“The word kanashibari is now very well-known for meaning this phenomenon. Almost all Japanese, almost 100%, know the word for this usage. Some believe the phenomenon is caused by spiritual beings, some not,” he wrote in an email.
TV shows may play a role in other cultural and contemporary interpretations of sleep paralysis. Several scholars, including Christopher French, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s University, in the United Kingdom, have argued that accounts of UFO abduction and alien encounters may in fact be incidents of sleep paralysis. These reports are most widespread in the U.S., where alien-themed shows and movies have perhaps fueled the collective imagination. Sleep-paralysis characteristics such as pressure and pain, the presence of an intruder, sexual encounters, disassociation from the body, and strange lights and sounds gel easily with cinematic portrayals of alien visitation.
French has also studied the link between a person’s level of belief in the supernatural and their interpretation of sleep paralysis. He argues that the relationship between pre-existing belief systems and the content of the hallucinations is one of mutual influence. “It seems likely that the core experience has itself played a role in the development of belief systems relating to the spirit world in many cultures and that those very belief systems, once elaborated upon, are then capable of influencing the hallucinatory content of sleep paralysis episodes in subsequent generations,” French wrote in The Guardian in 2009.
I have regularly experienced sleep paralysis for as long as I can remember. While I accept and am reassured by the scientific explanations, I understand why supernatural interpretations persist. Imagine waking up from a nightmare that doesn’t stop. It’s hard to convince yourself that what you’re seeing isn’t real when you’re awake and the devil or witch or horse is right in front of you.
But that’s not to say the experience must always be a dreadful one. In fact, contrary to sleep paralysis’s historical reign of terror over innocent sleepers, there may be an unexplored joyful side to the phenomenon. In Wrestling With Ghosts: A Personal and Scientific Account of Sleep Paralysis, Jorge Conesa Sevilla, a psychologist at Northland College, outlines techniques for talking oneself out of the usual panic while still frozen, so that the fear-driven hallucinations disappear. The result, Sevilla claims, is the ability to explore this bizarre level of consciousness without anxiety. The technique is meant to offer a doorway to lucid dreaming, where the calmed person goes back to sleep but retains waking levels of awareness.
Nowadays, when I wake into this paralyzed state, I try to ride the fear out. I let myself return to sleep but attempt to stay lucid. It’s a slippery state of consciousness that I achieve sometimes through luck and sometimes through intention, or fail to achieve altogether. But, when I succeed, I can consciously influence the content of my dreams. I fly across fantastical landscapes, interact with characters I place into my dreams, and play with the strange bodily sensations that this bound “dream state with consciousness” allows.
The trade-off for the terror, perhaps, has always been the key to a world that few people have access to. Arguably, as public awareness increases of sleep paralysis, Sevilla’s approach could prove to be one of the most effective “cures” for those who continue to be stuck in the horror.