Jennifer Wilber is a writer who also works as an English tutor and substitute teacher. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
Sleep Paralysis: Normal or Paranormal?
Before modern medical science figured out the causes behind sleep paralysis, many cultures around the world created extraordinary explanations to explain this ordinary phenomenon. Because many people experience visual or auditory hallucinations during sleep paralysis, this phenomenon has long been explained by paranormal or demonic activity. In many cultures throughout history, malevolent spirits, demons, and even witches have been blamed for sleep paralysis attacks. Today, this may account for many modern reports of ghost visitations, alien abductions, and out-of-body experiences. Though we now know what causes it, the experience is still chilling enough to those who experience it to inspire a belief in paranormal activity.
The Old Hag
Because many people who experience sleep paralysis report a feeling of intense pressure on their chest, which is often interpreted as an entity crushing or sitting on the person’s chest, one common explanation for this phenomenon is a visitation by a demonic figure known as the “Old Hag.” The myth of the Old Hag is particularly prevalent in Newfoundland, though there are variations of this story told all around the world. The myth of the Old Hag is so widespread that sleep paralysis is also sometimes known as “Old Hag Syndrome.”
Myths surrounding the Old Hag come from superstitious beliefs of a witch or demonic entity known as the Old Hag who sits or rides on her victim’s chest during the night. These stories tell of an old witch maliciously sitting on the chests of her victims while they lay in bed, or of curses placed upon unsuspecting individuals by this witch, causing them to experience this terror during the night. People who believe that they have been visited or cursed by the Old Hag report feeling an evil presence in their bedroom during the attack. Hallucinations are common during these episodes, and the fear caused by being unable to move or speak may trigger hallucinations of evil presences or demonic entities, such as the Old Hag.
Incubi and Succubi
In some cultures, myths of incubi and succubi visitations are also used to explain this phenomenon. As with the stories of the Old Hag, people who believe their sleep paralysis attack was caused by an incubus or a succubus attribute the crushing feeling they experience in their chest to a run-in with one of these demonic entities.
According to folklore, an incubus is a demon that takes on a male form and lies with people, usually women, as they sleep. In many cases, the incubus demon has sexual intercourse with the sleeping woman.
A succubus is the female counterpart of an incubus. A succubus usually seeks out male victims and lies with them as they sleep, much like an incubus. Succubi are also said to engage in carnal relations with their victims as they sleep.
Many experiences of sleep paralysis throughout history have been attributed to an attack by an incubus or a succubus lying on top of their victim, preventing them from being able to move upon waking up from sleep.
Ghosts and Malevolent Spirits
Night time visitations from ghosts or malevolent spirits may have also been blamed for this phenomenon. Even in modern times, beliefs in ghosts and other spirits are not uncommon. As with encounters with the Old Hag and Incubi/Succubi in bygone eras, modern victims of the sleep paralysis phenomenon may attribute their experiences to evil spirits or ghosts.
Many people report feeling an evil presence in their room during sleep paralysis attacks. Depending upon the person’s particular belief system or world view, they may interpret this as a ghost, demonic being, or malevolent spirit in their bedroom. Some people in modern times report seeing “shadow people” in their bedrooms during these attacks.
A person’s spiritual beliefs often shape the form that these hallucinations will take. People who believe in ghost stories are more likely to report seeing a malevolent ghost. Religious people may interpret the same phenomenon as a demonic entity associated with the devil.
While the experience of sleep paralysis has been associated with encounters with dangerous spiritual entities throughout history, with the rising popularity of science fiction and paranormal television shows, movies, books, and video games, many people today may interpret their experience as being the result of an alien abduction.
The feelings of immobility and fear may be interpreted as an encounter with alien beings by those who are familiar with the cultural narratives surrounding alien abductions. Because hallucinations are a common effect of sleep paralysis, some people who experience this frightening event may feel, see, and even hear things that hint at an alien abduction, straight out of science fiction or paranormal books and movies. People with a preexisting belief in the paranormal are much more likely to attribute these episodes to paranormal activity.
Out-of-Body Experiences and Astral Projection
One of the less frightening common paranormal explanations for this is that it is related to the process of returning from an out-of-body experience or astral projection. Out-of-body experiences and astral projection are similar phenomena described by New Age philosophies.
An out-of-body-experience, or OBE, is an experience involving a sensation of floating outside one's body and, in some cases, the feeling of perceiving one's physical body as if from somewhere outside the body. Though psychologists associate the phenomenon of OBEs with depersonalization and mental dissociation, parapsychologists believe that OBEs are the result of the spirit or soul temporarily detaching from the physical body.
Astral projection, according to New Age spiritual beliefs, is the process of willfully experiencing an OBE and using your spirit or “astral body” to travel anywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye. Some people believe that sleep paralysis is related to astral projection occurring while one is asleep.
According to this view, sleep paralysis may occur when a person begins to awaken from sleep while their “astral body” hasn’t yet reconnected with the physical body. The astral body, or spirit, is still disconnected from the physical body, so the person experiencing sleep paralysis is temporarily unable to move.
Another variation on this idea includes the belief that these episodes are an ideal time to experiment with astral projection. While proponents of this belief admit that it is a natural phenomenon, they believe that it also presents an ideal opportunity to astral project. The idea goes that, because your “astral body” is already disconnected from your physical body during this stage of the sleep cycle, you can use it to your advantage to travel the world or universe using your astral body while your physical body remains at rest.
Cultural Myths and Sleep Paralysis
It is interesting to see how different beliefs and world views shape the experience of sleep paralysis. Though the symptoms are the same throughout all human societies, the interpretation of these symptoms are colored by one’s preexisting beliefs. People who believe in demonic spirits interpret their experience thus, while people who are familiar with stories of alien abductions are more apt to believe that they have been abducted by extraterrestrial beings. Even with the advent of modern medical knowledge, many people around the world still attribute this frightening experience to paranormal causes.
© 2018 Jennifer Wilber
Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on July 03, 2018:
What's amazing is how mind uses the fear element in that desperate state to jolt us back to reality. Nonetheless its scary!!