A candle in the dark

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.

16 Comments on "A candle in the dark"

  1. Amen Carl Sagan.

    It saddens me that I didn’t know about him or read / see any of his stuff while he was still alive. What a great man he was.

    As you know I’ve had overtly spiritual experiences myself. I was lucky that before I became a Christian I had experienced other hallucinations. Once when I was very ill I had all kinds of very bad hallucinations, and on another occasion after staying up for 36 hours I had a lengthy conversation with someone living in my house, except it later became obvious that he hadn’t really been there.

    I can totally understand why people’s belief in the supernatural is strengthened when they have these feelings and experiences. We’re not wired to be sufficiently skeptical, in fact quite the opposite. Being skeptical might get you eaten, whereas attributing everything to potentially dangerous agents is more likely to keep you alive because of the effect of false positives.


    1. I think lots of us are closest dualists who forget that our minds run on fallible matter. It’s pretty disconcerting to be reminded of that.

      Why were you “lucky” to have experienced hallucinations before you became a Christian?


      1. When you have a feeling that there is an evil presence in your room that is invisible it is extremely convincing. Even after I’d decided Christianity probably wasn’t true and therefore I am an atheist I had an experience like that which was very hard to deny.

        You can have all the reasons in the world why the thing you’re feeling isn’t real but on the scales actual experience is a hell of a lot heavier. At the time despite being an atheist I called a Christian friend to pray for me because I was just so terrified.

        That’s just the feeling of something odd in the room, imagine how much harder to deny it is if you actually see something or talk to someone who you otherwise know to be a hallucination.

        I was lucky because even as an atheist experience makes you want to believe these things are real even when you know there are very good reasons to think that they’re not. Imagine if you’ve become religious and now the bedrock of your understanding of the world includes spiritual invisible things out to get you. In that situation not only do your senses make you want to believe it’s true, but what you think you know about how the world works corroborates those senses.

        By having had experiences of hallucinations (that had no spiritual content to them) before I became a Christian I was armed with the knowledge that sometimes when you’re stressed, ill, or your brain is a bit different to everyone elses you can have what seem like very real experiences of things that aren’t really real at all.

        When I was a Christian I had several spiritual experiences (as I said). I found them rather odd because I thought that given the kind of person I am if the Devil wanted me to not be a Christian anymore why would he give me very strong experiential proof that he existed? Later when I was depressed (for entirely unrelated reasons you’re aware of) I saw some Christian counsellors who were skeptical of the experiences I’d had. They reminded me that even though demons do exist, people do have hallucinations which are just hallucinations.

        Being reminded of that by other Christians (who I could therefore trust) coupled with my prior experience of hallucinations made me question the validity of the spiritual experiences I had as a Christian. Questioning them led to me deciding that they were unlikely to be real, and that took away a key piece of the foundation of my reasons to believe.


        1. I wonder if I am specially predisposed towards these feelings / experiences / hallucinations.

          As a Christian I was considered to be very “lucky” by other Christians. After becoming a Christian in a fairly miraculous fashion I had a strong sudden sense that God was real that stayed with me almost all of the time, when I prayed I felt God’s presence, I spoke in tongues, and felt that God gave me prophecies for people (which basically all turned out to be wrong!). I also had lots of negative experiences.

          The Christians I knew who didn’t have any overt experience of God or sense he was real were a bit jealous as they wanted to have those experiences of love / fellowship / connectedness with God. The ones who had been involved a bit in such things thought I was lucky because of all the bad experiences because it indicated that I was in some way a powerful man for God, and so the Devil was pulling out lots of artillery early on in my Christian life to try to take me out.

          It would be interesting to know if the ability / propensity for religious experience (of Gods closeness / evil in the room / etc) is related to the likelihood of larger hallucinations, and also how common these things are.

          In one of the churches I called home for awhile they thought people who didn’t have such experiences were responsible for not stepping out of their comfort zone to get them (said commenter represented in this icon). That was pretty harmful I thought as I knew of many people who wanted that kind of thing but for whom it never seemed to happen. Of course such people ended up going to the nice bible based church down the road who worshiped the trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Scriptures…


            1. Is that the same thing with the same causes I wonder.

              I remember reading about that, and being sad that the device is in Canada so I can’t have a go on it. It’s a shame he hasn’t published the specs online (well, maybe I should go looking for papers he has written).


  2. I have experienced the thing where you think you’re sort of awake, but can’t move. I have never associated it with a sense of a presence though. It’s a sensation that somehow I can’t quite make myself *wake up* enough to move. I wonder if being dead is a bit like that…


    1. Me too, occasionally. It’s quite scary, although less so now than when I used to sleep alone. Now, I’ll try and try to scream and eventually a small whimper will come out and odds are alextfish will hear it and wake me up 🙂

      Gosh, I really hope being dead isn’t like that. That would be terrifying. It reminds me of a story I read as a child about a man who was paralysed by some drug and then buried alive, fully conscious but unable to move or speak to stop it happening.

      I doubt it is, though. I believe in the Christian heaven and if I didn’t I’d be a scientific materialist and believe in total oblivion after death.


      1. Now, I’ll try and try to scream and eventually a small whimper will come out

        oh, yes, I do that. without the alextfish

        it less scary now I’ve done it before as I’m usually half-awake enough to know that I think I can’t move because I’m still asleep and what I need to do is to wake up. even if it’s still hard to make it happen.

        I wasn’t imagining people stuck in sleep paralysis for eternity, but falling through some kind of “can’t quite wake up enough to stay alive” or “can’t force myself to wake up” into deadness. maybe not.


      2. That used to happen to me a lot when I was a child. I also used to have very bad nightmares.

        Now I sleep soundly (but snore), and occasionally (so I am told) sleepwalk…


Leave a Reply to robhu Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *