Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Succubus bearing down
Sleep paralysis is some scary stuff. A friend of mine recently suffered from an particularly frightening episode. He woke up from a dream and found that he could not move his body. Not only that, but as he struggled to move, he felt the weight of an unseen force push down on him, as if he was being held in the grip of an invisible monster.
He isn't the first. The ancient myths of the incubus and succubus seem to be accounts of this physical malady - demons were reported to sit on the victims' stomachs and sometimes take advantage of them. Sleep paralysis is a completely normal phenomenon, but that doesn't mean it isn't terrifying. Actually, it may be the fear that is making the experience feel so awful. Physically, what is happening is an accidental tag-a-long of the paralysis that usually comes with dreams. This is an old adaptation - we probably developed paralysis during sleep to power down the body, with the added bonus of not stabbing our family when we dream about fighting off snaggily-toothed tigers. Our ancestors, then, were people who successfully didn't stab their clan while dreaming.
From a comparative perspective, sleep paralysis resembles out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams; besides being unable to move, people often report feeling a "presence" in the room, hearing weird sounds, seeing weird lights, and feeling a rush of energy. If you don't know what is going on, the fear usually becomes the strongest element of the experience. So whatever the victim fears the most could be manifested in a very realistic way. Makes me reconsider the medieval horror stories, a period of history when women likely feared sexual assault more than anything else. President Lyndon Johnson used to have sleep paralysis experiences during the Vietnam Conflict. After the Tet Offensive, Johnson woke in the Oval Office and found his body was paralysized, except it wasn't his body - but the body of Woodrow Wilson. Now that's just not right.
In sleep paralysis, the veil between the worlds is thin.
In a recent article in Dreaming, the Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, researchers suggest that sleep paralysis is a symptom of social anxiety. If you have sleep paralysis every night, it is likely you've got issues in your daily grind. Every once in a while - don't worry about it. Relax into the experience and maybe you'll experience the feeling of drifting out of your body. As another great president is rumored to have said, "The only succubus to fear is fear itself."
Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night.