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May 23, 2005

Ghost Sightings, Alien Abductions, And Sleep Disorders

Update: Coturnix pointed in comments to an excellent article about sleep paralysis from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation Into Claims Of The Paranormal (CSICOP). It's an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. It mentions incubi, succubi, ghosts, and alien abductions.


After reading The Eighth Skeptic's Circle at Pharyngula, I was inspired to submit an entry for the Ninth Circle. This is my entry. When the Ninth Circle is posted, I'll link to it.

People who report seeing ghosts often see them upon awakening in the middle of the night. They also report being terrified and unable to move. That's no accident. Such ghost sightings could be attributed to hypnogogic and hypnopompic sleep. Hypnopompic sleep paralysis is "brief episodes of paralysis that occur when waking up." While both may be classified as sleep disorders, ordinary, healthy people can have them. Hypnogogic hallucinations occur after waking up or before going to sleep. These hallucinations include an inability to move, seeing vague human forms seen out of the corner of the eye, seeing balls of light, and feeling that something is sitting on your chest, making it difficult for you to breathe. All are classic descriptions of ghost sightings and alien abductions upon awakening. The last is the origin of the "old hag," alien sightings and abductions, and the succubus that have been reported in literature for centuries.

Some paranormal web sites have even mentioned the probability that hypnopompic sleep is the source of ghost sightings and claims of alien sightings and abductions. This is from Full Moon - UFO and Alien Abductions: "Or are alien encounters and abductions simply fantasies which are a result of some type of sleep disorder which happens naturally in certain people? Altered states of consciousness which occur while they are dreaming or in a state of part sleep and part wakefulness...a condition commonly known as Hypnagogic or hypnopompic sleep paralysis wherein a person's body becomes temporarily paralyzed while experiencing some type of hallucination which is made more real by that person's dream."

Phenomena Magazine even pointed out the possibility of hypnopompic sleep to explain alien abductions: "After this horrific 'Old Hag' experience, as Siegel called it, he was able to classify it as sleep paralysis combined with hypnopompic hallucinations (Hypnogogic is the borderline state when falling alseep; hypnopompic is the transition state when waking up). Siegel noted how his encounter resembled, in a striking variety of details, author Whitley Strieber's alien abduction report in his 1987 book, COMMUNION."

Phenomena Magazine continued:

Sleep researchers contend that more than half of all humans have a hypnogogic or hypnopompic sleep hallucination, or experience sleep paralysis, at least once in their life. "Ordinary, perfectly sane and rational people have these hallucinatory experiences," says Robert A. Baker, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, and an expert on the phenomenon.

Numerous clinical studies of sleep paralysis have found up to 75 percent of persons surveyed were on their backs when the experience occurred. I found this statistic of particular interest to my own case since I was also on my back during each of my three encounters, though I normally always sleep on my side.

One of the more intriguing cases I found of a sleep disorder that could have been mistaken for succubi visitations or even alien abductions involved a retired engineer in Connecticut. He inexplicably began experiencing, at age 64, both nocturnal and daylight encounters with an extraordinary range of images, especially female human faces and gray-faced entities that resembled classic descriptions of alien abductors. (To respect confidentiality between this man and his psychologist, I will refer to him as Rob Greeley.)

Over several years, into the early 1990s, Greeley kept a meticulous daily log of these visitations, a copy of which I have acquired. Here are a few representative descriptions taken at random from 1988 and 1989 entries. At 4 a.m. on May 2, he woke up "looking at a glowing alabaster sculpture of a cherubic-like child's head" that soon morphed into "a gray faced image" of an alien being. He goes on to describe instances of feeling "a vibratory paralysis coming over me," of seeing "smiling women's faces," and of "being shaken awake" and feeling "a tremendous blast of heat" and hearing "gibberish being spoken."

"I am not alarmed or frightened by any of this," Greeley told his psychologist, "because I know I am normal and feel well in every way." Determined to document his experiences within a framework of objective reality, Greeley set up a video camera that he turned on during these manifestations of vivid imagery. Nothing out of the ordinary ever appeared on this videotape. The phenomena seemed to be generated and projected solely from his unconscious mind.

We might otherwise dismiss Greeley's experiences as merely odd examples of anomalistic psychology, his brain playing perceptural tricks, a neurological malfunctioning, if it weren't for some other provocative evidence of unexpected effects in his outward life.

For one thing, Greeley's experiences began to infect, much like a contagion, other people close to him. His 34-year-old son, Scott, and Scott's girlfriend, both saw similar images and entities on some of the nights they stayed at Greeley's house. These visitations periodically continued even when Scott and his intimate partner were away in other cities. (In the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, this type of contagion is explained away as a "shared psychotic disorder.")

Equally puzzling, Greeley and the people around him began to notice strange marks and wounds appearing on his body in the aftermath of the more intense visitations. For the first time in his life he had spontaneous nose bleeds while reading a book or eating a meal. He would awaken to find one eye severely bloodshot, or a finger swollen as if smashed by a sledgehammer, yet he retained no memory of having been injured.

Try as I might, my intuition does not facilitate me fully embracing a traditional psychiatric perspective explaining away all of these phenomena, though I do feel these images and experiences are primarily projections of the unconscious human mind. As evidenced by research into stigmata, our beliefs and unconscious desires can even produce wounds and other physical effects. But the triggers for these events, a partial reason why some of us are more susceptible, may exist independent of our brains.

While hypnopompic and hypnogogic sleep are the likely explanations for such experiences, Phenomena Magazine went on to cite electromagnetic fields as another source. That strikes me as rather ridiculous. Ghost hunters use untested electromagnetic field detectors to detect the presence of ghosts. Citing electromagnetic fields as a cause for such sightings strikes me as pseudoscience. The magazine also claimed that aliens could come here from other dimensions, via wormhole bridge - patently ridiculous.

I'm not a big fan of aliens, but I am of ghosts. I would love to believe that ghosts are real, but I know better. Sure, I love a good ghost story. However, there are perfectly reasonable reasons for such sightings, and hypnogogic and hypnopompic sleep are only two of them.

Posted on May 23, 2005 at 08:55 AM | Permalink


Great column. I had no idea paralysis could occur during sleep. At long last, a rational explanation for those X-Files types, some of whom seem to hold beliefs that make religiosity seem downright tame.
To me, there is one reason to discount the famous legend concerning aliens found in Roswell, NM. Three words: the Cold War. I find it ridiculous that a national-security state like the U.S. would not use spacemen, the ultimate in external enemies, to push through something like the Patriot Act. I've always found it telling that people much younger than myself, who don't remember air-raid drills in schools, are so often eager to believe this stuff. It's a major reason why I could never get into the Star Wars movies.

Posted by: DP in SF at May 23, 2005 7:14:36 PM

I've known about hypnopompic and hypnogogic sleep for a long time. I remember more personal experiences of hypnogogic sleep because I tend to not remember my dreams (unless they're very vivid or - more fun - lucid). I've experienced what I thought were loud booming noises shortly before falling asleep. I have also felt my body jerk violently and I'd awaken suddenly while in the process of falling asleep. I know it's normal now, but when I first experienced it it scared the shit out of me.

I wasn't old enough to experience air raid drills but I knew what "duck and cover" was. It sounded ridiculous to me. Like ducking under a school desk would keep anyone from being vaporized by an atomic bomb? Get real.

I agree with you that the whole Roswell business and how it caught on could be tied to the Cold War. I think Marian sightings are also tied to war, insecurity, and people seeking a sympathetic supernatural figure. Mary is very sympathetic. I grew up Catholic, and Mary was who you prayed to because she put in a good word for you to Jesus. She was sort of like praying to an older sister. Golden Palace Casino sure is profiting from Marian sightings in everything from grilled cheese to sea shells (assuming Golden Palace bought that one).

Posted by: Trish Wilson at May 23, 2005 7:34:45 PM

Great article! I have hypnogogic hallucinations relatively often, and it's always astonished me when I talk about it how many people have them and don't know what they are.

One thing worth pointing out is that such hallucinations can often feel absolutely real--there's frequently not a dream-like quality at all, there's tactile input, you can feel your body very clearly, and your surroundings can be reproduced in fabulous, crisp detail, with some weird inclusions. I've had more than one that was absolutely flawless, and not until I was staring out the window and thinking "My porch is not USUALLY covered in owls..." would something click in my brain and I'd realize that I still had to be dreaming. (This leads into the sleep paralysis bit, as well, since it's often hard to wake up and move even after such realizations.)

With that in mind, I can understand why people who don't know what's happening start defaulting to all kinds of weird explanations and often claim vigorously that they knew they weren't dreaming. There's a quality of...mm...subjective reality, I suppose...to those hallucinations that can be pretty amazing.

Posted by: UrsulaV at May 26, 2005 9:02:30 AM

Why on earth would "Greeley" set up a videocam to verify that harmless dreams had no visible correlates but leave that same videocam in the closet while he was receiving significant injuries???

Posted by: Pierce R. Butler at May 26, 2005 12:15:55 PM

My one experience with sleep paralysis scared the hell out of me (literally).

It happened while I was in my slow slide to atheism, right as I was about to take a header off the cliff and into the sea of skepticism. That night I had, in desperation (as one might expect when one's world view is turning upside down), asked for some sort of sign from the Big Guy. I fell asleep and at some point had a dream about the end of the world and how I wasn't ready for it (due to the wrongs I had committed in life). I then woke up, unable to move, and with a tingling sensation radiating up from my feet and over my body. I remember a sense of panic and then it was morning (I suspect I fell back into sleep).

Anyway, completely messed with my mind until some investigation on my own (ah, the joy of skepticism) turned up the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

*Whew* I got to be an atheist after all. :)

Posted by: andy at May 26, 2005 12:46:34 PM

Also, I've read and seen a few things about temporal lobe seizures. The symptoms include abnormal sensations, epigastric sensations (stomach rising), hallucinations, deja vu, recalled emotions or memories, sudden, intense emotion not related to anything occuring at the time, numbness, tingling, a feeling of a presence.

Posted by: Dave at May 26, 2005 2:32:37 PM

have you seen this Chris Mooney's article?


Posted by: coturnix at May 27, 2005 1:47:21 PM

I just read it, coturnix. I agree with the article. I haven't seen it before, but I've long been a fan of CSICOP.

Posted by: Trish Wilson at May 27, 2005 1:58:40 PM

Oh, and Susan Blackmore also wrote one:


Actually, I was thinking about writing about this for the Skeptic's Circle (the last issue, one on Pharyngula) but once I saw Mooney and Blackmore articles I decided I had nothing new to add to it (though this is somewhat related to my field - see my other blog: http://circadiana.blogspot.com/)so I gave up and wrote a satire instead (with apologies to PZ, but he accepted it anyway).

Posted by: coturnix at May 27, 2005 6:27:13 PM

I had an experience. I was dreaming---I was by a body of water with a small man and a pig. there was a hedge separating it and on one side there appeared to be shallow water with reeds sticking out of it and on the other deep water like the ocean. The pig went and wallowed in the deep end. I was skeptical and jumped into the shallow looking side. I sank like a rock and that's when I woke up. I couldn't move. My body felt tingly all over and it was difficult to breath. I didn't see any entities or anything and 15 minutes later it was all over and I was able to move but that scared the living crap out of me.

Posted by: Sabrina at Jul 21, 2005 2:34:19 PM