16 May 2017

Sleep paralysis in an Ernest Hemingway story

In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Ernest Hemingway describes the impending death of a hunter suffering from a gangrenous leg (boldface emphasis mine):
Because, just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath.

"Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull," he told her. "It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena."

It had moved up on him now, but it had no shape any more. It simply occupied space.

"Tell it to go away."

It did not go away but moved a little closer.

"You've got a hell of a breath," he told it. "You stinking bastard."

It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move or speak, he heard the woman say, "Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent."

He could not speak to tell her to make it go away and it crouched now, heavier, so he could not breathe. And then, while they lifted the cot, suddenly it was all right and the weight went from his chest.
This is a superb description of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis (the paralysis, the muteness, the chest pressure, the dyspnea, and the cessation when the victim is touched or moved), so vivid and precise that I have no doubt that Hemingway must have experienced it himself (his lifestyle would have been compatible with a high risk for the syndrome).

Back when I was active in academia, I developed a special interest and expertise in sleep paralysis, and had visions of someday publishing a book on its portrayal in literature and folklore.  That seems unlikely now, but since I have file boxes full of information, perhaps I can incorporate some of that material into posts for this blog.

Fulltext of Hemingway's story.

Reposted from 2013 (has it really been that long?) to add some new information about Hemingway.  In a recently-published book, a psychiatrist argues that Hemingway may have suffered from chronic traumatic enchephalopathy - the disorder that has been in the news because of its association with professional football and other contact sports.
The psychiatrist from High Point University in North Carolina wrote of nine serious blows to Hemingway's head — from explosions to a plane crash — that were a prelude to his decline into abusive rages, "paranoia with specific and elaborate delusions" and his suicide in 1961.

Hemingway's bizarre behavior in his latter years (he rehearsed his death by gunshot in front of dinner guests, for example) has been blamed on iron deficiency, bipolar disorder, attention-seeking and any number of other problems.

After researching the writer's letters, books and hospital visits, Farah said he is convinced that Hemingway had dementia — made worse by alcoholism and other maladies, but dominated by CTE, the improper treatment of which likely hastened his death. "He truly is a textbook case," Farah said.
Farah dates Hemingway's first known concussion to World War I, several years before he wrote his short story, "The Battler." A bomb exploded about three feet from his teenage frame.

Another likely concussion came in 1928, when Hemingway yanked what he thought was a toilet chain and brought a skylight crashing down on him.

Then came a car accident in London — then more injuries as a reporter during World War II, when an antitank gun blew Hemingway into a ditch.
The rest of the story is at the StarTribune.

Image harvested from the 1936 Esquire publication of the story.


  1. Yes, please do. Sleep paralysis is fascinating.

  2. For a long time, I didn't know what it was called. I would be asleep, yet cognizant of the fact that I could not breath. I will begin to try to wake myself up by moving my limbs, etc. BUT I CANNOT TELL IF I AM REALLY MOVING THEM...OR IT'S PART OF THE DREAM!

    So far, believe it or not, I have been able to wake up each time.

    I learned early on that you are usually so sleepy when you wake that you are prone to fall right back to sleep in the same position--which almost always ensures another episode. Over time, I have learned that when I wake from such a situation, I MUST TURN OVER. If I do, I typically do not have another episode.

    I have also noticed that it SEEMS that I am more likely to have an episode if I am taking a daytime nap. Go figure. Most of them occur at night...but in terms of episode per sleeping event, I think I am likely to experience it more during a nap than a nighttime sleep. Fortunately, I don't take many naps.


  3. Your observations are quite correct, Aaron. Napping - especially napping in an unusual location like a couch - is much more likely to trigger SP, in part because the reason for the need for a nap (usually prior sleep deprivation) leads to an abnormal sleep cycle.

    It is very scary. It is NOT dangerous.

  4. I've had several episodes of this since about kindergarten and can remember exactly what each of the dreams were about. They were always terrifying and weird. One of the medications my doctor prescribed for anxiety had the pleasant side effect of preventing these dreams. Mine usually occurred when sleeping on my back. I'm no longer on the meds but still haven't had an episode *knock on wood* They always freaked my husband out, he could always tell when it was happening because he said I breath differently. I'm always trying to scream, to wake up, so I am always relieved when hubby is near to wake me. I've had to share a room in college and as a child/teen and no one else ever picked up on my problem except him and my roommate from France one semester in college (freaked her out!).

    1. My wife can tell when I'm experiencing sleep paralysis because I'm kind of groaning incoherently. She just gives me an elbow in the side and says "snap out of it!" and that does the trick (any physical contact typically breaks SP episodes).

  5. I usually feel like I am trying to walk or run in a landscape with yellow light. The air turns into thick honey and my legs feel rubbery. I try to grip the ground with my hands for assistance in moving as I am now leaning so far forward I can easily attempt to do so. It does not help, I become motionless and then soon realize I am awake and can move again

  6. Sam Kean, author of DUELING NEUROSURGEONS, discusses this phenomena in the book. The whole book is a fascinating trek through both history and medicine - sort of a beginner's guide to how the brain works written by examining the case studies that led us to that knowledge. I highly recommend it to anyone who's fascinated with sleep paralysis and other brain-based phenomena!


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