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Supernatural Sound: Science and Shamanism in the Arctic

Toolemak’s voice


Scanning the horizon off the coast of Greenland in 1822, William Scoresby witnessed the impossible: floating in the sky was an upside down ship. “It was,” the whaling captain wrote, “so well defined, that I could distinguish by a telescope every sail, the general rig of the ship, and its particular character; insomuch that I confidently pronounced it to be my father’s ship, the Fame.”  And this despite the fact that no ship was visible upon the water itself.


“I was so struck with the peculiarity of the circumstance,” Scoresby noted, “that I mentioned it to the officer of the watch, stating my full conviction that the Fame was then cruising in the neighbouring inlet.” Scoresby was correct: the airy phantoms not only resembled his father’s ship but, like the supernatural images seen by those with second sight, were premonitions of it. Scoresby senior’s ship subsequently appeared over the horizon, floating the right way up on the sea.


In the same year, the captain of a Northwest Passage expedition found his ears playing even stranger tricks than had Scoresby’s eyes. Meeting “a few male wizards,” among the Igloolik, George Lyon invited their “principal,” named Toolemak, to demonstrate his magical skills:


[He] began turning himself rapidly round, and in a loud powerful voice vociferated for Tornga with great impatience, at the same time blowing and snorting like a walrus. […] Suddenly the voice seemed smothered, and was so managed as to sound as if retreating beneath the deck, each moment becoming more distant, and ultimately giving the idea of being many feet below the cabin, when it ceased entirely. His wife now, in answer to my queries, informed me very seriously, that he had lived, and that he would send up Tornga. Accordingly, in about half a minute, a distant blowing was heard very slowly approaching, and a voice, which differed from that at first heard, was at times mingled with the blowing, until at length both sounds became distinct, and the old woman informed me that Tornga was come to answer my questions. I accordingly asked several questions of the sagacious spirit, to each of which inquiries I received an answer by two loud claps on the deck, which I was given to understand were favourable.


At length, the “voice gradually sank from our hearing,” Lyon related, only to be replaced by an “indistinct hissing” that reminded him of


the tone produced by the wind on the bass chord of an Aeolian harp. This was soon changed to a rapid hiss like that of a rocket, and Toolemak with a yell announced his return. I had held my breath at the first distant hissing, and twice exhausted myself; yet our conjurer did not once respire, and even his returning and powerful yell was uttered without a previous stop or inspiration of air.


What Lyon witnessed was an Inuit shamanistic performance. Typically, these performances took place within a specially erected tent or hut, the unnatural shaking of which formed part of the uncanny effect. Lyon recorded the ceremony, as he did many Inuit practices, with an unaffected curiosity that allowed him to be drawn further into Inuit culture than most white visitors. His journal suggests that the Inuit recognized his open-mindedness and engaged with him more closely than with any of the other members of the expedition.


Lyon and Scoresby had more than their northerly location in common. Both men were startled by their Arctic encounters because they were unable to demonstrate the origin of the strange events in terms of natural law. And in this they were, unwittingly, perpetuating a tradition in which the Arctic and its inhabitants stood for the strange, the sublime and the supernatural. Since time immemorial seamen had encountered the supernatural on their northern voyages: they were wooed by mermaids, menaced by kraken, whirled into maelstroms, pursued by Flying Dutchmen.

kraken Images of kraken, monstrous whales, and “leviathans” proliferated in early modern bestiaries. This engraving is from Konrad Gesner’s Fischbuch, Der zwölffte theil von de Meertheire (1598), fol. 97r. Wikimedia Commons


These encounters were at best the stuff of myth—images of an oceanic uncanny accruing to all who had sailed in strange seas. But Scoresby and Lyon were no ancient mariners, no gullible deckhands. They belonged to a new generation of explorers, who, from the 1770s onwards, observed the seas with eyes trained in mathematical mensuration and armed with scientific instruments—telescopes, compasses, sextants, chronometers. This generation could, for the first time in history, accurately plot their longitude as well as their latitude. They were scientific voyagers, educated to turn unknown seas and unmapped shores into the calibrated lines and accurate figures of the naval chart. Careful, empirical, rational, they were not given to believing in ghosts or observing superstitions.

  • Scoresby designed a ‘marine-diver’ for taking the sea temperature at different depths. See Fergus Fleming, Barrow’s Boys (London: Grove Press, 1998), p. 31.


It was all the more significant, then, that such men reported these uncanny auditory and visual phenomena when they voyaged in polar regions. Georg Forster, the highly educated and skeptical man of science who accompanied Captain Cook on his cruise into Antarctic waters, noted incident after incident in which nature offered staggering sights and sounds: “long columns of a clear white light, shooting up from the horizon to the eastward, almost to the zenith, and gradually spreading on the whole southern part of the sky.” Nothing fitted expectations; perspectives were scrambled: “we saw the sea luminous at night”; “we passed by a large island of ice, which at that moment crumbled to pieces with a tremendous explosion”; “the ice is not always entirely white, but often tinged, especially near the surface of the sea, with a most beautiful sapphrine or rather beryline blue.”


So too the Arctic: with six months of light and six of dark, with all-blanketing white-outs in which ground and sky were indistinguishable, with compasses useless near the Pole, the region seemed a zone where nature’s laws were suspended, where the senses were overwhelmed by the unexpected.

Visible science and supernatural sound


The Arctic was a zone of the uncanny because the supernatural was increasingly banished from realms closer to home by exactly the kind of scientific and technological culture to which modern navigators themselves adhered. The Arctic’s indigenous people fascinated British travelers because of their very obliviousness to the empirical, rational, scientific culture to which ‘civilized’ Britons were committed. Far from studying this dichotomy, many scholars of Native American culture in the Arctic have simply perpetuated it without questioning the relationship of their own work to earlier white idealizations of people who seemed to exist beyond civilization.


Arctic Indians stood at the inflection point of early nineteenth-century culture—the point at which scientific rationalists and their Romantic opponents articulated their opposition to each other and yet revealed their mutual dependence. In other words, Indians came to voice the persistence of a supernatural beyond the proliferation of texts (mathematical, cartographical, statistical, literary) that claimed to comprehend nature.


In the Romantic era, science had demystified the senses, sight especially. By the early 1820s, the disciplines of surgery, instrument-making, and physics had advanced enough to enable anatomists and oculists to conduct experiments which changed our understanding of the way we see. After Thomas Young and Charles Bell’s work on the eye, vision became a subject for anatomical analysis rather than religious inquisition. If it showed  unfocused, elusive spirits, these could be understood as flaws in the eye or brain, medical conditions rather than an actual perception of supernatural beings.

  • Charles Bell, “On the Motions of the Eye, in Illustration of the Uses of the Muscles and Nerves of the Orbit.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 113 (January 1, 1823): 166.


It was the application of technology, as much as the science of optics itself that removed the supernatural from the enlightened world. But technology also conferred an unparalleled ability to manufacture the supernatural. By the 1820s, engineers had constructed a series of vision-machines capable of producing ghosts at the turn of a handle such as the phantasmagoria—essentially an updated and moveable magic lantern capable of projecting magnified images through a gauze screen into smoky air. The images grew and shrank in size and fluttered as the air moved: they seemed, like spirits, to have animate life but no material substance. In 1833, David Brewster, by now the foremost scientific expert on optics, designed an improvement to allow the phantasmagoria to project not just images painted on glass, but also reflections of the living human body. Flesh could now become spirit with the aid of smoke, mirrors, and the latest precision lenses.


In 1832, Brewster published his Letters on Natural Magic—a book dedicated to demonstrating how many of the encounters that had once been thought to be supernatural were now explicable as being purely natural. Paradoxically, this demystifying work related many stories of hauntings and miracles, as if Brewster, despite his intention of explaining them away, was swayed by their narratives of belief in a world that could never be ultimately reduced to empirical facts. Brewster’s ambivalence about the supernatural was apparent in his discussion of the Arctic: he related at length Scoresby’s vision of ships in the air only to explain it away as a manifestation of natural law. Scoresby’s polar miracle was, in fact, only a mirage, now explicable by the latest experiments, demonstrated with mathematical formulae and geometrical diagrams. No longer did the Arctic defy scientific authority as it did the evidence of the senses. Its visions were reducible to abstract knowledge, number-relationships illustrated by nothing more sensual than a series of angular lines.

charles brewster's illustration An illustration from Charles Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic. Internet Archive


Yet as vision grew increasingly technologized, the Poles became landscapes in which a different kind of supernatural encounter persisted—an encounter dependent on a sense that was not yet subject to mechanical reproduction and mathematical explanation: the sense of hearing. Sound, whether inarticulate noise or articulate voice, was hard to pin down. Its origins, movement, and reception were difficult to fix and had not yet been captured by technology—as the phonograph and telephone were still nearly a century in the future.


Not just sound, but indigenous people’s use of it, fascinated Victorians because they defied scientific explanation. Thus it’s notable that, as his chief example of the haunting power of sound, Brewster chose none other than Lyon’s account of his encounter with the Inuit shamans who ventriloquize the voices of the spirits—reproducing it in full. Even for this arch-scientific explicator, then, the encounter with the Inuit shaman testifies to sound’s power to elude the knowable—and contains an attraction to and fascination with the supernatural.


This is what Brewster says:


The ventriloquist … has the supernatural always at his command. In the open fields, as well as in the crowded city—in the private apartments, as well as in the public hall, he can summon up innumerable spirits; and though the persons of his fictitious dialogue are not visible to the eye, yet they are as unequivocally present to the imagination of his auditors as if they had been shadowed forth in the silence of a spectral form.


For Brewster the haunting by voices is an illusion—a ventriloquism, but he writes as one who is convinced by it. The spirits are summoned. The speaking persons are present to the imagination. And so the Inuit shaman is a talismanic figure because he marks the limit at which scientific demystification—a logical, textual discourse—breaks down, precisely because the shaman’s oral powers defy the explanatory resources of scientific method. The scientific mind knows it can’t be real yet believes anyway.


In fact Brewster’s text and Lyon’s narrative testify in their form as well as in their content to the capacity of the oral/aural to elude them and the kinds of knowledge they epitomize. Effectively, Brewster and Lyon, following several earlier visitors to the Arctic Indians, write a demonstration of their inability to grasp, in their most powerful technologies (the textual technologies of measurement and record), the Arctic natural world vocalised by the shaman. In the process, they reveal both their bewilderment at the ineffectiveness of their technologies and their fascination by people who are not governed by such technologies.


To such Britons it seemed that the voices uttered by the shaman, because they were seemingly without body yet inhabited a body not their own, called his presence into question. It is as if what became manifest in the body of the shaman was the condition of all voices—an unfixable, mobile sound that moves through, but is not wholly possessed by, a body.


Apprehended in the shaman’s body, the voices that speak through him seemed like the essence of speech/sound—articulated spirit, passing into and out of body. For an observer educated, like Lyon and Brewster, in the European tradition, this voice is analogous to the Muse occupying the poet (vates), or the god occupying the prophet (Cassandra)—a matter of inspiration. Thus the Inuit becomes a present-day example of a figure confined, in enlightened countries, to the past (or to the uneducated)—the figure of the prophetic oracle. For the Indians, however, the shaman mobilizes the voices of the spirits who animate the natural world—plants, rocks animals, sea, sky, storm—and the spirits of the dead. By so doing, he demonstrates his access to a real spirit world, enabling him to interpret dreams, predict future events, and cure the sick. In both traditions, then, the shaman accesses power via possession. He becomes uncanny, a double presence: he is at once himself and more than himself.


This uncanniness made the shaman enthralling for many of the voyagers and men of science who visited the Arctic. Although as late as 1750 very few Britons had come into contact with Arctic peoples, by 1830 a succession of travelers had described both the Inuit and the ‘northern Indians.’ Most of these travelers were employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)—traders who lived among the Cree and Ojibwa Indians in northern Canada; some were trappers who dwelt among the Inuit on the Labrador coast; a few were, like Lyon, polar explorers who met native people who came out to trade with the white men’s ice-bound ships.


All of these Britons were intrigued by the shaman, who became one of the chief figures about whom they commented in their journals. When those journals were published as travel narratives, they established ‘Eskimos’ and ‘northern Indians’ as oracular, sublime, ‘prophets of nature’ in Britons’ imagination—as well as ‘primitives.’ These writings thus shaped Indians in a rather different popular image from the images attached to more southerly Native Americans with whom white colonists had had centuries of contact (stereotypes including drunken savages, brave warriors, noble innocents).


One witness was the HBC trader George Nelson, who had more than twenty years’ experience of working with the Cree and Ojibwa. In a journal composed in 1823 at Lac La Ronge (Northeast Saskatchewan), Nelson recorded his profound “astonishment” at the sights and, most of all, sounds of the shamans in the shaking tent ceremony:


The rattler is shaked at a merry rate and all of a Sudden, either from the top or below, away flies the cords by which the Indian was tied into the lap of he who tied him. … It is then that the Devil is at work—Every instant some one or other enters, which is known to those outside by either the fluttering, the rubbing against the Skins of the hut in descending (inside) or the shaking or the rattler, and sometimes all together. When any enter, the hut moves in a most violent manner—I have frequently thought that it would be knocked down, or torn out of the Ground.


In 1795 a still stranger account of Indian shamans was published—Samuel Hearne’s A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. Hearne was an employee of the HBC who in the early 1770s, led by a party of Cree and Dene, walked through the Canadian interior to the Arctic shore. The only white man in the expedition, Hearne was dependent upon his companions for survival, following their lifeways and directions rather than vice versa. From this position, he lauded the power of shamans’ oral performances, revealing a society from which belief in the supernatural had not been banished in the name of science and civilization.


Hearne revealed that the shamans mobilized spirits to cure and curse their fellow tribe-members:


When a friend for whom they have a particular regard is, as they suppose, dangerously ill, … they have recourse to another very extraordinary piece of superstition; which is no less than that of pretending to swallow hatchets, ice-chissels, broad bayonets, knives, and the like; out of a superstitious notion that undertaking such desperate feats will have some influence in appeasing death, and procure a respite for their patient.


Reading Hearne in 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fascinated by his account of shamanistic practices and the belief these practices engendered among the Indians. Hearne prompted him to write poetry that defers to the oral, as if tracing a passage of sound too elusive to be caught on paper—what he called “strange power of speech.” In this poetry he sought to make the supernatural encounter believable for his readers, to turn them away from too materialist a culture. Coleridge explained that


I had been reading … Hearne’s deeply interesting anecdotes of … workings on the imagination of the Copper Indians … and I conceived the design of showing that instances of this kind are not peculiar to savage or barbarous tribes, and of illustrating the mode in which the mind is affected in these cases.

A new sonic aesthetic: Coleridge, orality and Arctic shamanism

The Arctic The Arctic as a space of supernatural wonder, as depicted in Gustave Dore’s 1876 engraving of Coleridge’s epic. Wikimedia Commons


Coleridge’s interest in Hearne was both psychological and cultural. He wanted to remind his educated readers of the power of imagination—of what they dismissed, when they encountered it among uneducated peasants, as superstition. Because its effects among the Indians and Inuit were so startling and so novel, they were less likely to be so dismissed. For Coleridge it was sound more than sight, and, in particular, the sound uttered through the shaman, in which the supernatural could be credibly apprehended—or rather, through which enlightened readers could access the belief that the occult manipulation of voice embodied by the shaman does indeed give them spiritual power.


The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,’ Coleridge’s greatest poem, was written after his exposure to Hearne. The polar region, as Coleridge’s mariner describes it, resembles Hearne’s (as well as Forster’s and Cook’s) in that it is a place of unaccountable phenomena that defy mensuration—especially of mysterious sounds:


The Ice was here, the Ice was there,     The Ice was all around: It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d—     Like noises of a swound. (lines 57-60)


The sonic uncanniness of the Antarctic—a place at the opposite pole to enlightened, domesticated, and charted Britain, a place escaping the scrutiny of science’s visual technologies, prepares Coleridge’s readers for the later emergence of the supernatural in the form of voices emanating from sea and sky. The zombified crew, for instance, utter sounds that are their own and more than their own, sounds profoundly disturbing in their abnormality. They seem like shamans—voicing spirits who utter through, but are not circumscribed by, the body:


Sweet sounds rose slowly thro’ their mouths     And from their bodies pass’d
Around, around flew each sweet sound,     Then darted to the sun: Slowly the sounds came back again     Now mix’d, now one by one. (lines 341-346)


Intriguingly, the elusiveness of these sounds is produced in visual terms—we see them flying like birds—although sound, obviously, is always invisible. By describing sounds thus, Coleridge asks us, as readers, to see what we have no experience or possibility of seeing, thereby causing us to doubt both the separateness of the senses and their efficacy in comprehending the phenomenal world.


By the climax of the poem, sound is the chief mode through which the supernatural is encountered, precisely because it cannot be fixed or calibrated and because the reader cannot simply translate it into a more measurable form of data. The mariner is as overcome by its power as were the Dene who, hearing the spirits voiced through the shaman, fainted and wasted away:


The Boat came closer to the Ship     But I ne spake ne stirr’d! The Boat came close beneath the Ship,     And strait a sound was heard!
Under the water it rumbled on,     Still louder and more dread: It reach’d the Ship, it split the bay;     The Ship went down like lead.
Stunn’d by that loud and dreadful sound,     Which sky and ocean smote: Like one that hath been seven days drown’d     My body lay  afloat; … (lines 575-86)


Matching its form to its content, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ offers itself as a vindication of an oral culture. Still apprehended by indigenous Americans and uneducated villagers, that power would, harnessed in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s new poetry, give their readers a taste of what their commitment to materialist culture deprived them of. It would alert them to the sensory and spiritual deprivation that this culture enforced in the name of measurable knowledge—and thereby puncture their complacent participation in that culture.


In this respect Native Americans were vital figures in the development of a revolutionary new aesthetic—a sonic aesthetic in which orality was both supernatural subject-matter and the ostensible mode of artistic delivery: Wordsworth and Coleridge made their poems as ballads to be spoken, sang, and chanted. This sonic aesthetic had spiritual and perceptual revolution as its aim and Indians at its root, as Blake acknowledged when, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he paid tribute to “the North American tribes” who “practise … raising other men into a perception of the infinite.”


The Romantic shaman was a new, anti-Enlightenment figure shaped by what scientific travelers guiltily half-revealed: he was uncannily desirable as well as alien because his voicings delimited the explanatory power of science. This process had consequences for real, as well as poetic indigenes: making the northern Indian and the Inuit uncanny figures conditioned the way Indians were seen not just by nineteenth-century poets but also by twentieth-century anthropologists (there was far greater interest in shamans than, for instance, in Inuit women, and in ritual than in domestic work).


In short, the process shaped Romanticism in Britain but also romanticized, for both poets and scientists, the Arctic into a zone of exotic otherness. It became a place beyond empirical grasp: the real/fantasy land of orality about which those living within the textual horizon of rational empiricism dreamed with fear and longing.


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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.”

While Gallo’s theories for why people have been seeing this flying humanoid might help soothe the nerves of Chicagoans afraid to look up at the sky, Amitrano still believes he saw something that night: “The reason I said something in the first place is that nobody wants to say anything because they don’t want to be perceived as a crackpot or a crazy person. That doesn’t mean that those things don’t happen.”

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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.


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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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