Episode 24: Shadow People
Episode 24: Shadow People
Hello listeners, and welcome back to another episode of the Mad Scientist Podcast! There have been a lot of big changes for me personally this month, and I just wanted to take a moment to thank you all for being so supportive of the show, and being so understanding during times where we haven’t been able to get episodes out exactly on time. I hope the double episodes released one after the other last time was something at least to make up for the slight delay, and in future if big changes or emergencies happen in the same way then I will try to do those double features, or at least one extra long roundtable or something to fill in the gap. Hopefully though now that I have graduated, moved to my new home state of Minnesota, and barring any Marie related joint explosions we should be all set to release each week on Wednesday, with roundtables and full episodes switching back and forth. This episode also would not have been possible without the help of my research team, including Megan Gaul, Naseem Jamnia, Dan Accetta, Justin Ramberger, Dinara Andirova, and of course Marie Mayhew. Thanks to them, this is probably one of the strongest episodes in terms of historical and philosophical research!
This week’s topic is one that I have been pretty interested in for a long time, mostly because it is one of the few paranormal topics that I felt a personal connection too. Today we’ll be talking about Shadow People, the ghostly or near ghostly apparitions people claim to often see out of the corner of their eyes, with the most extreme cases revolving around literal beings of inky darkness reaching out from the void to horrify and haunt those in the living world. Now I said that I have some personal connection to this phenomena, and the reasoning here is that frankly I wonder at times if I’ve seen shadow people, or at least something akin to what may be mistaken for shadow people by those who also experience them. I’m not talking about me heaving a physical interaction or altercation with a being of pure darkness as some have claimed, but rather what I have always taken too be simple tricks or mistakes of vision. So for example, I often mistake movements of what appear to be black objects just out of the corner of my eye for my cats. And this has been going on since forever, I remember as a kid being terrified of my basement stairs in particular, because I was certain that the dark objects I would sometimes see in my peripheral vision would surely one day catch my leg as I walked up the stairs and drag me back down. Sort of standard little kid being scared of their basement stuff, but something that has always stuck with me and made me particularly drawn to others with similar stories, and cases where these stories seem to become more serious than simple frightened kid stuff.
And this phenomena has become linked to other similar ideas out there in the paranormal soup. One particularly fascinating link is to the idea of the nightmare, a literal horse which at night would seemingly sit on ones chest, causing shortness of breath, paralysis, and extreme terror as an unseen or only partially visible specter appeared to be watching the proceedings. This today is known as sleep paralysis, but in the past has been thought to be caused by a variety of paranormal entities, and even today the phenomena of alien abduction is often mixed in with the sleep paralysis story.
On tonight’s episode, we will discuss the varieties of shadow people stories, how they link to historical cases of shadowy beings and specters, and what physiological or natural explanations might there be for such cases. So shut off the lights, pull out your spookiest flashlight, and prepare for this weeks episode of the Mad Scientist Podcast!
Episode 24: Shadow People and the
My first introduction to shadow people as a phenomena was sometime around middle school, so the years 2001-2003. I had a classmate tell me over lunch that he had a sleep paralysis experience pretty recently, one that he was certain was caused by a demonic presence in his home. This guy was very religious, although I knew him mostly from playing a game called slaps at the lunch tables, basically a game where you slap each others hands until the other person gives up in pain. So yea, a totally normal childhood acquaintance. So he explained to me that one night he woke up completely unable to move, and hardly able to breath. He felt a great pressure on his chest, almost like it was going to cave in his lungs, and that his arms and legs hurt from not being able to push against some unseen force. After a little while he began to notice a small black shape in the corner of the room in the darkness, one that didn’t grow but which he was certain was responsible for his current state. And the thing almost radiated a terrible and horrifying presence, he described being more scared than he could ever remember having been in the past, and how the thing seemed like it wanted to choke him to death. Eventually his breathing came back to normal, and he found himself able to move his arms and legs again, although I think he described not really remembering how it stopped, just kind of waking up in the morning with this vivid and horrible memory. And of course, despite the fact that this story was told underneath fluorescent lighting in a room stinking of Lemon Pledge and public school cafeteria meat, I was absolutely shaken. I was so comically scared this was going to happen to me, and so I immediately went online once I got home to google about the topic. Which brought me to the at that time hot topic of shadow people.
I can’t recall exactly where I read about them, but honestly if I was the middle schooler that I know I was, probably on the Something Awful forums or some paranormal image board somewhere. I read that they were dark masses, sometimes taking on the shapes of humans, often taking specific shapes in fact for all sorts of people, who either appeared at night to terrorize you from afar while you were in bed or who appeared out of the corner of your eye in your peripheral vision. Sometimes they could choke you, other times it seemed they started small and then grew more and more powerful over time, seemingly growing off of your fear until they became powerful enough to move objects or cause poltergeist like activity. In other cases they simply watched you, sometimes in oddly anachronistic clothing such as a top hat and three piece suit, other times taking on strange shapes like elongated spiders or black blobs. Their eyes were said to glow red or orange, although just as often they appeared without eyes at all, just black masses that stood out as the darkest part of a darkened room. And they didn’t just appear at night either, they would appear in the daytime out of the corner of your eye or just behind you, or maybe you could just feel them there, causing the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up when you were alone in your house. And interestingly, they often had a decidedly male presence to them, where even if you couldn’t necessarily see the clothing they wore or their facial features, you could just feel that it was a menacing, musty and manly presence. Stupid sexy shadow hunks!
Probably the modern story of shadow people really became popular on that bastion of all paranormal stories, Coast to Coast AM, where in 2001 an interview on the show discussed shadow people as a concept and asked listeners to submit their own drawings of shadow people they had seen. Following that the author Heidi Hollis sort of attempted to claim that she had not only discovered this historical phenomena, but that she had come up with the name shadow people as well. I’m not so certain about that claim obviously, but its sort of confirmed that she thought of the name the Hat Man for one specific sort of shadow person that people see. But I mean, that’s sort of like I don’t know, saying you came up with the name Bagel-Pizza after you stuck some mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce on a bagel then stuck it in the oven. Or maybe a better analogy is that friend who just discovered Doctor Who or something, and tries to tell everyone about this worldwide-phenomena that’s been going on for over 20 years. Except this one has been discussed since the time of the ancient Greeks, just never with a fancy hat and trenchcoat. Anyways, Heidi Hollis claims that these shadow people are actually linked to aliens and are being used by them or even are aliens, here on Earth to spread evil and take over humanity or something. I can’t seem to find out exactly what it is that these aliens are doing here on Earth from her website, however I have been told numerous times that the only way to stop them and arm myself against them is to buy her numerous books on Amazon.
Look, we are just going to dispense with the idea of shadow people as alien creatures or multi-dimensional things for this episode. We have an upcoming special on aliens I promise you, and the multi-dimensional or vibrational argument we’ve already sort of covered and I’m sure it will come up again. There is just no evidence for these claims, and in many ways they are impossible to refute or verify because they are not scientific in their premises. Again, what makes something scientific versus not in my estimation at least is that taken by Karl Popper. Can it be refuted? Is the hypothesis stated plainly enough to be testable, or is it a logical problem that has no real answer that can be determined through testing. In other words, are we trying to disprove a hypothesis or prove it? If prove it, then we aren’t doing good science. And in many cases the search for shadow people “evidence” is the search for evidence of their existence, not evidence to overcome the scientific arguments as to what they are.
In many ways the Shadow person story is very similar to other night time terrors, which have a very long history with different cultures ascribing different scenarios or mechanisms to explain what we now know are sleep disorders, so things like sleep paralysis, night-terrors or even simple nightmares or dreams themselves. There is a lot of various ground we could cover on an episode about Shadow People if we wanted to get into the explanation of them as a physiological response to lack of oxygen during sleep such as that caused by Sleep Apnea, or even something like a night-terror or sleep paralysis, and all of the various other things that may be explicable in similar terms. For instance one very commonly linked idea to that of the Shadow Person as a misreading or incorrect attribution of nightmares or sleep-paralysis symptoms is that of alien abductions, or maybe more correctly alien “watching” at nighttime. This is the scenario where the person feels as if they are stuck in bed, but that there is some other being or person in the room who they can see almost flitting into and out of existence, although at some times they do appear to be solid. We aren’t going to get into the similarity ideas too much on this episode, since Shadow People have become a waking phenomena as well, and this isn’t an episode on abductions although I promise one is forthcoming. But the shadow person story just wouldn’t be complete without some description of sleep paralysis, and the history of ghostly or demonic explanations for various sleep disorders.
First off, I want to start with an interesting narrative case my research team found for me. The story goes as follows, and I hope that if the person who wrote this in is listening that it is alright that I use your story. It was posted online, so I’m assuming it is alright to repeat here, and there was no contact person listed to e-mail about permission on this particular experience. Anyways, here goes: http://shadowpeople.dotster.com/main/shortyshadow.html
Approximately 2-3 weeks ago, I came home from work to find that my 9 year old daughter had accidently removed the finish on my kitchen table with nail polish remover. I was angry and sent her to her room.
Her Father and brother were asleep and I was downstairs doing bills. When I finished, I made my way upstairs.
As I walked up the stairs I heard what I thought was my daughter chanting. As I got closer to her room, I realized that she was not chanting, she was saying, "Leave me alone...leave me alone…", again and again. When my daughter saw me, she jumped in sheer fear. I never saw such a look of fear on my daughter. I of course sent her into our bed.
The next morning I asked her to explain in detail what she had seen. She explained that she saw a shadow on her desk. It had a hood from a side view then turned its head towards her to peer at her. She states seeing red eyes. She also said there was another shadow that was tall with long legs and moved quickly to hide. When my daughter told it to leave her alone, she heard, " Shhh...Shhhh...Shhh"
I did not see anything...I do listen to my daughter and believe her. I researched online. It explains all different types of shadow people. Apparently, the hood shadow person is the most evil. What the heck!!!!
My daughter also stated hearing the footsteps first and the dogs barking outside, then everything became quiet.
What do they want.....why do they lurk around my girl.
So I mentioned that historically, the idea of a ghost being a shadow or shade was actually quite common. And when I say shade it refers more to the European idea here, and its not entirely clear whether or not shade is sort of a poetic description of a ghost or a literal shadow. But there is evidence to support the latter idea, which we’ll get into in a second. One people who did in fact discuss these things as literal shadow people were Native Americans, and in particular I found some interesting stories about the Choctaw Indians, although I am sure there are plenty more out there. The Choctaw Indians are a people who pre colonization held territory in what is today the modern Southern United States, from Louisiana to Florida basically. They have a belief in what are known as the inside and outside shadow of a person, or in their language which I am definitely going to destroy here called the shilup and shilombish. The inside shadow or shilup is the soul of the person, while the outside shadow is the one we see everyday. After death, the shilombish or your outside shadow would wander the Earth, scaring your friends and family from the place where you had died, a practice that probably helped them in the past survive and keep away from dangerous places. The Choctaw also had stories of other shadow people, such as Nalusa Chito, the great black being, who would possess those who were depressed and over time consume their souls. Or the legitimately scary Nalusa Falaya, who looked like a very tall thin man, but who moved by sliding on his stomach like a giant snake. As if Florida wasn’t scary enough.
The idea of a ghost or the soul being linked to the shadow, or the darker side of humans or death, was also common in European thought. There is a little bit of a problem with translation here of course, for example in the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri he uses the word ombra to mean both a shadow of an object as well as the shade or ghostly vestiges of a person. This quote on the subject is from the University of Texas at Austins phenomenal website on the Divine Comedy called Danteworlds. This is discussing Canto 25 from Purgatory.
The Italian word ombra in Dante's lexicon means both "shadow" (as in the shadow cast by a body) and "shade" (a term for the form of the soul in the afterlife). On the terrace of lust, as Dante's very real body prepares for its most challenging test, the poet shows--via a lecture by Statius--how the two meanings of ombra combine to encapsulate the fundamental relationship between life and afterlife. When the soul leaves the body, Statius explains, it "impresses" the body's form on the surrounding air (as saturated air is adorned with colors of a rainbow), and the resulting "virtual" body follows the spirit just as a flame follows fire. This new form therefore goes by the name of "shade" / "shadow" (ombra): as a "shadow" follows--and repeats the form of--a real body, so the "shade" takes on all bodily parts and functions (25.85-108).
The word ombra, by exemplifying the relationship between real bodies and their virtual representation after death, points to a basic premise of the Divine Comedy, the reciprocal bond between this world and the hereafter: individuals, through their actions, determine the state of their souls for eternity, while Dante's vision of the afterlife reflects and potentially shapes the world of time and history.
And this idea of a ghostly spirit or even the soul being a shadow of the previous person is pretty common throughout the ancient or pre-modern worlds. In Ancient Egypt for example they considered the shadow to contain some portion of the persons essence or soul, in ancient Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic cultures you had the idea that the land of the dead was the land of shadow, where shades floated down to Hades to float within the rivers and pools for all eternity, and in the modern world we have ideas about what the shadow represents right? I mean we fight Shadow Link in the Legend of Zelda or Shadow Sora in Kingdom Hearts to overcome our darker side, we believed that witches or vampires cast no shadow, or that the shadow could be sold to the devil or a demon. And this idea of the shade or ombra in Latin being a shadow person is more than just a simple translation error. In fact, they seem to have taken on some of the properties of souls in some tellings historically. One explicit reference to this sort of idea, or at least of the soul being linked to the shadow of a person in the English historical tradition, comes from a fairy tale popular at the time. This is the story of the Woman who had no Shadow. It goes something like this.
There was once a pastors wife, who was afraid of getting pregnant. She was young and didn’t want to be burdened by a family yet. So she went to an old witch who lived in the forest, and asked her for some way to delay having children. The witch told her that to do this she would need to take 7 special stones to a mountain well and throw them down in order to stop herself from getting pregnant. So the woman did as she was told, and with each drop of the stone thought she heard the shriek of a child, but with each stone thrown down the well her dread and anxiety left her. Some time later, as the pastor and his wife were walking through the town he noticed that she didn’t have a shadow! He became terribly frightened, and declared that his wife must have committed a terrible sin for God to have cursed her in this way, and that she must confess as soon as possible. When she finally did confess, he was so troubled and upset at what she had done that he declared she would only find God’s forgiveness if a bed of flowers spread from the church roof, and he shunned her from his home. Many years later the pastor is sitting at home with his new family, and a beggar woman comes to the door, who is promptly given food and refuge for the night. Come morning she is dead, and the pastor, seeing her face, recognizes her as his first wife who he had shunned! At the exact moment he sees the face his children shout come to the front father, there are flowers growing from the roof!
And this idea of witches or shadow-ghosts or shadow-spirits being linked is a common one in the medieval period, and continued from that period. For instance, there is the story of Peter Schlemihl, who sold his shadow to the Devil for an endless bag of money, one of the many versions of the sell your soul to the Devil story. But it isn’t just as a version of the soul or some important part of our humanity that the shadow existed at this time, the idea of shadow-spirit or shadow-ghost continued from the time of Dante, although in some interesting ways. This is discussed in some detail in the book “Magic and Religion in Medieval England”, which says the following while discussing flying females or witches going to the Sabbath, or at least to drink some wine and party with demons:
“For other English churchmen, the mysterious flying beings had yet other names. One anonymous fourteenth-century writer called them umbrarii. This unusual Latin word was related to umbra, shadow, and it was used in earlier centuries to mean a necromancer, but in this text it seems to mean a being, not necessarily human, who goes about at night; “shadow-people” is perhaps a better translation. The priest should ask his penitent if he believes men and umbrarri go about. However it can be believed without sin that demons deceive people in such a way that they think the demons are fashioning themselves into the forms of human beings.”
The book goes on to discuss other similar sorts of beings, specifically those named by the monk Robert Rypon as phitones or phitonissae who rode those afflicted at night through the air to others homes to steal wine and food. And although these beings were originally female, they stopped having this female connotation or description as time went on.
This section is interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, it shows with more detail that people were describing shadow people or at least ghosts as shades or shadows of their previous selves as far back as the middle ages in English, and even farther back in American Indian legends, so like, no, claims to have discovered this phenomena or invented that term are just as true as Peggy Hill claiming she invented a delicious dish of spaghetti and fried meat spheres in red sauce that she has titled “Spa-Peggy and Meatballs”. At most you re-coined or re-introduced a term that was once very popularly used to describe ghosts, and a particular sort of shadow ghost which was linked to the shadow/soul idea we just detailed. Ok, end Rant. The very intriguing idea at least for the team and I with these sections is this idea that shadow people could be female versus male is a really interesting one. In modern telling shadow people are almost ALWAYS male, with interesting variants existing such as the Monk or the Hat Man. But in the past shadow people could very much be female, and in fact for a period appeared to be exclusively female or even animal in form.
I think in many ways this actually has something to do with human sexuality progressing from the middle-ages, at least a little bit. We’ve talked about how Shadow People experiences at nighttime are likely linked to sleep paralysis, since the descriptions are almost exactly the same as those that we see from those who have in fact been shown to suffer from sleep paralysis through medical testing. For example, those who suffer from Narcolepsy have a very high rate of sleep paralysis, since their disorder is linked to the incorrect signaling between sleeping stages, which is ultimately what appears to cause sleep paralysis as we’ll get into in a little bit. And one interesting historical issue with sleep paralysis is its explanations over time. Many cultures have different explanations for sleep paralysis, for instance the idea of a Nightmare was literally meant to be a shadowy horse who sat on ones chest while in a state of sleep paralysis, unable to breath or move but seemingly being awake. This morphed throughout different cultures, with it sometimes being an ogre, or a demon, or maybe nothing that you could see at all. One interesting version of this sleep paralysis demon is the succubus or incubus, a demon whose sole interest was having sex with the sleeping person. Now the reason I say that the idea of female shadow people or sleep paralysis hallucinations maybe stopping with our acceptance of sexuality ever so slightly more with time is that we no longer suggest that what is scientifically termed nighttime emissions, but which is commonly referred to as a wet dream, are caused by demons coming into your home to collect your precious teenaged DNA, but are caused by thinking about how nicely that girl in your math classes braces go with her hair. And since male emissions are the only ones that actually emit anything tangible, just maybe we’ve stopped looking for demons to explain those embarrassing trips to the Laundromat.
Ghostly ectoplasms aside, different cultures and time periods within the same culture do have different demons or ghosts or whatever to explain sleep paralysis symptoms. One really good piece on this the team dug up for me was from the Proceedings of a Postgraduate Research Seminar in Japanese Studies from Oxford Brookes University in the UK, by Anna Schegoleva. It starts off with a really great quote from the work Sleep, by Murakami Haruki, describing the female protagonists sleep paralysis symptoms.
I remember with perfect clarity that first night I lost the ability to sleep. I was having a repulsive dream - a dark, slimy dream. I do not remember what it was about, but I do remember how it felt: ominous and terrifying. I woke up at the climactic moment - came fully awake from the start, as if something had dragged me back at the last moment from a fatal turning point. Had I remained immersed in the dream for another second, I would have been lost forever. After I awoke, my breath came in painful grasps for a time. My arms and legs felt paralysed. I lay there immobilized, listening to my own laboured breathing, as if I were stretched out full-length on the floor of a huge cavern. ~ Murakami Haruki, Sleep
The work goes over some fascinating personal experience of the author in working in Japan, and talking to students about their personal sleep paralysis symptoms. In Japan, the term for sleep paralysis or the phenomena anyways is called kanashibari. Ms. Shegoleva describes how her students talk about the same symptoms as Americans seem to have, but with different causes. One common one is the main character in the Ring, another is an unknown neighbor or random people, and others are the familiar ghostly apparitions. Along with the Japanese experience of sleep paralysis is a sound, almost a ringing but which could also be any repetitive sound it seems, such as laughter or footsteps or screeching whines. It’s interesting that the visual or auditory symptoms aren’t the same as in the US but the physical ones are, which to me suggests a cultural link as well as a biological one. But of course, true believers will argue that it is the ghost or demon or whatever MAKING us see what we want, an argument I think is ridiculous and untenable, since it is a tautology at its root. I mean, ultimately it becomes “Everything we experience can be altered by a demon or ghost”, back to Descartes old problem, something we’ve already dealt with at least as a pragmatic matter, if not for a completely metaphysical one.
Regardless of that infinitely regressive argument, sleep paralysis is pretty different around the world, but again its only different in the auditory or visual hallucinations, not in the physical symptoms. This is relatively strong evidence for a cultural connection to popular views at the time, so a biological or psychological explanation and not a paranormal one, and is laid out in a lot of good papers but particular the one by Cheyne et al in Consciousness and Cognition is interesting.
So in Newfoundland in Canada for instance sleep paralysis is described as old hag syndrome, for the giant old women people claim to be sitting on their chests at night. In China it is called being pressed by a ghost, again with all of the same physiological symptoms but not the same hallucinogenic ones. And in the same culture our explanations for sleep paralysis have changed with time. So in American and European cultures the once popular explanation of a witch or a witches demonic helper being the cause of sleep paralysis symptoms has now been replaced with people seeing shadow beings or aliens in their rooms. In fact sleep paralysis appears to have been described in the Salem Witch trials as part of evidence of witchcraft, take this deposition for example as evidence against the accused witch Susanah Martin: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/BoySal2R?div_id=n92
The deposion of Robert Downer of Salsbery aged 52 years who testify and say
That several years ago susanna martin the then wif of Georg martin being brought to Court for a wich the said Downer having som words with her (she at that time attending mrs. Light at Salsbury) This deponent among other things told her be leeved that shee was a wich by w't was s'd or wittnesd against her at w'ch shee seeming not well afected s'd that a or some shee devel woold fech him away shortly at w'ch this deponent was not much moved: but at night as he lay in his bed in his owne house alone ther came at his window the liknes of a catt and by and by com up to his bed took fast hold of his throt and Lay hard upon him a Consderibl while and was lik to throtl him at Length he minded w't susana martin thretned him with the day be fore he strove w't he coold and sayd avoyd thou shee divell in the name of the father & the son & the holy Ghost & then itt Lett him go & slumpt down upon the flower and went out at window againe
he farther sayth that the next morning befor ever he [he] had sayd any thing of it som of that family asked him about it (as from her owne)
So alright, what is sleep paralysis? Well, a good description of it is from that paper by Cheyne et al. in their abstract. Here it is in its entirety:
Hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHEs) accompanying sleep paralysis (SP) are often cited as sources of accounts of supernatural nocturnal assaults and paranormal experiences. Descriptions of such experiences are remarkably consistent across time and cultures and consistent also with known mechanisms of REM states. A three-factor structural model of HHEs based on their relations both to cultural narratives and REM neurophysiology is developed and tested with several large samples. One factor, labeled Intruder, consisting of sensed presence, fear, and auditory and visual hallucinations, is conjectured to originate in a hypervigilant state initiated in the midbrain. Another factor, Incubus, comprising pressure on the chest, breathing difficulties, and pain, is attributed to effects of hyperpolarization of motoneurons on perceptions of respiration. These two factors have in common an implied alien ‘‘other’’ consistent with occult narratives identified in numerous contemporary and historical cultures. A third factor, labeled Unusual Bodily Experiences, consisting of floating/flying sensations, out-of-body experiences, and feelings of bliss, is related to physically impossible experiences generated by conflicts of endogenous and exogenous activation related to body position, orientation, and movement. Implications of this last factor for understanding of orientational primacy in self-consciousness are considered. Central features of the model developed here are consistent with recent work on hallucinations associated with hypnosis and schizophrenia
So to un-science that description, sleep paralysis is the condition where you seemingly awake from sleep only to be unable to move your body. You may feel an intense fear or panic, you may experience difficulty breathing or feel as if a pressure is on your chest, and you may also see something in the room with you. Biologically what is occurring at least in theory is that your brain during sleep has turned off or turned on a bunch of features that are useful for us while sleeping. Specifically this occurs during rapid eye movement or REM sleep, a state that occurs throughout sleeping in cycles of about 90 to 120 minutes and where your brain is firing off in the visual centers of the brain like crazy, creating dreams and other affects. Sleep cycles between REM and non-REM sleep, with non-REM sleep being the period where your brain sort of doesn’t fire as much and where dreams will not occur.
Sleep paralysis occurs during REM sleep specifically, and we believe happens basically because some parts of your brain wake up while others stay in their REM sleep functions. We don’t have the exact mechanism understood to date as to why this occurs, like with anything with the brain frankly, however the major thinking on this is that it occurs because of some disturbance between how your brain is signaling that you should wake up versus that you should stay asleep, or even in the signaling to say which sleep state you are coming into. In people with sleep paralysis it turns out that they do not block outside stimuli as well as an average brain does during sleep, meaning they are more easily awakened by external stimuli for instance, and its also been found that they have shorter or disturbed sleep patterns, so their REM sleep periods may be fragmented as opposed to occurring at regular intervals between Non-REM sleep. This is supported by the fact that sleep paralysis is more common in people with diagnosed disorders of sleep patterns such as Narcolepsy. Another factor potentially is that the ability for the brain to tell itself to wake up versus to stay asleep may be out of whack in people with sleep paralysis. The thinking goes that the cells which tell you to wake up are under-active, while those that tell you to stay asleep may be over-active. This causes partial waking, and with the increased ease of being awoken by external stimuli means that there are more chances to be partially awoken only to have your brain not overcome the boundaries required to become fully awakened. We know at the very least that there is a genetic component here, so something biologically is definitely happening!
Alright, so what causes the symptoms of sleep paralysis? Well, during REM sleep your brain paralyzes your movement so that you won’t act out what is happening in dreams. Your brain also shuts off your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is our logic center basically, and so your dreams or whatever become wacky as hell, but your experience of them becomes very vivid and real like in a dream. Your breathing also may appear to be more labored, since you aren’t used to being awake to breath during REM sleep where shallow rapid breathing is the norm, and where things like sleep apnea or blocked airways might be exacerbating your troubled sleeping patterns in the first place. Your inability to breath and sense of helplessness causes your brain to then just, pretty much go into extreme threat level response, a state called threat hyper-vigilance. This is basically a state where your mind perceives imminent danger to your body, causing it to go into a heightened sensory state where it scans the surroundings for any particular threat and brings out the fight or flight response. It’s this hyper-vigilance state that causes the anxiety attacks often accompanying sleep paralysis, and may even contribute to the sense of their being some negative force or energy attacking your body, with your brain basically doing somersaults to try and find ANY threat that it can detect in order to stop the source of danger, which in this case is the feeling of paralysis and suffocation. Interestingly, hyper-vigilance causes you to search the surrounding environment during the perceived danger for anything that may be reminiscent to past threats or traumas, potentially being the reason why cultural items such as the character from the Ring in Japan or witches in the 1700’s may have appeared to be the culprits of such attacks. And these hyper-vigilant periods can be extremely vivid and convincing, I mean this is basically the state that people think of when they are asked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where a soldier maybe is set off by a loud noise and thinks she or he is back on the battlefield. So the accompanying panicked responses and potential hallucinations on top of that from still being within the dream state can create all kinds of extremely terrifying situations for those suffering from sleep paralysis.
And another section of the brain which doesn’t function normally during sleep is the temporoparietal junction. This part of the brain is responsible for creating our sensory map of our bodies, so sort of knowing where all your limbs are at any given time based on the sensory input from the limbs. It is also responsible for our sense of self versus other, and its turned off during REM sleep. Now there have been some hypothesis put forward that this is due to things like out of body experiences, for which there is actually relatively good evidence since we can cause an out of body experience by disrupting this part of the brain. Its also likely that this part of the brain is responsible for things like phantom limb pains or feelings in those who have lost an arm or a leg, and at least one team of researchers from UC San Diego have proposed that this same turned off region of the brain may be responsible for the sense of an “other” or being in the room during sleep paralysis. Particularly they suggest that the same phantom limb like syndrome may be occurring to the entire body, causing a mental projection of your entire body map to be visual to you during sleep paralysis. So people partially wake up or gain some control of their senses during REM sleep, but the brain doesn’t turn back on all the parts it normally would for you to be awake per se. You notice that you can hardly breath, causing you to panic, causing it to become harder to breath, causing you to panic even worse. Your brain starts to hunt for some perceived source of the paralysis and troubled breathing, when your hyper-vigilant state notices some other presence in the room. Your brain than conflates these different factors together, causing you to either see directly or sense a shadowy outline of a human body in the room, who is the source of your paralysis and trying to suffocate you. Eventually you either wake up fully, or fall back asleep, with the shadow figure never fully being capable of suffocating you. You wake up, throw your wetted sheets into the laundry, and buy a few of those Saint Michael scented candles they sell at the dollar store.
So alright, I think we’ve outlined how sleep paralysis is something none of us listening, and at least this host, never want to experience. Interestingly though, it’s been found that having a logical response to sleep paralysis or at least knowing beforehand that it is a possibility and knowing the symptoms may cause the threat hyper-vigilance and panic associated with waking up partially paralyzed be far less pronounced or at least help to deal with that panic. This method is known as Meditation-relaxation therapy, and although there is anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness there are not yet any randomized clinical trials to prove its use. The most effective way to deal with sleep paralysis appears to be having better sleeping patterns and hygiene. Basically get enough sleep, go to sleep at the same time each night, and try to sleep in a position that allows for good airflow!
I think that the sleep paralysis argument is probably the most interesting or convincing one out there for the nighttime version of the shadow people story, and this type of shadow person encounter seems to be far and away the most common I’ve found online. The second most common though is feeling a presence or sensing something behind you or in the room with you, and out of the corner of your eye or as you just turn your head seeing a black shape which quickly jumps out of the way or seemingly disappears. Now as a person who has many times mistaken a bag on the floor or a shadow for my cat, I’m probably not the most reliable person when it comes to sensing the outside world with my peripheral vision. But there have been some very interesting studies suggesting that the shadow person phenomena where you see a black human like shape out of the corner of your eye is potentially just a trick of the body and the mind. Interestingly, it seems that we can actually stimulate the brain to sense a shadow person in the laboratory, although we discovered it by accident.
Doctors at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland led the research, and were basically trying to treat a 22 year old woman with epilepsy by stimulating the left temporoparietal junction, that part of the brain we talked about earlier about sleep paralysis being the cause of shadow people during these sleep encounters. When stimulated with electrodes, the patient claimed to sense a sinister shadow figure behind her who copied her actions. Here is a section from the study published in Nature in 2006.
When stimulated at this region (for methods, see supplementary information; current amplitude, 10.0 mA) in a supine position, the patient had the impression that somebody was behind her. Further stimulation (10.0–11.0 mA; n = 43) induced the same experience, with the patient describing the "person" as young and of indeterminate sex, a "shadow" who did not speak or move, and whose position beneath her back was identical to her own ("He is behind me, almost at my body, but I do not feel it"; Fig. 1b).
During the next stimulation (11.0 mA; n = 1), the patient sat and embraced her knees with her arms (Fig. 1c). She noted that the "man" was now also sitting and that he was clasping her in his arms, which she described as an unpleasant feeling. Further stimulations (11.0 mA; n = 2) were applied while the seated patient performed a naming (language-testing) task using a card held in her right hand (Fig. 1d): she again reported the presence of the sitting "person", this time displaced behind her to her right and attempting to interfere with the execution of her task ("He wants to take the card"; "He doesn't want me to read"). Similar effects were observed for different positions and postures (see supplementary information) when stimuli exceeding 10 mA were applied to the same site on the left temporoparietal junction.
So pretty creepy what the brain can do when hit with electrodes. And obviously it doesn’t need to be electrodes causing this, it can be a simple misfiring of the temporoparietal junction or some damage to the head, or even genetics that cause this region to be overactive or something. Obviously further study needs to happen, but it is extremely interesting that we can make this happen in a laboratory.
Another argument I’ve sort of hinted at in previous episodes is that it might just be a physical reaction to the eyeball being messed with or extremely tired. For instance, meth addicts evidently report quite frequent interactions with shadow people, likely due to both an increased paranoia due to the drug, lack of sleep from being tweaked all the time, and rapid and more often blinking caused again by the meth making their eyes see all kinds of weird shapes and things in the corners of their eyes. Now obviously the vast majority of people who see Shadow People are not on methamphetamines, but it is an interesting connection to a set of physical conditions on a population. Another more tenable argument is that these sightings are caused by infrasound, and specifically a infrasound wave at the resonant frequency of the human eyeball, may be causing us to have sight defects and therefore observe what we take to be shadow people but which are in reality our eyes jiggling in our skulls like ping pong balls. This argument was made famous by Vic Tandy in his paper published in the journal of the Society for Psychical research. The story goes that Vic was working late at night one evening alone in a haunted place in Warwick in the UK, when he began to feel extremely anxious and seeing weird dark shapes in his peripheral vision, but which were not there when he went to look. The next day though when he was working on a piece of equipment he noticed that his tools kept vibrating like crazy, something that suggested some unseen pressure or sound wave that he wasn’t detecting but which was definitely in the room. Eventually they found that this was caused by a fan in the room, which was emitting a frequency of sound at approximately 19 Hz, which is quite close to the resonant frequency of the eyeball which is 18 Hz as determined by NASA, a piece of information obtained to ensure astronaut safety. They have since published a few works investigating this affect and some other haunted places, in all cases finding that the frequency does in fact appear to be present in the haunted areas they have investigated, which as far as I can see are 3 to date. Interestingly though, it is not just the frequency being present but also the design of the room which causes an amplified enough signal of sound to cause ghost sightings or anxiety. So even though your eye may jiggle a little bit when exposed to infrasound near 18 Hz, it has to be amplified to such a degree that the effect becomes noticeable and pronounced for a dark blob or shadow person to be seen. This only happens in rooms with the correct length and widths, and may also make one part of a room have a stronger amplitude of sound wave than another, similar to how different rooms have different acoustic properties. And infrasound is something that affects us in other spooky ways too. This quote is from an article on infrasound in Popular Science on using infrasound as a weapon in wartime.
“People don't usually think of infrasound as sound at all. You can hear very low-frequency sounds at levels above 88–100 dB down to a few cycles per second, but you can't get any tonal information out of it below about 20Hz—it mostly just feels like beating pressure waves. And like any other sound, if presented at levels above 140 dB, it is going to cause pain. But the primary effects of infrasound are not on your ears but on the rest of your body.
Because infrasound can affect people's whole bodies, it has been under serious investigation by military and research organizations since the 1950s, largely the Navy and NASA, to figure out the effects of low-frequency vibration on people stuck on large, noisy ships with huge throbbing motors or on top of rockets launching into space. As with seemingly any bit of military research, it is the subject of speculation and devious rumors. Among the most infamous developers of infrasonic weapons was a Russian-born French researcher named Vladimir Gavreau. According to popular media at the time (and far too many current under-fact-checked web pages), Gavreau started to investigate reports of nausea in his lab that supposedly disappeared once a ventilator fan was disabled. He then launched into a series of experiments on the effects of infrasound on human subjects, with results (as reported in the press) ranging from subjects needing to be saved in the nick of time from an infrasonic "envelope of death" that damaged their internal organs to people having their organs "converted to jelly" by exposure to an infrasonic whistle.”
More recently Christopher French from Goldsmiths at the University of London College and a person who is a bit of a personal hero of mine built a haunted room, one with infrasonic generators pumping sound from 18.9 to 22.3 Hz and electromagnetic pulses at 50 Mictroteslas, significantly higher than normal levels from things like radios or TV sets. They had 79 people enter the room, and here is what Mr. French had to say about the results:
Most people reported at least some slightly odd sensation, such as a presence or feeling dizzy, and some reported terror, which we hadn'’t expected," French says. "Terror is obviously quite an extreme reaction, and we only anticipated getting reports of mildly anomalous sensations in the context of this particular experiment."
However, his original hope, that EMFs played some role in these responses, where not fully validated to the researchers liking. Still, it is a tantalizing clue, and a very interesting experiment that honestly I would love to do some day. Maybe in 10 years when I make enough money at work I can build myself a haunted room and invite listeners to check it out. That will be my midlife crisis, maybe I can even put flames on the outside so it looks like it goes really fast.
Anyways, I think this episode has a few really key takeaways. We haven’t disproved shadow people, I mean there are cases where people claim that the things move objects or are seen in the daytime full on, and there are cases where things get more extreme into the realm of possession or attack in more profound ways than can be explained by sleep paralysis. But I do think that the vast majority of cases can be explained by the arguments laid out here, namely sleep paralysis and normal problems with our ability to distinguish and understand physiological affects on our sensory apparatus. I mean you would never know that infrasound was affecting you or even present in a given room unless you had a tool to measure it, so I would wager it is at least partially responsible for some of the daytime sightings of the “black shadow in my periphery” variety. Another topic we didn’t really get into but which is frankly an important one for everyone to realize is that hallucinations or what we may like to call bad sensory information or mistakes in our sight, hearing, smell, whatever, are significantly more common than people realize. I mean we very rarely discuss these things with others for fear of being told we are losing our minds, but almost everyone has had some sensory mistake or misperception in their lifetimes, whether it’s a dream that seemed almost too real, or misremembering the name of family of Bears, or being certain that a given person was at a given event, or even seeing stars after strenuous activity or fuzz when you rub your eyeballs too hard and for too long. What we sense is always being understood and translated by the brain into digestible and understandable pieces, and so it only makes sense that sometimes it would get things wrong. And so I think in many ways, if we all accepted that this stuff happens more frequently than we imagine it does, maybe we could talk about these things in a sensible way and get to the bottom of some of these things, or at least maybe find some commonality about them.
Well, that’s it for this weeks episode. I’d like to take a second to thank our latest Patrons Martijn and the Not Alone Podcast. Your support means more than you know, and helps keep the show going. And thank you to my listeners of course. We have gotten 4 entries to the be a Mad Scientist Contest this month, and we will be discussing the winner on next weeks episode! I’m really excited, and hope that the next one will bring in even more entries. We’ll be back in a week with the next roundtable! The logos of the show were designed by Keri Sheheen, and we now have merchandise available up on our website through Threadless.com, so if you want a cool shirt or Mug or something go check it out! Thank you again for listening.