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Sleep paralysis: an explanation for some ghost stories?

31 Days of Halloween

Sleep paralysis: an explanation for some ghost stories?

ESPECIALLY the sexual ones?

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.


Since the earliest days of mankind, people (or the prehistoric equivalent) have reported attacks from supernatural or mysterious creatures that arrive in their sleep. Some are even sexualized, and reports of such attacks continue today. Such attacks appear not just in the occasional movie, but are widespread in folklore and the occult from around the globe. Attacks in the sleep are also an important part of many UFO abduction reports, and some would categorize UFO abductions as late 20th century folklore.

Sleep paralysis demon

In Egypt and much of the Middle East, belief in spirits called Jinn was and still is prevalent. In Egypt today, even among contemporary college students, the belief that such creatures attack people in their sleep is quite common.

In Italy, belief in supernatural entities that attack people in their sleep are also widespread, although the names and details of the beings vary. In the mid portion of the eastern coast, people fear attacks from the Pandafeche, a witch that occasionally takes the form of a terrifying cat. To prevent the attacks, people put small sacks of sand or beans next to their bed, as the Pandafeche is compelled to count them before it can move on to attack the sleeper. In Northern Italy, the witch who sits on sleeping people’s chest is known as a trud.

In the rest of Europe and much of the Christian world, there was a strong belief in succubi and incubi. While both were demonic beings, fallen angels who attacked people in their sleep the former had sex with men and the latter had sex with women. In some cases, these spirits would even steal semen from men in their sleep and use it to impregnate women. Reports and confessions of activity with such spirits, including reports obtained under torture, played an important part in witchcraft reports and trials.

In the late medieval/early Renaissance period, there was a great deal of thought, writing, and discussion among theologians about such things, with many feeling that to deny belief in these beings was to implicitly question the existence of God himself, the supreme spiritual being, although this thinking declined as the days of witchcraft trials came to an end.  Fortunately, not only has belief in demons declined, but so has a belief that such arguments are important.

In East Asia, fox spirits were and are still a common belief. Sometimes simply referred to as foxes, these shapeshifters collect men’s ejaculate and can use it to obtain immortality. (In Yin-Yang theory of Taoism and Chinese medicine, male ejaculate has strong “Yang” essence.) Fox spirits and the threat of their reaction if upset or offended is also an important part of some folk beliefs, and helps maintain adherence to the proper rituals expected to show respect for one’s ancestors. A fox spirit featured prominently in the HBO series Lovecraft Country.

The phenomenon seems to be universal. Similar reports exist in Africa, other portions of Asia, and the Americas, as well as elsewhere, similar reports exist.

Sleep paralysis: an explanation for some ghost stories?

Drawing of popobawa, an incubus-like demon from Zanzibar with … particular proclivities.

Although vivid, terrifying, and disturbing, scientific researchers say such experiences are not uncommon. Neuroscientist Baland Jalal says that approximately one in five people have experienced the phenomenon. Psychologist Susan Blackmore says 3-6% of the population has these experiences frequently, while 40-50% have experienced them occasionally. I’ve experienced them myself, and maybe you have, too.

Fortunately, there’s been a scientific explanation for this phenomenon for some time. The answers lie in the well-understood and often connected experiences of sleep paralysis and naturally occurring hallucinations. Hypnagogic hallucinations, which occur while falling asleep, and hypnopompic hallucinations, which occur when waking up, involve the complex neurophysiological processes of the brain, and while not entirely understood, they’re well-documented and actively being studied around the globe.

Science may even offer an explanation for the frequent sexual content of the reports. While some feel it’s merely because some dreams are sexual, so it’s natural that some waking dreams are too, it may not be that simple. Perhaps its social priming and cultural expectations. Perhaps it’s something more complex involving neurophysiology and interactions between the human brain and respiratory system.

When a person suffers from sleep paralysis and is intensely frightened, they often hyperventilate. When people hyperventilate, their carbon dioxide level goes down. When a person is sexually aroused, if their carbon dioxide level goes, down their sexual arousal increases. It seems more study and more publicizing of relevant research would be helpful in understanding likely explanations for these reports.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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