Many people do not know that I have experienced a phenomenon known as isolated sleep paralysis with hypnopompic or hypnagogic hallucinations (SPHH) for most of my life. It goes by a number of names, The Old Hag, in Newfoundland, Kanashibari in Japan, and once it was the exclusive meaning of the term "Nightmare". It has been used to explain the belief in witches, demonds, ghosts and in alien abduction, and has been made manifest in countless artworks unbeknownst to medical science.
I have recently agreed to work on a joint project with a colleague of mine at York on the phenomenon. Dedicated to Michel de Montaigne, it will be part academic essay, part memoir, and part case study.
I've done a lot of thinking about the experience in the past few years, and wrote a short paper on its recent history, which is really quite unusual, and adds credence to my belief that the most interesting, valuable, and dangerous thought is almost always on the fringes, before being normalized in some social setting.
In the 1980s an interdisciplinary shift caused a change of focus of "nightmare" phenomenon that involved both the folkloric and medical communities. This development owed a great deal to the work of the folklorist David J. Hufford from the Department of Humanities at Penn State University and Robert C. Ness from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Centre. Both Hufford’s 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions and Ness’ 1978 article “The Old Hag Phenomenon as Sleep Paralysis: A Biocultural Interpretation” attempted to articulate the Old Hag as a unique phenomenon whose widespread cultural occurrence should be understood alongside a particular set of physiological conditions consistent with what psychologists and doctors were designating SPHH.
By exploring the folkloric, anthropological and medical literature surrounding the changing approach to the Old Hag in the past 30 years, I hoped to demonstrate how, in contrast to its earlier obscurity and misclassification, the folkloric turn instigated by figures such as Hufford and Ness near the beginning of the 1980s allowed for the isolation of the Old Hag as a stable, medically relevant phenomenon. While not immediately accepted, this suggested approach helped to changed the medical community’s focus on SPHH away from the usual associations with narcolepsy, epilepsy and schizophrenia, towards stress, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This movement was then predicated on a shift in the medical community’s understanding of the Old Hag’s pathological associations, and was mediated by medical anthropologists’ understanding of culture-bound syndromes, as well as the contributions made by researchers with cultural and ethnic backgrounds other than that of most modern western medical practitioners. The consequence of this “folkloric turn” has been that doctors and psychologists confronted with the Old Hag have increasingly come to see the value of folklore in treating patients experiencing the condition, particularly in cases of PTSD, and several folklorists have begun understanding their rolls as those of healers and medical researchers.
It seems like its been getting a lot of attention in recent years, and i'm glad for this, since it could help to serve as a point of common communication between a number of disparate forms of thought from the main-stream to the periphery, the modern and traditional, the materialist and the spiritual, and perhaps show how, in the end, the human mind, they all collapse into each other.
For More Information:
The Devil's Trill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YonqEbar8cM
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