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The Romantics and Dream Psychology

(with an addendum on SLEEP PARALYSIS)

A student poem...

Lonely Dreamer by Allison Smith

Pain stricken, broken, but repairable
Lonely dreamer, lying in his bed
I see him as he twists and turns in his endless sleep
His dizziest dreams drifting across his head.

She left without a word
Not a trace of where she was going or if she was coming back
The warmth has left his body
All that’s left is a gnawing ache

He wonders if she’ll come back someday
To grace him with her presence once more
In his dreams, she was always there
It is only with her that his dreams take flight

In her embrace the world was beautiful
Without her, he can only see the nightmares
She comes when she wants and leaves without a care
He hates it when she leaves, but is always happy when she is there

There are times when he needs her, but she is nowhere to be found
In his world that he alone creates, there is only emptiness
Everything she touches becomes better
But it is only with him that she can fully express herself

Someday he’ll finally realize that even though he thinks himself alone
She will always be right behind him

Sources: Other than Plato and Aristotle, the main source for these notes was an article by George Colt entitled "The Power of Dreams" in LIFE: September, 1995. Although perhaps not a scholarly publication, the tone was "academic" and Colt cited authorities in the field including the classical ones and of course Freud. The article showed evidence of research.



A. What is the relationship between being awake and dreaming in sleep? Which is the reality?
[Note that madness is also considered as allied to dreaming: click here for madness.

B. What is really real is a matter of our perception of reality--food taken when ill and when healthy:

C. Modern example: READ THE SHORT STORY, NIGHT FACE UP---[see handout], and for
those of you viewing this site for Philosophy class, what is the significance of Sophie's dream?


A. Not product of sense perception directly, but related to sense perception. After-sense stimuli, or seeing double: "The objects of sense-perception corresponding to each sensory organ produce sense-perception in us, and the affection due to their operation is present in the organs of sense not only when the perceptions are actualized, but even when they have departed...they are [still] themselves objects of perception..."

B. Are related to emotional states (the humors) --a person in good mood / bad mood may dream accordingly and the images are excited and new combinations are produced [like the law of associative attraction stipulates.] The motion can be caused by an emotional state like anger or love or by a physical reaction such as bad food etc.

C. So when we see X awake and later dream of X, then X is like what we saw when awake.

D. This would be important for the romantics and especially Coleridge and Keats: "Nor is every presentation which occurs in sleep necessarily a dream. For in the first place, some person when asleep actually perceive sounds, light etc...for there have been cases in which persons while asleep but with eyes partially open [the way some of you do in class] saw faintly in their sleep the light of a lamp, and afterward on being awakened, straight away recognized it as the actual light of a real lamp.. but none of these occurrences should be called a dream."

[Coleridge referred to these as reveries.]

E. Aristotle believed that there is little beyond coincidence to suggest that dreams can foretell the future. He sees that they may be un actualized potentials that become actualized in awaking state, or potentials in the awakened state that become actualized in dreams. They are probably not sent by God.

Aristotle citations from On Dreams

CLICK HERE for classical web sites.


A. The definitive work on dreams of course is Freud's THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS--click here. These excerpts would be important for Coleridge:

"The first of these contrasts is formed by the strict isolation or seclusion of the dream from true and actual life on the one hand, and on the other hand by the continuous encroachment of the one upon the other, and the constant dependence of the one upon the other. The dream is something absolutely divorced from the reality experienced during the waking state; one may call it an existence hermetically sealed up and insulated from real life by an unbridgeable chasm. It frees us from reality, blots out the normal recollection of reality, and sets us in another world and a totally different life, which fundamentally has nothing in common with real life....

...That all the material composing the content of a dream is somehow derived from experience, that it is reproduced or remembered in the dream- this at least may be accepted as an incontestable fact. Yet it would be wrong to assume that such a connection between the dream-content and reality will be easily obvious from a comparison between the two. On the contrary, the connection must be carefully sought, and in quite a number of cases it may for a long while elude discovery. The reason for this is to be found in a number of peculiarities evinced by the faculty of memory in dreams; which peculiarities, though generally observed, have hitherto defied explanation. It will be worth our while to examine these characteristics exhaustively.

...The dream is incoherent; it reconciles, without hesitation, the worst contradictions; it admits impossibilities; it disregards the authoritative knowledge of the waking state, and it shows us as ethically and morally obtuse. He who should behave in the waking state as his dreams represent him as behaving would be considered insane. He who in the waking state should speak as he does in his dreams, or relate such things as occur in his dreams, would impress us as a feeble-minded or muddle-headed person. It seems to us, then, that we are merely speaking in accordance with the facts of the case when we rate psychic activity in dreams very low, and especially when we assert that in dreams the higher intellectual activities are suspended or at least greatly impaired.

...The laws of association which connect our mental images hold good also for what is represented in dreams; indeed, in dreams the dominance of these laws is more obvious and complete than in the waking state. Strumpell (p. 70) says: "Dreams would appear to proceed either exclusively in accordance with the laws of pure representation, or in accordance with the laws of organic stimuli accompanied by such representations; that is, without being influenced by reflection, reason, aesthetic taste, or moral judgment

...Absurd combinations of ideas and weakness of judgment are the main characteristics of the dream and of insanity." The over-estimation of one's own mental capacity, which appears absurd to sober judgment, is found alike in both, and the rapid flux of imaginings in the dream corresponds to the flux of ideas in the psychoses. Both are devoid of any measure of time. The splitting of the personality in dreams, which, for instance, distributes one's own knowledge between two persons, one of whom, the strange person, corrects one's own ego in the dream, entirely corresponds with the well-known splitting of the personality in hallucinatory paranoia; the dreamer, too, hears his own thoughts expressed by strange voices. Even the constant delusive ideas find their analogy in the stereotyped and recurring pathological dream. After recovering from delirium, patients not infrequently declare that the whole period of their illness appeared to them like an uncomfortable dream; indeed, they inform us that sometimes during their illness they have suspected that they were only dreaming, just as often happens in the sleep-dream. We have found that the dream represents a wish as fulfilled.

...We should then assume that in every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion.

...The source of a dream may be:

(a) A recent and psychologically significant event which is directly represented in the dream.

(b) Several recent and significant events, which are combined by the dream in a single whole.

(c) One or more recent and significant events, which are represented in the dream-content by allusion to a contemporary but indifferent event.

(d) A subjectively significant experience (recollection, train of thought), which is constantly represented in the dream by allusion to a recent but indifferent impression.

...…the source [of dreams] is the unconscious. I believe that the conscious wish becomes effective in exciting a dream only when it succeeds in arousing a similar unconscious wish which reinforces it. From the indications obtained in the psychoanalysis of the neuroses, I believe that these unconscious wishes are always active and ready to express themselves whenever they find an opportunity of allying themselves with an impulse from consciousness, and transferring their own greater intensity to the lesser intensity of the latter. It must, therefore, seem that the conscious wish alone has been realized in the dream; but a slight peculiarity in the form of the dream will put us on the track of the powerful ally from the unconscious. These ever-active and, as it were, immortal wishes of our unconscious recall the legendary Titans who, from time immemorial, have been buried under the mountains which were once hurled upon them by the victorious gods, and even now quiver from time to time at the convulsions of their mighty limbs. These wishes, existing in repression, are themselves of infantile origin, as we learn from the psychological investigation of the neuroses.

1. Those which have not been completed during the day, owing to some accidental cause.

2. Those which have been left uncompleted because our mental powers have failed us, i.e., unsolved problems.

3. Those which have been turned back and suppressed during the day. This is reinforced by a powerful fourth group:

4. Those which have been excited in our Ucs [Unconscious] during the day by the workings of the Pcs [Preconscious]; and finally we may add a fifth, consisting of:

5. The indifferent impressions of the day, which have therefore been left unsettled.

...But what is the significance of the emergence of undesired representations in dreams? What conclusions can the psychology of the waking and dreaming mind draw from these nocturnal manifestations of contrasting ethical impulses? Here we find a fresh diversity of opinion, and also a different grouping of the authors who have treated of the subject. The line of thought followed by Hildebrandt, and by others who share his fundamental opinion, cannot be continued otherwise than by ascribing to the immoral impulses, even in the waking state, a latent vitality, which is indeed inhibited from proceeding to action, and by asserting that during sleep something falls away from us which, having the effect of an inhibition, has kept us from becoming aware of the existence of such impulses. Dreams therefore, reveal the true, if not the whole, nature of the dreamer, and are one means of making the hidden life of the psyche accessible to our understanding. It is only on such hypotheses that Hildebrandt can attribute to the dream the role of a monitor who calls our attention to the secret mischief in the soul, just as, according to the physicians, it may announce a hitherto unobserved physical disorder. Spitta, too, must be influenced by this conception when he refers, for example, to the stream of excitations which flow in upon the psyche during puberty, and consoles the dreamer by assuring him that he has done all that is in his power to do if he has led a strictly virtuous life during his waking state, if he has made an effort to suppress the sinful thoughts as often as they arise, and has kept them from maturing and turning into action. According to this conception, we might designate as "undesired imaginings" those that are suppressed during the day, and we must recognize in their emergence a genuine psychic phenomenon."

Analysis then shows that even these painful dreams are wish- fulfilments. An unconscious and repressed wish, whose fulfilment could only be felt as painful by the dreamer's ego, has seized the opportunity offered by the continued cathexis of painful day- residues, has lent them its support, and has thus made them capable of being dreamed. But whereas in case (a) the unconscious wish coincided with the conscious one, in case (b) the discord between the unconscious and the conscious- the repressed material and the ego- is revealed, and the situation in the fairy-tale, of the three wishes which the fairy offers to the married couple, is realized. The gratification in respect of the fulfilment of the repressed wish may prove to be so great that it balances the painful affects adhering to the day-residues; the dream is then indifferent in its affective tone, although it is on the one hand the fulfilment of a wish, and on the other the fulfilment of a fear. Or it may happen that the sleeper's ego plays an even more extensive part in the dream-formation, that it reacts with violent resentment to the accomplished satisfaction of the repressed wish, and even goes so far as to make an end of the dream by means of anxiety. It is thus not difficult to recognize that dreams of pain and anxiety are, in accordance with our theory, just as much wish-fulfilments as are the straightforward dreams of gratification.

If, in conversation with my patients, I emphasize the frequency of the Oedipus dream- the dream of having sexual intercourse with one's mother- I elicit the answer: "I cannot remember such a dream." Immediately afterwards, however, there arises the recollection of another, an unrecognizable, indifferent dream, which the patient has dreamed repeatedly, and which on analysis proves to be a dream with this very content- that is, yet another Oedipus dream. I can assure the reader that disguised dreams of sexual intercourse with the dreamer's mother are far more frequent than undisguised dreams to the same effect.

Painful dreams may also be punishment dreams. It must be admitted that the recognition of these dreams adds something that is, in a certain sense, new to the theory of dreams. What is fulfilled by them is once more an unconscious wish- the wish for the punishment of the dreamer for a repressed, prohibited wish- impulse. To this extent, these dreams comply with the requirement here laid down: that the motive-power behind the dream-formation must be furnished by a wish belonging to the unconscious. But a finer psychological dissection allows us to recognize the difference between this and the other wish-dreams. In the dreams of group (b) the unconscious dream-forming wish belonged to the repressed material. In the punishment-dreams it is likewise an unconscious wish, but one which we must attribute not to the repressed material but to the ego.

Punishment-dreams point, therefore, to the possibility of a still more extensive participation of the ego in dream-formation. The mechanism of dream-formation becomes indeed in every way more transparent if in place of the antithesis conscious and unconscious, we put the antithesis: ego and repressed. This, however, cannot be done without taking into account what happens in the psychoneuroses, and for this reason it has not been done in this book. Here I need only remark that the occurrence of punishment-dreams is not generally subject to the presence of painful day-residues. They originate, indeed, most readily if the contrary is true, if the thoughts which are day-residues are of a gratifying nature, but express illicit gratifications. Of these thoughts nothing, then, finds its way into the manifest dream except their contrary, just as was the case in the dreams of group (a). Thus it would be the essential characteristic of punishment-dreams that in them it is not the unconscious wish from the repressed material (from the system Ucs) that is responsible for dream-formation but the punitive wish reacting against it, a wish pertaining to the ego, even though it is unconscious (i.e., preconscious).

Dreams that Freud interpreted:

1-A man dreams: He has a secret affair with a woman whom another man wishes to marry. He is concerned lest the other should discover this relation and abandon the marriage; he therefore behaves very affectionately to the man; he nestles up to him and kisses him. The facts of the dreamer's life touch the dream- content only at one point. He has a secret affair with a married woman, and an equivocal expression of her husband, with whom he is on friendly terms, aroused in him the suspicion that he might have noticed something of this relationship. There is, however, in reality, yet another factor, the mention of which was avoided in the dream, and which alone gives the key to it. The life of the husband is threatened by an organic malady. His wife is prepared for the possibility of his sudden death, and our dreamer consciously harbours the intention of marrying the young widow after her husband's decease. It is through this objective situation that the dreamer finds himself transferred into the constellation of the Oedipus dream; his wish is to be enabled to kill the man, so that he may win the woman for his wife; his dream gives expression to the wish in a hypocritical distortion. Instead of representing her as already married to the other man, it represents the other man only as wishing to marry her, which indeed corresponds with his own secret intention, and the hostile whishes directed against the man are concealed under demonstrations of affection, which are reminiscences of his childish relations to his father. -

There are dreams of landscapes and localities in which emphasis is always laid upon the assurance: "I have been here before." but this Deja vu has a special significance in dreams. In this case the locality is the genitals of the mother; of no other place can it be asserted with such certainty that one has been here before. I was once puzzled by the account of a dream given by a patient afflicted with obsessional neurosis. He dreamed that he called at a house where he had been twice before. But this very patient had long ago told me of an episode of his sixth year. At that time he shared his mother's bed, and had abused the occasion by inserting his finger into his mother's genitals while she was asleep.

2-A large number of dreams, which are frequently full of anxiety, and often have for content the traversing of narrow spaces, or staying long in the water, are based upon phantasies concerning the intra-uterine life, the sojourn in the mother's womb, and the act of birth. I here insert the dream of a young man who, in his phantasy, has even profited by the intra-uterine opportunity of spying upon an act of coition between his parents.

He is in a deep shaft, in which there is a window...Through this he sees at first an empty landscape, and then he composes a picture in it, which is there all at once and fills up the empty space. The picture represents a field which is being deeply tilled by an implement, and the wholesome air, the associated idea of hard work, and the bluish- black clods of earth make a pleasant impression on him. He then goes on and sees a work on education lying open... and is surprised that so much attention is devoted in it to the sexual feelings (of children), which makes him think of me."

3-Another dream of parturition, with its interpretation, I take from a paper by E. Jones. "She stood at the seashore watching a small boy, who seemed to be hers, wading into the water. This he did till the water covered him and she could only see his head bobbing up and down near the surface. The scene then changed to the crowded to hall of an hotel. Her husband left her, and she 'entered into conversation with' a stranger.

"The second half of the dream was discovered in the analysis to represent flight from her husband, and the entering into intimate relations with a third person, behind whom was plainly indicated Mr. X's brother, mentioned in a former dream. The first part of the dream was a fairly evident birth-phantasy. In dreams, as in mythology, the delivery of a child from the uterine waters is commonly represented, by way of distortion, as the entry of the child into water; among many other instances, the births of Adonis, Osiris, Moses, and Bacchus are well-known illustrations of this. The bobbing up and down of the head in the water at once recalled to the patient the sensation of quickening which she had experienced in her only pregnancy. Thinking of the boy going into the water induced a reverie in which she saw herself taking him out of the water, carrying him into the nursery, washing and dressing him, and installing him in her household.

The same symbolic representations which in the infantile sense constitute the basis of the vesical dream appear in the recent sense in purely sexual significance: water = urine = semen = amniotic fluid; ship = to pump ship (urinate) = seed-capsule; getting wet = enuresis = coitus = pregnancy; swimming = full bladder = dwelling-place of the unborn; rain = urination = symbol of fertilization: traveling (journeying- alighting) = getting out of bed = having sexual intercourse (honeymoon journey); urinating = sexual ejaculation" (Rank, I, c).

B. Dreams can be warnings of emotional or psychological states [As Aristotle said.]

C. It is debated whether they can predict future states...The "Titanic" dream.

D. Dreams occur in REM states and most people have 2 every 24 hours

E. They have a therapeutic value and can be critical to good mental health...

F. Dreams serve an emotional problem-solving function. How you feel before bed and how you feel in the morning are systematically related to whom you dream about and what you do in your dreams. Dreaming is an emotional regulatory service, like a thermostat. Dreams update our self-image. Nightmares indicate that something is boiling over. Those who have them tend to be people who are especially sensitive and trusting, who tend toward creative professions like the arts...Historically violent and sexual nightmares were assumed to be the work of the devil. SEE COLERIDGE'S "THE PAINS OF SLEEP:" Click here.

G. "The sleeping brain puts a terrible feeling in a context [dreams of Viet Nam vets]. It shows you pictures not just of someone being short, but of fires and tidal waves. It's as if they brain is saying, "This is bad, but there are lots of thing like that." Eventually the brain connects the trauma with all kinds of material in the memory. [CONNECTS should remind you of what the neo-classicists and the Romantics thought the imagination did, but not in the same way. ]

H. "Dreams make connections the waking person cannot do. Dreams make connections more broadly that we are able to do when awake, and may be able to solve problems our self-conscious conscious minds can not."

IV. ROMANTIC PERIOD APPLICATIONS: Keep the above information in mind as you read:


B. Keats and "Adam's dream" metaphor for the creative process.



(Click here to view the NBC Site.)

(Click here to find an excellent site on sleep paralysis.)


NBC News

August 16 — When was the last time you had a nightmare? A really bad one? What a relief it is to wake up and realize it was just a dream. Most of us can count on our nightrmares ending as soon as we open our eyes. But not the people you’re about to meet. For them, the visions that haunt their sleep don’t end when their eyes open. In fact, that’s often when they begin. Correspondent Dennis Murphy reports.

NIGHTMARES ARE bad enough, but at least we have the comfort of knowing that when we open our eyes, the nightmare is over. But for some people, that’s not the case. A little-known sleeping condition is affecting millions of people, and has actually made waking up much scarier.

It was the oddest thing. “I woke up, and I couldn’t move,” says Leslie. “There was a tall, black figure. No facial features, and it started to walk towards me. I thought this thing was there to take my soul.”

Imagine being pinned to your bed, a scream frozen in your throat as an unworldy creature is approaching relentlessly.

I could feel it walking toward me,” she says. “I could feel the air on my neck. Then I felt it lean over me and it put its hand on the back of my neck, and I felt like I was being pressed down into my mattress. It leaned over me into my right ear and just kind of hummed.”
‘I could feel the air on my neck. Then I felt it lean over me and it put its hand on the back of my neck, and I felt like I was being pressed down into my mattress. It leaned over me into my right ear and just kind of hummed.’

Describing her sleep disorder

She’s heard the skepticism, seen the raised eyebrows, and yes, she is aware her story sounds like a lame comic book of the weird and unexplained. But telling her it’s a perfectly normal experience doesn’t make the terror any less real.

I didn’t tell anybody about it at all,” she says. “Not even my mom.”

Listen to Leslie Henry’s story of her waking nightmares and it’s easy to see why she kept it locked away for so many years. She was afraid people would think she was crazy. It began happening to her when she was just 11 — something so strange and so scary that the only sense her child’s mind could make of it was that some spirit, something evil and demonic, was trying to possess her. Leslie woke up in the middle of the night, totally paralyzed, her body buzzing like an electrical transformer gone haywire and the clammy worst of it: she sensed something ominous.

“You can feel it totally in every pore of your body,” she says. The scary figure will approach, but for some reason never actually touch her. “Usually it will come close and it will invade my space, but somehow it never touches me.”

Sometimes the entity would come calling a few times a week, and then disappear for months at a time. Always brief encounters, they usually lasted a few minutes. Some lasted just 30 seconds. Leslie says she knows, because she’s awake and has timed them on her clock. When it ends, the figure simply fades away.
But here’s maybe the most curious thing of all: she is absolutely certain that this was real.

“I’m conscious of my environment,” she says. “It’s not a dream. No, I could see the nightstand and then all of a sudden I saw the movement.

For almost 20 years Leslie desperately sought to explain the seemingly unexplainable. Her childhood fear of demons grew even more terrifying. Leslie, now a young wife and mother, lived with the dread of having a brain disorder. She read books on epilepsy and seizures. She asked doctors about it. No one could tell her what was wrong. Then two years ago, when she got her computer and was surfing the Web, she stumbled upon the answer.

“When I saw the two words together, sleep paralysis, I knew immediately,” she says. “I cried. I mean I couldn’t believe that I had found, finally you know, found out that there was a name for it.”

‘That’s exactly why these are so frightening, because the individual is virtually unable to ascertain at what point reality is leaving and dream imagery is coming.


There were no evil spirits in possession of her body, and no disease eating away at her brain. Leslie suffers from what’s called sleep paralysis, a frightening but usually benign sleep disorder that a surprisingly large number of people have. The most recent estimate is that 6 percent of the public has suffered from sleep paralysis at least once in their lives, but the event seems so crazy to most people that like Leslie, it becomes a dirty little secret.

Dr. Mark Mahowald is a neurologist and director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center. He says in most cases sleep paralysis is not a symptom of any psychological, psychiatric, or neurological problem.

“We’ve had a number of our patients misdiagnosed as having psychiatric or psychological problems on the basis of these,” he says. “What’s happening is a combination of wakefulness and dreaming from sleep all occuring at the same time.

According to the scientists, in dream sleep, also called REM sleep, the brain is busier than it ever is in a waking state, turning out vivid dreams. When that’s happening, the body is completely paralyzed. That’s perfectly normal, a safety mechanism to keep people from thrashing about and acting out their dreams. Now ordinarily when a person awakes, the REM dream-machine gets shut down and a switch is thrown telling the muscles it’s OK to move again. Normally, this all happens in the blink of an eye — and in sync. When it gets out of sync, people experience sleep paralysis. The brain is still dreaming away — still ordering your muscles not to move. But here’s the catch — part of the brain is also awake.

Welcome to the “Twilight Zone” between sleep and waking.

A person experiencing sleep paralysis can still see the actual room, but they also may have visions similar to Leslie.

“Your brain puts it together, so you have dream imagery occurring in the real world,” says Mahowald. “And that’s exactly why these are so frightening, because the individual is virtually unable to ascertain at what point reality is leaving and dream imagery is coming.”

In other words, your brain may be generating creepy and convincing special effects — like Leslie’s ominous figure — and yet you’re awake.


If there’s one picture that makes sufferers of sleep paralysis say, “That’s it! Exactly!” it’s one from the late 18th Century of a creature sitting on the dreamer’s chest.

If there’s one picture that makes sufferers of sleep paralysis say, “That’s it! Exactly!” it’s one from the late 18th Century of a creature sitting on the dreamer’s chest. It was a motif repeated in other images of nightmares as well, and for good reasons. Sleep experts know that the paralysis causes that pressure on the chest. While people dream, none of their chest muscles, except the diaphragm, can move. So if they’re partly awake, it feels as if they’re not breathing normally, and something’s pressing down on them.

One of the most compelling features,” says Mahowald, “is its believability.”

Doctors first wrote up the sleep disorder about 100 years ago, when it was called “nocturnal paralysis.” But even then they were way behind the local lore. Humans have been suffering from it forever, universally believing that something supernatural was upon them.

You may have a witchcraft interpretation in one place,” says David Hufford, a professor of humanities at Penn State College of Medicine. “You may have a demonic interpretation somewhere else but the experiences themselves don’t seem to be different.”

David is no stranger to sleep paralysis; in fact, he has had first-hand experience with it. “I was sure I was awake yet what happened seemed impossible,” he says. “I couldn’t move. I felt as though someone climbed up on the bed, and I felt hands on my throat. I felt I was being strangled. I thought if I could not get this thing off me I’d be dead.”

As a graduate student in the 1970s, Hufford researched his doctoral dissertation in folklore in Newfoundland, Canada. “I came across this tradition of what they called the old hag,” he says.

Hag is an old English word for witch, and David discovered an ancient folk tale widely believed in Newfoundland to be the result of witchcraft.

“Namely the experience of waking up during the night unable to move and having a threatening presence come into the room and possibly press on you,” he says.

The connection was instant. “I said that’s exactly what happened to me, and I had never heard of this thing.”

He himself had experienced sleep paralysis 6 years earlier. He thought it was strange, and sometimes wondered what it was, but like so many others didn’t dare talk about it. After making the acquaintance of the Old Hag, Hufford was so intrigued, he went on to write a book about her, and all her mutations. Centuries-old stories of witches and vampires, today’s stories of little gray aliens in the bedroom, all matched what David heard when he interviewed over 1,000 people. It all fit the larger pattern of sleep paralysis.

“Practically no one has believed that it was a flesh-and-blood, human-being intruder,” he says. “They always attribute it to some other kind of thing, either a demon or an alien. Something not canny, something weird.”

The good news is, if you suffer from it, most likely there’s nothing wrong with you. In some cases it’s hereditary and lack of sleep, or stress, might aggravate it.


You know it’s not happening, and it didn’t do any good. It didn’t make it stop. Knowing what it is doesn’t make it any less terrifying.’
— LESLIE SNYDER: Sleep paralysis victim

But oddly, knowing the creature and naming it as a creation of the brain stem and frontal lobes, doesn’t loosen its terrifying grip.

“I kept trying to say, ‘Leslie you’re just imagining this, this is all in your mind, it’s not really happening,’” says Leslie. “You know it’s not happening, and it didn’t do any good. It didn’t make it stop. Knowing what it is doesn’t make it any less terrifying.”

Not even when you’re the expert on the subject. It happened to Dr. Mahowald. He woke up from a nap one day, unable to move or even scream out for help. At first he was convinced he was having a stroke. Then he realized it was sleep paralysis.

I actually started chuckling to myself because I thought, now I understand what the patients are reporting to me and how terrifying this is,” he says. “Then, I would slip back deeper into this and lose my insight and become again absolutely convinced that I was dying.”

For all of our understanding of the mechanics of sleep paralysis, it is still, like sleep itself, a mysterious thing. That figure? The noises? The foreboding of palpable dread? Why from culture to culture, down through the centuries, are the central elements recited in more or less the same way? Some say it’s simple — we’re programmed that way, it’s hardwiring.

But others like Professor Hufford say the hardwire theory doesn’t quite explain enough. “We don’t have any other states whether ordinary dreams or psychotic states which produces this kind of consistent pattern. If you ask 100 people to describe their most recent bad dream, you get at least 90 different bad dreams. You ask 100 people to describe their most recent sleep paralysis, and it sounds like you’re getting the same story over and over again. It is genuinely puzzling and mysterious.

There is medication available for those who suffer from sleep paralysis. But Dr. Mahowald prefers not to prescribe it, unless the episodes become unbearable. Mostly, he simply reassures his patients that nothing is wrong with them.


A Guide to Psychology and Its Practice: Dream Interpretation