I used to suffer periodic bouts of Sleep Paralysis. For those who are both not in “the know” and too lazy to click on the given link, this is a rather bizarre medical condition in which (as the name would imply) a sleeper wakes up completely paralyzed, with the sensation of a heavy weight crushing down upon her chest; it may be accompanied by terrifying auditory and visual hallucinations, and the sense that another, generally malign presence is with her in the room. The classical manifestation of these delusions is that of the “Old Hag,” an evil, cackling old lady who is seen to crouch upon her victim’s chest and try to push her into the bed (hence the archaic English term “hag-ridden“). The “Hag” generally strikes while people are sleeping in the supine position (lying face-up), and it occurs most often during periods of extreme stress. I’d been experiencing this about once every year-and-half or so from the age of ten onwards. Finally, when I was in first-year university (the day before a calculus exam, no less) I had my last serious bout of this. I had been dreaming about Monks in a twelfth century monastery at the time (I’d been forced to read the Rule of Saint Benedict for mediaeval history that week), and, in my somnalent fashion, I began to wonder how such monks would react if one of their number suffered sleep paralysis. I suddenly got the impression that “The Hag was Coming” and, before I knew it, I awoke to find myself lying flat upon back, powerless and motionless, gasping for air as a sinister old witch throttled me. I couldn’t see her, mind you; I could only hear her dry and monstrous cackle. In desperation, I started biting madly (my jaw was the only part of my body over which I retained conscious control), hoping to chomp down upon my attackers nose…
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Instantly I was overwhelmed by a wave of euphoria, as it dawned on me that the “cackling” that I had heard was nothing more than my delirious interpretation of my own struggling attempts to breathe. I would wager that similar misinterpretations were responsible for the association of the Sleep Paralysis with evil Hags in the first place; doubtless people have gasped for breath, heard it as cackling, and let their still-half-asleep brains fill in the details. After a few minutes of reflection there on my bed, it occured to me that the altered state of consciousness could easily have been induced in some way by a magnetic field; the nervous system is, after all, based upon the interactions of charged ions, and a magnetic field as the cause would go a long towards explaining the apparent orientation-dependence of the condition (i.e, why it afflicts primarily people lying in the suppine position); moreover there is some (albeit not super-reliable) evidence to suggest it may be possible to induce religious ecstasy using magnetic fields, and this seemed like a similar effect.
Having arrived at what I considered to be a working theory, every trace of fear left me. Looking back on it, this may have been the moment at which I learned the true power of science as an analytical philosophy; to think how many thousands of years people had suffered this condition, attributing it to ghosts, or demons, or alien abductions. And here I was, armed with an explanatory tool which could make all of those monsters dissolve into amusing applications of physics. Whether my own personal hypothesis is right or not is rather unimportant; the existence of any rational explanation for the phenomenon would be enough to confirm the salient point: Science kills demons.
Too excited to sleep, I ended-up bombing the next day’s calculus exam. Shortly thereafter I wrote the following poem:
You are nothing
To me or to anyone else
A nameless fear
And without flesh;
I can see right through you.
You are nothing under God
You are not even anything next to me.
You are nothing
To me or to anyone else.
The light of holy science
Has intruded upon your shadowy realm
And found it empty.
You are nothing.