Part One ~ I am plagued by ghosts and a demon
I’m often asked if I’ve ever had any supernatural experiences myself. Well, sort of…. In fact, I’ve done battle with ghosts and a demon in the wild Balkan Mountains of Northern Greece. But of course, there’s a twist.
I lived in a town called Florina in the Macedonian region of Greece for three years in the very early 1990s. Florina is a mountainous ski resort near the borders with Albania and the former Yugoslavia. This was my first job after leaving university: teaching English as a Foreign Language to Greek teenagers in this small, isolated town, snowbound in winter, boiling in summer.
I’d been there for over a year, when, during the hot summer I moved to a new flat across the town. The summers were so hot that in the early afternoon, everything stopped: offices, shops and cafes closed, and most Greeks took an afternoon nap. With nothing else to do, I took to doing the same. Only problem was, learning how to sleep in the afternoon meant I couldn’t sleep at night and so my sleeping patterns were completely disrupted.
On the first night in my new flat, I was woken suddenly in the early hours when the bedroom light was turned on. This unnerved me. I was the only person in the flat, and the light switch was on the opposite side of the room. I nervously checked the flat for intruders, and everything was fine. But I just couldn’t understand how a light could switch on by itself.
The next night, it happened again. No sign of anyone in the flat. I’d never seen a light spontaneously switch on before, so the next day I asked a colleague who had a good knowledge of electronics if this was even possible. He assured me it was not, and jokingly suggested that the flat was haunted.
It was the next night when things really kicked off. I woke in the early hours with the feeling that someone was in my room. And there, approaching my bed was a shadowy figure. I was filled with terror and panic. I blinked and shook my head. Surely, I was dreaming. But no, I was wide awake, and the figure was still there approaching across the room towards me.
Assuming the intruder to be a burglar, I clasped the pillow over my chest in case he had a knife and leapt at him with my other fist flailing. But it quickly became apparent that I was punching empty air and I was alone in the room. I was confused and shaking with terror. I didn’t believe in ghosts. But I’d just seen one.
It took a long time for me to get to sleep again, and when I finally did drop off…. Click! On came the light.
It all culminated a couple of nights later. Only this time, it was even more horrific. Again, I became aware of a malign presence in the room and woke up. Sitting on my chest was a grotesque monkey faced demon that was crushing the breath out of me. I was paralysed and unable to breathe and the horrible demonic entity leered malevolently in my face as it suffocated me. This wasn’t a dream. I was awake.
And suddenly, it was gone, and I could breathe again. I didn’t tell anyone about what I had experienced over those nights. I was afraid I was going mad. Because I didn’t believe in ghosts and demons, and yet I’d seen them with my own eyes.
One strange thing is that I felt I had seen that monster somewhere before. And it finally came to me. I’d seen this demonic entity on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley that I had read some time ago. The cover reproduced a painting known as The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli from 1781.
Thankfully, these episodes never happened again. But I had no idea what to make of them…
Part Two ~ Sleep Paralysis and alien abduction
It was only a few years later that I heard about the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. This is a sleep disorder where the body may be unable to move, but the sufferer is fully conscious and may see vivid, terrifying hallucinations. It’s a kind of altered consciousness that mixes sleep and wakefulness and feels utterly real.
There are generally thought to be three kinds of sleep paralysis hallucinations. Firstly, intruder hallucinations as in my first experience. Secondly, incubus hallucinations accompanied by the sensation of having one’s chest crushed as in my later experience. A third type of hallucination is vestibular motor, which involves the feeling of flying, falling or out of the body experiences. It’s relatively common with some estimates suggesting 8%[i] of people will experience it sometime in their lives. Other estimates claim as many as 40% will suffer an episode.[ii] There are various possible causes, but for me it was probably the disturbed sleeping patterns arising from me adopting the local custom of having a siesta through the hottest part of the day.
Sleep paralysis has been offered as an explanation of various paranormal phenomena such as night-time visions of ghosts, out of body experiences and even alien abduction.
Take this alien abduction experience described by Whitley Streiber in his famous book Communion:
There were three small people standing beside the bed, their outlines clearly visible…I thought to myself, My God, I’m completely conscious and they’re just standing there… I can only describe the sensation I felt when I tried to move as like pushing my arm through electrified tar.[iii]
Similarly, one of Harvard University psychiatrist John Mack’s abductees reports that ‘she would wake paralysed, hear “buzzing and ringing and whirring” noises in her head, and see humanoid beings in her room’.[iv] Under hypnosis, this subject went on to reveal a rich narrative involving aliens, hybrid human-alien babies and spiritual growth typical of many of Mack’s investigations.
In fact, UFO researchers like Mack are likely to see episodes of sleep paralysis as being evidence of alien abduction, rather than alien abduction experiences being evidence of sleep paralysis. In Mack’s words:
Awakening paralyzed, with a sense of dread, and experiencing strange beings or a presence in the room, are common indicators [of alien abduction] in both children and adults.[v]
Some sceptical scholars who have studied alien abduction go so far as to argue that the epidemic of such experiences in the 80s and 90s was largely due to sleep paralysis being redefined as evidence of alien abduction. Then, through the use of hypnosis, further details are ‘remembered’ and added to the nocturnal experience to create a fuller abduction account.[vi]
I have a lot of sympathy for this view, as it seems to capture the phenomenology of the abduction experience as well as acknowledging the baleful role that hypnotists have played in confabulating pseudo-memories in their patients.
But this explanation also captures a noticeable change in the nature of alien abduction. Classic early cases of abduction by UFOs tended to involve cars on lonely roads meeting a strange craft, followed by the hapless abductee being beamed up into the craft. This is what we see in the classic Betty and Barney Hill abduction case from 1961 (often regarded as the first modern abduction report), but also in Todmorden’s own Alan Godfrey affair.
However, as the decades passed, abductions from vehicles became rarer and abduction from the bedroom started to dominate. Folklorist Thomas Bullard’s study of over 400 abduction accounts between 1966 and 1999 revealed that before 1978, 50% of alien abductions occurred on highways with only 10% occurring from bedrooms. However, after 1987 only 10% of abduction cases involved a highway encounter and over 60% were abductions from the bedroom.
It seems clear that sleep paralysis is at least part of the solution to the alien abduction mystery.
Epilogue ~ The Haunted Light Switch
But what about the mystery of the light spontaneously switching on? Well, I soon discovered that the bedroom actually had two light switches, one of which was two feet off the floor and hidden by the bed clothes. As I turned over in my sleep, my knee had been hitting the switch and turning the light on….
[iii] Whitley Strieber, Communion: A True Story (London: Arrow Books, 1988) p.172
[iv] John Mack, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (London: Simon and Schuster Ltd, 1994) p.119
[v] Ibid p.29
[vi] See, for example, Ronnevig, Georg M., ‘Towards an Explanation of the “abduction epidemic”’ in Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact, by Diana G. Tumminia (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007)