Sleep paralysis is a condition that can be defined as temporary paralysis with preserved consciousness. This pathology has such characteristics as complex hallucinations and intense fear. It occurs in many people and is most common in individuals with narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis is considered to be physically harmless. Below, several significant scholarly works dedicated to the phenomenon will be explored to determine how our sleep can be negatively affected from the specific perspective of sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis occurs due to a brain error at the interface between wakefulness and sleep. This leads to the fact that during REM sleep, a person sees realistic dreams. The brain, to prevent the body from moving – after all, it can inadvertently harm itself – temporarily paralyzes it. Like any mechanism, this “switch” sometimes fails and does not work at the right time: while the body is asleep and temporarily paralyzed, the brain unintentionally wakes up. As a result, a person gets stuck between two realities (Adler 9). At this point, it seems reasonable to turn to notable publications within the scope given.
Adler, in her book Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection, explores the essentials of sleep paralysis. The author decided to produce this work after she got acquainted with several ambiguous deaths that were consequently claimed to be caused by sleep paralysis. Adler disagrees with the assumption that this condition is perceived rather as “harmless experiences” than dangerous pathology (Adler 2). Her research and rationale seem to support such an idea.
Then, Adler distinguishes an essential theoretical framework for the theme. She uses the word “nightmare” (with a hyphen) “in its original sense of a nocturnal visit of an evil being that threatens to press the very life out of its terrified victim” (3). Within the scope of sleep research, this term is called sleep paralysis. Adler divides it from the word “nightmare,” which commonly means a bad dream and states that “nightmare” is a broader phenomenon (3). The “night-mare” balances between the supernatural and natural dimensions and between the meaningful and biological. It allows realizing the solid connections between a mind and a body.
Adler also defines several constant features of the “nightmare.” Among the crucial ones are the realistic perception of the environment, inability to move, overwhelming fear and dread, sensed presence, chest pressure, supine position, and difficulty breathing (Adler 9–12). Moreover, Adler understands sleep paralysis as a phenomenon that helps understand witchcraft attacks. The appearance of witchcraft manuals (and the related prosecutions) resulted in the elaboration upon and considerable diffusion of the night-mare tradition (Adler 48). Hence, it might be assumed that cultural background – parts of the mentioned frightening manuals and attitude towards witches – correlates with sleep paralysis. The latter can show the most spread fears and dreads within a society of a particular period and area.
For example, Iceland has a visible relationship between darkness and the mind. Heijnen states that darkness is not black nothingness or the removal of light (199). In the Icelandic conception, darkness is considered to enter and intervene into the environment when the sun sets and lights are turned off. Darkness represents disguised spheres that reveal themselves in dreams through senses aside from sight. Then, darkness can be viewed as the fear of an individual associated with the inability to see and of being dead (Heijnen 204). Within the scholarly dimension, other related examples can also be found.
In Italy, the Pandafeche attack is associated with sleep paralysis to a great extent. Jalal et al. explored the issue to examine cultural explanations regarding this condition in the country (651). In this vein, the scholars find that “as many as 38 % of participants believed that a supernatural creature, the Pandafeche, often referred to as an evil witch, sometimes as a ghost-like spirit or a terrifying humanoid cat, had possibly caused their SP [sleep paralysis] (Jalal et al. 662). This attack shows a cultural interpretation of the phenomenology of the condition in the particular area. Thus, the study supports the idea of both a universal experience of sleep paralysis and the cultural relativity of the experience.
Then, there is a significant discussion on sleep paralysis – or kanashibari – from the Japanese perspective. Schegoleva argues that the condition occurs and is even caused by mass-media culture (35). She appeals to the example of Sadako – a scary ghost from the film Ringu. Schegoleva conducted some interviews with children who experienced kanashibari due to the fear of Sadako. The findings confirmed her assumption regarding the impact of mass media (31). Even though youth culture is more affected by such phenomena because of the developing period of the psyche, the findings can be extrapolated to a broader age range. Sadako’s popularity and significance inevitably impact psychologically vulnerable individuals.
To conclude, darkness has a significant influence on people’s minds. The discussed works show the complexity of the related phenomenon called sleep paralysis. Several examples from different cultures seem to demonstrate the cultural relativity of this experience.
Adler, Shelley. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. Rutgers University Press, 2011.
Heijnen, Adriënne. “Dreams, Darkness and Hidden Spheres: Exploring the Anthropology of the Night in Icelandic Society.” Paideuma, vol. 51, no. 193, 2005, pp. 193–207.
Jalal, Baland, et al. “Cultural Explanations of Sleep Paralysis in Italy: The Pandafeche Attack and Associated Supernatural Beliefs.” Culture, medicine and psychiatry, vol. 39, no. 4, 2015, pp. 651–664.
Schegoleva, Anna. “Sleepless in Japan: the Kanashibari Phenomenon.” EJCJS, 2001.