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The Nightmare Experience and Witchcraft Accusations

The Nightmare Experience and Witchcraft Accusations
© Photograph by Evgeniya Litovchenko

The historical record shows that personal experience of bewitchment was multifarious, concerning livestock, goods, chattels, and agricultural processes. However, over the last five centuries the majority of those experiences that were deemed serious enough to lead to the formal accusation, prosecution, or physical assault of supposed witches, concerned people suffering from ill health, or some other form of physical or mental discomfort.

Trying to identify exactly what sort of ailments and bodily experiences people attributed to witchcraft is obviously a rather speculative task, bearing in mind the sketchy description of symptoms in the records, and the limited diagnostic categories of illness available to people in the past. Yet, from the descriptions provided by those suffering from supposed witchcraft in early modern and later trial records, it is possible to recognise a number of modern categories of disease and physical ailments, such as tuberculosis, jaundice, malaria, and rheumatism. Other medical conditions of a psychological or neurophysiological nature, such as depression, schizophrenia and epilepsy are also recognizable. This article will focus on one such identifiable condition, known as sleep paralysis. It has only been properly medically categorised in the last fifty years, and has recently been attracting considerable attention from psychologists and neuroscientists, yet the experience, as described below, has been a matter of medical discussion for many centuries. In the English language, one specific manifestation of the sleep paralysis experience was known as the nightmare, and in many European cultures, its cause was attributed to witchcraft.

This “nightmare” experience can also be identified in other accounts where people claimed to have been nocturnally oppressed by such related supernatural beings as the Devil, animalistic fairies, and the spirits of the dead. By combining historical analysis with contemporary medical knowledge of sleep paralysis, and by comparing contemporary manifestations of the experience with those found in the historical record, further light is shed on human encounters with the supernatural in both past and present societies.

Sleep paralysis is not a rare phenomenon. Recent surveys amongst a variety of populations around the world suggest that 20-45% of people experience at least one sleep paralysis episode in their lifetimes. The condition is associated with the disturbance of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep episodes, and usually occurs immediately before sleep onset or upon wakening, most often in the early hours of the morning. Those affected by sleep paralysis can see and hear, because under REM sleep there is intense central nervous system activity, but they are unable to make any significant bodily movements, because during the same phase muscle activity is suppressed. Speech is likewise impeded, and only inarticulate sounds can be made. Most episodes last less than ten minutes, but as long as thirty minutes has been reported. Sufferers may, however, feel their paralysis has gone on for considerably longer. The experience that will be defined as a nightmare in this discussion has a number of other accompanying diagnostic features that occur less frequently, perhaps amongst 5-20% of the population. As Cheyne et al. point out, reports suggesting over a third of the population experience sleep paralysis may give the “false impression” that a large proportion of the population are experiencing what I shall now describe.

With the nightmare, sleep paralysis is accompanied by the feeling of a heavy pressure on the chest, choking sensations, and hypnagogic (accompanying falling asleep) and hypnopompic (accompanying waking from sleep) hallucinations. Although the content of these hallucinations usually contains the same fundamental elements, they are, as we shall see, significantly shaped by cultural beliefs about the origins of the “attack”. They usually concern a sense of a physical presence in the room, which manifests itself either visually, aurally, or both. Those who have had such an experience often describe the strong sense of fear or even terror such presences provoke. One of the respondents to the sleep paralysis forum of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Neurology website gives an inkling of how frightening the nightmare can be. The man had fought for thirteen consecutive months in frontline combat in Korea, but said of his one nightmare attack in 1964: “Never, before or since, have I ever experienced the fear of that night.”

Sleep paralysis and nightmares have excited the interest of numerous psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists, and their studies and surveys can shed further light on the experience of witchcraft in past European societies. The nightmare encapsulates a unique aspect of human experience; a moment when reality, hallucination, and belief fuse to form powerful fantasies of supernatural violation. The paralytic nocturnal assault may play a statistically minor role in witchcraft accusations, but its influence on the development of the conception of the witch and associated beliefs may be far greater, though ultimately indemonstrable. The nightmare was not just a symptom, like other bodily conditions associated with witchcraft, but through its hallucinatory content was also a potent confirmation of a witch’s power and a vivid proof of guilt in some cases. With the nightmare, we find experience shaping witchcraft fantasies, and fantasies being shaped by witchcraft experience.

Sleep paralysis has been a topic of discussion amongst European and Chinese writers for more than two thousand years. The influential Greek physician Aelius Galenus examined the causation of the nightmare or ephialtes during the second-century AD, and a description of the experience appears in a Chinese book on dreams dated to as early as 400 BC. Descriptions of the “nightmare”, however, only appear in English in the later medieval period. One fourteenth-century manuscript describes, for example, how the “nightmare” lay on top of people at night, and the word was included in the earliest printed English-Latin dictionary, the ‘Promptorium parvulorum’ of 1499, where it is translated as “Epialtes, vel effialtes, geronoxa, et strix.” Cures for those suffering from the night “mare” appear in late Saxon manuscripts, though these make little mention of the actual symptoms. One of the most detailed early medieval accounts of the nightmare experience, concerning a twelfth-century English knight, Stephen of Hoyland, makes no reference to the “nightmare” because it is in Latin, and so the term “ephialtem” is used to describe Stephen’s “intolerabili phantasia vexari” and “in somnis oppressus”, which was attributed to a demon.

The main medical explanations for the experience up until the twentieth-century were based upon Aelius Galenus’ view that it was the result of gastric disturbances. These led either to noxious undigested vapours rising to the head and irritating the nervous system, or alternatively caused a distension of the stomach, which impeded circulation and led to stagnation of the blood. With the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis during the earlier twentieth-century, new explanations for the nightmare were sought in not a bodily malfunction but mental conflict. It was one of Sigmund Freud’s pupils, Ernest Jones, who put forward the most detailed psychoanalytical interpretation of the experience in his erudite study ‘On the Nightmare’ (1931). For Ernest Jones, the nightmare was symptomatic of pathological Angst neurosis resulting from repressed sexuality. His scholarly and highly imaginative approach to the subject certainly broadened our understanding of the nightmare experience, even if his interpretation was unconvincing. But it was only from the 1950s onwards, with the more sophisticated development of electroencephalography, that a series of scientific studies and surveys began to uncover the phases and nature of sleep episodes. Only then could we really begin to make sense of the physiology, phenomenology, and neurology of sleep paralysis.

Finally, from the 1970s onwards, the contemporary, comparative cultural aspects of sleep paralysis began to receive serious academic attention. In particular, the work of Robert Ness and David Hufford, linking the “Old Hag” phenomenon in Newfoundland with sleep paralysis and other similar cultural interpretations from around the world, brought the social significance of the experience to wider attention. Meanwhile some enjoyment was had spotting literary appearances of the nightmare, sightings being confirmed in the work of several nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novelists, such as Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Le Horla’, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Withered Arm’, Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, and Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ (Schneck 1994; Davies 1997; Herman 1997; Schneck 1971). The aim of this article is, then, to draw upon this diverse and growing body of knowledge to help us better understand the experience of witchcraft and other supernatural assault traditions in past European societies.

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