Tag Archives: nightmares

192 – The Nightmare: Incubi, Succubi, and the Demons of Sleep Paralysis

If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, you know it’s not a laughing matter. You wake up to find yourself with a pressure on your chest, surrounded by nightmare creatures, and you can’t move. Sleep paralysis can make you question reality, after all, your dreams are showing up in your waking life. They are having a physical effect on you. No wonder that for millennia they’ve showed up in cultures all over the world. It’s the kind of thing that you write songs about!

Canadian filmmaker Adam Grey was so terrified by his Old Hag experience that he made a movie on it with his brother called The Nightmare (and we interviewed them about their film back in episode 59). Dr. Martin Walsh was in Zanzibar when a legendary succubus-like creature known as the Popo Bawa was terrifying the African island back in the 1990s (and we interviewed him about that in episode 133). There have been dozens of names across cultures for the creatures they blame for causing nightmares.

In Mesopotamia and early Jewish writing, they were the Lillin. In Hmong culture, it is the tsog tsuam (which was killing men as recently as the 1980s.) The word “mare” in nightmare isn’t supposed to be a horse, but actually a little goblin that sits on your chest. In the Middle Ages, these night terrors were associated with sexual assault. The succubus would have sex with men while they slept while the incubus would attack women. Various demonologies of the time even suggested that since the spawn of the Devil couldn’t get you pregnant, the succubus could steal the semen of a man and have the incubus plant it in a woman to create an evil child.

One of the aliens from Communion

My own experience with sleep paralysis wasn’t sexual, but it certainly was a waking nightmare. It happened the same week I was going to start junior high school in 1989. I hadn’t seen the Communion move yet, but I’d been looking at the face of the grey alien in checkout lines at the grocery store for years at that point. I was young but I knew it had to do with alien abduction.

I had long experienced nightmares, night terrors, and some light sleepwalking. That’s one of the reasons that I was interested in lucid dreaming from a very young age (we talk about that as well as some lucid dreaming techniques in episode 2), I was hoping to conquer the demons that stalked my dreamworld. Plus, you had movies like Dreamscape telling you that if you die in a dream you die in real life. I knew I had to figure out a way to stop these guys.

That week I had checked out Communion from the local library, I wanted to see what the fuss was about for myself. It was an interesting enough book, not as scary as I thought it would be, but one of the things that he talks about is sleep paralysis. In the book, he mentions that waking up he could be trapped in a hypnopompic trance. Hypnopompia is the state when you move from dreaming to waking and sometimes you can experience a hallucination like you were still dreaming. Except your muscles are still paralyzed from being asleep.

I had never heard of that before and just the idea of it terrified me. Even if it was still just a dream, the idea that the monsters from my nightmare could visit me in  real life, like when Nancy pulls Freddy Krueger into the physical world in the original A Nightmare On Elm Street was a pants-pooping proposition.

So what happens? Two days before school starts, I’m reading in bed while a strange light fills my bedroom wall, filtered out by the curtain from the window. My room was the one that faced the street and I thought it might be a car backing up into our driveway and pulling out, but I don’t hear the car and we live in a rural area where cars very infrequently come by. And we had a long driveway, for the lights to get into the room, they’d have to come up a bit because they would have been blocked out by the woods between the street and the house. Anyway, both my parents were home so it wasn’t one of their cars. Who was it? I don’t know, by the time I got the courage to go to the window there wasn’t any car there. But it planted a seed in my head, as silly as I thought it was at the time, that it was like a spaceship was landing out there.

And that was it. I wasn’t really scared as much as I let my imagination run a little bit wild and thought that I was being ridiculous. So, I went to sleep, fully knowing that tonight was the night that I would need to get rest because you can never sleep before the first day of school.

I woke up a few hours later in my darkened room and I couldn’t move. When I opened my eyes I saw a group of white faces in a semi-circle around my bed and they were looking down at me. The faces were triangular with almond-shaped eyes just like on the cover of Communion. The feeling was sheer terror (something that I was used to after waking up from so many nightmares) and I knew that the light I saw really was an alien ship. They’ve come for me just like they came for Barney and Betty Hill and just like they came for Whitley Streiber and his son. After a few seconds until the faces disappeared and I could move again.  The fear subsided and I realized that I experienced exactly what Streiber was talking about in the book, a hypnopompic trance.

There wasn’t any other signs of abduction. I didn’t have any missing time and I didn’t feel any strange pains or anything. My familiarity with bad dreams made me realize that it was all in my head. I certainly wasn’t enchanted by the possibility that this could be a regular occurrence though, like my near daily nightmares.

However, I was lucky and it wasn’t regular. I don’t remember ever experiencing it to that extent again. Some people however, aren’t so lucky, and they experience these hypnogogic (while they’re falling asleep) or hypnopompic trances (while they’re waking up) several times a week.

Now, while I read a couple of classic prayers from the Middle Ages on the podcast meant to protect you from nightmares (in a completely horrible accent too!), there are a couple of modern devotions (written in the 21st Century!) about protecting yourself from sexual assault by an incubus or succubus. You might want to check out the “Prayer Against The Sexual Demons of the Night” or this guide to how to handle if you get attacked by a “lust demon” (or you just have a wet dream.)

But if you’re interested in something a little more reasonable, there’s been some scientific research in the past few years in how to handle sleep paralysis in a more modern way. In fact, they use phantom limb pain research to help understand why the brain feels what it feels. Dr. Baland Jalal has developed a technique called “Meditation-Relaxation Therapy” that is a practice designed to help regular sleep paralysis sufferers to get some kind of relief. You can read part of his scientific paper on it here, but also here are the four steps:

  1. Reappraisal of the meaning of the attack – Remember that you’re in bed, you’re still sleeping. You cannot die from a  nightmare, no matter what Dennis Quaid learned in Dreamscape.
  2. Psychological and emotional distancing – Try not to be afraid. It’s just your REM activity. Remember your dreams can’t hurt you.
  3. Inward focused-attention meditation – Go to your happy place. For real, conjure up a nice memory. It helps.
  4. Muscle relaxation -Don’t fight, don’t move, it only makes it worse. You’ll react poorly to being paralyzed and you’ll freak out (I did.)

Now, this isn’t something you’re going to remember every time something  like this happens to you, but for regular sufferers of sleep paralysis, this practice is a place to start. And it’s great that we’re doing something besides trying to make people pray for forgiveness because they used to like Bluegrass music!

 

the nightmare
Here’s a still from another movie called The Nightmare about sleep paralysis

One of the things we talk about in the podcast is the William Shatner movie called Incubus filmed in 1966 that’s completely shot in Esperanto (a universal language invented in the Nineteenth Century for proto-hippie peace and love reasons.) You can watch the whole thing on youTube (for now at least) right here:

For the song this week, we unearthed a Sunspot track inspired by a succubus. “Goodbye Good Guy” uses a little bit of the bedtime imagery to talk about what you have to do to get rid of someone who is ruining your life. Sometimes you have to change who you are to become who you want to be, and it’s not usually pretty.

Sometimes the strength in me builds up,
But fails me when you cry,
I’m not a heartless bastard,
But you’ve driven me to dispossession.

I wanted things this way,
That thought was never left unsaid.
But hey Pinocchio,
How your nose will grow,
When you scream at the back of my head.

Goodbye good guy,
Wipe the cobwebs from my eyes,
This time I’m doing it just for me.
Goodnight sleep tight,
I hope all the bed bugs bite,
I’m sick of cleaning up your debris.

You know I wanted this,
And I created this,
Well I made my bed I’ll lie in it.

I put my heart on hold,
Hoping that you’d hang up.
I’m in suspended animation,
Waiting on a give-up.

I wanted things this way,
That thought was never left unsaid.
But hey Pinocchio,
How your nose will grow,
When you scream at the back of my head.

Goodbye good guy,
Wipe the cobwebs from my eyes,
This time I’m doing it just for me.
Goodnight sleep tight,
I hope all the bed bugs bite,
I’m sick of cleaning up your debris.

You know I wanted this,
And I created this,
Well I made my bed I’ll lie in it.

I wanted things this way,
That thought was never left unsaid.
But hey Pinocchio,
How your nose will grow,
When you scream at the back of my head.

Goodbye good guy,
Wipe the cobwebs from my eyes,
This time I’m doing it just for me.
Goodnight sleep tight,
I hope all the bed bugs bite,
I’m sick of cleaning up your debris.

Goodbye good guy,
Wipe the cobwebs from my eyes,
This time I’m doing it just for me.
Goodnight sleep tight,
I hope all the bed bugs bite,
I’m sick of cleaning up your debris.

You know I wanted this,
And I created this,
Well I made my bed I’ll lie in it.