Doctors get to grips with tokoloshes, witches and aliens

Sunday Times, South Africa, July 18, 1999
By Charmain Naidoo

THERE could be a new medical explanation for "tokoloshe" hauntings, alien abductions and night terrors: doctors are calling it sleep paralysis, a disorder that is the result of a disconnection between the brain and the body when a person is on the edge of sleep.

And it is turning out to be increasingly common. Recent studies in Canada, Japan, China and the US have suggested that sleep paralysis may strike at least 40 to 50 percent of all people at least once.

The New York Times cites the example of Jean Christophe Terrillon, a Canadian physicist doing research in Japan, who wakes up about once a week sensing the presence of a threatening, evil being beside his bed.

Terrified, he tries to move or cry for help, but is paralysed. He hears a ringing in his ears and feels a great weight on his chest as he struggles for breath. Sometimes he finds himself transported upward, looking down on his body.

Japan is the world leader in sleep-paralysis research.

The Japanese call it kanashibari and Kazuhiko Fukuda, a psychologist at Fukushima University in Japan, says it could explain claims of witchcraft and alien abduction.

He says: "We have a framework for it, but in North America there is no concept for people to understand what has happened to them."

In Newfoundland, Canada, a study found that more than 60 percent of the people surveyed had experienced "the terror".

In that region, the disorder is called "old hag" because it brings to mind an image of an old witch sitting on the chest of the paralysed sleeper - sometimes throttling them with her wizened hands.

Researchers have found that, while the symptoms of sleep paralysis might be similar, the images in the hallucinations and the interpretation of them vary from country to country.

In ancient Europe (as suggested by art and literature) sleep paralysis was seen as an abduction by witches who took the sleeper off on a broomstick ride. In China, it was called gui ya, or "ghost pressure", where a ghost sat on and assaulted the sleeper.

In the West Indies, it was called kokma - a baby ghost who jumped on the sleeper's chest and tightened its grip on the throat.

In Japan, it was a giant devil who placed its foot on the sleeper's chest. Now that witches on broomsticks have moved into the realm of disbelief, alien abductions have become the fashionable reason for the malady.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of people reporting alien kidnappings - all of whom tell of sensing a presence, hearing strange nonsensical sounds, seeing shadowy creatures in the room and experiencing immobility, a crushing pressure and pain all over the body.

There is also the sensation of floating or flying, hence the belief that the person is being transported to an alien ship.

However, there are those - including John E Mack, a Harvard University Medical School professor who believes in the possibility of alien abductions - who think that the sleep paralysis theory does not fit the evidence.

Despite years of study, especially in the last decade, sleep paralysis remains something of a mystery.

Experts cannot even say with certainty whether people are awake or sleeping when they are paralysed. Sleep paralysis seems to occur when the body enters REM - or rapid eye movement - sleep, when the body turns itself off and disconnects from the brain.

What researchers do not know is what occurs in the brain during sleep paralysis.

The person experiencing the paralysis feels awake and sees the room clearly, but experiments in Japan show that some people experiencing sleep paralysis do not even open their eyes.

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