by Mark Turner
Small people with magical abilities have been passed on around the globe for generations. Sometimes they are viewed near a hill or in a clearing, often dancing, feasting and having a grand ‘ole time. The human visitor who encounters the strange, beguiling scene, cannot pull themselves away and is often invited by the little people to join in the merriment. However, once you enter the fairy realm, you may never return. Though they may seem to be part of a mythical past, there are some that argue that the fairies were and are very real, and that they have flesh and blood offspring living alongside humans.
Invited to a Party
Sometime ago in the Welsh countryside, on Halloween two men not familiar with the area, were invited into a house where small people were seen dancing, drinking and singing by the fire. The travelers entered but when both men were offered to drink, one of the men refused. He knew the tricks of small people, and begged his friend to leave with him. The man only laughed and stayed as his worried friend left in haste while his friend took the drink from the cup that was offered. Invited to dance, he joined them. Outside though a window, his departing friend saw his traveling partner dancing by the fire. He took off into the night and returned the next morning, only to find that the home had vanished. Time passed and the man who entered the home was never heard from again. The next Halloween, however, returning to the very spot where he last saw his friend and with a sudden gust of wind he saw the home reappear! Inside he could see his friend, still dancing with the little people to the rhythm of their intoxicating music, as if time had stood still and not passed for a single minute. Then the home vanished, only to be seen again on the following Halloween. The man who is dancing doesn’t feel the passing of time, he does not know that he is a prisoner… but the fairies know.
This is just one of many tales of the fairy-kind’s ability to confuse and whisk away unsuspecting human folk.
Who are the Little-People?
Where do they come from? The fairies are said to inhabit the air, make homes in earthen mounds (or fairy mounds), and they are said to live within the earth, in what J.R.R. Tolkien might have called Middle Earth. The early Celts believed that the natural world around them; trees, rocks, bodies of water, were alive with spirits – elemental forces that were unfriendly to the race of men and were always conspiring to do us harm unless the proper offerings and prayers were made. With the introduction of Christianity to the deep forests of northern Europe, the idea of the fallen angels mixed with the concept of the fairies. Now they were seen as something that was not altogether godly, nor entirely demonic, condemned to inhabit the earth somewhere in-between heaven and hell, and still holding on to their potent powers of magic.
Though the idea of the fairy in modern times has been diluted to something benign and friendly, or just downright silly, our ancient ancestors held a different view. There are kinder types of sprites or fairy folk. In Scandinavian lore, household fairies or Nisse who are more a kin to mischievous children can help with the household chores and farm work, and can be seen as household guardians. But they can also cause personal items to disappear and then, after looking with much frustration, the lost item will reappear in the spot where the thing should have been in the first place! Modern people might confuse these fairies with ghosts or demons, but people familiar with the lore of the harmless Nisse know better. This idea of a helper spirit was exploited by the witch-hunts’ of the middle ages and the kindly fairies were now considered to be imps or familiars, the demonic pets that the witch employed to do her dirty work. It is now common to look upon the witch hysteria as superstition run amuck, and there is no doubt that there were thousands killed out of superstition and ignorance, but was there a select group of people using the elemental fairy folk to bring about hardship and misfortune for their own uses? And were the fairy folk grinning in the shadows when their witch owner was being tried and executed? Did the witch ever really have full possession of the fairy, or was the creature using the witch?
Vampires, modern UFO grey aliens and fairies have much in common. They are usually seen at night, they abduct people and in the case of the aliens, have the ability to cause ‘missing time’. They can cloud and confuse the minds of simple mortals. Vampires are immortal, aliens are said to live hundreds of years and fairies never die. The modern urban legend of the ‘black eyed children’ and UFO witnesses and experiencers who encounter strange visitors we call the Men in Black, also share some of the more sinister aspects of the little people. Not everyone who encounters these beings lives to tell the tale. And if they did live or are living, then they have not been allowed to return – prisoners in a different dimension, a different realm. There are tales of fairies stealing babies and replacing the child with one of their own fairy children. Often, the swap would not be detected until much later.
The Japanese talk of small humanoid peoples that live underground and are separate from society, living in communities in the outskirts, away from humans. These beings are seen as both physical and non-physical, almost like an elemental life form. The Japanese called their little-people pit-dwellers because of their subterranean homes.
The Germans told stories of the Kobold, small invisible beings that might inhabit a valley or slope, as a kind of nature ‘elemental’ that guarded a certain area. When someone unwittingly entered the domain where the Kobold lived, the person would be violently attacked or even killed. They were said to inhabit mines, scaring the miners by making strange, whispering sounds and eerie noises. The Kobold were know to cause accidents, cave in’s and death. The dangerous gasses that disorientate and sometimes kill miners were said to be the work of the dreaded kobold.
The Native American Cherokee speak of the Nunnehi. Also small and living in caves and inside hills, only surfacing occasionally, and usually only to cause mischief. They often traded with the Cherokee, but were not to be trusted as they had a bad habit of steeling anything they could get their hands on. They too, had the power to make themselves invisible. They were also immortal. (Think of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit, who’s mother was a fairy, he’s a creature that lives in a hillside, he’s a thief, who has a ring that can render him invisible and who belongs to a race of beings that live way longer than any human ever could.) The Nunnehi were also shapeshifters, having the ability to change their appearance so that they could trick humans. They could be seen as kind, even guiding lost children back to their parents homes, but there were other Nunnehi who were known to kidnap children as well.
These are just a few of the native stories of little people from around the world.
Physical Beings or Ephemeral Phantoms?
It’s a mistake to think that all fairies are small in stature. Like the elves in the Lord of the Rings, some fairies in olden times were reported to be very tall and slender with long faces and almond shaped eyes. I mention this because there is a belief that has been around for sometime that fairies were a race of real people, living alongside human-beings, but possessing magical powers. Small and slight in appearance, they were extremely attractive to their human cousins. I know someone that believes that they are still around us today, and that some of them are not to be trusted. This person tells me that they know someone that they suspect has fairy blood. This suspected fairy is friendly, yet a slight bit shorter than most, with slender bones. Though not possessing any unique abilities to perform magical acts, I am told that this individual brings bad luck with them whenever they are around. Weird individuals suddenly appear from out of nowhere and stalk or menace, as if attracted by this dark energy.
The belief that fairies might not only have magical, ethereal, ghost-like qualities, but that some human-beings possess this bloodline, or that there are a race of them walking among us, can be dated back to 1890 and earlier when folklorist J.F. Campbell wrote that he believed;
“There was once a small race of people in these (British) islands, who are remembered as fairies, for the fairy belief is not confined to the Highlanders of Scotland. This class of stories is so widely spread, so matter-of-fact, hangs so well together, and is so implicitly believed all over the United Kingdom that I am persuaded of the former existence of a race of men in these islands who were smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses.” Campbell believed them to be small, but there were accounts of encounters with fairy people who were of average human stature. A woman by the name of Joan Tyrrye reported that in 1555, she met a man who was one of them in a market. He carried white rod. She walked up to him to “make an acquaintance of him, and then her sight was taken away for a time.” The temporary blinding of a person seems to have been a common occurrence, or at least a common belief in the power of the fairies. They could do this whenever they did not want to be seen. Other instances of real life sightings were viewed when fairies were making their medicines; “the good neighbors make their salves with pans and fires, and gathered their herbs before the rising sun. A certain Master John Walsh consulted with the fairies in Netherbury, Dorset, in 1566, where he would go among the hills at noon and at midnight. It is said the people would meet fairies and not know it. There were even marriages between humans and fairies.
It is believed that during the times of the Roman invasions into Gaul, that native northern Europeans fled and in doing so, unknowingly uprooted the smaller races of people who lived on the outskirts of these lands. The Europeans, ever on the move to evade the Roman’s, would have found small homes inside of hillside mounds and underground dwellings. That’s one version of the story. A similar tale of displacement deals with an Iron Age people know to us now as the Pict’s of ancient eastern and northern Scotland. These slightly smaller people were documented as late as the 9th century. They were said to live in ‘little houses underground’ and were the size of pygmies. They seem to have been chased away or killed off by Norway’s first king, Harald Haarfagr, or Harald the Fairhair who conquered Orkney, now at Scotland’s Northern tip. The Pict’s are believed to have been Lapps, or the Sami people, commonly referred to as Laplanders’. Were the fairies actually some forgotten tribe of Lapps? John Keel, a famed research of strange stories, most notably his book The Mothman Prophecies, was investigating the stories of the mysterious Men in Black, those odd men that show up after a UFO sighting and harass witnesses. At a lecture, Keel noted that he traveled around with pictures of people of differing nationalities and when interviewing those who an encountered the men in black, he would show the photos to the witness. The one that they usually identified as most closely resembling the men in black was the photo of a Laplander. Like the otherworldly stories of angels or aliens interbreeding with human women, were the Lapps experimented on by strange invaders to make some-sort of hybrid? I’m not saying that Lapps are aliens or fairies, but I am suggesting that perhaps there may have been a breaking off point, where flesh and blood people became less than material and more ethereal?
Evidence of a Soul Trapped or Killed by the Fairies?
The man whom we owe a debt to much our folkloric knowledge of the we-people is Reverend Robert Kirk and his; The Secret Commonwealth of Elves Fauns and Fairies. It was Kirk who wrote down the local stories of the fairies, and who gave one of the only proper written accounts of the small beings from times long before his own. Reverend Kirk’s fairy tales were not published until 1815. It could all be passed off as a work of fiction, but allegedly Reverend Kirk actually had met with the fairies on numerous occasions. He took daily walks to a place called Doon Hill, located in Balquihidder Glen in his native Scotland where it is said that he often met and spoke with the little beings. Sometimes laying on the ground, with his ear on the hill, listening to the murmurings of the beings therein. This was also a time of religious intolerance and Rev. Kirk drew criticism from the church for his writings on such pagan subjects as Elves and Fairies.
On May 14th of 1692, Reverend Kirk was making is usual walk to Doon Hill, but he never returned home. He was later found dead on the hill. It was said that the fairies had taken him away, leaving his body behind, and somewhere still, Reverend Kirk lives with the little people in the fairy-realm.
To this very day, the legend of Doon Hill in Scotland persists. In the trees on the top of the massive hill, people tie rages bearing hand written notes – prayers to the fairies. It is said that the small creatures will read your note, and if they are in the mood, they’ll grant you your wish.
Fear of tampering with the little-people and their realms exists even today. In 2002, French born film-maker, Jean-Michel Roux, made a full-length documentary movie titled, Enquête sur le monde invisible, or Investigation into the Invisible World. The film is about modern Icelanders and their beliefs and fears about fairies, elves, trolls and hidden-folk living in the mountainous countryside. In the film, locals fear when road-crews move ancient stones, said to be the homes and sacred places of the elves. When the road-crew began to approach one of the stones, the mechanical digger broke-down. In a local Icelandic television news report, the reporter asks a road-crew worker, a tough looking burly young man, if he keeps his distance from the area. He replies; “Yes, I don’t want to take any risks.” A local medium was contacted and said they could move the stones as long as the work was ‘done carefully.’ The film then jumps to the head of the road office, a man in a shirt and tie, sitting behind a desk surrounded by files and papers. He said they do sometimes contact mediums. Before work begins, a local resident might call them and tell them that elves are living in the area. The medium acts as a go-between to make sure things go smoothly. “We try to keep everyone happy. Like when we have to cross a farmer’s field, sometimes we wait until the elves move on. Such courtesy doesn’t cost the road office much.” The Fairies are seen as nature spirits that do not like it when their lands are tampered with.
In his series of books called Missing 411, David Paulides, a former law enforcement officer, details hundreds of cases of missing people. Missing children, adults, and the elderly. The books deal with baffling disappearances from all over the globe. None of the cases have ever been solved, though the victims sometimes do come-back alive or unfortunately, their lifeless body is found, but no cause can ever be found for why they disappeared, and details surrounding the events are just as bizarre as how the person went missing. Of course there are probably ordinary and mundane reasons for some of these cases, but in a recent radio interview on Coast to Coast AM, he related a story that is like many of the others. A young child goes missing in the middle of the night when it seems almost impossible that the child could have sneaked away. And when they see the family dog, it is acting strange, like it has been spooked by something. Children who do comeback alive report of seeing ‘robots’, or ‘another little girl’ who ‘led her to safety.’ Sometimes adults comeback in a semi-conscious state, a kind of fever that they later come out of.
The fairies, or elves, demons or angles, whatever we might call them, have been alive in our minds and apparently in the material world, seemingly, since the dawn of human-kind. Were they a race of humans that is now gone or interbred with us? Elementals inhabiting sectors of land? House spirits? Figments of the imagination? In World War II, gremlins were seen as being the cause of aircraft equipment problems, and were sometimes made into dolls and used as good luck charms. The recent Disney film starring Angelina Jolie as the Fairy Godmother Maleficent and its big box office opening are a testament to the immortal power of the fairy on our subconscious. Do they come from a different realm or different dimension? Is this what happens to those who go missing, something has pulled them in and they have vanished? Or something came out from that other realm and took them away? The ‘mythology’ of the ancients contains clues, keys to unlocking a mystery of the little-people, and if their legends hold many truths in them. If we should encounter one of these enchanting creatures, who offers us to venture with them to a foreign land, it would be wise to politely decline the invitation.
For more, visit my blog called Mark Turner’s Mysterious World
Story sources: Dark Fairies, by Dr. Bob Curran – New Page Books 2010 Celtic Lore, The History of the Druids and their Timeless Traditions, by Ward Rutherford – Thorsons/Harper Collins 1993 The Witch Book, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca & Neo-Paganism by Raymond Buckland – Visable Ink Press 2002
Repeated Mothman sightings in Chicago
It was a normal summer night for John Amitrano, working a Friday shift as security for Chicago’s popular Logan Square hangout The Owl – but when we went outside, he saw something odd. “I saw a plane flying, but also something moving really awkwardly under it,” he told VICE. “It didn’t look like a bat so much as what illustrations of pterodactyls look like, with the slenderness of its head and its wing shape. I know what birds and what bats look like. This thing didn’t have any feathers or fur, and it didn’t fly like anything I’ve ever seen.”
Amitrano added that the thing he saw – which, according to him, had muscular legs, a jutting tailbone, and a human-like shape – flew in a “strange swooping motion, undulating up and down.” After it flew away, he retrieved his phone from charging in the bar and texted his girlfriend and close friends what had happened. “I remember thinking, This was the worst time in the world to have my phone charging,” he laughed.
What Amitrano saw that night was one of 55 reported Chicago-area sightings of a flying humanoid in 2017. Accounts have varied from “a large, black, bat-like being with glowing red eyes” to “a big owl” or something that resembled a “Gothic gargoyle” or a “Mothman.” Most eyewitnesses spotted the being in-flight, but some particularly disturbing reports detailed it dropping onto hoods of cars, peering in through windows, and swooping down at bystanders. The alleged “Mothman” has captured the attention of the city, from local media articles and rap songs to Halloween costumes and countless speculative Facebook groups.
Amitrano later remembered seeing something on Facebook about the sightings, and as he read more about it he contacted Lon Strickler, a self-described Fortean researcher who’s been compiling all of the Chicago sightings on his website Phantoms and Monsters. Strickler – whose book Mothman Dynasty: Chicago’s Winged Humanoids was released last month – has been investigating paranormal sightings since the late 1970s and claims to have seen both a “Mothman” and Bigfoot. Since the rash of sightings started in February, he’s been painstakingly interviewing witnesses and documenting their accounts.
According to Strickler, these Chicago sightings are unlike anything he’s seen in his decades investigating alleged flying humanoid sightings: “This group of sightings is historical in cryptozoology terms. For one, it’s happening in an urban area for the most part and that there are so many sightings in one period.” He added that he believes there are at least three flying humanoids around Chicago due to the varied locations, the concentration of sightings in certain neighborhoods, and the small differences in the eyewitness testimonies.
The main reference point Strickler uses for explaining this phenomenon was the wave of reported “Mothman” sightings in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. From 1966 to 1967, there were several reports of a large, man-like bird with glowing red eyes; local folklore later tied the monster to a bad omen connected with a tragic bridge collapse in 1967. The sightings were popularized by John Keel’s 1975 novel The Mothman Prophecies, which was later adapted into a 2002 film starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney – and since 2002, the town has commemorated the “Mothman” sightings with an annual festival.
Strickler doesn’t believe that what Chicagoans have been seeing are harbingers of bad things to come: “These beings are less aggressive than the one in Point Pleasant, for the most part. I believe overall there was only one being in the Point Pleasant-area that was seen during that period.” While he’s not sure why Chicagoans are seeing what they’re seeing, he theorized, “I think they’re flesh and blood beings that aren’t of this world.”
Dr. David A. Gallo is a psychologist from the University of Chicago whose research deals with memory – specifically, how people “actively (and sometimes inaccurately) reconstruct the past,” studying why people believe or are skeptics of paranormal psychic phenomena. A fan of The Mothman Prophecies, he offered his own explanations for what’s happening in Chicago: “It’s a selective sample. When people are choosing to report sightings, the basis of data upon which your paranormal researchers are collecting is all self-report,” he said over a phone call. “He’s not sampling random people and asking if they saw the Mothman – he’s just counting the number of people that voluntarily came forward to report a sighting.”
According to Gallo, the people more likely to visit a paranormal-centric website like Strickler’s might also be more inclined to believe in, and therefore witness the existence of, a “Mothman.” “Ideas about the supernatural can be culturally transmitted and socially transmitted. When incidences of UFOs are reported in the media or represented in popular culture, more sightings happen. I’ve heard it called The Will Smith Effect.” But Strickler doesn’t buy that explanation: “We have had very few cranks from what I can tell, which I think is pretty unusual. If the media would have picked up on it more than it has, I think that we would have had more fraudulent sightings.”
“So many things could be different factors for why there’s such a big uptick in the sighting,” Gallo stated, adding that he doesn’t deny these witnesses saw something out of the ordinary. “There’s a phenomenon where there’s basically some real witnessed experience, but if there are holes or gaps in that original experience, sometimes the mind is unable to fill in the gaps.” Because of this, Gallo warned, “if something is suggested to them subsequently as a plausible scenario – like a Mothman or whatever – that person might be inclined to fill in the gaps with that.”
Did Russians Conducted An Experiment Similar To That of ‘Philadelphia Experiment?
The Philadelphia experiment is a designation for a classified military experiment that was supposed to take place at the naval base in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1943. It is one of the most famous military experiments, but many speculations are still underway here, and there are plenty of ambiguities. That is why he is interested in so many mystery hunters and there are many conspiracy theories in circulation. The experiment has never been officially confirmed by the US government, and is still surrounded by a series of secrets. So I warn beforehand that it is not necessarily the truth and that.
The experiment has never been officially confirmed by the US government, and is still surrounded by a series of secrets. So I warn beforehand that it is not necessarily the truth and that the whole event should be taken with reserve and distance. The aim of the experiment was to hide or ‘invade’ the USS Eldridge destroyer so that it was hidden not only from the enemy radars but also from the sight of a regular observer. This would give the US a tremendous military advantage in the war. The experiment should include world-renowned scientists such as Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein.
The first unsuccessful experiments of this kind were to take place between 1933 and 1940. The project was based on Einstein’s theory of relativity and the use of a combination of gravitational and magnetic fields. The field would merge into one unitary field, which would then change the geometric properties of the space. Even according to official records, Einstein was employed as an adviser in the navy in 1943-1944. According to scientists, huge electric generators bend the light around the object, making it invisible.
Intruders and incubi: The waking nightmare of sleep paralysis
Brian Barrett Motherboard
© Nicolas Bruno
Once, when I was 17, I woke up in the dark and couldn’t move.
I could hear, at least. That’s why I was awake to begin with: someone was banging on the front door in the middle of the night, insistent, sharp, angry.
I could see, too. My eyes were open to the ceiling above me. My head, though, was locked into position by some invisible vise. I tried to yell, to warn my parents about the angry intruder outside, and the irrevocable harm I was convinced he would do. I couldn’t yell. The knocks got louder.
No matter how insistently I begged my body to jump out of bed and find a place to hide, it remained a slab. Something terrible was about to happen to me, to my family. The door was going to give way. The outsider was going to come in. I was going to face whatever—whoever?—came after completely immobilized and alone.
It was the most afraid I’ve ever been in my life. What I realized, looking back later, was that it still would have been even if it weren’t for those knocks on the door, and my certainty that something awful would follow. My deepest fear came from the realization that my body, in that moment, had become completely dissociated from anything I recognized as myself. It was a car sinking to the bottom of a lake, my mind its captive passenger, waiting to drown.
I don’t remember how long it lasted, but eventually it wore off. I quickly found out that the person on the porch was my older brother, home at an unexpected hour on an unexpected visit from college. It took me a few more years to figure out that the other part, the immobility, the sense of self reduced to flickering consciousness, even the deepness of the fear I felt, had a name. It was sleep paralysis.
At least, that’s what we call it now. Dr. S.A. Kinnier Wilson coined the term in a 1928 edition of the medical journal Brain. His description then should feel familiar to anyone who has experienced sleep paralysis today: a man dreamed of a murderer, then carried that dream over to a conscious state. The patient in question “lay thus, flat on the floor, motionless but suffering acute mental stress.”
That’s not to say that sleep paralysis is a relatively new human experience. A Dutch physician named Isbrand van Diemerbroeck published several case histories that accurately describe sleep paralysis in 1664, one of which, titled “Of the Night-Mare,” may as well have been penned by Mary Shelley.
“In the night time, when she was composing her self to sleep, sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was choaked by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or breath, and when she endeavored to throw off the burthen, she was not able to stir her member,”van Diemerbroeck wrote, suggesting moderate exercise and plenty of juice as a possible remedy to the invisible nighttime demon attacks. [17th century sics implied throughout.]
Even that landmark medical documentation isn’t remotely the first reported instance. Go back further still, and you’ll find references to sleep paralysis in medieval Persia and Ancient Greece and even more ancient (400 BCE) China. There’s probably a cave drawing somewhere that depicts a red-eyed saber-toothed tiger sitting atop a paralyzed Neanderthal’s chest. Sleep paralysis is as ageless and as universal as fear itself.
It’s not quite as simple as simply being afraid, though. It’s a complex confluence of physiological and psychological occurrences that force you to experience your deepest nightmares with eyes wide open.
Take a normal night of sleep, assuming you still have those once in awhile. Your body cycles through five sleep stages, the last of which is REM, which you probably remember from your high school biology class as being your brain’s lights-out, shut-it-down, dream-time state.
Which is great! Dreaming is wonderful, especially if you ever wondered what it might feel like to fly down Rodeo Drive with a soft serve twist cone in one hand and a chainsaw in the other. Dreaming, though, can also be dangerous, because your big dumb body doesn’t necessarily know that your brain is just playing pretend. Given the opportunity, your body will act out those dreams, which can lead to a whole other terrifying condition called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD).
You’ve heard of sleepwalking, which can technically be a type of RBD, depending on whether it occurs during the REM stage of sleep. Many RBD episodes are much more involved than just puttering down the hall, however. Think of it like this: juggling with tennis balls and juggling with flaming swords are both technically types of juggling, but you’d never confuse the two.
Comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia turned his experiences with RBD into a very entertaining show, book, and film called Sleepwalk with Me. Well, entertaining but also terrifying; at one point in his mid-20s, Birbiglia threw himself out of a closed, second-story La Quinta motel window. At the time, in his dream, he was trying to escape an incoming guided missile.
The reason more people don’t experience RBD is that the brain also has a safety valve. “During dreaming… bursts of neural activity called PGO waves spread through the cortex, producing the imagery we experience during dreams,” explained James Allan Cheyne, sleep paralysis expert and professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo. “Simultaneously, activation spreads down the spinal column causing spinal interneurons to suppress signals that normally would produce muscle movement.”
Your body, in other words, paralyzes itself during REM sleep to keep you from throwing yourself down a stairwell when you dream about laying out for touchdown pass to win the state championship.
Sleep paralysis, then, is what happens when you wake up before that effect has had a chance to wear off. Your body has frozen to keep you from acting out your dreams. But also, haha, good joke, you’re still dreaming.
“You have aspects of REM sleep that are going on when you have waking, conscious awareness,” said Brian Sharpless, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University and author of a recent book about sleep paralysis. “First, you’re paralyzed, and second, you are having dreams, but unlike normal dreaming these two things are happening while you’re awake and able to look around the room.”
Not just any dreams, though. Sharpless estimates that while a little less than a third of our normal dreams could be considered nightmares, 80 to 90 percent of dreams experienced during sleep paralysis qualify. “You can kind of imagine why,” he said. “If you’re lying on your back and can’t move, that’s scary enough. And if you’re having hallucinations that are scary as well, that’s a bad mix.”
My own sleep paralysis, then, was fairly textbook. The banging on the door vaulted me into consciousness but not out of REM, leaving me frozen in a liminal hell of the mind, waiting for a bad man with an axe to bust down my door. Actually, I got off easy.
As it turns out, sleep paralysis nightmares can be divided into three tidy categories, two of which—the Intruder and the Incubus—would make for decent Paranormal Activity sequels. The third is “vestibular and motor,” a less-fun name for a more-fun condition.
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.”
Scary! But remember, at this point you also can’t move. As far as you know, you may never be able to move again, even if you somehow survive being horribly violated by the shadow monster in your periphery. Screaming would at least be cathartic, but you can’t scream, and you can’t breathe all that well, so all that’s left is to wait.
I was fortunate in that my Intruder scenario involved an actual (friendly!) person. That gave quicker closure, presumably, than some hallucinatory demon-dog lurker might have. I was fortunate, also, that I didn’t draw an Incubus instead:
“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. This is van Diemerbroeck’s devil.
© Nicolas Bruno
Beginning in February of 1995, reports began to circulate throughout Zanzibar of a spirit that assaulted men and women in the dark of night. Its name was Popobawa, which means “winged bat,” because that was the form it was said to take most often, though it was just as often invisible.
As social anthropologist Martin Walsh detailed in 2009, Popobawa attacks spread quickly throughout the country, jumping from person to person, house to house, and village to village, eventually constituting a full-blown paranormal pandemic.
The bat demon was said to sodomize its victims. The response was violent. At one point, residents of Zanzibar City murdered a suspected Popobawa who unsurprisingly turned out to be a human, one who had visited the capital in search of mental health treatment. The terrors, both spiritual and corporeal, continued. Then, three months after they began, the Popobawa incidents stopped.
An entire nation plagued by a sex-starved bat demon would laughable as a SyFy channel script. As reality, it seems impossible. That it led to mobs and murder, more so.
It happened, though. And again, to a lesser degree, in 2007 (“Sex attacks blamed on bat demon” read the restrained BBC headline that time). How?
“A typical [Popobawa] assault involved somebody waking up in the night to find themselves being attacked by an amorphous or shape-shifting intruder, which was most frequently described as ‘pressing’ or ‘crushing’ their chest and ribs, and of suffocating them until they had difficulty in breathing and passed out,” Walsh wrote. “In general all of the victims experienced extreme terror, and were often frozen speechless when they were assaulted.”
An intruder. An incubus. The inability to move. The loss of respiratory control. The Popobawa, Walsh concludes, was no demon. It was textbook sleep paralysis, at a massive scale.
Zanzibar’s example is extreme, but far from isolated. Every culture has its bogeyman. Every century has ghost sightings. Everyone has heard things go bump in the night.
“We believe that sleep paralysis is a good, naturalistic explanation for a lot of paranormal beliefs,” said Sharpless. “Alien abductions that occur at night; visits by ghosts and demons; more recently, shadow people. If you look at people’s first-hand descriptions of these events, they map really well on to sleep paralysis.”
“Different cultures have come up with unique names for sleep paralysis that are descriptive of various common experiences in how it manifests,” explains Kevin Morton, who five years ago founded a site dedicated to better understanding sleep disorders as part of an undergraduate project at Stanford University. “In Japan it’s been known as ‘Kanashibari’ (retaliating spirit), in Thailand ‘Phi um’ (enveloping ghost), or the ‘Hauka’I po’ (night marchers) in Hawaii.”
In the same way that we might ascribe a happy coincidence to a guardian angel or God, we paint sleep paralysis with the brushstrokes of our deepest terrors.
Sleep paralysis being blamed on ghosts, spirits, and demons transcends cultures, but you can count on Japan to give it the perfect anime treatment.
Estimates vary as to how many people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. Sharpless pegs it at 8 percent of the general population, with students (28 percent) and psychiatric patients (32 percent) even higher. Sharpless thinks that spike may be attributable to those groups having disrupted sleep patterns to begin with, making sleep paralysis more likely. Cheyne notes that incidence rates are higher still “in societies with an active tradition of haunting night spirits.”
Despite the prevalence of sleep paralysis, especially among certain groups, there’s been no large intervention trials to determine an effective treatment for it. In a 2014 paper, Dr. Sharpless and co-author Jessica Lynn Grom outlined a few preemptive methods (e.g., changing sleep positions and patterns), as well as techniques to help mitigate the impact mid-episode. Among the most effective of those? Simply trying to calm yourself down in the moment, if you can manage it. Focus on trying to move your extremities. Don’t worry about the demon on your chest.
That’s more easily accomplished if you’re aware that you’re experiencing sleep paralysis, or even of what sleep paralysis is. It’s a condition that’s been largely (apologies) in the dark, in part because it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I didn’t tell anyone about my experience for years, and even then it was only after I had found out what it was. Until then, I was too worried that it signaled something deeply wrong with my body or mind or both.
“Sleep paralysis has quite a large awareness bias associated with it,” says Morton, whose site has received hundreds of submissions from people who have lived it, and a magnitude more visitors looking for answers. “It is such a crazy experience–waking up with your body paralyzed, often hallucinating frightening dream imagery, occasionally of a sexual nature–that those who experience it often don’t talk about it with others, usually out of fear that they will be seen as crazy or possessed, or just otherwise stigmatized if they bring it up.”
Morton is optimistic about the internet’s power as a great normalizer; all it takes is a quick search of symptoms to find out that you’re neither possessed nor insane. Sleep paralysis also seems to be having a larger cultural moment beyond the web, if a phenomenon as old as consciousness itself can be said to have moments.
That’s a brief clip from The Nightmare, a documentary from Rodney Ascher, which brings brings to life people’s real descriptions of sleep paralysis events. Ascher, who previously directed the critically lauded Room 237, pursued the topic after experiencing it himself. Devil in the Room, a short film released in 2014, takes a similar approach, while photographer Nicolas Bruno has a series of photographs depicting the horrors he has experienced in his years of sleep paralysis.
Most dreams stop when they want to, not when you tell them. A modicum of awareness, though, helps with what comes after. Even if you can’t beat sleep paralysis, you can cope with its reverberations.
There’s comfort in knowing that the demon on your chest actually resides in your mind. Or at least, that yours isn’t the only mind with demons.
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