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What is sleep paralysis and why is it so scary?

06-03-2015

What is sleep paralysis and why is it so scary?

You  may never have heard of sleep paralysis before but even if you have never suffered from it before in your life you will certainly have recognise the widespread impact it has had on our culture. In fact, it is fair to say that of all the different sleep disorders, sleep paralysis has had the biggest impression on our popular culture, although it has done so by stealth. For the reality is that while sleep paralysis is fairly common, it is best known in other guises.

What is Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which a person, either falling asleep or awakening, is unable to move, speak or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by an inability to move or otherwise respond . It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which the sufferer is unable to respond to because they are paralysed, and physical sensations, such as the feeling that there is a strong current running through the upper body.

Historical Accounts of Sleep Paralysis
Sleep paralysis has been recognised by medical experts for many hundreds of years, with the first documented cases found in the work of a Dutch physician called Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck. Recent archival work has dug up his 1664 report titled ‘Of the Night-mare’. It describes a patient’s symptoms:

“…in the night time, when she was composing herself to sleep, sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was choked by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or breath and when she endeavoured to throw off the burthen, she was not able to stir her members.”

Van Diemerbroeck diagnosed the case:
“This affection is called Incubus or the Night-Mare, which is an Intercepting of the Motion of the Voice and Respiration, with a false dream of something lying ponderous upon the Breast… the Motion of the Muscles fail… Now, because the motion of the Muscles, for the most part ceases in time of sleep, except the Respiratory Muscles, therefore the failing of their Motion is first perceived, by reason of the extraordinary trouble that arises for want of Respiration. Now the patient…not understanding the cause in that Condition, believes herself to be overlayed by some Demon, Thief, or other ponderous Body being neither able to move… nor to Breath”

In this report Van Diemerbroeck records the first known accurate examination of sleep paralysis in Western medicine, though it can be found further back in non-Western sources as well. For example, a Persian medical work from the 10th century talks of a condition “when the night-mare (kabus) happens, the person senses a heavy thing upon him and finds he unable to scream…” The ancient Greeks were also interested in sleep paralysis, with Galen talking about it in a work dated from the second century AD. The first known reference to sleep paralysis, however, dates back to a Chinese book written in 400 BC. As with many of the pre-modern references, the Chinese book viewed sleep paralysis as a form of nightmare, though we now know it is quite different from a bad dream. Even though many medical experts have recognised this condition for many years, sleep paralysis has generally be interpreted through a supernatural or extraterrestrial lens.

Sleep Paralysis and Witch Trials
Interestingly, the ‘mare’ part of the word ‘nightmare’ comes from the Norse word ‘mara’, which is a term that refers to a supernatural female being that sits on peoples’ chests during the night, suffocating them. In other words, the original term for nightmare was actually referring to sleep paralysis rather than a bad dream Throughout the Middle Ages, the most common explanation for a nightmare, or rather a case of sleep paralysis, was that it was caused by a witch. Hence the ‘mare’. The infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 contain references to sleep paralysis, with an accuser at the trials, Robert Downer, claiming that one night “as he lay in his bed, there came in at the window, the likeness of a cat, which flew upon him, took fast hold of his throat, lay on him a considerable while, and almost killed him.” Another man, called Bernard Peach, gave similar, ‘evidence’, testifying that “he heard a scrabbling at the window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of this deponent’s feet, and drawing his body up into an heap, she lay upon him near two hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir.” As the paralysis wore off he bit Martin’s fingers and she “went from the chamber, down the stairs, out at the door.” It was not just in Salem that cases of sleep paralysis were attributed to witch attacks. Across Europe and America for many hundreds of years, this was the most common explanation for the condition. However, as times moved on, another culprit was found.

Sleep Paralysis and Alien Abduction
Following the Second World War, when many ‘foo fighters’ had been reported by pilots and the idea of aliens had captured the public, more and more claims of alien abduction began occurring across the US and then across the world. Several researchers have shown that many of these cases are associated with sleep, with one finding that 60 per cent of all studied abductions show a number of similarities to the symptoms of sleep paralysis. Many descriptions of alien abductions read as accounts of sleep paralysis:

“A female abductee was lying on her back when she woke up from a sound sleep. Her body was completely paralyzed and she experienced the sensation of levitating above her bed. Her heart was pounding, her breathing was shallow, and she felt tense all over. She was terrified. She was able to open her eyes, and when she did so, she saw three beings standing at the foot of her bed in the glowing light. Another female abductee was lying on her back when she woke up in the middle of the night. She was completely paralysed, and felt electrical vibrations throughout her body. She was sweating, struggling to breathe, and felt her heart pounding in terror. When she opened her eyes, she saw an insect like alien being on top of her bed. A male abductee awoke in the middle of the night seized with panic. He was entirely paralysed, and felt electricity shooting throughout his body. He felt his energy draining away from him. He could see several alien beings standing around his bed.”

Other Cultural Explanations of Sleep Paralysis
As well as witches and aliens, around the world there are a number of other equally colourful explanations for sleep paralysis, with two of the best known being the Kanashibari in Japan, and the Old Hag of Newfoundland.
The word ‘Kanashibari’ means ‘tie with an iron rope’ and comes from the belief of the Buddhist God Fudoh-Myohoh’s magical abilities. Many Buddhists believe that monks are able to paralyse others using an iron rope and across Japan many people see the Kanashibari as an evil spirit that is able to bind them using this ‘iron rope’, though recent research has shown that all cases of Kanashibari have identical symptoms to sleep paralysis.

In Newfoundland the Old Hag is the common interpretation of sleep paralysis. The story goes that people are visited by this Old Hag during the night, she sits on them and they wake with a weight on their chest and are unable to move or speak. There are many reasons people may be visited by the Old Hag, with the most common being that they are overworked or have experienced strong emotions recently.

The Suggestibility of Sleep Paralysis Hallucination
As can be seen, sleep paralysis is a condition that is open to a wide spectrum of interpretations, from witches to evil spirits to aliens. What makes this even more fascinating is that the hallucinatory aspect of sleep paralysis seems to be shaped and moulded by the particular cultural climate of the sufferer. In other words, depending on what story is current the person suffering from sleep paralysis will have a different hallucination from someone living in another culture or time period because of the power of suggestion and belief. While experts had considered this possibility for a long time, it was the sudden spread of the alien abduction trope that really enabled researchers to track how powerful cultural suggestion was, as they were able to map the sudden transition from witch related sleep paralysis to alien caused sleep paralysis as it moved across the continental US and then around the world. 

So it seems that while you may never have heard of sleep paralysis, you know of its impacts. Who knows what it will transmogrify into next?

 


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