Witchcraft, Alien Abduction, and Sleep Paralysis
by Somar Jaafar
In 1747, a woman at a witch trial reported witnessing her husband in bed "lying there stiff, barely drawing breath", before waking up and crying out, "‘My Lord Jesus help me! Oh! Fiery witches took me to Máramaros and they put six hundredweight of salt on me’" (Davies, 2003, p.186). Throughout the middle ages, such testimonies of bewitchment were common, and warranted formal accusation, prosecution, and physical assault of supposed witches. However, looking at much of the documented descriptions left from such incidents through a modern lens, a number of medical conditions can be lined up perfectly with them. For the aforementioned testimony, the matching condition would be sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak at sleep onset or upon waking up, usually accompanied by various types of hallucinations, including auditory, visual, and even olfactory or gustatory (imagined smell/taste respectively). It is a terrifying experience, as it can also involve “a strong sense of presence, difficulty breathing, sensations of movement, and intense emotion” (Santomauro & French, 2009, para. 1).
The isolated occurrence of sleep paralysis is not rare. 8% to 50% of the general population experience it during their lifetimes (Sharpless & Barber, 2011; Santomauro, & French, 2009; Davies, 2003). Anyone is susceptible. Sleep paralysis is somewhat more commonly acknowledged nowadays, and many are aware of the term or have experienced it, but the unfamiliar waking to it for the first time would likely have many questions that night. The phenomenon lends itself to being attributed to the paranormal by the uninformed, in order to avoid facing the uncomfortable idea that they may be losing their mind. It is greatly fascinating to study the interpretations of such a medical condition across different cultures and time periods, where reality, hallucination, culture, and belief fuse to concoct rich fantasies of the supernatural.
Earliest Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis and Succubi
“… in the night time, when she was composing her self [sic] to sleep, sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was choaked [sic] by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or breathe, and when she endeavoured to throw off the burthen, she was not able to stir her members. And while she was in that strife, sometimes with great difficulty she awoke of her self [sic]”
This 1664 Dutch physician’s case description is likely the earliest recognizable account of sleep paralysis, or as the doctor concludes, “Incubus or the Night-Mare” (Cox, 2015). He impressively attributes the illness to folklore, and showcases the early roots of the modern word "nightmare." The Nightmare refers not to a bad dream, but to the nocturnal visit of a malevolent entity, along the lines of an incubus or a witch, threatening to suck the very life out of its mortified victim (Adler, 1991). The famous 1781 painting "The Nightmare", by Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, visually depicts the bizarre encounter in a perfectly clinical representation. A sleeping woman is draped over the end of her bed, surmounted by an incubus, a type of spirit said to lie atop people in their sleep, or even engage in sexual intercourse with them. The eerie being stares directly at the viewer, almost inviting them to the lady's nightmare. The painting beautifully encapsulates the experience of sleep paralysis.
"Taking direct inspiration from the nightmare, it is described as suddenly awaking in a state of paralysis with a feeling of weight pressing on one's chest, at times caused by a grotesque humanoid figure."
The character of a succubus can be traced back to the ancient figure of Lilith, the earliest reference of which is found in Sumerian literature, and is carried over to the Bible and Talmud. In the Sumerian King list of 2400 BC, Lilitu (Lilith) are described as vampire-like she-demons, which bore children by their nocturnal unions with men. Mesopotamian and Hebraic representations of Lilith maintain the heavy association with demons in both proximity and depiction, usually portraying her with the body of scorpion, serpent, or dragon. Lilith reigns throughout tradition as the wandering terror of the night, vexing men, and inflicting harm. She is the beginning of the concept of a succubus or nightmare (Cox, 2015).
Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis across Cultures
Though referred to by many names, experiential elements of sleep paralysis have been reported from many societies and cultures and interpreted in a variety of ways. For instance, in the Canadian province Newfoundland, sleep paralysis is known as the "Old Hag". Taking direct inspiration from the nightmare, it is described as suddenly awaking in a state of paralysis with a feeling of weight pressing on one's chest, at times caused by a grotesque humanoid figure (Ness, 1978). Newfoundlanders think it may be caused by overexertion, blood stagnation when they lie on their back, or hostile feelings from another person (Santomauro, & French, 2009). Also, amongst the Inuit of Canada, tradition held that an individual's soul was vulnerable during sleep and dreaming, enabling attacks from shamans and malevolent spirits (Law & Kirmayer, 2005). Similarly, Chinese people also often believed in a state of vulnerability to spirits during sleep, a condition termed "ghost oppression" in Hong Kong (Santomauro, & French, 2009).
In Japan, symptoms identical to sleep paralysis were traditionally broadly attributed to kanashibari attacks, which were historically associated with the magic of Fudoh-Myohoh, one of the Buddhist gods. It is said that long ago, Buddhist monks would exercise magic to paralyze others, akin to binding them with invisible chains. In recent years, Japanese individuals have shown awareness of kanashibari and relate it more to evil spirits (Fukuda et al., 1987). In Korea, sleep paralysis is termed "ha-wi-nulita", which directly translates to being squeezed by scissors (Santomauro, & French, 2009). Another fascinating interpretation of the phenomenon comes from the Eastern Caribbean Island nation, Saint Lucia, where it is known as "kokma". Here, the spirits of unbaptized babies are believed to haunt the region and prey on the local residents by jumping on top of them and squeezing their throats at night (Olunu et al., 2018).
There exists evidence online of the attribution of sleep paralysis episodes in Arab and Islamic culture to a visit by jinn, which broadly refers to supernatural creatures in Islamic Mythology ("Islamic Stories: Attack of the Jinn", 2016). Egyptian folklore, for instance, refers specifically to a "jinn attack", associated with extreme fear, paranormal presence, and the belief that it may lead to the victim's death. Countries in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, refer to a specific type of jinn as "Al-Jathoom", who descends upon a person in their sleep and causes "Al-Kaboos", the intense sensation of heavy weight on an individual's chest ("What is al-Jathoom?", 2019; Olunu et al., 2018).
Many other cultural interpretations for sleep paralysis exist around the world, and most others revolve around the same themes of nocturnal presence, the inability to move, and sensations of heavy weight or shortness of breath. However, sleep paralysis still contributes to modern paranormal folklore today, despite the access to information and education we have. Anecdotally, I see no shortage of paranormal stories passed around on online forums and social media, with entire pages dedicated to such topics. The temptation to explain the experience through spirits or demons is still preferable to the idea that the victim is going crazy. There is little doubt that a significant portion of ghost stories had their inception during episodes of sleep paralysis, or similar experiences.
One manifestation of such episodes, only possible in recent years, is the belief in alien abduction. So-called ufologists often claim that the symptoms of sleep paralysis are indicators of probable alien abduction, the memory of which is erased. Only the memories of paralysis before and after are retained. The prior beliefs of these individuals likely play into their personal interpretation of the event, as it did with cultures and societies before them. Though fanciful, it provides an alternative viewpoint to unexplained hallucination, and simultaneously re-affirms their existing belief. A clueless victim may also hear this explanation, and in a frightened effort to make sense of it, start forming false memories of the event, which are said to have been "repressed" (French et al., 2008). In their clever comparison study between ufologists and a control group, McNally and Clancy (2005) found that alien abduction participants had the higher rates of sleep paralysis. Similarly, French et al. (2008) discovered higher prevalence of self-reported sleep paralysis in individuals believing in personal alien contact than those who do not.
It is fascinating to study not only the neuropsychological aspects underlying the phenomenon, but the complex social and cultural implications a shared core experience can have across generations, and how it can be interpreted in so many ways. Even studying cultures through the incredibly narrow lens of a single medical condition gives us great insight into the belief systems of those societies. Based on the prevalence of sleep paralysis, you may not have to imagine the experience to understand its influence on human perception. With up to half of all people susceptible during their lifetimes, it comes as no surprise that the mythologies and accounts of sinister sleep visitations permeate every human culture.
Adler, S. R. (1991). Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome among Hmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the" Nightmare". Journal of American Folklore, 54-71.
Cheyne, J. A., & Pennycook, G. (2013). Sleep paralysis postepisode distress: Modeling potential effects of episode characteristics, general psychological distress, beliefs, and cognitive style. Clinical Psychological Science, 1, 135–148. doi: 10.1177/2167702612466656
Cox, A. M. (2015). Sleep paralysis and folklore. JRSM open, 6(7), 2054270415598091.
Davies, O. (2003). The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis, and witchcraft accusations. Folklore, 114, 181–203.
French, C. C., Santomauro, J., Hamilton, V., Fox, R., & Thalbourne, M. A. (2008). Psychological aspects of the alien contact experience. Cortex, 44(10), 1387-1395.
Fukuda, K., Miyasita, A., Inugami, M., & Ishihara, K. (1987). High prevalence of isolated sleep paralysis: Kanashibari phenomenon in Japan. Sleep, 10(3), 279-286.
Islamic Stories: Attack of the Jinn. (2019). Exemplore. Retrieved 27 May 2019, from https://exemplore.com/paranormal/Attack-Of-The-Jinn
Law, S., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2005). Inuit interpretations of sleep paralysis. Transcultural psychiatry, 42(1), 93-112.
McNally, R.J. & Clancy, S. (2005). Sleep paralysis, sexual abuse, and space alien abduction. Transcultural Psychiatry, 42, 113–122.
Ness, R. C. (1978). The old hag phenomenon as sleep paralysis: A biocultural interpretation. Culture, medicine and psychiatry, 2(1), 15-39.
Olunu, E., Kimo, R., Onigbinde, E. O., Akpanobong, M. A. U., Enang, I. E., Osanakpo, M., ... & Fakoya, A. O. J. (2018). Sleep paralysis, a medical condition with a diverse cultural interpretation. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, 8(3), 137.
Santomauro, J., and French, C. C. (2009). Terror in the night. Psychologist 22, 672–675.
Sharpless, B. A., & Barber, J. P. (2011). Lifetime prevalence rates of sleep paralysis: a systematic review. Sleep medicine reviews, 15(5), 311-315.
What is al-Jathoom? - Islam Question & Answer. (2019). Islamqa.info. Retrieved 27 May 2019, from https://islamqa.info/en/answers/75612/what-is-al-jathoom