What Dreams Might Come?

Jorge Conesa Sevilla, Wrestling With Ghosts: A Personal and Scientific Account of Sleep Paralysis. Xlibris Corporation, 2004.
This is the first book-length treatment of sleep paralysis (sometimes called aware sleep paralysis or awareness of sleep paralysis - ASP) since David Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night, published more than 20 years ago. While Hufford was mainly concerned with presenting the experience as evidence that folklore is often based on real knowledge and experience, rather than being cultural constructs based on repeated stories, Conesa is more concerned with both the scientific and humanistic approaches.

On the scientific side, he links in the phenomena with a wider discussion of dream consciousness and sets it down firmly as a natural experience. On the humanistic side he explores both his own SP experiences and those of the subjects in his “longitudinal study” and suggests that they can be mastered and turned into signals which allow the experiencer to enter into lucid dreams, out of the body experiences and shamanic journeys. For Conesa dreams are works of art or poetry in which elements can be assembled to construct myths.

In his linking SP with false awakenings Conesa follows in the tradition of psychical researchers such as Celia Green and Charles McCreery who collected accounts of such experiences in the 1960s and 1970s.

Conesa suggests strongly that alien abduction narratives are the latest cultural take on the SP experience, and anyone who compares some of the experiences detailed here with the autobiographical accounts of Katarina Wilson or Ray Fowler will see the similarities leap out at them. This simply strengthens the identification of the “domestic abduction” with the SP experience. The similarities just go on; for example if “abduction” experiences seem to run in families so too do SP experiences, Conesa’s daughter has them, so too do members of his wife’s family.

Conesa covers a much wider range of experiences than Hufford, and this brings the connection closer. The fantastic adventures in which abductees find themselves have echoes in the lucid and ultra vivid dreams of SP experiences; these include sensations of floating, going through tunnels, seeing strange lights, hearing peculiar noises, etc. Though Conesa does not mention this we can be sure that the abduction experience is just the latest modern day cultural manifestation of the “secret night adventure”. These adventures in various cultures have included being turned into a horse and ridden round the fields by fairies, entering the spirit procession of women following the goddess, entering people's houses, eating their food and drinking their wine, going to sabbats on broomsticks, being werewolves, being part of the spirit host which defends the crops against foreign werewolves. Tales of Satanic abuse or of being secret CIA mules seem to belong in the same category.

As Conesa points out that SP doesn’t have to be confined to the bedroom but can occur when there is sleep deprivation, fatigue, anxiety etc, noting it is prevalent in hospital personnel, shift workers, truck drivers, possibly airline pilots, traffic controllers and others, then we can look for it in a much wider set of contexts. Betty and Barney Hill’s adventures, with their long, fatigue-ridden night journey seem likely candidates for micro-REM and micro-SP induced phenomena and for possible SP associated with REM-rebound the next night. Then there is Antonio Villas-Boas driving his tractor at night, and many other abduction narratives centred around the night journey.

Not just abductions of course, for many other UFO stories centre on nocturnal journeys or strange awakenings. Some SP experiences also have a sort of aura-like experience similar to that experienced by migraine and epilepsy sufferers, in which they feel electric charges going through their body, sensations of expectancy “as if something is going to happen” and other odd bodily sensations. In many such cases the lines between misperception, illusion, hallucination and dream become very blurred indeed.

Conesa’s linking SP with shamanism also resonates with abduction phenomena, with themes of ordeal and magical journey. It does have to be said here at times that Conesa gets a little deep greeny and new agey, while at the same time resolutely rejecting “supernaturalist” interpretations and denouncing the abduction finders. His linking of alien abduction imagery with birth memories seems far fetched; perhaps early childhood hospitalisation might be a more plausible explanation of the medical imagery evoked by the SP sense of being bound and helpless.

Also bound to be controversial is his linking of SP experiences with geomagnetic activity, in particular with what appears to be an increased folkloric reporting of such phenomena in places around the Pacific ring of fire. I don’t know about that; there is a mighty strong tradition of such experiences in British ghost-lore and we aren’t exactly in a volcano-rich, geologically unstable region. There may, however, be something in this on a micro scale and it is certainly worth following up. Such a possibility might explain the prevalence of SP experiences in certain localities, if this is due to anything other than anxiety.

Being privately published and lacking a good editor, this is not always a smooth and easy read, it is well worth persisting with. Magonia readers are also recommended to check Dr Conesa’s website at http://www.geocities.com/jorgeconesa/Paralysis/sleepnew.html

Even if he is a bit 'New Agey' round the edges, Conesa’s approach seems far more humane than the paranoid ranting of the Abduction Finder General and his deluded disciples, and in general terms his mixture of the scientific and humanistic approaches is well within the Magonia tradition. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, first published in Magonia Supplement 53, November 2004.

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