Sleep Paralysis: from Incubi to Aliens

It’s no great surprise that dreaming has occupied the space in between reality and the supernatural in almost every culture since the beginnings of record.  Sleep was a refuge from the harsh reality of pre-modern life, and dreams were our embedded escapes, filled equally with inspiration and horror, joy and despair.  For a body evolved outside of our modern mechanisms of escape (television, literature, video games, vacation), nothing was quite as surreal as where we went in our dreams.   Not unlike today, these images translated into the real world through their perceived significances.

One of the greatest things about dreams is that everyone has them.  They are visions for the proletariat, in which ordinary people become extraordinary: courage is built and fears overcome, love is kindled in unusual places, and experience is obtained without risk.  However our dreams are highly influenced by actual circumstance.  Modern people dream within our modern context (or one borrowed from earlier times through movies, literature, etc).  The dreams of indigenous Amazonian tribesmen are very similar to our own, with nearly identical themes (love, adventure, fear, hope), but in an environment more tailored to their life’s experience of living in a rainforest devoid of modern things.  This means that the themes of most of our dreams are reruns, the same dramas played out in different times and places.  This is a somewhat unsettling thought, as dreams are inherently personal and seem distinctly our own, but this is reinforced by common occurrences in our own lives.  Who hasn’t dreamed of falling from a great height, losing lots of teeth, or drowning?  These are not relevant fears for modern humans to have, but we still have them in just the same way as people two thousand years ago.  Since dreaming is evident in all mammals, it may be that dreams are truly ancient, and perhaps some of these common threads predate Homo sapiens.

Part of the reason that dreams play such a large role in our perception of the waking world lies in the nature of REM sleep. During this phase, the brain is at a point of high susceptibility that is similar to an hypnotic state.  Both internal and external suggestions strongly influence our thoughts and behaviors.  Some people occasionally experience REM sleep in a near waking state in which they are aware of their real-life environment but are simultaneously paralyzed and unable to move.  During such an occurrence, the person may also undergo dream-like hallucinations overlaid with their experiences in the waking consciousness that surrounds them.  These hallucinations typically accompany feelings of panic and a sense of imminent danger.  This is the well-documented phenomenon known as sleep paralysis.  This condition persists across time and culture, with a distinct etymology in more than fifty languages. These night terrors are the origin stories for countless mythical nasties from all over the planet.  They all follow a common theme depicting immobilization or detention of some sort by ghost or ethereal humanoid-like creature.  The context in which the dreamer is immobilized and the makeup of the captor is entirely dependent on the cultural norms within their waking lives.  Common examples are the incubi and succubi associated with sexual sin throughout the Christian world, malevolent djinns in the Muslim socio-religious culture, hags in the southeastern US, Icelanders refer to them as goblins called mara, and in New Guinea the Suk Ninmyo are forces of nature that use trees to paralyze and sap the energy from sleeping humans.  The list goes on and on, and is quite interesting.

Most of these creatures we all recognize as mythical.  There isn’t much dispute in modern society over their existence.  Add angels and demons to the list, and you’re starting to get controversial (but also to my point).  Sleep paralysis as a night terror is its most common occurrence, but when not infused with panic a dreamer may have an entirely different experience altogether.  Sleep paralysis in some, although rare, can be an enriching spiritual phenomenon.  At this point of high susceptibility, some experience these as moments of connectedness and alignment with the benign supernatural entities associated with their culture.  This duality also parallels the near universal religious belief that both good and evil supernatural representatives exist on Earth, and the association of these divine entities with visions and dreams.  It seems that some aspects of the sleep paralysis phenomenon help to explain the pervasion and diversity of world religions while simultaneously binding them to common threads.

Many people, even some skeptical secularists, use sleep paralysis in our modern world to deify another type of foreign being:  aliens.  The classic UFO abduction scenario involves an immobilized victim surrounded by humanoid creatures who test and prod it, sometimes performing experiments of a sexual nature or simply involving reproductive organs (like the incubus).  Not all UFO abductions are bad, some encounters result in a sense of universal understanding and peace, not so dissimilarly from the angelic visions of centuries past.  A further demonstrator of the UFO abduction phenomenon as a cultural zeitgeist for sleep paralysis is the “little green men” variety of alien popularized in the 1950’s.  This is now the overwhelming sleep paralysis hallucination of choice in the western world.  Very few people report being abducted by the  pre-1950’s depiction of aliens (think Mars Attacks!).  Alien abductions and sightings even spike following releases of major films within that genre (have a little fun with this list and imdb Independence Day and the X-Files (both tv and film) make for great recent examples).

The source of all of these myths is the same.  Humans are simply hallucinating within their ever-changing temporal context, as we (and our ancestors) likely have done along similar lines for many millions or maybe even hundreds of millions of years.  I’m not the first to draw this conclusion, Carl Sagan did it with far more eloquence and depth in The Demon-Haunted World (if you ever read a book I recommend, it should be this one).

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~ by Wil Finley on January 25, 2010.

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