By Marlena Tyldesley
Across the world and throughout human history, people have experienced a condition known as sleep paralysis - where a person’s brain has woken up while their body is still in “sleep mode”, leading to a feeling of paralysis - to a whole army of monstrous creatures. Some are animals (Miller, 2016), some are hags, and others have everything from creepily long fingernails to a habit of attacking sleeping people (de sá & Mota-Rolim, 2016). No matter the specific form of the demon, each one causes similar symptoms, hallmarks of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis occurs as a person is waking up or falling asleep; one’s brain is conscious but one’s body is still in the restful and unmoving state of sleep. It can cause the alarming realization that one’s body is momentarily paralyzed. Typically, paralysis lasts only a few seconds, but it still causes fear and stories in different cultures (Miller, 2016; de sá & Mota-Rolim, 2016; National Sleep Foundation).
De sá &Mota-Rolim explore, through the lens of the Brazilian demon (the “Pisadeira”) responsible for sleep paralysis, the connection between the physical attributes of sleep disorders and the demons thought to have caused them. The researchers describe three types of hallucinations that may accompany sleep paralysis: incubus, unusual bodily experiences, and intruder. The incubus and intruder hallucinations have been linked to moving suddenly in or out of Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) (de sá & Mota-Rolim, 2016). This kind of sleep is linked to dreaming, and paralyzes every part of the body except vital organs and eyes while it is occurring. Those two symptoms of sleep paralysis hallucinations align closely with some of the demons who represent it around the world. Each demon has a physical form that a paralyzed person may see and a habit which creates the physical symptoms of sleep paralysis.
Similarly, Catalonia brings us the “Pesanta” - a black animal like a dog who sits on peoples’ chests at night (Miller, 2016),- Japanese tradition talks of a spirit who suffocates his enemies, (de sá & Mota-Rolim, 2016), and Newfoundland brings the Old Hag who sits on sleeping people in the night (Miller, 2016). These demons show the remarkable tendency of human beings to come to similar conclusions on spooky ailments, from all the way across the world and throughout time.
The authors discuss demons from Mexico, the Inuit people, Cambodia and more that also put pressure on a person’s chest during sleep paralysis. People across the world bring various life experiences to their sleep paralysis experiences. The authors reference another study which found that, independently of social class or educational level, spirituality affects these sleep paralysis interpretations. Religious cultures throughout time - the Greeks, Ancient Romans, Egyptians and more - each have spiritual explanations for sleep paralysis experiences. Today, alien abductions are a new theory for sleep paralysis hallucinations, showing how humans have continued to create explanations for the mystery of sleep phenomena.
De sá and Mota-Rolim explain that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by alarming and sometimes supernatural hallucinations, which may explain the prevalence of demons in the comprehension of the condition (de sá & Mota-Rolim, 2016). Sleep is a mysterious subject and humans will do what they can to make sense of it - as evidenced by this army of sleep demons.
Miller, S. G. (2016, October 10). The Demon on Your Chest and Other Terrifying Tales of Sleep Paralysis. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.livescience.com/56422-sleep-paralysis-different-cultures.html.
de Sá, J. F. R., & Mota-Rolim, S. A. (2016, September 7). Sleep Paralysis in Brazilian Folklore and Other Cultures: A Brief Review. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5013036/.
National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). What Causes Sleep Paralysis During REM Sleep? Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/what-you-should-know-about-sleep-paralysis.
Kristof, N. I. D. (1999, July 6). Alien Abduction? Science Calls It Sleep Paralysis. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/06/science/alien-abduction-science-calls-it-sleep-paralysis.html.