Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Manifestations of Fear in Cross-Cultural Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis

Frontispiece from: Blicke in die Traum- und Geisterwelt (A look into the dream and spirit world), by Friedrich Voigt (1854).

What are you most afraid of? Not finding a permanent job? Getting a divorce and losing your family? Losing your funding? Not making this month's rent? Not having a roof over your head? Natural disasters? Nuclear war? Cancer? Having a loved one die of cancer?


There are many types of specific phobias (snakes, spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, clowns, mirrors, etc.), but that's not what I'm talking about here.

What are you really afraid of? Death? Pain? A painful death?

Devils, demons, ghosts, witches, and other supernatural apparitions? This latter category (haunting, demon possession) is common among many cultures with religious or spiritual practices, and can evoke primal fear. As a former Catholic, I am still frightened by movies or TV shows that involve demonic possession, like American Horror Story: Asylum.

I used this show as an exemplar in a post about Possession Trance Disorder in DSM-5.

A fantastic long-form article by Nike Mariani has just appeared in The Atlantic. The author intermixes the individual case study of Louisa Muskovits with the history of exorcism and facts about its modern-day resurgence.

American Exorcism
Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.
 . . .
  • The official exorcist for Indianapolis has received 1,700 requests so far in 2018.
  • Father Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors.
  • Some abused children are subjected to such agonizing experiences that they adopt a coping mechanism in which they force themselves into a kind of out-of-body experience. As they mature, this extreme psychological measure develops into a disorder that may manifest unpredictably. “There is a high prevalence of childhood abuse of different kinds with dissociative disorders,” Roberto Lewis-Fernández, a Columbia University psychiatry professor who studies dissociation, told me.

This brings me to another topic I've been meaning to write about for weeks. Sleep paralysis is the terrifying condition of being half awake but unable to move (or speak or scream). It can feel like you're frozen in bed, aware of your surroundings yet completely paralyzed. This is because the complete muscle atonia typically experienced during REM sleep has oozed into lighter stages of non-REM sleep. Scary dream imagery can intrude while in this state, making it even worse.

A fascinating new paper covers interpretations of this frightening phenomenon across different cultures (Olunu et al., 2018). A common theme is being attacked, visited, or sat upon by supernatural beings, such as demons, witches, ghosts, and spirits.

-- click on image for a larger view --

The eerie presences are called Jinn in Egypt, Kabus in Iran, Phi Um in Thailand, Old Hag in lots of places, and the especially horrifying Kokma in Saint Lucia, which are “attacks by dead spirits or unbaptized babies that jump into a body and squeeze the throat”. In Nigeria, believers in supernatural explanations exist alongside others who hold rational explanations:
Nigerians describe it as “visitation of an evil spirit, witches, or some form of spiritual attack.” Others have beliefs that it may be due to anxiety or emotions associated with family problems.
The Wikipedia page on the folklore of the night hag also has a pretty good listing.

Interestingly, sleep paralysis was considered as a partial explanation for “demonic possession” in the case of Louisa Muskovits (Atlantic):
Louisa seemed to vacillate between this unhinged state and her normal self. One minute she would snarl and bare her teeth, and the next she would beg for help. “It definitely had this appearance where she was fighting within herself,” Harp [her former therapist] told me.

. . .
[Another time] Louisa ... woke up abruptly, only to find her body locked in place—but with the added shock of what seemed to be visual hallucinations, including one of a giant spider crawling into her bedroom. Louisa was so jolted that she barely ate or slept for three days. “I didn’t feel safe,” she said. “I felt violated.”

. . .
Sleep paralysis seemed like a promising explanation. A phenomenon in which sufferers move too quickly in and out of rem sleep for the body to keep up, sleep paralysis causes a person’s mind to wake up before the body can shake off the effects of sleep. Hovering near full consciousness, the person can experience paralysis and hallucinations.

But Louisa didn’t think this could account for the hand on her collarbone, which she swore she’d felt while she was completely awake [oh of course it can account for this phenomenology!].

What are your experiences of sleep paralysis?

Further Reading

When Waking Up Becomes the Nightmare: Hypnopompic Hallucinatory Pain

The Phenomenology of Pain During REM Sleep

The Neurophysiology of Pain During REM Sleep

Possession Trance Disorder in DSM-5

Spirit Possession as a Trauma-Related Disorder in Uganda

"The spirit came for me when I went to fetch firewood" - Personal Narrative of Spirit Possession in Uganda

Possession Trance Disorder Caused by Door-to-Door Sales

Fatal Hypernatraemia from Excessive Salt Ingestion During Exorcism

Diagnostic Criteria for Demonic Possession

The Devilish Side of Psychiatry


Olunu E, Kimo R, Onigbinde EO, Akpanobong MU, Enang IE, Osanakpo M, Monday IT, Otohinoyi DA, John Fakoya AO. (2018). Sleep Paralysis, a Medical Condition with a Diverse Cultural Interpretation. Int J Appl Basic Med Res. 8(3):137-142.

Scene from The Wailing. Although it's certainly not for everybody, it is an amazing film.

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At November 22, 2018 12:56 AM, Anonymous Emmy said...

I’m a New Englander. Started when I was a teen. I didn’t associate it with any particular story, I guess I just thought something was physically wrong with me. It begins at the end of a bad dream that fades into me being aware that I’m in bed but I cannot move or open my eyes. I hear screaming as I wake up, then “someone” near my bed will try to touch me and I will try to scream (nope). When they “get” me (usually a touch on my arm) basically freak out but am unable to scream react in any other way. A few months after it started I mentioned it to my doctor, luckily he knew what it was. He said it’s harmless, don’t sleep on your back and it won’t happen. He was mostly right though I sometimes accidentally roll onto to my back and it happens again. I’ve learned to try and move my hands or feet to shake myself out of it. I was diagnosed with possible narcolepsy in 2014 so that provided some explanation. I like stories of the Jinn, thanks for the image, I’ll try and remember that next time it happens!

At November 22, 2018 5:51 PM, Blogger Nikolaj Lykke Nielsen said...

From Denmark, brought up in a 101% atheist environment. I had a handful of these sleep paralysis experiences as a young teenager, and max. three since then (I'm 49 now). I've only seen or felt a presence in a few of these cases, mostly it was just all-pervasive fear and panic, made worse by not being able to move. Only once was there a concrete 'entity' - a kind of mix between a very evil presence and a classic medieval big brooding executioner; I guess I took the image from my Prince Valiant comics (Hal Foster could draw some nasty witches and monsters!).
As I remember it, the figure grew out of the dark kind of at the same speed as I tried to figure out what was scaring me - very much like I was creating a focus for the fear. It never touched me or even came closer.
Btw., I'm Aspie - no idea if that fits in somewhere.

At November 23, 2018 4:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

South Italy, a presence is keeping me from moving, at times "magically" staring from the door while others by sitting on my chest (supine position). Sometimes I feel it's feminine, others don't.
I had these when I was 5-8, someone should come in the bedroom in order to "free" me. Boy was the waiting intense.
Occasionally I managed to move a limb and gradually the rest.


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