One thing that I miss about being a missionary were the ghost stories we shared. They had more power then, when I believed in the world of the spirits. The dead were constant companions. One night we were riding our bikes to a dinner appointment in the countryside, and the silhouettes of the forested hills that surrounded us were darker than the night sky. As the three of us pedaled along, one companion talked about friends of friends who had talked tough about what they would say to Lucifer and then who were paralyzed with fear when he appeared to them at night. When I spoke about the time that some LDS prophet had seen Cain walking through the woods, forever cursed to wander the earth, my big Kentucky rancher companion told me to stop and admitted that these stories “scared him shitless.”
When we taught a teen schoolgirl and her mother about the spirit world, we were surprised (and delighted) to find that they already knew all about it. In fact, Sachiko had already had kanashibari (lit. “bound in metal”) experiences lying in her futon late at night, in which she felt so paralyzed by the invisible spirits that it was like being bound up in chains. I shared a similar experience and my companion and I witnessed that these spirits were real and that these things were indeed true. It was fear-inducing and a delightful bonding experience.
Contrast these stories with my experience a few years ago. In the dead of night, I opened my eyes, looked down at my chest and saw a disembodied hand holding a tube of anti-bacterial ointment. The skeptic in me immediately kicked in, thinking “no way,” and the hand quickly faded. My mind immediately filled in all the gaps: I was still dreaming, even though my eyes were open; my daughter had cut herself the day before, and my subconscious drew on my parental worries about infection. No spirits were necessary, though it’s probably that I would have interpreted and spun the experience differently when I was a believer.
I’ll close with a link to the Wikipedia article on Sleep Paralysis. It seems like a universal phenomenon, but it’s amazing how it’s interpreted within each culture. Apparently interpretation has serious consequences for some–Hmong males may actually die from the fear-induced stress. Here are a few of the names and folk-explanations for sleep paralysis:
- In African American culture, isolated sleep paralysis is commonly referred to as “the devil riding your back”
- In Hmong culture, sleep paralysis describes an experience called “dab tsog” or “crushing demon” from the compound phrase “dab” (demon) and “tsog” (crush). Often the sufferer claims to be able to see a tiny figure, no larger than a child, sitting on his or her chest. What is alarming is that a vast number of American Hmong, mainly males, have died in their sleep prompting the Centers for Disease Control to create the term “Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome” or “SUNDS” for short.
- In Japanese culture, sleep paralysis is referred to as kanashibari (金縛り, literally “bound or fastened in metal,” from kane “metal” and shibaru” to bind, to tie, to fasten”).
- In Iceland folk culture sleep paralysis is generally called having a “Mara”. Mara is an old Icelandic word for a mare but has taken on the meaning for a sort of a devil that sits on ones chest at night, trying to suffocate the victim.
- In New Guinea, people refer to this phenomenon as “Suk Ninmyo”, believed to originate from sacred trees that use human essence to sustain its life. The trees are said to feed on human essence during night as to not disturb the human’s daily life, but sometimes people wake unnaturally during the feeding, resulting in the paralysis.
- In Mexico, it’s believed that sleep paralysis is in fact the spirit of a dead person getting on the person and impeding movement, calling this “se me subió el muerto” (the dead person got on me).
- In Ireland it is also known as “the hag.” The expression originates from reports of an old woman that was believed to be seen near the sufferer during paralysis.