Sleep paralysis and the cultural basis of supernaturalism
Image: “John Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli – wartburg.eduimage. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
The experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep is called hypnagogia, while the opposite process, the onset of wakefulness, is called hypnopompia. During these “threshold consciousness” states mental phenomena can occur, such as lucid dreaming, and sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a dysfunction of the process through which we change states between wakefulness and sleep, and constitutes a great example of a natural phenomenon that is explained by a different supernatural narrative in each culture.
During sleep paralysis, a person feels awake, but paralysed. They might have auditory or visual hallucinations, most often whispering voices, the feeling of a “presence” in the room, and a scary creature sitting on their chest. Amazingly, almost half of the population experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. While it is most often an innocent sleep “glitch”, it may be caused by other medical conditions, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy.
The phenomenon is so ubiquitous across time and space, that almost all cultures have had their own explanation for it. Unsurprisingly, each and every one of them has been a supernatural one. So, is it an incubus, a mare, a jinn, Phi Am, a hag, a dead person, Mora, Khyaak…? Or could it be an alien abduction, the most recent explanation? Is it coincidental that the age of space exploration and advanced science fiction culture gave rise to the modern explanation of aliens?
This highlights how the underlining principle is a universal physiological reality that applies to all humans across time. Then, the universal psychological reality of the attractiveness and pervasiveness of supernatural explanations leads to every culture creating their own. And, finally, the universal reality that supernatural claims are simply make-belief leads to the variety of stories, that are clearly dependant on geography.
So, there it is; one “unexplained” phenomenon and many supernatural explanations, designated by the simple factor of geography. A perfect example of how the “supernatural” works!
Watch this wonderful short video explaining sleep paralysis.