The phenomenon of sleep paralysis can be recognised in reports across different cultures and throughout history. Perhaps the most famous historic example of sleep paralysis in art is Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare”. This painting features many of the classic symptoms of sleep paralysis. The central figure is portrayed lying on her back with a demon sitting on her chest, and strange looking creatures in the background. Many consider it Fuseli’s greatest work and it is believed to be one of the first artistic impressions of sleep paralysis (French & Santomauro, 2007).
Historical Accounts of Sleep Paralysis in Medicine
In the history of Western medicine, sleep paralysis has been documented for at least 300 years. Writing in 2008 Kompanje describes a 1664 case report from Dutch physician Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck titled ‘Of the Night-mare’. It describes a patient’s symptoms:
“…in the night time, when she was composing herself to sleep, sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was choked by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or breath and when she endeavoured to throw off the burthen, she was not able to stir her members.”
– Citation literal from Van Diemerbroeck, 1689
Van Diemerbroeck diagnosed the case as follows:
“This affection is called Incubus or the Night-Mare, which is an Intercepting of the Motion of the Voice and Respiration, with a false dream of something lying ponderous upon the Breast… the Motion of the Muscles fail… Now, because the motion of the Muscles, for the most part ceases in time of sleep, except the Respiratory Muscles, therefore the failing of their Motion is first perceived, by reason of the extraordinary trouble that arises for want of Respiration. Now the patient…not understanding the cause in that Condition, believes herself to be overlayed by some Demon, Thief, or other ponderous Body being neither able to move… nor to Breath”
– Citation literal from Van Diemerbroeck, 1689
Van Diemerbroeck’s report accurately represents a case of sleep paralysis, suggesting that this condition has been known by medical professionals for hundreds of years. There is evidence that Persian doctors also knew of sleep paralysis. A 10th century Persian medical text by renowned physician Rhazes (865-925 CE) describes the following condition:
“…when the night-mare (kabus) happens, the person senses a heavy thing upon him and finds he unable to scream…”
– in Golzari et al, 2012
Rhazes’ student Akhawayni went further, detailing his ideas for cause and treatment for this condition:
“The nightmare… is caused by rising of vapours from the stomach to the brain… The therapy includes bloodletting from the superficial vein of the arm and from the leg vein and thinning the diet, especially in patients with red eyes and face”.
Greek doctors were also aware of sleep paralysis, with Galen discussing the condition in the second century CE. The earliest written account of sleep paralysis can be found in a Chinese book on dreaming, dating back to 400 BCE. It is interesting to note that a lot of these early examples refer to sleep paralysis attacks as a night-mare. In fact the symptoms of sleep paralysis implied in the original meaning of the word ‘nightmare’, as opposed to what we think of as a nightmare today (merely a bad dream). Despite the fact that the medical professions have long known about sleep paralysis and known it to be a natural phenomenon, throughout history sleep paralysis has often been interpreted as supernatural connotations, and this interpretation has sometimes had deadly consequences.
Sleep Paralysis and Witch Trials
The ‘mare’ of the word ‘nightmare’ is derived from the Norse word ‘mara’. This refers to a supernatural – usually female – being that lies on people’s chests at night suffocating them. Whilst examples of this depiction of the nightmare can be found across Europe, by the early modern era (1500-1800) this explanation of sleep paralysis experiences had been largely forgotten, and in many parts of Europe including Britain and France, sleep paralysis was frequently interpreted as witch attacks. Writing in 2003, Davies quotes examples of sleep paralysis found in evidence used at the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Accused witch Susan Martin had reportedly told Robert Downer that “some She-Devil would shortly fetch him away”. That night, Downer claimed “as he lay in his bed, there came in at the window, the likeness of a cat, which flew upon him, took fast hold of his throat, lay on him a considerable while, and almost killed him.” Another accuser, Bernard Peach, gave ‘evidence’, testifying that “he heard a scrabbling at the window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of this deponent’s feet, and drawing his body up into an heap, she lay upon him near two hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir.” When the paralysis began to wear off he bit Martin’s fingers and she “went from the chamber, down the stairs, out at the door.”
Bridget Bishop was also accused of witchcraft in testimonies which seem to describe sleep paralysis experiences. Richard Coleman claimed that Bishop had “oppressed him so, that he could neither stir himself, nor wake anyone else, and that he was the night after, molested again in the like manner”.
It was not only in Salem that probable sleep paralysis attacks were used as evidence against accused witches. For a detailed account of many such cases, see Davies (2003).
Sleep Paralysis and Alien Abduction
There is strong evidence that some claims of alien abduction may actually describe episodes of sleep paralysis. In a 1993 study by Spanos and a 2002 paper by Holden & French it is shown that 60% of intense UFO experiences are associated with sleep. In a 2008 study, French et al found that people who claim to have been abducted by aliens report more incidences of sleep paralysis than a control group. Descriptions of alien abduction often bear strong resemblance to accounts of sleep paralysis.
“A female abductee was lying on her back when she woke up from a sound sleep. Her body was completely paralyzed and she experienced the sensation of levitating above her bed. Her heart was pounding, her breathing was shallow, and she felt tense all over. She was terrified. She was able to open her eyes, and when she did so, she saw three beings standing at the foot of her bed in the glowing light. Another female abductee was lying on her back when she woke up in the middle of the night. She was completely paralysed, and felt electrical vibrations throughout her body. She was sweating, struggling to breathe, and felt her heart pounding in terror. When she opened her eyes, she saw an insect like alien being on top of her bed. A male abductee awoke in the middle of the night seized with panic. He was entirely paralysed, and felt electricity shooting throughout his body. He felt his energy draining away from him. He could see several alien beings standing around his bed.”
– in McNally & Clancy, 2005
Whilst sleep paralysis is very likely linked with some alien abduction experiences, most experts agree that it isn’t the sole explanation. Many alleged abductees have no initial memory of the full abduction, and accounts often materialise after memories are ‘recovered’ by therapists and hypnotists. It has been suggested that these ‘recovered memories’ are likely to be false memories manufactured by the interactions between therapist and abductee (Holden & French, 2002).
Other cultural explanations of sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis attacks and nocturnal attackers are integral to the folklore of many countries. It is interesting how varied accounts and explanations can be across cultures, whilst the core aspect of the experience remains the same. Two of the best-documented examples of nocturnal attackers are Kanashibari in Japan, and the Old Hag of Newfoundland.
The term Kanashibari, meaning ‘to tie with an iron rope’ is derived from the magic of Fudoh-Myohoh, a Buddhist God. The idea of being tied up comes from the belief that ancient Buddhist monks could use magic to paralyse others as if they were bound in a metal rope. Even today, many Japanese believe Kanashibari to be caused by evil spirits. In a 1987 study of Japanese respondents, Fukuda et al found the symptoms of kanashibari to be identical to those of sleep paralysis.
The Old Hag phenomenon is a traditional interpretation of sleep paralysis found in Newfoundland. A visit from the Old Hag reportedly starts with the victim becoming conscious and unable to move or speak and feeling a heavy weight pressing down on their chest. Victims sometimes report seeing an animal or human sitting or lying on their chest. Those who claim to experience the Old Hag also report being fully conscious during a visit. In folklore, visits from the Old Hag may be attributed to several factors. The victim may have been overworked, or may be the subject of the hostile or jealous feelings of another person. (Ness, 1978).
In other parts of the world, diverse explanations can be found for sleep paralysis-like experiences. Across the Caribbean, the local term for sleep paralysis is kokma. Kokma is believed to be caused by the souls of unbaptized babies who come to strangle victims in their sleep. In many African cultures, voodoo magic is cited as a cause of sleep paralysis, with attacks being the work of zombies coming to visit in the night (Mdlalani, 2009). These are but a few of the many examples of sleep paralysis in different cultures. Again, interested readers are referred to Davies’ 2003 paper on supernatural interpretations of sleep paralysis, which gives many detailed examples from different parts of the world, and Shelly Adler’s 2012 book.
The Malleability of Sleep Paralysis Interpretation
Even more remarkable than the great diversity of explanation of the same phenomenon is how changes within a culture can bring about changes in the interpretation of sleep paralysis, and even the hallucinatory content.
In 2005, Law & Kilmayer interviewed Inuit elders and youths about their experiences of uqumanirniq (the local term for sleep paralysis). They found that the elders attributed the experiences to the work of shamanistic forces, often a hex placed on the victim by a shaman. They also believed uqumanirniq attacks to signal coming misfortune such as a bad hunt. Young Inuits however had very different interpretations. Whilst their accounts of the symptoms of uqumanirniq were the same as the elders, they evoked typical Christian explanations of attacks as the work of the Devil, probably as a result of increasing presence of Christianity in the region. They too thought it to be a harbinger of misfortune, but related this portent to contemporary challenges facing Inuits such as poverty and unemployment. Some young Inuits also explained uqumanirniq in scientific terms. Another example from Zanzibar shows how interpretations of Popobawa – the local traditional interpretation of sleep paralysis – was originally shaped from various explanations, which were replaced with a single explanation in reaction to increasing political instability in the region (Walsh, 2009). These two examples illustrate the extent to which that explanations and interpretations of sleep paralysis are affected by cultural setting and belief.
Illustrated interpretations © Carla MacKinnon