I was five years old when my single mother was attacked by a ghost in her bed
in the middle of the night. She awoke suddenly under the pressure of two unseen
hands pushing her down flat against the bed and holding her there. For several
minutes she struggled, unable to speak or move. Finally she broke free and
scrambled out of the room, and spent the rest of the night on the floor of
the room that my brother and I shared. She never went back into her own bedroom
alone again. And so I grew up with this history, hearing ghost stories from
time to time that other people told, but knowing that we had actually had a
real ghost in our home when I was young.
I was an inveterate reader of books about monsters and ghosts — everything
from Bigfoot to Dracula, from banshees to fairies, from zombies to werewolves — and
one subject that particularly piqued my interest was that of nocturnal assaults.
Noctural assaults are attacks just like that suffered by my mother, though
often more graphic: the attacker can sometimes be a visible apparition. I was
highly intrigued to learn that the physical descriptions of the attackers have
been eerily similar over the ages, varying by country and sometimes by century.
In Anglo cultures the most common attacker is called the Old Hag, a terrifying
old woman dressed in black rags who holds her victims down in their beds or
even sits on their chests with her full weight. References to the Old Hag and
her nocturnal attacks go back as far as the Middle Ages. She's been part of
our history for so long that if you haven't slept well, you're said to look
"haggard". In India she is the Mohini, a beautiful but deadly enchantress.
As often as the Anglo attacker is decribed to look like an old hag, attackers
in India are just as frequently described as a beautiful young woman with terrible
powers. In Slavic cultures, the most frequent description is of an elf-like
gypsy man with wild glowing eyes who sits on your chest, riding you like a
horse. The more I researched it, the more cultural groups I found to have their
own unique noctural assault perpetrators.
As a budding young scholar of the supernatural, I was fascinated by these
cultural commonalities. Similar attacks, throughout history, made by specific
attackers who stayed within their own cultural communities. And then I had
a breakthrough. Beginning in the late 1960's, a new attacker began muscling
in on the Old Hag's territory, and quickly took over responsibility for most
of the attacks reported in the United States. Do you know who I'm referring
to yet? In 1965, Betty and Barney Hill went public with an episode they said
happened to them in 1961, when they were abducted from their car by aliens,
and suffered terrible medical experiments aboard a spacecraft. Curiously, the
attack they described bore no resemblance to a classical nocturnal assault;
however the creature they described — an alien of the type we commonly
call a "gray" — became America's new supernatural superstar.
Nocturnal assaults continued to happen at the same frequency that they always
had, but now the reported attacker was, more often than not, a gray alien.
The gray alien burst upon the scene of America's consciousness just as the
Old Hag was beginning to seem a little outdated and, well, haggard. Just as
children in India grew up with stories of the Mohini as the evil specter who
might paralyze you in the middle of the night, we're now in a generation of
Americans who have heard that gray aliens are those little beings who are going
to come into your bedroom at night and attack you.
Is it really as simple as that? Is the attacker that your scared brain visualizes
based solely on what your cultural experience tells you to expect?
It was about 25 years after my mom's attack that I first heard of sleep paralysis,
which, as you probably know, is the clinical name of these nocturnal assaults.
Sleep paralysis can be characterized by an inability to speak or move, a feeling
of intense crushing weight on the chest, and/or hallucinations which can be
visual, auditory, tactile, or even strange smells. It happens only during REM
sleep, often just as it's beginning or ending. Sleep paralysis is five times
more likely to happen to people sleeping on their backs, facing up. Drugs such
as Prozac have been found effective in controlling sleep paralysis attacks.
Although most sleep paralysis episodes do not include the visual apparition,
more than enough do include it to account for all reported nocturnal assaults.
Sleep paralysis is well understood, well documented, and is an accepted psychological
phenomenon among almost all medical professionals.
So why, then, did it take me a further several years before I made the connection
between my mom's attack and sleep paralysis? I had spent so many years fully
believing that my mom had been attacked by a ghost that it never even occurred
to me to seek more reasonable explanations elsewhere, even when the obvious
answer was staring me in the face, literally, as I was reading books about
it. Perhaps this is the same reason that even in an age where most people have
at least heard of sleep paralysis, believers in alien abductions and noctural
ghost attacks firmly stick to paranormal explanations for their own sleep paralysis
Many believers, when confronted with this explanation for their experience,
will point out differences between their experience and the known symptoms
of sleep paralysis. Of course, visual, audible, and tactile hallucinations
are part of the known symptoms of sleep paralysis, so it's kind of hard for
them to come up with details that can't be attributed to known sleep paralysis
effects. And that's an uncomfortable position to be in as a skeptic: no matter
what the believer reports, we can explain it with "It's a hallucination." That's
just like creationists being able to explain anything with "God did it," no
further evidence needed. The difference is that we can actually test nocturnal
assault sufferers, and whenever we do, we end up with video of them lying in
their bed looking paralyzed, with a conspicuous absence of gray aliens in the
So it took over thirty years, but I finally did explain my mom's noctural
assault, at least to my own satisfaction. You might wonder what her own assessment
is, in light of this explanation. She went to medical school, spent her whole
career in biotech, has a very scientific mind, and is convinced to this day
that she was attacked by a ghost. She never read the Betty and Barney Hill