Monday, October 30, 2006

Halloween All Year - A Visit with the Night Crusher

Nightmare by Henry FuseliThere are dreams we share. Across continents. Across cultures. They take the forms of Fear and rob us of peace when night is most still. Black formless men in the corner of the room. Nightmares covering the bedsheets, crawling with spiders or snakes. An old hag crushing the life from us as she presses down on our chest. The intense feeling of an evil presence lurking just out of sight. Powerless to move, powerless to speak, we can only scream for help that doesn't come.

This is the real world of the Nightmare. Not a world of cute Piers Anthony horses, but demons, succubi, and incubi. The Night Demon. The Night Hag. The Night Crusher.

My lifelong struggle with the Night Crusher began one fateful night when I was fifteen. One could almost say that my world, my life, my identity began that night as well with one Halloween-like dream. There was the rickety old hut worn with weather. Eerie music played in the background, a synthesizer extravaganza filled with ominous low tones and minor chords. I approached the hut with a few faceless companions. We knocked, then entered a darkly lit room full of shadows and billowing shapes. The room was actually outside, which makes sense only in dreams, and there was a witch by a cauldron. We had come to ask her about the spirits that had been cast out of Heaven. We wanted to know where they were cast out to. The music began to swell as she stopped stirring. The dream camera zoomed into her face and she said, "Don't you realize? They are here. All around us." Suddenly, I became aware of three raps on my head - my real head. The dream faded and the raps were repeated. OneTwoThree. I opened my eyes but was surrounded in darkness and could not move and could not talk. There was an evil presence in my room and I was terrified. I sensed an ebbing, buzzing sound in my head and I called out in prayer but could not form any words. I tried again and slowly words began to form. As the words became more intelligible my vision returned, I regained control of my body, and I lied there panting in a cold sweat.

I do not remember falling back to sleep. In fact, sleep became my enemy that night. My self-identity came into clear focus because of that experience. Any memories before that night are like dreams themselves with the nightmares being the reality. That was the night I stopped being a child.

As a young Mormon boy I immediately drew parallels between that experience and the one Joseph Smith had moments before his First Vision. I must admit I was both terrified and proud. I had been chosen for some great and noble purpose that the forces of Hell were trying to thwart. That was the only way I could make any sense of it. Of course, nobody believed me. In fact, when I confided in my Seminary teacher she later told my parents that she thought I was crazy. That was something I learned later in life, but it made those years with her afterwards make a lot more sense. I didn't believe that Satan was trying to kill me, but I did believe that I was haunted by evil. I could sense it at night. I could sense it following me when I walked home in the dark on a cold Cape Cod winter's night..

Combined with my general moodiness and suicidal poetry, my parents were very concerned. They had me evaluated at Boston's Children's Hospital. The doctors determined I had Attention Deficit Disorder, but did not test for sleep disorders. I left with no answers concerning these visitations, but apparently the tests showed I was a bright kid. That did little to lift my spirits because the dreams didn't stop, and neither did the paralysis. I didn't dare tell anybody else. Who would believe me? As far as I was concerned at the time, even my parents thought I was crazy.

Not until I was 26 did I have a name for what was happening to me. My mother called me with the news she had just heard. Some people suffer from something called Sleep Paralysis where they wake up and can't move. I wasn't crazy and I wasn't alone. And the sense of evil had faded as I both grew older and grew more accustomed to the event. Maybe it all WAS just a dream.

Our forefathers knew of this terror and chose a word for it: Nightmare. "Mare" comes not from horse, but from the Anglo-Saxon merran which means "to crush". Nightmare. Night Crusher. Originally, "nightmare" was a term describing sleep paralysis - a field we have only recently begun to explore again - but soon it came to include nocturnal panic, night terrors, and, eventually, any old fear filled dream. Illuminated and lettered modern men dismissed tales of the Night Crusher as superstitious old wives tales and knowledge of sleep paralysis fell into the dark.

There is a haunting similarity between my dream and the dreams of others who suffer from Sleep Paralysis all over the world. They all sense an evil presence. They all feel bound and unable to move, and they all are terrified. It is called the Kanashibari phenomenon in Japan with the exact same symptoms. Demons in Cambodia, Hags in Europe. All being crushed and immobilized while sleeping. There is an excellent article on the subject over at Science News. To think that I had an archetypal nightmare followed by an episode with the Night Crusher without ever hearing about the experience before is hard to imagine. Can we dismiss the similarities as a coincidence? Had I tapped into a universal conscience? A wealth of world knowledge on a spiritual plane?

A therapist once coldly explained to me that Sleep Paralysis was nothing more than the mind awakening during deep sleep, usually during the REM dream cycle. The paralysis was simply caused by some parts of the brain being asleep while other parts were awakening. Did his educated description help? Perhaps. But did it address the terrors? Did it cover the shared experience by millions of a sense of evil? Did it give scope for the imagination? If the evil was all in my mind, if there was no boogeyman, would I be a better man? Would I be the same man? Or is there something out there that creeps into our minds during these weakened moments? The rational side of me says "no", but the panicked little child side of me finds the spiritual aspect of this phenomenon interesting to contemplate.

Even today I will sense from time to time something evil following me up the stairs as I retire - an invisible entity, malignant and mocking. Sagaciously, I remind myself I am an adult and that this is just the results of a very hyperactive imagination. There is nothing there. Do not look back. There is nothing there. Still, those words do not comfort me when memory of the Night Crusher is so intense. I may know that the experience is only Sleep Paralysis, but can you forgive me if every once in a while I sleep with the light on? After all, with me every night can be Halloween.

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Related Links:

Rochelle's blog that first led me to the following links
The nightcrusher - an investigation into Sleep Paralysis
Night Terrors site with ooky stories - Look for entry on "Nightmare"
Anna Schegoleva's Study on the Kanashibara experience in Japan (pdf)
Excellent analysis of Henry Fuseli's late-1700 depiction of the Night Crusher