Since a friend of mine, Tan Kien Boon, recently made a post on his blog about an emotionally trying experience that could be related to ghosts, I thought I might write about my closest encounter with the supernatural. This happened several years ago when I was working for a logging company in Gabon in west central Africa. I was sleeping, alone, face up, late in the afternoon, the kind of sleep where you’re not awake but not completely unconscious either.
Gradually, I became aware of a presence in the same room with me. I struggled to open my eyes, which seemed to require a tremendous effort and vaguely perceived a dark, shapeless mass on top of me pushing me down. I felt frightened, but more in a weirded out sort of way than a panicked way. I tried to bring myself to full wakefulness, but it was like flailing helplessly against thick fog. I wanted to get up, but my body would not obey me. It was like struggling against a gentle and yet implacably strong force that help down. I remember looking at my arms and wondering why I felt so paralyzed. Even moving my half-open eyes around needed a huge force of will. I don’t know how long enough this lasted, long enough for me to wonder for a while about what was going on, but not so long that I got too scared, the strange effect ended. The dark shape seemed to dissolve, I could get up and I felt fully awake and alert.
Perhaps not coincidentally, I heard a similar story some time because this incident happened from my manager at the time. In his case, he was sleeping in a hut deep in the jungle and at night when it happened. As a general rule, people who work in the logging industry have highly entertaining ghost stories to tell, probably because of a combination of factors including solitude, remoteness from civilization and contact with superstitious locals. In my case, obviously hearing the story had made me suggestible, so it was reasonable that I would interpret the experience in the same way, but still, there should be some explanation of why the experience happened in the first place.
It only took a bit of poking on the internet to find a plausible and technically very interesting cause: sleep paralysis. As the wikipedia entry explains, when we fall deeply asleep, our motor control over our body is cut off, so that our bodies don’t actually perform the actions that we act out in our dreams. Normally, when we wake up motor control is returned immediately to our conscious mind but under rare conditions as described in the entry, there is a lag between the period of time when we become conscious and when we actually regain control over our bodies. This causes the phenomenon of sleep paralysis and in this suggestible state, our conscious mind may interpret the event as anything from an encounter with ghosts to abduction by aliens.
As the painting above, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli and dating from 1781 shows, humans have been experiencing this phenomenon for ages. To someone who is deeply religious or superstitious, this could be terrifying. To someone prepared to analyze it with a rational mind, it’s an educational and interesting experience.