Consider the following hypothetical situation: a young woman is asleep in bed. She awakes but cannot move. She senses a malevolent presence near her. The being comes closer, pressing on her chest with a great weight. Now consider the following “real” account:
…Sarah came every night and sat upon some portion of the body [of her sister], causing great pain and misery. (Sidney S. Rider, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island,” qtd. in Bell)
What was happening to the nameless sister? Was Sarah really a vampire attacking her in the night? Or was the poor girl suffering from sleep paralysis, perhaps exacerbated by sadness over her sister’s death? Or was it something else?
Many skeptics would immediately say that it’s a case of sleep paralysis, perhaps accompanied by hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination. During sleep paralysis, the brain is conscious or on the verge of wakefulness, but the body remains locked down. In addition to the paralysis, the sufferer may experience vivid and frightening hallucinations. These frequently involve an impression of a presence, often hostile. The dreamer may also feel as if he or she is suffocating.
Sleep paralysis is extremely common. Many people will experience it at least once in their lives. Some people experience if with some regularity. The experience can be terrifying and the hallucinations can seem very real. Many people swear that they are awake, and, in a sense, they are–more or less.
The experience of sleep paralysis varies over time and according to cultural expectation. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, people experienced demon attacks as they slept. The word “incubus” comes from the Latin “incubare,” to lie upon. While this may suggest the sexual nature of incubi, it probably originally referred to the feeling of oppression. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of of “incubus” in English is from Laȝamon’s Brut: there is a very numerous race–
heo beoð ihaten ful iwis
ne doð heo noht muchel scaðe:
but hokerieð þan folke.
monine mo on sueuene:
ofte heo swencheð. (Brut, Cotton Caligula A 9, ll. 15782-7. Ed. Frederick Madden, 1847)
They are known, indeed, as incubus demons. They don’t do much harm, but they deceive people. They often afflict men in dreams.
It goes on to say the incubi “know” women and lead children astray.
In eighteenth-century Serbia, vampires visited their victims at night:
In addition, the haiduk Jowiza reports that his stepdaughter, by name of Stanacka, lay down to sleep fifteen days ago, fresh and healthy, but at midnight she started up out of her sleep with a terrible cry, fearful and trembling, and complained that she had been throttled by the son of a haiduk by the name of Milloe, who had died nine weeks earlier, whereupon she had experienced a great pain in the chest and became worse hour by hour, until she finally died on the third day. (Visum et Repertum, tr. and qtd. in Barber 16)
Since the second half of the 20th century, the assailants have often been aliens, bent on abduction and examination.
About 18 years ago I had gone to bed just like any night. I do not take drugs or drink. I went to sleep and some time during the night I felt something crawling up on me. It started at my lower legs and was crawling up to my chest. I could not open my eyes. It felt like it was some kind of hoffed animal. I wanted to move but could not. I was thinking what the heck is this what is happening. It semed to last for a few minutes then the weight of this thing was gone. I then could open my eyes and there was nothing. (phenomenalog.com)
In some cases, sleep paralysis has been suggested to sufferers, but they reject the notion:
A woman named Ruth told me that the crucial event for her had been a nighttime episode in which she’d felt terror, been unable to breathe, and heard footsteps. I asked her if she thought the symptoms could have been related to sleep paralysis. “no–because, see, I wasn’t asleep when it happened. I was on the couch watching David Letterman.” (Clancy)
Are we, as skeptics, justified in dismissing all these stories as sleep paralysis? No doubt we often we are. Many instances almost certainly can be explained by sleep paralysis, and it seems likely that stories of night hags and night demons originated with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but the stories are so prevalent that they’ve moved from the world of physical phenomenon to the realm of folk tale motif.
A folk motif is a recurring and recognizable element in traditional narratives. For instance, a cruel stepmother is a motif that appears again and again in folk tales. Another is the supernatural being who helps the hero or heroine perform chores. In the 1930s, Stith Thompson published his monumental six volume Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Entry F471 deals with dream demons. F471.1 is the Nightmare or Alp which “presses person in dream.” There follows a long list of sources. F471.1.5 concerns
Persons who at night become nightmare. Those who are born on a Thursday and christened on a Sunday must at certain times (on Thursdays) press someone or something.
E281.2 tells of a “Ghostly horse [that] enters house and puts hoof on breast of sleeper.”
According to Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow in Medieval Folklore, the assaults of the mara, nightmare or night hag
were always connected with a feeling of anxiety and suffocation. The mara was believed to oppress and weigh her victim down when tormenting and riding it. There is also an undercurrent of latent sexuality more or less manifest in the mara traditions.
Jan Louis Perkowski, professor of Slavic languages, has published extensively on Slavic folklore. He has collected numerous tales of suffocating demons. For instance, Canadian Kashubs speak of the mwəra or succuba. He describes it as “a night spirit which suffocates its sleeping victims” (34). Among the accounts he records:
The succuba chokes. They said that it was a child who was not baptized properly. This person walks at night and chokes others.
They said that when people went to sleep it choked them.
Succuba–They are unbaptized children who died before they were baptized. They come to a person and they choke a person in the night….
A succuba is that which chokes people. She could crawl through a keyhole. Someone said that, while a succuba was choking them and then they grabbed, sometimes it was like a ball of wool and then it disappeared.
My brother Frank also caught one. A succuba, nightmare, also choked him. He had to sit up and not go to sleep on the pillow, so that it would come to him. He said that a man all matted with hair came to him, and he caught it.
The succuba had to be a person. It would come and choke you at night. Sometimes it was a neighbor. (Perkowski 35-6)
Demons, night hags, witches, ghosts, vampires and now aliens. All have attacked and suffocated victims in the night. It seems odd that we label all of these cases “sleep paralysis.” The Wikipedia entry on sleep paralysis has a section on “Folklore,” listing folktales from all over the world. A New York Times article attributes all sorts of folklore to sleep paralysis, as does a Skeptical Inquirer article by Susan Blackmore. Were all the victims suffering from sleep paralysis? Probably not. I have no doubt that sleep paralysis served as the origin of the motif, but the motif has grown beyond the physical phenomenon. It’s become a part of the story of beings that attack in the night, and it’s been a part of the story for a very long time.
This is not to say that people who tell stories of a great weight on their chests are lying or adding that element to the story because they think they should; however, the experience has become an expected element. We know that cultural expectations shape perception and memory. For instance, it has been suggested that some of the elements of Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction accounts were subconsciously based on science fiction television programs and movies. Certainly, the Hills’ story has influenced other accounts of alien abduction.
The very fact that experiences that would have once been perceived as demon attacks are now interpreted as alien visitations suggests just how much cultural expectations influence perception.
To return to the case of Sarah the vampire and her sister: this story is one of the earliest of the New England vampire cases. It concerns Stukeley “Snuffy” Tillinghast and his fourteen children. His daughter Sarah died of consumption, followed by several other family members. The bodies were exhumed. Only Sarah’s was found to be undecayed. Her heart was removed and burned. The deaths ceased (after one more).
The story of the Tillinghast family was recorded nearly a hundred years after the events described, in Sidney S. Rider’s 1888 article, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island.” Folklorist Michael Bell researched the stories and found some information that corroborated Rider’s story: Tillinghast did have fourteen children, and several, including Sarah, died of consumption in 1799. There were also discrepancies: Rider says half the Tillinghast children died, but, in fact, only four or five died. Rider also says Sarah was the oldest child; she was actually the tenth. Enough of the story was corroborated that it is plausible the bodies were exhumed and that Sarah’s heart was burned.
However, there are elements of Rider’s story that are pure folklore and cannot be true. Some of these folkloric elements involve dreams. At the beginning of the story, paterfamilias Snuffy dreams that he has an apple orchard (which he did) and that exactly half of it died. This dream is presented as an omen of the death of exactly half of his children. Aside from problems of interpreting a dream as an allegorical prediction–or postdiction–the dream simply isn’t accurate: Snuffy lost plenty of children, but not half.
And then there are the sleep paralysis dreams. We’ve seen that an unnamed sister dreamed of Sarah sitting on her body. This was a “continual complaint” that occurred every night until the sister died.
So it went on. One after another sickened and died until six were dead, and the seventh, a son, was taken ill. The mother also now complained of these nightly visits of Sarah. These same characteristics were present in every case after the first one. (Rider qtd. in Bell)
Seven people, six siblings and their mother, dreamed every single night that Sarah visited them and pressed on them. Each of them had these dreams until they died or, in the case of the mother, recovered. These dreams, though they sound like sleep paralysis, cannot be explained by any real physical phenomena. It is not plausible that the family could have shared so many hypnopompic hallucinations. Like the prophetic dream, these dreams belong to the realm of folklore, not neurology.
This case is extreme and was no doubt intentionally embellished by a professional writer. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind when we hear tales of alien abduction that folklore may be at play as well as sleep paralysis.
Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Kindle ed. N.p.
Blackmore, Susan. “Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?” Skeptical Inquirer May/June 1998.
Clancy, Susan A. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Kindle ed. N.p.
Kristov, Nicholas D. “Alien Abduction? Science Calls It Sleep Paralysis.” New York Times 6 Jul. 1999.
Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs. Oxford UP, 2002.
Perkowski, Jan Louis. Vampire Lore: From the Writings of Jan Louis Perkowski. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2006.
Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.