Shadow Visitors: Sleep paralysis and discarnate “dark ones”
A week or so ago I finished reading Louis Proud’s fascinating book Dark Intrusions: An Investigation into the Paranormal Nature of Sleep Paralysis Experiences. Published just last year, it argues that sleep paralysis is actually a cousin to spirit mediumship, in that the experience represents an actual visitation by paranormal entities that live constantly among us. Usually we remain in a condition of mutual ignorance — we don’t see these entities, and they don’t see us — but sometimes they become aware of us, and then, if they’re the lower and more craven kind, they latch onto us to feed on our life energy. Sufferers of sleep paralysis thus serve as conduits to the spiritual or daimonic realm in a manner roughly similar to mediums or, in a slightly different context, the teenager that’s typically identified as the focal point for a poltergeist disturbance. (For a detailed explanation of Proud’s ideas, see the interview he gave to TheoFantastique a couple of months ago.)
You’ll recall that I myself suffered for years from savage episodes of sleep paralysis. I still have them occasionally, only they’re much milder and less dramatic than they used to be. In the beginning they were fully as shattering and spiritually transformational as what Proud — a sleep paralysis sufferer himself — describes in his book. Although I never bought fully into an all-out paranormal explanation of the whole thing, remaining mostly skeptical about such matters, I was unable, as a matter of psychological fact, to escape the awful pall that the experiences cast over my life for a few years, just as I was unable to deny the clear impression that the figure or figures that visited me during those episodes were objectively real, as opposed to subjective dream figures generated by my brain. Of course, that doesn’t mean they actually were (or are) real. But as in all things, it’s prudent here to make sure you’re informed before you pass judgment, and in this case that might mean reading — for instance — the work of David J. Hufford, the brilliant pioneer of sleep paralysis studies (and a professor of both humanistic medicine and religious studies in the Penn State and University of Pennsylvania systems). Among the several aspects of his work that are guaranteed to provoke a reaction deeper than a mere shrug are his findings that the phenomenology of the sleep paralysis experience (what it feels like, and what the “entities” encountered during it look like and act like) remains constant across cultures, even among those that are fully isolated from each other, thus giving the lie to the idea that cultural expectations determine the content of the attendant hypnagogic visions; and that even among educated moderns who have been taught, or who have sometimes eagerly sought out on their own, the voluminous medical literature that explains the neurological aspects of sleep paralysis, it’s still quite common for them absorb this medical-scientific knowledge without changing their opinion that their experiences have a metaphysical or paranormal basis.
Reading Proud’s book has got me to reflecting seriously on everything that happened to me during those years, a task that’s made easier by the fact that I wrote about a lot of it in my journal at the time.
Here are two things about my experiences that I’ve never mentioned to anybody, including family and close friends. I bring them up now because I figure they might prove interesting to those of you who are fans of my horror fiction and want to know more about its origins.
First, I’ll highlight two famous images from Hollywood that, although they’re very distinct from each other, manage in tandem to illustrate the thing that I encountered during one of my earliest and most powerful sleep paralysis experiences (which I described in a kind of glossed-over fashion in “Fun with nocturnal assault“):
If you can imagine these two images — which are probably familiar to you — mingled together to the point where they’re concomitant, then you’ll have a good sense of what I encountered in my bedroom one night in 1993. On that occasion, I emerged circa 3 a.m. from a sleep so deep that it was almost a coma, to find myself paralyzed by a dark figure hovering over me at the foot of the bed. When I say I was paralyzed by the figure, that’s precisely accurate: I had the sense that this thing was responsible for the awful state of paralysis that had unaccountably taken hold of me. And yes, I do know, and I think I may even have known then, about the physical paralysis that naturally occurs during REM sleep. In the presence of that dark figure, I was immediately panicked, horrified, positively sickened with terror and dread, in a way and to a degree that I had not only never experienced but had never even conceived. And this horror was a result not only of my paralysis, nor of the figure’s presence and frightening appearance, but of the awful knowledge of its reason for being there, which gripped me suddenly and totally. The thing was a vaguely man-shaped vortex of darkness, and I knew, with a kind of psychological weight that I had never imagined, that it was the anti-me, that it was like my own personal black hole, and that its presence, in fact its very existence, meant my utter annihilation. I actually felt it sucking my entire being into it, like a roaring, devouring hurricane meant for me and me alone.
Yes, cue thoughts of the Jungian shadow, the disjected and repressed aspects of the total self, objectified in a moment of involuntary hypnagogia to confront me. But does such an explanation, even if accepted (and it sounds valid to me), necessarily negate and exclude all others? Can’t the “explanation” of many things be multivalent?
So that’s the first of the two things mentioned above: In 1993, during my worst-ever episode of sleep paralysis, I encountered a demonic-seeming figure whose very essence and raison d’etre was my utter negation, and which looked a bit like the cinematic images I’ve supplied. I didn’t think of the movie pictures until sometime afterward, though, when I was trying to come to grips with the whole thing, and was trying to remember what the entity had looked like, which was singularly difficult because although it definitely had a visual appearance, which definitely felt like I was looking at it in just as real and wakeful a fashion as I’m now looking at my laptop screen, its appearance was also, somehow, psychological or spiritual, so that what it looked like to the physical eye was completely intermingled with what it “looked” like to thought, emotion, and the imaginal eye.
The second thing is a little anecdote from my college years that has come back to haunt me from time to time, and that has now pushed its way to the front of my thoughts thanks to Proud’s book. As I mentioned in a recent Demon Muse post (“Stoking Your Creative Fire: Embrace your Creative Demon’s Rhythm (1)“), when I was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I took a class titled The Creative Process. It was offered through the honors college, and was created and taught by Dr. Betty Scott, who in addition to being a noted trumpet player was and is a long-time adherent of alternative spiritualities and health modalities. Her Creative Process class, which I took when it was brand new and had only been offered once or twice before, was ostensibly about the subject named in its title. It was supposedly intended to teach students the psychology of creativity and help them increase their creative potential. And while it really did cover this territory, it also ended up being so chock-full of non-mainstream spiritual and psychological stuff that it could validly have been titled New Age 101. Under Dr. Scott’s tutelage, I and my fellow students engaged in guided visualizations to find internal creative guides. We drew and shared personal mandalas. We created and endlessly wrote affirmations. We listened to subliminal learning tapes consisting of New Age electronic music accompanied by subaural messages aimed at increasing our creative focus and energy. We discussed Richard Bach’s newest book at the time, One, which continued the author’s tale of his transcendent love affair with his “soulmate,” Leslie Parrish-Bach, that he had begun in The Bridge Across Forever. (Having been mesmerized first by Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull and then his Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah back in high school, I was an easy mark for this one. Of course, the whole thing seemed to fall apart retroactively when he and Leslie divorced in the late 1990s.)
At first I dug the hell of the whole thing, and I started out as one of the star pupils in the class. But partway through the semester I dove with gusto into researching a paper for another class about the then-hot New Age movement in America, and by the time I had finished writing that paper, which touched on the channeling phenomenon (including J.Z. Knight and her Ramtha swindle), neurolinguistic programming, crystal mania, UFOlogy, and all the rest of that ill-defined, Shirley MacLaine-helmed phenomenon, I had shifted into full-blown skeptic mode, and for the rest of my foray through The Creative Process I was barely able to contain my scorn for what we were doing. Poor Betty, who really was a great lady, couldn’t help but notice the change. Of course she was a lot older and wiser than I was, so I think she just endured my altered demeanor as she had probably endured the attitudinal volatility and pseudo-schizophrenia of a great many college students before me.
Then, a year or two after I was out of her class, a mutual friend named Robert who had been in there with me, and who had gone on to spend more time with Betty in The Creative Process II (a class that I naturally opted to skip), told me something that came blazing up from my memory several years later when I was suffering my near-meltdown from repeated sleep paralysis attacks.
Specifically, Robert told me that when he was talking with Betty one time after a class meeting of Creative Process II, he brought up my name for some reason — an understandable occurrence, since the three of us, he and Betty and I, were all mutual acquaintances. And then for some reason she shared with him that she was concerned that I might have a “dark one” attached to me. I blinked when he told me this, and replied, “Huh?” since this was the first I had heard of such an idea. So he explained that, according to Betty, a dark one is an unincarnate or disincarnate spirit that longs for fleshly existence, and that sometimes one of these spirits will attach itself to a person and live vicariously through his or her bodily experiences. But when it does this, it accidentally and involuntarily imparts a kind of night-sided emotional cast to its host, simply by the fact of its own nature and presence, so that its host’s outlook, mindset, attitude, and overall view and experience of life are tilted in a certain dark-ish, anti-life direction.
And that, my friends, is something that Louis Proud describes very specifically in Dark Intrusions.
As I have explained before — for example, in my Strange Horizons review of Unexplained: An Encylopedia of Curious Phenomena, Strange Superstitions, and Ancient Mysteries, and also in some blog posts here and at Demon Muse — I’ve been very interested in the paranormal, in ghosts and UFOs and cryptozoology and all the rest, since I was a kid, when Daniel Cohen’s books about these things were a delight to me. As an adult that interest has continued,. and I’ve gone on to read books of a much more sophisticated nature, everything from Colin Wilson, John Keel, Patrick Harpur, and Anthony Peake to explicitly skeptical stuff like Skeptical Inquirer and a couple of the hardcore skeptical titles from Prometheus Books. And I’ve done all that while earning a graduate degree in religious studies and pursuing a side career as a supernatural horror writer and independent scholar of such matters. So it’s not like I haven’t thought about such things in awhile. It’s not like I haven’t been “up” on the mediumistic and parapsychological theories of earthbound spirits and all that. But reading Proud’s book, and finding him not only saying things about “lower order spirits” that recall Betty Scott’s odd speculation about me all those years ago, but doing so explicitly in the context of a study of sleep paralysis, which is an experience that helped to define who I am now, has really knocked the bolts loose on some of my mental doors. Multiple interpretations indeed. I feel like I’m living out a metaphor.
If you’ve experienced sleep paralysis yourself, and if you have any thoughts about any of what I’m saying here — or even if you haven’t and you don’t — I’d love to hear your reactions. The comment threads on my previous posts about sleep paralysis have been most enjoyable to read, so if you’re so inclined, please speak up.
Oh, and for those who may be wondering, the answer is yes, the nocturnal supernatural assault scene near the end of my story “An Abhorrence to All Flesh” in Divinations of the Deep, where a character is horrifically destroyed by a man-shaped hole or vortex that appears at the foot of his bed, does indeed hail from the experience I’ve described here.