February 17, 2008

A while ago I found a blog posting by someone who’d experienced sleep paralysis. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (it happened to me a few times when I was a kid): you’re asleep, you partially wake up, but find yourself unable to move, and often feel there’s something evil in the room with you, possibly crushing you. The poster didn’t know what was going on. She was terrified, thinking that someone or something had attacked her while she slept. My own comment explaining sleep paralysis came in the middle of a bunch of similar comments. I hope we reassured her.

When I was younger, I think I’d worked out that the feeling of being unable to move meant I wasn’t fully awake, so I should concentrate on trying to move and discount the sensed presence and crushing feelings until my body came back under my control. This was confirmed years later when I read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which Sagan describes sleep paralysis and theorises that it’s behind some modern “alien abduction” experiences, as well as older beliefs like the old hag. This sort of explanation is all to the good. The world has enough real scary things in it without making up more of them.

So, when I happened across a stupid_free posting mocking some teenage witches complaining that their spirit summoning spells don’t work, I was annoyed to see some commenters saying that these neophytes should be careful with the summoning, because you don’t know what you’ll get. The commenters were telling the teenagers to leave the summoning spells to pagans with more experience points (who get better Will saves). I thought that spoof Wikipedia edit about Wicca was a joke, but some of them really do think they’re living in an episode of Buffy. The pagans don’t appear to like people who point this out, alas.

There may be an argument that young people should not get into this occult stuff because they might give themselves a bad scare, even though magic isn’t real. But it’s not an argument you can expect supernaturalists to make, because they’re committed to the idea that this stuff might actually work. Christians have the same sort of problem. I remember my old vicar telling us that he thought we rational Cambridge Christians might have become a bit too skeptical about things like demons. From denying the reality of demons, it’s a short step to wondering about God, I suppose. (Conversely, scribb1e says there’s some teaching within Buddhism about weird stuff you might experience during meditation, which is that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it, basically).

Sagan wrote: “We would surely be missing something important about our own nature if we refused to face up to the fact that hallucinations are part of being human. However, none of this makes hallucinations part of an external rather than an internal reality.” People who experience sleep paralysis or see their recently deceased relatives are not crazy, but it’s unlikely that are they being abducted by aliens, seeing ghosts, or fooled by demons either. Beliefs which were born in our ignorance won’t help re-assure these people. Our brains do play tricks on us, but these tricks fade when examined in the light.