One night several years ago I was awake and lying in bed, I was staring towards the door of my room when I became dreadfully aware of a benign presence somewhere close. No sooner had I come to this realisation when I witnessed an eerie light emerge through the door. The thing flashed over and landed on top of my chest. I could breathe. Couldn’t move. I was terrified! I tried to scream but nothing came from my mouth – I was literally paralysed with fear. Things got even worse when this evil entity actually entered into my body!!!
That incident shook me up quite well so that for the next couple of nights I feared going to bed. But being by nature a curious and sceptically minded person I began researching what had happened to me. Had I been possessed by a demon (because that’s what it felt like) or was it merely a dreadful lucid nightmare?
My research quickly led me to a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis – a sleeping disorder that is relatively common. Apparently the frightening aspects of my experience were common to many who had experienced sleep paralysis: there is a feeling of danger, a sensation of something evil and the inability to move the body. And it seems that this type of dream is common to many cultures, a quick look at the relevant Wikipedia article shows that there is a wealth of traditional folklore surrounding the condition. In China for example this dream is known as gu? y? sh?n, translated as ‘ghost pressing on body.’
As I was living in Indonesia at the time it was quite interesting to observe how some of the locals interpreted my experience. In my office there was a large number of Christians. When I told them about the dream there was a unanimous agreement that I had suffered from demonic possession. Had I not been more scientifically minded I might have had to agree with them – after all that thing was so real that in the absence of scientific understanding I might have concluded that demons were responsible. Christians studying the bible would be acutely aware that Jesus was himself an exorcist, so in the Christian worldview it is entirely possible and plausible for demons to inhabit the bodies of the living. And with their biblical education it was entirely logical for my colleagues to assume that I had been possessed by a demonic creature.
Science is the light that chases away superstitions and fables, and it was science that gave me the answers to why I was experiencing this type of dream. There was no nefarious demon draining my breath. Instead the current understanding of sleep paralysis is that the hormones which tell your physical body to relax during sleep (so that you do not act out your dreams) were still present while I was semi-conscious. My mind was half-awake but my body was unmovable. Thus my dream seemed all the more real and terrifying.
Even more intriguing is the phenomenon of Electro Magnetic Fields (EMF) and its influence on the brain. Researchers have found that areas of a house said to be ‘haunted’ actually have fluctuating EMFs. The EMFs interfere with normal brain chemistry to produce feelings that there is something else present in the room. Though some believers have stated that it is the ghosts that cause the EMF fluctuations, scientists such as Michael Persinger have been able to artificially produce sensations of other worldly beings by exposing the brain to fluctuating magnetic fields. Persinger is perhaps most famous for his ‘God Helmet’ which can artificially cause the wearer to experience supernatural phenomenon, and even feel the presence of god.
The human brain is a powerful supercomputer, used to filter through vast amounts of information and interpret it all. Its complex chemistry can be effected by outside forces, through use of drugs for example, and reality can therefore become twisted. Though I am no neural surgeon my basic understanding of how the brain works allowed me properly interpret my horrific experience.
Thanks to science I was able to understand and cope with a traumatic experience. I did not need the services of an exorcist, and I did not need to pray to Jesus. And science allowed me to communicate this to others. A friend of mine told me about an eerie experience that he had. He and his flatmate experienced exactly the same dream in the course of one night. In the morning they compared notes and concluded that they had been abducted by aliens! But I suppose if the earth’s natural magnetic field fluctuates (which I am assured it does), and sleep paralysis is common, then this is the most reasonable explanation for my friend’s apparent abduction. Indeed one commonly cited explanation of alien abductions is sleep paralysis.
I am certain that science will continue to explore the murky regions of the brain and will continue to pull the monsters out from under our beds.