By Ed Cara
It was a dark Sunday morning as my eyelids lazily lifted up. An early dawn; the moonlight still putting up a decent fight against the inevitable sun’s rise from over the horizon. I scanned the room and could see my roommate’s leg dangling over his bed while he slept off the almost certain fun time he had the night before. As I saw the clock by the window read 5am, I cursed the increasingly popular preference my body had to wake up early on days when I didn’t have to take 23 credits worth of college courses. Feeling the autumn breeze on my exposed feet from beneath the covers, I began to get a deepening sense of dread in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong.
There was a tightness in my chest. No, that wasn’t quite it. It was more pressure on top of my chest; as if my roommate had decided to scoot on over and plop down on my solar plexus. My breathing shallow, I could see the shadows by the window start to twist and turn, almost coming alive in front of me. As scared as I felt, it was only when the breeze climbed over and across my body that I became absolutely mortified. It was a brisk wind that morning but somehow my body seemed incapable of responding back with a shudder or shiver. Quite simply put, I couldn’t move.
We’ve always had our bogeymen.
As far as recorded history goes back, there have been stories of otherworldly beings; some benevolent and nurturing, bringers of harvest and life; and others malignant and destructive, bringers of disease and misfortune. That same history is littered with tales of our face to face encounters with those not-so-pleasant forces.
One of the more classic tales involves people waking up to find themselves frozen solid, unable to move, as demonic noises echo all around them, their chests and throats compressed, and in some cases even finding a completely alien presence on top of them; only to suddenly find themselves alone in the room, able to move as if nothing had happened. It’s hard to imagine someone not being entirely petrified to have to wake up to something like that, something so physical that they couldn’t wave it off as an especially vivid dream. The only real conclusion they could make would be that something unearthly has just visited them. What else could it be?
Known as sleep paralysis, this frightening, but strangely not too uncommon, condition is essentially the result of our conscious brain waking up before the rest of the body has caught up. Normally our bodies synchronize the different hormonal changes that go on in our brains during the several phases of sleep; such as keeping our bodies paralyzed whenever we’re in the REM(which I’m sure most know as our dream state) stage of sleep. When we wake up, the hormonal changes that keep us paralyzed stop and we exit REM sleep completely aware and mobile, if not groggy. If the hormones that regulate our paralysis are lagging behind for whatever reason(not enough sleep, stress, certain medications), we wake up but still paralyzed. The paralysis often comes with visual and auditory hallucinations, which may be related to the fact that those waking up had just been in the dream stage of sleep and in essence bring their dreams to life.
Before any of this was known though, we could only think to label such episodes as demonic hauntings; our bodies being violated by monstrous beasts. Every culture has given these sightings a different name; Those in North America called them hags or witches; they’re known as Mares in Germany; in Laos, the Dab Tsog and during Medieval times, they were the Succubus and Incubus.
Even as we learned more about the body and the various and frightening ways it can break down on us, the folktales continued to endure in our public consciousness, taking on new names and shapes. To us here in America, as we reached the mid to late 20th century, hags and witches pressing down on us as we slept became alien invaders abducting us in the middle of the night. It’s telling that as stories of UFOs and aliens reached the mainstream through the Roswells and E.T.’s of our time, that the bogeymen in our collective imagination changed form. The sleep paralysis never changed, the nightmares we woke up from did.
It isn’t fair or correct to say that all abduction stories, all tales of people being haunted by demons and ghosts, can be brushed off by a simple if unintuitive scientific explanation though; there are reports of waking abductions, or certain stories that just might require a closer look at the evidence on both sides. Nothing should be entirely generalized, whether it is aliens or climate science, but it’s important to use the knowledge we do have to give us the best place to start from. You can look at any given abduction story and decide for yourselves the likely truth, but you’ve got to do it with as much objective information and evidence as you can muster.
To those in the middle ages, the concept of sleep paralysis didn’t exist, so what else could it be but what we actually saw with our own eyes and ears? To those now, who know that our eyes and ears are more than capable of deceiving us, we can look at it and figure out that we likely just had a minor hiccup in our brain and that we should try to get more sleep the next night.
Our scientific knowledge is constantly shifting, being tweaked and added to. But that base gets sturdier and sturdier both as we add to it and as we tease out the unsupported facts. What we once knew as a English maid’s nightmarish encounter with a witch, we can now know as a twenty year old’s scary but easily explained Sunday morning.
No words came out of my mouth as I struggled to move even the tiniest part of my body.
The shadows above and around my rigid body danced back and forth as I reminded myself what was likely going on. The foreboding sense of danger was still ticking even as I tried to calm myself down. I began to hear a creaking noise from behind the door opposite us, but I also began to feel the slightest movement from my toes. With an guttural but silent yell, I sat straight up, my head now drenched in sweat but otherwise intact. The room now and always utterly silent.
My heart racing, I headed over to the bathroom sink to wash up, a million thoughts swirling around my head. Drenching my head in water, I looked up at my reflection. So much for aliens and monsters.
Catch Ed and his funny and skeptical pseudo-intellectual sayings on Twitter at TheImprovateer.