Posted by Chris Woodyard
Today we return to the court of King Louis XIV at Versailles in another odd tale from the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon. Previously we heard from him about an unsettling attempt by a mesmerized girl to scry the death-bed of the Sun King in a glass of water.
Louis XIV’s court was hedged about by ceremony and strict etiquette. The King’s dinner, which was open to the public, was staged in an ante-chamber of the King’s apartments. You may read about the astonishing details of a typical dinner—which might include 40 dishes—here. Onlookers had to bow to the food as it was being conveyed to the King’s table.
Bontems, is Alexandre Bontemps, the King’s “valet,” which is a bit misleading. He was not the King’s “gentleman’s gentleman.” He did not brush the King’s coat or pack his suitcases like an 18th-century Jeeves. He was the Premier valet de la Chambre du Roi, the senior official of the King’s household and he wielded immense power and influence because of his unique access to the King.
The “fringes” were expensive trimmings called (collectively) passementerie, probably of gold bullion and silk, which trimmed the velvet hangings of the King’s apartments as well as some of the furniture and the state bed. The tassel just above is a modern reproduction of a similar trimming, although perhaps not as elaborate. Considering that the King’s food and drink had to be reverenced as if the dishes were the passing Sacrament, it was an almost sacrilegious act to steal the furnishings of the King’s rooms. Here is the story:
This theft [of horse trappings from the Royal stables] reminds me of another which took place a little before the commencement of these memoirs. The grand apartment at Versailles, that is to say, from the gallery to the tribune, was hung with crimson velvet, trimmed and fringed with gold. One fine morning the fringe and trimmings were all found to have been cut away. This appeared extraordinary in a place so frequented all day, so well closed at night, and so well guarded at all times. Bontems, the King’s valet, was in despair, and did his utmost to discover the thieves, but without success.
Five or six days afterwards, I was at the King’s supper, with nobody but Daquin, chief physician, between the King and me, and nobody at all between me and the table. Suddenly I perceived a large black form in the air, but before I could tell what it was, it fell upon the end of the King’s table just before the cover which had been laid for Monsieur [the King’s brother] and Madame [the King’s sister-in-law]. By the noise it made in falling, and the weight of the thing itself, it seemed as though the table must be broken. The plates jumped up, but none were upset, and the thing, as luck would have it, did not fall upon any of them, but simply upon the cloth. The King moved his head half round, and without being moved in any way said, “I think that is my fringe!”
It was indeed a bundle, larger than a flat-brimmed priest’s hat, about two feet in height, and shaped like a pyramid. It had come from behind me, from towards the middle door of the two ante-chambers, and a piece of fringe getting loose in the air, had fallen upon the King’s wig, from which it was removed by Livry, a gentleman-in-waiting. Livry also opened the bundle, and saw that it did indeed contain the fringes all twisted up, and everybody saw likewise. A murmur was heard. Livry wishing to take away the bundle found a paper attached to it. He took the paper and left the bundle. The King stretched out his hand and said, “Let us see.” Livry, and with reason, would not give up the paper, but stepped back, read it, and then passed it to Daquin, in whose hands I read it. The writing, counterfeited and long like that of a woman, was in these words:—”Take back your fringes, Bontems; they are not worth the trouble of keeping—my compliments to the King.”
The paper was rolled up, not folded: the King wished to take it from Daquin, who, after much hesitation, allowed him to read it, but did not let it out of his hands [probably for fear of poison on the paper.]
“Well, that is very insolent!” said the King, but in quite a placid unmoved tone—as it were, an historical tone. Afterwards he ordered the bundle to be taken away. Livry found it so heavy that he could scarcely lift it from the table, and gave it to an attendant who presented himself. The King spoke no more of this matter, nobody else dared to do so; and the supper finished as though nothing had happened.
Besides the excess of insolence and impudence of this act, it was so perilous as to be scarcely understood. How could any one, without being seconded by accomplices, throw a bundle of this weight and volume in the midst of a crowd such as was always present at the supper of the King, so dense that it could with difficulty be passed through? How, in spite of a circle of accomplices, could a movement of the arms necessary for such a throw escape all eyes? The Due de Gesvres was in waiting. Neither he nor anybody else thought of closing the doors until the King had left the table. It may be guessed whether the guilty parties remained until then, having had more than three quarters of an hour to escape, and every issue being free. Only one person was discovered, who was not known, but he proved to be a very honest man, and was dismissed after a short detention. Nothing has since been discovered respecting this theft or its bold restitution.
The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon on the Reign of Louis XIV and the Regency, Vol. 1, Louis de Rouvroy Saint-Simon (duc de) Bayle St. John, translator, 1900
This Affair of the Fringes is a truly bizarre historical episode. The thing seems to be a physical impossibility: hurling a heavy bundle of stolen goods onto the King’s table without breaking a dish and what is more, doing it in a room crammed with people without being observed. While all eyes were on the King as he dined, one would expect that someone would have noticed his neighbor lifting a bundle of this size.
There is no explanation; and no apparent point. In some ways it is a variation on the Phantom Attacker motif: the slasher or the assailant who does his work and melts away, unseen in the dark. Throwing large or heavy objects with impossible accuracy is also a talent of some poltergeists. The noise and the notion that the table must have been broken are found in hundreds of ghost/poltergeist stories where witnesses hear a crash as if a piano fell from the ceiling or a cupboard full of dishes fell off the wall, but then find everything intact. The story (in a slightly different translation) appeared in a Spiritualist publication in 1881 under the heading “Was it a Freak of Spirit Power?” The wonder-lover in me would like to think that the note was some very early spirit writing or that a poltergeist was tossing tassels at Versailles, but it was perhaps more likely to have been some insider’s job of spite against the King or Bontemps. One would have expected the King to act more startled when a bundle came hurtling down onto his table. Was he expecting it? Or was his non-reaction simply the King’s usual imperturbable demeanor?
Thoughts? Toss gently to the easily startled
Tuesdays are not my day for reading French, so I’ve not carefully proofed the passages below, which I cut from the Memoirs online. But you will see that the translation above is far from exact.
Cela me fait souvenir d’un autre vol qui eut quelque chose de bien plus étrange, et qui arriva fort peu avant la date du commencement de ces Mémoires. Le grand appartement, c’est-à-dire depuis la galerie jusqu’à la tribune, était meublé de velours cramoisi avec des crépines et des franges d’or. Un beau matin elles se trouvèrent toutes coupées. Cela parut un prodige dans un lieu si passant tout le jour, si fermé la nuit et si gardé à toutes heures. Bontems, au désespoir, fit et fit faire toutes les perquisitions qu’il put, et toutes sans aucun succès. Cinq ou six jours après, j’étais au souper du roi, il n’y avait que Daquin, premier médecin du roi, entre le roi et moi, et personne entre moi et la table. Vers l’entremets, j’aperçus je ne sais quoi de fort gros et comme noir en l’air sur la table, que je n’eus le temps de discerner ni de montrer par la rapidité dont ce gros tomba sur le bout de la table, devant l’endroit du couvert de Monsieur et de Madame qui étaient à Paris, et qui se mettaient toujours au bout de la table à la gauche du roi, le dos aux fenêtres qui donnent sur la grande cour. Le bruit que cela fit en tombant, et la pesanteur de la chose pensa l’enfoncer, et fit bondir les plats, mais sans en renverser aucun, et de hasard cela tomba sur la nappe et point dans des plats. Le roi, au coup que cela fit, tourna la tête à demi, et sans s’émouvoir en aucune sorte: « Je pense, dit-il, que ce sont mes franges. » C’en était en effet un paquet plus large qu’un chapeau de prêtre avec ses bords tout plats, et haut en manière de pyramide mal faite d’environ deux pieds. Cela était parti de loin derrière moi vers la porte mitoyenne des deux antichambres, et un frangeon détaché en l’air était tombé sur le haut de la perruque du roi, que Livry qui était à sa gauche aperçut et ôta. Il s’approcha du bout de la table, et vit en effet que c’étaient les franges tortillées en paquet, et tout le monde les vit comme lui. Cela fit un moment de murmure. Livry, voulant ôter ce paquet, y trouva un billet attaché; il le prit et laissa le paquet. Le roi tendit la main et dit : « Voyons. » Livry avec raison ne voulut pas; et, se retirant en arrière, le lut tout bas, et par derrière le roi le donna à Daquin avec qui je le lus entre ses mains. Il y avait dedans, d’une écriture contrefaite et longue comme de femme, ces propres mots: « Reprends tes franges, Bontems, la peine en passe le plaisir, mes baisemains au roi. » Il était roulé et point fermé; le roi le voulut encore prendre des mains de Daquin qui se recula, le sentit, le frotta, tourna et retourna, puis le montra au roi sans le lui laisser toucher. Le roi lui dit de le lire tout haut quoique lui-même le lût en même temps. « Voilà, dit le roi, qui est bien insolent; » mais d’un ton tout uni et comme historique. Il dit après qu’on ôtât ce paquet. Livry le trouva si pesant qu’à peine le put-il lever de dessus la table, et le donna à un garçon bleu qui vint se présenter. De ce moment le roi n’en parla plus, et personne n’osa plus en rien dire, au moins tout haut, et le reste du souper se passa tout comme chose non avenue.
Outre l’excès de l’impudence et de l’insolence, c’est un excès de péril qui ne se peut comprendre. Comment lancer de si loin un paquet de cette pesanteur et de ce volume, sans être environné de complices, et au milieu d’une foule telle qu’elle était toujours au souper du roi, où à peine pouvait-on passer dans ces derrières? Comment, malgré ce cercle de complices, le grand mouvement des bras pour une vibration aussi forte put-il échapper à tant d’yeux ? Le duc de Gesvres était en année. Ni lui ni personne ne s’avisa de faire fermer les portes, que du temps après que le roi fut sorti de table. On peut juger si les coupables étaient demeurés là, ayant eu plus de trois quarts d’heure toutes les issues libres pour se retirer. Les portes fermées il ne se trouva qu’un seul homme que personne ne connut et qu’on arrêta. Il se dit gentilhomme de Saintonge, et connu du duc d’Uzès, gouverneur de la province. Il était à Versailles, on l’envoya prier de venir. Il allait se coucher. Il vint aussitôt, reconnut ce gentilhomme, en répondit, et sur ce témoignage on le laissa avec des excuses. Jamais depuis on n’a pu rien découvrir de ce vol, ni de la singulière hardiesse de sa restitution.
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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