Sleep Paralysis Visions: Demons, Succubi, and the Archetypal Mind


 

If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night and
found you can’t move, or even cry for help, you have experienced sleep
paralysis.  If, during this bizarre paralysis, you suddenly felt that
someone—or something—was watching you, you have come face to face with the
waking hallucination known as the Intruder.  And if all this happens and
then a ghastly creature resembling a gnome or a night elf crawls onto you to
whisper sweet impish nothings into your ear, congratulations, you are one of
the lucky ones to know the Incubus.

And you’re not alone. 

Sleep Paralysis (SP) and its associated visions, known as
hypnagogic hallucinations (HH), are still a mystery to medical science, even
though 40% of the world’s population has experienced it at least once in their
lives.  Although a common symptom of narcolepsy and other sleep disorders,
sleep paralysis can also be induced in healthy dreamers due to factors like
sleep deprivation, jet lag, or too much cannabis before bed.

Normally in REM sleep, the body is paralyzed to prevent us
from acting out our dreams. In sleep paralysis, the REM paralysis persists
momentarily after we have “woken up.”  But we’re not really awake—rather
we are aware in a fugue state in between dreaming and the waking world. 
We literally project the dreamscape onto the landscape of our sleep
environment.

The apparitions associated with sleep paralysis include
aliens, angels, and ancestors, depending on your cultural upbringing and your
level of fear.  Like lucid dreaming, this nightmare is really a
co-creation between the dreamer’s (or visionary’s) expectations and the
murky-murk of the unconscious or perhaps the collective realms beyond the
personal mind.

It’s truly an extraordinary conscious state, but not many
people talk about it because to be haunted by demons in the 21st century, this
Age of Information, is to be doubly cursed. 

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, though: that around the
world millions of people are visited at night by ghoulish entities who want to
torment/sleep with us, or that, in a recent diagnostic survey, over half of
psychiatrists admitted that they would diagnose a person who reported a typical
sleep paralysis dream (can’t move, can’t breathe, stinky demon sitting on the
chest) with some kind of psychosis such as schizophrenia.

As Hufford himself has said in an interview in the
2008 documentary Your Worst Nightmare, “We have erased knowledge of these experiences from the cultural
repertoire while these experiences are continuing to happen. That’s dramatic.
That’s a level of social control that’s very impressive.”

Indeed, sleep paralysis visions are a normal, healthy part
of life for thousands of psychics, shamans, and explorers of the deep mind.
Like lucid dreams and psychedelic encounters, SP visions present gifts and
opportunities, once you get used to all the existential horror, spontaneous
kundalini blasts and first chakra freak-fests. My hope is that we can begin to
reclaim this lost lexicon and learn from one another about these freaky
underworld visions that have helped shape our myths and fairy tales.

What follows is an excerpt from chapter 4 of my ebook Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide. This
chapter explores the psychological theories currently in vogue about the
Apparition, as well as a quick look into the role sleep paralysis apparitions
have played in history.

 

Excerpt from Chapter 4
of
Sleep Paralyis: A Dreamer’s Guide

Psychological Theories about SP Entities

The Threat Vigilance
System

Scientists have had little to say about these apparition
visions until recently.  Current cognitive psychology research suggests
that SP with HH triggers a threat-awareness scan in the brain known as the
vigilance system. [1] This process is largely unconscious and normally is
responsible for identifying possible threats (“What’s that noise?”) and making
quick decisions about our physical safety (“Oh, it’s just the cat.”).  But
in SP/HH, our eyes are open and we are projecting our dreams into physical
space.  The combination of sensing and imagining makes the system go a
little haywire, causing the vigilance system to stay activated because it
cannot clarify exactly what the threat is. “Threat!” the system calls, again
and again.  This, in turn, makes our fear intensify because a part of the
brain responsible for intense emotions, the amygdala, is already heightened in
this dream state. [2]  So we project images of our worst fears into the
room, intensifying our fear even further as the Stranger takes form.

It is an escalating fear-vision feedback system that
precipitates the apparition beside our bed with its darkened face and
evil-feeling presence.  We co-create the nightmare without even knowing
it. 

In my mind, this physical explanation is incomplete, because
it doesn’t explain why the triggered vigilance system interprets the vague
dream forms as a human-like presence.  Why not a tidal wave, an earthquake
or an avalanche? After all, these are common themes in many other kinds of
nightmares. 

 

Neurotheology and
Spirits

This is where the research of anthropologist Michael
Winkelman comes in handy.  Winkelman suggests that humans are hard-wired
to see spirits; it’s part of our genetic make-up. Known as neurotheology [3],
this view posits that the universality of seeing spirits does not necessarily
mean that “spirits are real,” but certainly that the experiences are authentic,
and not just made up by a combination of wishful thinking and cultural loading
from myths and fairy tales. 

Further, Winkelman suggests that we are predisposed to see
human-like spirits because our minds are accustomed to perceiving the world as
having qualities like ourselves.  When something sudden happens—a peal of
thunder—our first assumption is, “Who did that?” So in times of ambiguity,
projecting a human-like actor into the scene is our first cognitive line of
defense.  Why?  Maybe because you can try to reason with a Thunder
God, but not with nature herself.  This has appeal from an evolutionary
perspective, because the greatest danger to a human life has never been the
tiger or the lion, but social ostracization and abandonment.

Whether or not we accept Winkelman’s hypothesis,
neurotheology brings a crucial insight to the worldwide perception of the
Stranger apparition: in times of distress, we tend to perceive self-like
entities in the world. 

 

Dreams, Archetypes
and Entities

Dreams also brings us closer to the unconscious frameworks
with which we see the world.  REM dreaming is, neurologically speaking, a
visionary state of mind.  Activation of the limbic system brings strong
emotions, combined with an enhanced access to long-term memory—and a depression
of short-term memory so we don’t tend to question who or where we are. [4] Add
the intense firing of the parts of the brain that brings mental imagery, and
you have dreaming: a potent mix of visual-emotional metaphors that link to our
deepest memories and experiences. 

This neurological basis of SP visions in REM sleep provides
additional support for the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung and James
Hillman. [5] These depth psychologies address the issue of  “visitors” in
dream visions as communication between the conscious mind and unconscious
processes.  These processes are autonomous, occurring on their own accord,
whether or not we pay attention to them.  However, directing heightened
awareness towards these images can quicken the mind’s digestion and integration
of these ancient impulses, personal myths, and cultural and familial
expectations.  Some of the archetypal images that may arise from these
deep psychological processes are human figures such as the wise old man and
wise woman, and the inner child.

 

The Shadow

One of Jung and Hillman’s insights into our propensity to
create nightmarish figures in dreams and visions is that sometimes we are faced
with confrontation images that just will not go away. This is the archetype of
the Shadow.  Poet Robert Bly calls the shadow everything we don’t want to
look at that we threw into a bag long ago. [6] While the shadow can be parts of
ourselves that we have disowned (such as greed, weakness, or an undeveloped
artistic ability), it can also be something about our culture, our nation’s
history, or our socio-economic class that we don’t like to think about. 
The shadow could express poverty, racism, or a landscape that has been
repeatedly stripped of its natural habitats.  These unconscious patterns
can play out over and over throughout history, as well as in our dreams. [7] In
SP visions, sometimes the apparition comes not just to be scary, but to be
heard.

Still, we want to be careful not to reduce the apparitions
to a symbol or concept. Each meeting is unique, alive, and dynamic.  I can
tell you from personal experience that the Stranger, or any dream figure,
doesn’t take kindly to being called a “representation.”  Would you?

 

Psychic dimensions of
SP apparitions

The literature on the connection between hypnagogic
hallucinations and psychic effects is pretty vast and comes from many parallel
threads.   Telepathy, ESP, and mutual dreams have been cited in
religious texts and accounts, 19th century spiritualism and occult texts, and
in modern controlled studies.  In general, dream researchers who look at
this aspect of dreaming suggest that hypnagogia (and its sister state in sleep
awakening, hypnopompia) seem to be “more conducive to telepathy,” as Simon
Sherwood reports in his 2002 meta-analysis. [8]  

Neurology, of course, does not really provide much support
of this topic, except to say that HH are more similar in brain activation to
trance states than ordinary dreaming. [9] Heightened alpha brain waves are
reported in SP/HH, [10] just as with OBEs, and some forms of deep meditation,
all of which are correlated with psi accounts. Field anthropologists who study
indigenous peoples have also reported numerous anomalous “psi” events, usually
saving their declaration after they secure tenure or retire. [11] These events,
while hard to replicate in a lab, become an accepted part of life for those who
are remain open to uncanny and bizarre experiences such as synchronicity and
precognitive dreams. 

 

Sleep Paralysis and
Place: A Geologic Hypothesis

Psychologist Jorge Conesa-Sevilla has put forward an
ecopsychological hypothesis about SP/HH.  Ecopsychology is the study of
the mind in association with the natural environment.  Conesa-Sevilla
suggests the uncanny state of mind may be triggered by geological anomalies,
and points out that cultures living in the “Ring of Fire,” the geomagnetically
unstable areas of Central America, the Pacific Coast of the US, Southern
Alaska, Hawaii, and Indonesia, have a much more developed vocabulary for sleep
paralysis and its accompanying hallucinations than anywhere else in the world. [12]
Many of the indigenous peoples of these territories are dreaming cultures that
pay attention to, and actively invite, the “dreaming arts” such as lucid
dreaming, reverie and trance states. [13] Given that geomagnetic effects have
been shown to alter consciousness, Conesa-Sevilla’s hypothesis is not so
unlikely. Similarly, archaeologist Paul Devereux has noted that SP is one state
of consciousness among many that “transgress” the normal boundaries of mental
imagery (without straying into psychosis), and may be responsible for some
mental events interpreted as hauntings. [14] In both of these theories, then,
the Stranger can be seen as emerging from local environmental conditions, as
well as from the dreamer’s own mind and cultural upbringing.

 

Sleep Paralysis
Interpreted Through History

The phenomenon of the Stranger has occurred throughout
recorded history and around the world.  This spirit with a thousand faces
[15] has a long distinguished history of being the scariest thing around. 
Many “things that go bump in the night” could take place during SP
nightmares.  Here are some examples from the history books:

 

Ghosts and Hauntings

Many tales of hauntings in Europe and the US take place when
the witness is lying in bed awake when suddenly he or she feels a presence in
the room at the same time notices the onset of paralysis.  In many of
these classic accounts, an apparition may come into the room, sit on the bed,
or start choking the witness with ghostly hands. Other accounts mention fighting
with ghosts or specters, and finally “pushing” them off.  

Scrooge’s encounter with the ghost of Marley in Charles
Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a good
example, as this fictional narrative has many SP features, such as feeling of
presence in the room, followed by the sound of chains and approaching
footsteps, and the narrator’s adamant conclusion that he is awake despite the
otherworldly nature of the encounter.  Individuals not accustomed to lucid
dreaming, iSP and other extraordinary states, do not understand that you can be
hallucinating while still in your “right mind,” leading them prematurely to
supernatural explanations. [16]

 

Witchcraft and Demons

In Europe and the US, belief in witchcraft has a long
history.  According to 17th century American court documents, for example,
a woman was tried as a witch because her accuser said that her apparition came
into his room at night and climbed on top of him. This was called “witch
riding,” and still is in some African-American communities. [17]

In medieval Europe, accounts suggest that demons could sit
on the sufferer’s chest and sexually molest them against their will. 
These demons were known as the Incubus (male) and the Succubus (female). [18]
The Malleus Maleficarum (“the Witch’s
Hammer”), a guidebook written in 1486 and used to prosecute pagans and witches
during the Inquisition, suggests that witches are those who voluntarily submit
themselves (and have intercourse) with the Incubus demons. Some succubi legends
suggest female demons collected men’s sperm during forced intercourse at night.

 

Fairies and Little
People

The fairy folklore of the British Isles is often framed
around an abduction story.  The fairy gives the victim a drink or
otherwise induces paralysis, and then absconds with the victim to fairyland,
always returning him safely to his bed. [19] In some fairy tales, however,
children are stolen and never returned. [20] Incidentally, fairies were also
blamed for paralysis in livestock, which was called “fairy-riding.” 

In Norse mythology, black elves known as Svartálfar were
feared because of their paralyzing arrows, called “elf shot.”  These
dwarf-like creatures were known for sitting on the sleeper’s chest and
whispering horrible things into the dreamer’s ear. In German, the word for
nightmare, “Albtraum” still translates to “elf dream.”  Sleep paralysis
entities seem to consist more of the “earth fairies,” such as trolls, dwarves,
and wood nymphs, as opposed to the more delicate winged fairies and water
nixies.

 

Vampires

This passage from Bram Stoker’s Dracula speaks for itself:

There was in the room the same thin white mist that I had
before discovered . . . I felt the same vague terror which had come to me
before and the same sense of some presence . . . Then indeed, my heart sank
within me: Beside the bed, as if had stepped out of the mist—or rather as if
the mist had turned into his figure, for it had completely disappeared—stood a
tall, thin man, all in black.  I knew him at once from the description of
the others.  The waxen face: the high aquiline nose, on which the light
fell in a thin white line; the parted red lips, with the sharp white teeth
showing between; and the red eyes . . . I would have screamed out, only that I
was paralyzed. [21]

Sound familiar?  The detail about the mist transforming
into the dark figure is a clue that we’ll come back to soon. 

 

Image credit: "Succubi" by Kradium, used courtesy of Creative Commons license.

------

 

  1. Cheyne et al. 1999.
  2. Marquet et al. 1996, cited in Rock 2004, p. 52
  3. Winkelman 2004, p. 60.  Neurotheology moves far beyond
    this idea, and has sponsored some well-meaning but ultimately reductive quests,
    such as the search for the “God gene.”  Winkelman stays within his
    warrant, and does not comment on the ontological reality of spirits, only their
    phenomenal reality beyond the cultural source hypothesis which reduces SP
    visions to fairy tale replays. 
  4. Hobson Dreaming; an Introduction to the science of sleep, 2002.  Hobson and other dream researchers still
    debate if REM = dreams, but we can safely say that most dreams we remember come
    from this physiological state.
  5. The best introduction to Jung is his autobiography Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.
    Hillman book the Soul’s Code, while
    not explicitly about dreams, showcases his theory of the personality and its
    inner workings.
  6. Bly; A Little Book on the Human Shadow. 1998.
  7. See Chalquist's Terrapsychology, 2007 for more about myth, landscape, and
    unconscious acting-out.
  8. Sherwood; "Relationship between the hypnagogic/hynogogic states and reports of anomalous experiences."  Journal of parapsychology, 66, pp. 127-150.  2002, p. 136. Stan Krippner and Montague’s Ullman’s
    work at the Dream Laboratory of the Maimonides Medical Center in the 1970s has
    proven to be the zenith of scientific work on psychic dreams; but the evidence
    is well known to lifelong dreamers.
  9. Hunt; Multiplicity of Dreams 1989.
  10. Takeuchi et al. Isolated sleep paralysis elicited by sleep interruption. Sleep, 15, pp. 217-225, 1992. The authors of this study propose that
    two thirds of ghost tales, if taken seriously, may occur when the witness is in
    sleep paralysis, highway hypnosis, REM sleep disorder, or other clinically
    diagnosed diseases and syndromes.
  11. Young and Goudet, Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. Ontario, Canada; Broadview Press.1994.
  12. Sevilla; Geomagnetic, cross-cultural and occupational faces of sleep paralysis: and ecological perspective. Sleep and Hypnosis, 2, pp. 105-111. 2000.
  13. Tedlock 2001 in Bulkeley’s Dreams: a reader on the religious, cultural, and psychological
    dimensions of dreaming
    .
  14. Devereux 2001, Haunted
    Land
    , p. 190.  Sherwood (2002) also discusses the correlation between
    hypnagogic hallucinations and anomalous experiences including telepathy,
    pyrokinesis, past life experiences, and near death experiences.
  15. My apologies to Joseph Campbell, who, to the delight of
    readers and disdain of academic folklorists everywhere, integrated Jungian
    psychology with the expressions of folklore, myth, and ritual.  See the Power of Myth.
  16. I don’t mean to reduce all uncanny phenomena to physical
    brain states such as SP/HH. Rather, I suggest that uncanny states, which
    sometimes include content that cannot be known by rational means or any
    psychological process we currently understand, have material correlates. See
    Proud (2009) for experiences about the paranormal elements of SP/HH. For a
    review of the scientific inquiry into psi, ESP and dream telepathy, I recommend
    Charles Tart’s The End of Materialism.
  17. Hufford 1982, The
    Terror That Comes in the Night
    , p. 221.
  18. Jones 1951, On the
    Nightmare
    , p. 82. Jones was a student of Freud’s, and interpreted many SP
    experiences as repressed sexual urges.
  19. Briggs 1976, Encyclopedia
    of Fairies.
  20. Froud 1998, Good
    fairies, bad fairies.
    A whimsical guide, mixed with authentic folklore
    research and captivating illustrations. 
  21. Stoker, Dracula, p.
    267 as quoted in Hufford 1982, p 228.