For our final installment in our Sleep Paralysis series, we’re taking a look at history and how we’ve expressed this terrifying phenomenon throughout the ages. From works of art to intense urban legends, we’ve documented our worst nightmares quite well. To read the first post in our series, click here, and then check out the second by clicking here.
If you’re part of the 8% of the population that finds themselves awoken in terror at least once in their lifetime, immobile, it might be a source of comfort to know that not only are you not alone, but you’re in good company throughout history.
Sleep paralysis is not a new concept. In its most basic form, your brain wakes before your body, and your brain is left to cope with a world it wasn’t meant to see. Since we’ve been dreaming we’ve been confronting the things that go bump in the night—and we’ve been documenting those experiences in our art, writing, and medical texts.
Even as far back as 400BCE, the Chinese were writing about the strange experiences some had while dreaming. Doctors like Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck wrote about their patients having intense nightmares and fearing they were demon-possessed as early as 1664.
Some of our most WTF-worthy paintings and urban legends can be attributed to the phenomenon, and the research often poses just as many questions as it answers. One of the earliest examples of how sleep paralysis has infected our culture is Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”. Painted in 1781, the piece depicts a sleeping woman with a crouching demon on her chest. You’ve surely seen it in textbooks, and if you’ve never had sleep paralysis you might look at this and think, um, what?
But if you have had it, its oddly comforting that Renaissance artists were trying to explain it, too. We’ve carried these haunting themes onward and today, artists have endless mediums to capture and attempt to visualize our darkest moments.
Nicolas Bruno and Samantha Goss are just two artists who’ve been creating quixotic and sometimes disturbing photographs based on these nightmares that expose the trauma they’ve personally experienced. They are at once oddly beautiful and deeply troubled, comparing the two portfolios reveal similar fears but wildly different experiences. Late night scrolling through my phone lead me to find some of Bruno’s work, and I immediately resonated with the faceless but familiar uneasiness.
Filmmakers have been trying to recreate the phenomenon as well. From Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare to Philip Guzman’s Dead Awake, plenty of feature-length and short films have been fueled by the spine-tingling fear of awaking trapped in your own body. Even mainstream horror films like The Conjuring feature scenes inspired by sleep paralysis, or so I’ve read online. Watching these movies seem to lead down a path of sleepless nights and my own version of the conjuring. Hard pass.
The literary universe has been influenced, too. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway describes a scene all too familiar to those who’ve found themselves a victim.
”It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there he could not move or speak.”
Globally, we’ve used folklore and urban legend to explain sleep paralysis. The term “nightmare” actually comes from the Nordic term “mara”, a supernatural creature that would visit sleepers and sit on their chests to suffocate them. Classic Incubus.
In Newfoundland, victims of the attacks would tell of an Old Hag that would visit in the night and terrify them. She’s one of the most commonly reported visitors by locals, and often described as a set of eyes in the dark, bringing with her a sense of pure evil.
Elder Inuits believe that your soul is vulnerable during sleep, and shamans or malevolent spirits attack you during the night, they call it “uqumangirniq” in some regions. Interestingly, the younger Inuits have started to explain the events using scientific discoveries about sleep patterns and paralysis, or even Christian themes as missionaries move into the area. To have two drastically different explanations coexisting at the same time provides a fascinating look into the cultural influence sleep paralysis has over us.
In Zanzibar, a demon bat called Popobawa haunts villagers, though the legend has only surfaced in the last four or five decades, which is more than long enough if you ask me. It’s said that holding the Koran can dispel the evil creature, much like a Bible might discourage demons from messing with you. Islam is a popular religion in the area, creating a similar religious overtone to sleep paralysis as in the Inuit culture.
And here in the US? We get abducted by aliens. Or see ghosts. Or demons. Alien abduction is an extremely common explanation for some people, given the strange shaped creatures we’re projecting and too-real-to-be-a-dream feel. I definitely don’t want to ruin aliens for anyone, but if they do exist, they probably aren’t clamoring to get into your bed.
By looking at its appearance throughout history, we can take one thing away: sleep paralysis is a universally terrifying condition, an equalizer amongst sleepers. The nature of believing you’re possessed, regularly abducted by aliens, or have an old hag sitting on you at night is to keep it quiet and internalize the fear. The stigma that’s attached to sleep disorders in general keeps these sort of things in the shadows, preventing large-scale, accurate studies and perpetuating the myths and legends, but the more we explore, the more we can understand about ourselves in the process.
Seeing the pain of a sleep disorder reflected in mainstream culture, art, and urban legends provide a least a little comfort—you’re not alone, and there are people who get it.
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