Night of the Crusher
The waking nightmare of sleep paralysis propels people into a spirit world
© 2005 Bruce Bower, Science News Online, July 9, 2005, 168(2):27
As a college
student in 1964, David J. Hufford met the dreaded Night Crusher. Exhausted
from a bout of mononucleosis and studying for finals, Hufford retreated
one December day to his rented, off-campus room and fell into a deep sleep.
An hour later, he awoke with a start to the sound of the bedroom door
creaking open-the same door he had locked and bolted before going to bed.
Hufford then heard footsteps moving toward his bed and felt an evil presence.
Terror gripped the young man, who couldn't move a muscle, his eyes plastered
open in fright.
warning, the malevolent entity, whatever it was, jumped onto Hufford's
chest. An oppressive weight compressed his rib cage. Breathing became
difficult, and Hufford felt a pair of hands encircle his neck and start
to squeeze. "I thought I was going to die," he says.
point, the lock on Hufford's muscles gave way. He bolted up and sprinted
several blocks to take shelter in the student union. "It was very
puzzling," he recalls with a strained chuckle, "but I told nobody
about what happened."
Hufford another year to establish that what he and these people of Newfoundland
had experienced corresponds to the event, lasting seconds or minutes,
that sleep researchers call sleep paralysis. Although widely acknowledged
among traditional cultures, sleep paralysis is one of the most prevalent
yet least recognized mental phenomena for people in industrialized societies,
than 30 years after Hufford's discovery, sleep paralysis is beginning
to attract intensive scientific attention. The March Transcultural Psychiatry
included a series of papers on the condition's widespread prevalence,
regionalvarieties, and mental-health implications.
differs from nocturnal panic, in which a person awakens in terror with
no memory of a dream. Neither does sleep paralysis resemble a night terror,
in which a person suddenly emerges from slumber in apparent fear, flailing
and shouting, but then falls back asleep and doesn't recall the incident
in the morning.
although the word nightmare originally described sleep paralysis, it now
refers to a fearful or disturbing dream, says Hufford, now at the Penn
State Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. Several hundred years ago, the English
referred to nighttime sensations of chest pressure from witches or other
supernatural beings as the "mare," from the Anglo-Saxon merran,
meaning to crush. The term eventually morphed into nightmare-the crusher
who comes in the night.
embodies a universal, biologically based explanation for pervasive beliefs
in spirits and supernatural beings, even in the United States, Hufford
argues. The experience thrusts mentally healthy people into a bizarre,
alternative world that they frequently find difficult to chalk up to a
temporary brain glitch.
doesn't believe that an invisible force attacked him in his college room
or during several sleep paralysis episodes that have occurred since then,
but he sees the appeal of such an interpretation. "We need to deeply
question 2 centuries of assumptions about the nonempirical and nonrational
nature of spirit belief," he says.
runs a Web site (http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~acheyne/S_P.html)
where visitors fill out surveys about their experiences during sleep paralysis.
Several thousand individuals also provide online updates about recurring
notes work by Japanese researcher Kazuhiko Fukuda of Fukushima University.
Fukuda enlisted volunteers who had experienced many incidents of sleep
paralysis. In a sleep laboratory, the Japanese team monitored the volunteers,
whom they roused at various times during the night to trigger the phenomenon.
The researchers found that during sleep paralysis, the brain, suddenly
awake, nonetheless displays electrical responses typical of sleep characterized
by rapid eye movement (REM).
systems contribute to sleep paralysis, Cheyne proposes. The most prominent
one consists of inner-brain structures that monitor one's surroundings
for threats and launches responses to perceived dangers. As Cheyne sees
it, REM-based activation of this system, in the absence of any real threat,
triggers a sense of an ominous entity lurking nearby. Other neural areas
that contribute to REM-dream imagery could draw on personal and cultural
knowledge to flesh out the evil presence.
brain system, which includes sensory and motor parts of the brain's outer
layer, distinguishes one's own body and self from those of other creatures.
When REM activity prods this system, a person experiences sensations of
floating, flying, falling, leaving one's body, and other types of movement,
however, regards the intrusion of REM activity into awake moments as inadequate
to explain sleep paralysis. Dream content during REM sleep varies greatly
from one person to another, but descriptions of sleep paralysis are remarkably
consistent. "I don't have a good explanation for these experiences,"
tale was even more dreadful. She told Hinton that the ghost terrors usually
trigger a flashback to an actual incident that occurred more than 20 years
ago. Before reaching the United States, she survived the genocidal reign
of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who directed the slaughter of roughly 2
million Cambodians. On one occasion, the young woman witnessed soldiers
escorting into a nearby clump of trees three blindfolded persons, whom
she recognized as friends from her village. Soon, she heard the sickening
sounds of her friends being clubbed to death.
therapy, Hinton, who speaks the woman's Khmer language, asked the woman
to establish a connection between the two sets of stories. She told him
that the three demons are the spirits of her three executed friends, who
return to haunt her so that she won't forget them. She also related her
worries that a sorcerer would make the spirits enter her body, causing
insanity, or will instruct the spirits to place objects inside her, causing
anxiety and physical illness.
episode of sleep paralysis over the years has intensified the woman's
flashbacks, sleep difficulties, and other symptoms of what psychiatrists
call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hinton says that many Cambodian
refugees relive past horrors through sleep paralysis. He notes that few
people discuss these incidents with their physicians. "Unless you
specifically ask about sleep paralysis, you don't know that a patient
has it," Hinton says.
surveyed people at his outpatient clinic in Lowell, which has the second-largest
Cambodian population in the country. Of 100 consecutive Cambodian refugees
whom Hinton saw as patients at the clinic in 2003, he notes, 42 reported
currently experiencing at least one sleep-paralysis episode each year.
Most reported seeing an approaching demon or other entity that created
pressure on their chests and typically triggered panic attacks. Among
the refugees questioned, 45 had been diagnosed with PTSD. Of those, 35
reported being afflicted by sleep paralysis, usually with at least one
episode a month.
told Hinton that sleep paralysis permits people who suffer unjust deaths
to haunt the living and creates "bad luck." These cultural ideas
foster panic attacks, Hinton asserts.
PTSD, and other mental disorders may indirectly promote sleep paralysis
by disrupting the sleep cycle and yanking people out of REM sleep during
the night, he adds. Other factors that disturb sleep, such as jet lag
and shift work, have also been linked to sleep paralysis.
treatment that delves into the personal meaning of bouts of sleep paralysis
reassures sufferers that these encounters aren't signs of physical illness
or supernatural visits, Hinton says.
from Shanghai also supports a connection between sleep paralysis, PTSD,
and panic attacks. Albert S. Yeung of Massachusetts General Hospital in
Boston and his team interviewed 150 psychiatric outpatients in Shanghai.
About one-quarter of these patients had experienced sleep paralysis at
least once, and more than half of those with PTSD or panic attacks described
incidents of sleep paralysis, according to Yeung.
unlike the Cambodian immigrants whom Hinton studied, nearly all of Yeung's
Chinese study participants in retrospect regarded the incidents as innocuous.
Most had experienced feelings of dread but didn't encounter supernatural
Americans who experience panic attacks, sleep paralysis is also especially
common, according to community surveys conducted by psychologist Cheryl
M. Paradis of Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Although 25
percent of the African-American participants reported having experienced
sleep paralysis, nearly 60 percent of blacks who had panic attacks said
that they regularly experienced sleep paralysis. In contrast, sleep paralysis
turned up among only 7 percent of whites who have panic attacks, Paradis
levels in African Americans, at least partly the result of poverty and
racism, contribute to anxiety, sleep problems, and sleep paralysis, she
abuse may also make a person susceptible to sleep paralysis. Harvard University
psychologists Richard J. McNally and Susan A. Clancy have found that,
among adults who report having been sexually abused during childhood,
nearly half describe at least one past episode of sleep paralysis. In
their study, only 13 percent of participants who hadn't been sexually
abused reported sleep paralysis.
sleep disturbances in those who have been sexually abused may foster the
phenomenon, McNally suggests.
of space-alien encounters typically begin with the abductee waking in
the night while lying face up, McNally says. The person can't move but
senses electric vibrations. A feeling of terror makes breathing difficult.
Alien beings advance to the foot of the bed or climb on top of the person,
who then experiences a sense of floating or of being transported to an
weeks later, in response to a therapist's hypnotic suggestions, the abductee
may generate details of being sexually probed or otherwise assaulted by
the aliens, McNally notes.
of abductions by space aliens trigger much controversy, media attention,
and ridicule. The late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack fueled the hubbub
by defending the accounts as descriptions of actual encounters with visitors
from other planets.
another, far more likely, explanation for the reported experiences of
the "abductees," says McNally. Traumatic encounters that a person
seems to experience during sleep paralysis feel as vividly real as anything
that happens during the day does, he notes.
their fantastic claims, these people are mentally healthy, says McNally.
"Sleep paralysis is an entirely natural phenomenon," he remarks.
"In isolated cases, it's no more pathological than a case of the
and Clancy linked the claims of 10 alien abductees to episodes of sleep
paralysis. Memories of the scary incidents sparked heart-rate increases
and other physiological stress reactions that exceeded those previously
reported for Vietnam veterans with PTSD as they recalled distressing combat
most rational people who experience sleep paralysis often find it difficult
to write off their nighttime ordeals as unreal, Hufford notes. He has
interviewed many U.S. medical students who, even after hearing about REM
sleep and the brain's threat-detection system, insist that their frightening
meetings with the Night Crusher were real. Until sharing their stories
with Hufford, most of the students had never told them to anyone.
suspect that millions of people in the United States are walking around
never having told anybody about having these terrifying experiences,"
unlikely to change anytime soon, he adds. Scientists and physicians treat
reports of mingling with supernatural creatures and spirits as evidence
of mental imbalance. And mainstream religions condemn connections with
ghosts, demons, and evil presences.
world of sleep works according to its own rules. Whether shunned or embraced,
Hufford says, the Night Crusher returns with frightening regularity.
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