Night of the Crusher: The Waking Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis Propels People into a Spirit World

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As a college student in 1964, David J. Hufford met the dreaded Night Crusher. Exhausted from a bout of mononucleosis and studying for finals, Hufford retreated one December day to his rented, off-campus room and fell into a deep sleep. An hour later, he awoke with a start to the sound of the bedroom door creaking open--the same door he had locked and bolted before going to bed. Hufford then heard footsteps moving toward his bed and felt an evil presence. Terror gripped the young man, who couldn't move a muscle, his eyes plastered open in fright.

Without warning, the malevolent entity, whatever it was, jumped onto Hufford's chest. An oppressive weight compressed his rib cage. Breathing became difficult, and Hufford felt a pair of hands encircle his neck and start to squeeze. "I thought I was going to die," he says.

At that point, the lock on Hufford's muscles gave way. He bolted up and sprinted several blocks to take shelter in the student union. "It was very puzzling," he recalls with a strained chuckle, "but I told nobody about what happened."

Hufford's perspective on his strange encounter was transformed in 1971. He was at that time a young anthropologist studying folklore in Newfoundland, and he heard from some of the region's inhabitants about their eerily similar nighttime encounters. Locals called the threatening entity the "old hag." Most cases unfold as follows: A person wakes up paralyzed and perceives an evil presence. A hag or witch then climbs on top of the petrified victim, creating a crushing sensation on his or her chest.

It took Hufford another year to establish that what he and these people of Newfoundland had experienced corresponds to the event, lasting seconds or minutes, that sleep researchers call sleep paralysis. Although widely acknowledged among traditional cultures, sleep paralysis is one of the most prevalent yet least recognized mental phenomena for people in industrialized societies, Hufford says.

Now, more than 30 years after Hufford's discovery, sleep paralysis is beginning to attract intensive scientific attention. The March Transcultural Psychiatry included a series of papers on the condition's widespread prevalence, regional varieties, and mental-health implications.

Sleep paralysis differs from nocturnal panic, in which a person awakens in terror with no memory of a dream. Neither does sleep paralysis resemble a night terror, in which a person suddenly emerges from slumber in apparent fear, flailing and shouting, but then falls back asleep and doesn't recall the incident in the morning.

Curiously, although the word nightmare originally described sleep paralysis, it now refers to a fearful or disturbing dream, says Hufford, now at the Penn State Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. Several hundred years ago, the English referred to nighttime sensations of chest pressure from witches or other supernatural beings as the "mare," from the Anglo-Saxon merran, meaning to crush. The term eventually morphed into nightmare--the crusher who comes in the night.

Sleep paralysis embodies a universal, biologically based explanation for pervasive beliefs in spirits and supernatural beings, even in the United States, Hufford argues. The experience thrusts mentally healthy people into a bizarre, alternative world that they frequently find difficult to chalk up to a temporary brain glitch.

Hufford doesn't believe that an invisible force attacked him in his college room or during several sleep paralysis episodes that have occurred since then, but he sees the appeal of such an interpretation. "We need to deeply question 2 centuries of assumptions about the nonempirical and nonrational nature of spirit belief," he says.

OMINOUS PRESENCE In the past 10 years, psychologist J. Allan Cheyne of the University of Waterloo in Canada has collected more than 28,000 tales of sleep paralysis. According to one of the chroniclers, "The first time I experienced this, I saw a shadow of a moving figure, arms outstretched, and I was absolutely sure it was supernatural and evil. …