The Mad Aardvark

Critical commentary on culture…

Archive for October, 2009

Ghost Stories and the Waking Dream

Posted by madaardvark on October 3, 2009


Fuselli's "Nightmare," inspired by 18th century misunderstandings of sleep paralysis

I love the feeling in the air during this time of year.  The crispness and chill after the warmth of summer reminds us of mortality.  With that comes the hopes and fears of life after death, coupled with the limitless imagination of the human mind.  It’s beautiful, frightening, confusing, and a whole lot of fun.

I’m going to tell some ghost stories.  I’m going to tell as many personal anecdotes as I can.  Despite my personal beliefs on their credibility, I believe that it’s important that certain of these kinds of stories repeat in our culture.  There are important things that can sometimes only be conveyed through the personal anecdote of unverifiable paranormal accounts.

So I was watching the first of these ghost story documentaries that they’ll be playing for the rest of the month.  The formula is pretty standard now.  Tape some people sitting in a dark room, throw some dramatic lighting and the optional odd camera angle, and get them to tell ghost stories.  Meanwhile, actors reenact the events, complete with film-student camera cuts and special effects.  Cue creepy music and suggestive text or narration that pretends to act ‘objective.’

Now, there are a lot of standard stories that you hear on these shows.  I propose that they’re always similar because 1) people hear them a lot already, 2) people tend to make judgments and leaps in logic toward those things they already believe in, and 3) there’s something about the values and beliefs of our culture that bears repeating again and again in similarly coded symbolic interpretations of events (as I said above).

My favorite television show ghost stories are ones that involve children waking up in the middle of the night and seeing something at their bedside.  Creepy in the extreme, surely.  These stories are followed by the child (now an adult) insisting to their parents that what they saw was real and not a dream.  This is usually followed by coincidental experiences after the event that seem to support the idea of a ghostly encounter.  The moral of the story is that children are somehow more attuned to things that adults take for granted (as symbolized by the ‘spiritual’ world), perhaps due to their perceived innocence (i.e. lack of full cognitive ability and the talent to blissfully ignore social norms that adults are conditioned into), and that adults should really listen to children more often.

I have a kid of my own, who woke up in the middle of the night last month screaming that there was something in her room.  I ran in there, fueled by parental instinct and ignoring the voice of reason telling me that she was mistaken.  Sure enough, there she was, sitting up in bed in terror, pointing at a stuffed monkey sitting on her bed that she had won at the fair.  We shared a good laugh, but she still ended up sleeping in my bed.

In the words of Bill Cosby, I told you that story so I could tell you this one.  My heart sank when I heard her scream, not because I thought there was something there, but because I empathized with her terror.  My childhood was fraught with sleepless nights due to nightly events that would leave me frightened and exhausted.  I spent a lot of time either getting to bed as early as I could, to get as much sleep in as I could before things happened, or staring at the walls, not sleeping at all.  When I would drift off, my eyes would snap open, my heart would pound, and I’d wait for whatever it was to happen.

First, I would wake, but I would be frozen in place.  I would be incredibly drowsy and have a hard time fighting the inevitable return to sleep.  I would be in a panic for seemingly no reason at all.  Worst of all, I was convinced that someone or something was at my bedside, forcing this experience on me.  For some reason, I was trapped, unable to move, while something was there, doing God-knows-what.  Sometimes I was convinced it was a ghost, sometimes a demon, sometimes aliens.

While I was getting used to being used, the events started to take a new turn.  Sometimes I would wake up, not feeling paralyzed, and see things in my room.  I once saw a prison inmate, complete with striped suit and shackled to a ball and chain, crouching in my closet, grinning.  Once, I saw a man in black clothes standing at the foot of my bed, looking at me.  Another time a man and a woman looked at me over their shoulders while I woke up, saw that I had noticed them, and rushed towards me with malicious intent.  Every time I saw these things, they would fade in a few moments.  I started to get so used to seeing them that I would casually discount them.  One night I saw only a floating pair of hands that motioned around like a stage magician, clearly there just to try and scare me.  I yawned and went back to sleep.

I never knew what the hell this all was, but it would happen to me regularly until I was about 22 years old.  I never quite knew if all of this was just in my head, if my soul was in danger, or if I was experiencing some kind of psychic feedback from the alien abductions.  These things weighed on my mind so much through my life that they would of course enter into my dreams.  Nightmares of ghosts, demons, aliens, government experiments, etc. never ended.  Then one night that all changed.

I was sleeping on the lower bunk of my dorm room, alone, after my room mate had dropped out.  I started to wake up, I felt the usual feelings of terror, and I struggled to open my eyes and fight the sensation.  That’s when I saw him walk past my bed:


He walked past my head, looking towards the door.  He stopped, looked down at me for a second, then he moved on.  I woke up as soon as he was out of my field of vision, and I jumped to my feet.  I was alone, of course, except for the big cardboard cut-out of Jason Voorhees that I bought at a video store just two weeks before.  This was the sign from my subconscious that I have been making all of this up myself for years.

When I realized it was just a sleeping disorder, I felt great.  I would still have episodes on occasion (my last one was a few months ago), and the immediate feeling of terror will always come with it, but I started to get a lot more sleep and the problems declined immediately.  I spent the next few weeks looking on the internet for people with similar problems.  Lo and behold, I learned about ‘sleep paralysis’ and how it occasionally comes with hallucinations (both visually and audibly – I have had some, but very few, sound hallucinations in this state).

I would encourage anyone who has had childhood imaginings like this (and at least three people I have known have) to look into this.  Alternately, don’t do anything of the kind, and keep spreading ghost stories.  I like to hear them, but please keep them out of science classrooms and academic discourse.  They do not belong there except as examples of contemporary folklore and mythology.  Fascinating!


Posted in america, pseudo-science, science, television | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »