By Christopher Styles
Lying in the dark, not quite asleep, not quite awake. You wait for sleep to gently lift you away. Suddenly a strange heaviness spreads throughout your body; you cannot move, trapped within yourself. Any sense of tranquillity has been taken from you, all that is left is inexplicable dread. You close your eyelids so tight that your face starts to hurt, you retreat deeper into the absolute darkness. The pressure behind your eyes starts to build, it starts to thump against the walls of your skull, something wanting to be let in?. You pull your face tighter, unsure how long you can stand the knocking. And then you release the tension, opening your eyes to see your room, draped in shadows. As your eyes slowly adjust, coalescing blacks start to dance in the dark. Something then reaches out from the shade; it’s pressing down on your chest. A shape? a mass? a person? staring down on your still form as you lie there in the dark trying to catch your breath, but your lungs remain empty. Not quite asleep, not quite awake, the phantom is still staring, as it dissolves into the dark. Slumber finally takes you, will you remember the spectre in the room? it doesn’t really matter, it remembers you!!
As we approach the spookiest time of the year, I certainly start to get into the spirit of the season. As a self-confessed scaredy-cat as a child, I have learned to embrace what scares me (well maybe a little), but I have also grown somewhat thicker-skinned when it comes to the idea of things that go bump in the night. As I am still here after all those sleepless nights of being spooked when I was little, there must be nothing to be frightened of, right? Well, history seems to disagree as, throughout recorded time, the idea of ghosts and spectres has passed through the generations, retold through lore and folk tale, changing and evolving with each generation, a belief that something lies beyond our plane of existence. This belief lives on today and according to a YouGov study conducted in 2014, a good proportion of Brits believe that ghosts exist (38%), with 28% of them saying that they have felt the presence of a supernatural being (1). But is it possible that generations of humans could be mistaken? Or is there a rational explanation for these ghostly encounters?
What stops you from living out your wildest dreams? Throughout normal REM sleep, when your dreams are most vivid, you no longer have control of your body. The connection between your brain and the rest of your body is severed to stop your unconscious body from acting out what’s going on in your head. This state of being is known as REM atonia, and although its exact body chemistry is not fully understood, studies have linked this paralysis to the release of two neurotransmitters, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glycine, which switch off the parts of the brain which control motor functions (2). This may come as a somewhat disconcerting thought, but is not something most of us need to worry about in our regular sleep/wake cycles. However, if a sleeper’s brain activity deviates from a normal sleep cycle, it is possible for a sleeper to wake up while still experiencing the physiological effects of REM sleep and REM atonia. A conscious mind could still be dreaming while trapped inside a motionless body, taking in visual information from the world around them, while still being fed false sensory data from the dreaming part of the brain, causing visual and auditory hallucinations. A common experience people have reported during a spell of sleep paralysis is the sense that someone or something is sitting on their chest, making it hard to breathe. This phenomenon can also be explained by REM atonia, the paralysis brought on by the release of GABA and glycine which also takes away any voluntary control you have over your breathing rate, and while you are sleeping, your body only produces shallow rapid breaths. When roused from sleep into a state of sleep paralysis, it is common for a person to instinctively panic, causing the release of adrenaline as part of the body’s “fight or flight” response. As you try to draw in more air and oxygen, REM atonia maintains a constant and slower breathing rate, resulting in a feeling of breathlessness, the sensation that you are suffocating, and a tightness in the chest. But what could be the explanation for the shared experience of seeing a demon sitting on your chest? well, that can be chalked up to your brain trying to make sense of the sensory information the sufferer is receiving both from the physical world as well as from the dreaming part of the brain, coupled with the panicked sensation and shortness of breath, rationalising the experience as best it can, even if the results are pretty irrational.
Instances of sleep paralysis are usually uncommon and brief, lasting only a few seconds up to a couple of minutes, although the ordeal may feel much longer. Reports have suggested that anybody may experience a spell of sleep paralysis throughout their lifetime, however, it is usually a rare occurrence, although an increased prevalence has been observed in people who suffer from sleep disorders, such as those with narcolepsy, which may increase the likelihood of experiencing the phenomena.
Have you ever walked into a room and been hit by an unexplained feeling of dread, a chill that runs down your spine, or even the sense that you were not alone in an empty room? Well, you might have just been exposed to infrasound; sound waves that are under the audible wavelength of human hearing, generally between 0-20Hz. Although you may not be able to “hear” noises produced at these frequencies, your brain can perceive them in similar ways to noises within the audible range when played at a high enough volume, although the extent of this perception depends on an individual’s sensitivity (3).
These low frequency sound waves can be produced by vibrating machinery (such as motor, fans, and wind turbines), as well as by weather systems, whale calls, and earthquakes, and is a proposed explanation for why some pets seem to start acting strange before natural disasters (4). Infrasound was first proposed to be the potential cause of these haunting feelings by engineer Vic Tandy in the early 1980’s. While working in a medical research laboratory, that had long been rumoured to be haunted, Tandy and a number of colleagues would often talk of a sense of unease, getting cold sweats, and an increased level of anxiety while at work, Tandy had even admitted to seeing an apparition while in the lab. Then one day, Tandy saw an object move without being touched; however, this was a very specific motion as his fencing foil started to violently vibrate. After some investigation Tandy discovered that this was not the cause of an unseen phantom, instead, the foil’s vibrations had been caused by it resonating with a previously unperceived source of infrasound created by the machinery in the laboratory (5). Tandy wrote up these observations and theorised that paralogical and physiological effects could be explained by the presence of infrasound (6).
Infrasound, especially at the levels of around 18Hz, have also been reported to cause certain body tissues to vibrate, including the liquid within the human eye. These vibrations in the eye can cause a person’s vision to become distorted and could even result in hallucinations. Another cause for such feeling of unease has also been proposed; people’s varying sensitivity to electromagnetic frequencies, and although a number of studies have been conducted with the “spooky sounds” and with varying levels of EMF, results have remained inconclusive (7, 8) Perhaps the spookiest of results is the fear of the unknown?
Throughout history, humans have shared stories around campfires and late into the night, tales of ghosts and spirits returning from beyond the grave. Where some of these might be fables, thinly veiled lies to serve as a warning to those less versed in life. Others believe that there is an existence beyond what we can comprehend. Beyond science and understanding. Could eons of storytellers be wrong? Hmm yes, I suppose they could be. The human brain is trained to see order in randomness, with a particular knack at seeing people and faces, also known as Pareidolia. That coupled with a sense of understanding of some of life’s unknowable questions might seem like a comfort to some. But the sceptical part of me cannot quite believe that there is a paradigm-breaking truth just floating around us all, a truth that would rewrite just about everything we understood about the universe we “LIVE” in. But part of the joy of life is a sense of not knowing. There is so much out there that we cannot fathom, and we are trapped by our own perceptions of existence. So, keep a skeptical head-on but when you are lying in bed and you hear a noise in your room, embrace the doubt, you don’t know what’s out in the dark!!
A version of this article can be found at https://thephiltrum.com/2020/10/17/apparitions-apparently/