germany, and Scandinavian countries. These legends generally involve a witch, “hag”, or otherwise damned woman who sits on a sleeper’s chest inducing terrifying dreams and causing successive inability to breathe or move for a short period of time. During the European and American witch trials of the 17th century, many alleged witches were accused of suffocating sleeping villagers and shape-shifting into a cat.
2. The Ghost
For two thousand years in many Asian countries, sleep paralysis has been attributed to ghosts lying down on sleeping victims. In some legends the ghosts are recently deceased locals or relatives and in others the ghost is always the same, specific spirit. For example, in Thailand it is believed that sleep paralysis is caused by a widow ghost known as Phi Am who sleeps on the chests of her victims. To defend against this ghost, some men would put on lipstick before going to bed, believing the ghost would not harm women.
3. The Demon
In Middle Eastern and African countries, the experience of sleep paralysis has often been attributed to demons crouching on the chests of sleepers in order to suffocate, hurt, or possess them. Dating back to ancient Arabian mythology, many in this region have believed winged demons will pounce on the chests of sleepers who have not been praying. Only twenty years ago, mass hysteria spread along the coast of East Africa about a bat-winged humanoid demon named Popobawa who assaults and crushes the chests of sleeping victims until they pass out.
4. The Vampire
A frenzy of vampire accusations in Southeastern Europe spread panic across the continent in the 18th century. These accounts usually involved undead individuals immobilizing and muting sleeping victims to drink their blood or otherwise, um, penetrate them. Unlike the sparkling hunks of today’s vampire sagas, vampires were reported as bloated and ruddy. Interestingly, the diaries of Bram Stoker, creator of the most iconic vampire character, reveal his idea for Dracula stemmed from a sleep paralysis hallucination of a woman trying to kiss him on the neck.
5. The Alien
The emergence of alien invasion movies in the 1950s spurred testimonies of aliens abducting sleeping victims in North America. A frequent feature of these narratives is the feeling of being completely paralyzed and trying to scream for help but being unable to make a sound—standard sleep paralysis. But many abductees also describe feeling or seeing themselves float up toward the sky. Well, the feeling of floating and out-of-body experiences can be hallucinated during sleep paralysis, as can bright lights (“there was a beam of light…”).
Do you have your very own haunted tales of nighttime visitors? Though they are unpleasant, we can take solace in the fact that these are an explained, parasomnia phenomenon and not a paranormal mystery. In most cases, that is…
1. Davies O (2003). The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis, and Witchcraft Accusations. Folklore 114(2): 181-203.
2. Hufford DJ (2005). Sleep Paralysis as Spiritual Experience. Transcultural Psychiatry 42(1): 11-45.
3. McNally RJ, Clancy SA (2005). Sleep Paralysis, Sexual Abuse, and Space Alien Abduction. Transcultural Psychiatry 42(1): 113-122.