20 January 2014

Sleep paralysis in the works of Edgar Allan Poe

The modern convention seems to be to celebrate Poe on his death day (October 7), but that seems to me to be unnecessarily morbid, so I'm going to use his 205th birthday for a special tribute here at TYWKIWDBI.

I was an English major in college, then moved on to a career in the biological sciences.  Those interests dovetailed for me in the 1980s when, as a faculty member at the University of Kentucky, I took an adult education course on Poe given by James Cagey at Lexington Community College.  The course material covered a variety of works I had not previously encountered, and I went on to read Poe's complete works.

As I did so, I encountered in Poe's writings an inordinate number of references consistent with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, a disorder which I had personally experienced on a distressing number of occasions.  During the next decade I used my free time to do a lot of library research (but no bench research) on sleep paralysis.  Then in 1997 I crafted a manuscript about manifestations of sleep paralysis in Poe's writings, but for a variety of reasons (those in the academic world will understand that there is never enough time to pursue one's personal interests), I never submitted it for publication.

Here it is, in near-final-draft form.  There is one citation that needs to be filled in, and the source materials are not presented in sufficient detail for publication (but will be adequate for this cyberversion). 

Between Wakefulness and Sleep:
A study of sleep paralysis in the 
life and works of Edgar Allan Poe

            Persons unfamiliar with the bulk of Edgar Allan Poe's writings tend to think of him only in association with his most famous tales of horror.  Behind those works lie poems, essays, literary criticism, and a single novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.  There is of course no single clearly-identifiable theme which runs through that mass of work, but readers with a medical background are apt to be especially aware of the inordinately frequent inclusion of descriptions of cataplexy.  Cataplexy, defined now as partial or complete loss of muscle tone during wakefulness, usually occurs in response to strong emotion, classically laughter or anger; this condition forms a prominent part of the most notable horror stories, including "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Premature Burial", "The Oblong Box", and "Berenice".  Often associated with cataplexy, but frequently described independently, is the sensation of breathlessness of suffocation, most vividly portrayed during depictions of living inhumation.
            What is the source of this preoccupation with paralysis and suffocation?  Many commentators have noted that Poe's father and the three women he loved most - his mother Anna, his foster mother Mrs. Allan, and his wife  - each died of respiratory failure, accompanied by hemoptysis and likely representing the terminal stages of tuberculosis or bronchiectasis (Hoffman p 28).   Others have suggested that Poe's own notorious inability to handle liquor entered into his writings; Levin has stated that if DeQuincy's writing came from drugs, then Poe's came from the bottle. 
            It is also possible - and, medically speaking, more likely - that Poe was describing the entity now known as sleep paralysis, and that the paralysis and breathlessness that so fascinated him may reflect his personal experience with this disorder.
Sleep Disorders in Poe's Writings
            Throughout his life, Poe expressed a fascination with the borderline state which separates sleep from wakefulness and the one which separates death from life.  The protagonist in his "The Pit and the Pendulum" describes this state as follows:
"In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly that of the sense of physical, existence."
This character awakens supine in the blackness of a dungeon, to which he has been committed by the Inquisition.  His first sensations upon awakening are
" . . . the tumultuous motion of the heart...  Then the mere consciousness of existence, without thought...  then, very suddenly, thought, and shuddering terror...  Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move."
            A virtually complete description of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis occurs in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in which the protagonist, awakening from sleep in the stifling darkness of a ship hold, imagines a creature is sitting on his chest:
"I fell, in spite of every exertion to the contrary, into a state of profound sleep, or rather stupor.  My dreams were of the most terrific description...  Among other miseries, I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect.  Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes... [and upon awakening]...  The paws of some huge and real monster were pressing heavily upon my bosom - his hot breath was in my ear - and his white and ghastly fangs were gleaming upon me through the gloom.  Had a thousand lives hung upon the movement of a limb or the utterance of a syllable, I could neither have stirred nor spoken." (pp 65-66)
            Poe frequently likened the state of sleep to that of death, and conversely in his little-known tale, "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," he has a dead person liken his condition to that of sleep, including a description of the aforementioned sleep paralysis:
"There came upon me...  a breathless and motionless torpor; and this was termed death by those who stood around me...  My condition did not deprive me of sentience.  It appeared to me not greatly dissimilar to the extreme quiescence of him, who, having slumbered long and profoundly, lying motionless and fully prostrate in a midsummer noon, begins to steal slowly back into consciousness...  Volition had not departed, but was powerless."
            In Poe's time, cataplexy - defined as temporary paralysis while awake - was part of lay medical knowledge and was an affliction of several of Poe's most notable characters.  The central figure in "The Premature Burial" describes himself as cataplectic:
"My own case differed in no important particular from those mentioned in medical books.  Sometimes, without any apparent cause, I sank, little by little, into a condition of semi-syncope, or half swoon; and, in this condition, without pain, without ability to stir, or, strictly speaking, to think, but with a dull lethargic consciousness of life and of the presence of those who surrounded my bed, I remained, until the crisis of the disease restored me, suddenly, to perfect sensation... however, my general health appeared to be good... [except] awakening from slumber, I could never gain, at once, thorough possession of my senses, and always remained, for many minutes, in much bewilderment and perplexity... " (p. 150)
Classic cataplexy is inducible by laughter, as described by Poe in "The Oblong Box":
"He began a loud and boisterous laugh, which, to my astonishment, he kept up, with gradually increasing vigor, for ten minutes or more.  In conclusion, he fell flat and heavily upon the deck.  When I ran to uplift him, to all appearances he was dead."  (p. 294)
            Similarly the lady Madeline in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is said to suffer from a "partially cataleptical character" which leads to her inhumation while alive, as did the central figure of "Some Words with a Mummy," who was not only buried but embalmed as well while in a cataleptic state.

The Phenomenon of Sleep Paralysis
            Sleep paralysis as a defined entity did not enter the medical literature until a quarter century after Poe's death in 1849.  It can generally be defined as a state of consciousness experienced either while waking or falling asleep, characterized by the inability to move.  Most commonly it is recognized as part of the tetrad of narcolepsy: sleep attacks, cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations.
            Sleep paralysis can occur as an isolated phenomenon (Schenck, JAMA), or coupled with hallucinations in individuals not subject to the sleep attacks of a true narcoleptic.  It appears likely that the disorder has a physiological basis; muscular hypotonicity is an integral part of normal sleep, perhaps teleologically representing a protective mechanism preventing the sleeper's body from reacting dynamically to the emotional content of dreams.  Sleep paralysis then may be viewed as a transitory dissociation in the integrated activity of the reticular activating system and the motor system, in which the subject falling asleep experiences motor paralysis prior to the onset of loss of consciousness.  The same phenomenon may occur upon awakening if the subject regains consciousness and awareness of surroundings before regaining the use of voluntary muscles (Broughton, Can Pscyh).
            It is common for the subject experiencing sleep paralysis to have an accompanying sense of anxiety or dread, often with a concomitant tachycardia.  The final component of the disorder is a sensation of difficulty in breathing, often described as suffocation and likened to the sensation of having a great weight placed upon the chest or stomach.  If hallucinations occur, the subject may visualize a person or creature sitting upon his chest.  The experience terminates immediately if the subject is touched, or may be terminated by the subject when motor function returns.  

Potential Sources for Poe's Descriptions
            Poe has thus incorporated into his work descriptions of the entities of cataplexy, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations.  The question naturally arises as to whether he is transcribing accounts of personal experience or making use of material previously published on the subject.  Certainly there is substantial evidence for the latter choice; even a cursory glance at an annotated collection of Poe's work reveals his heavy indebtedness to works both ancient and contemporary.  It is also true that Poe was much in tune with the popular interests and trends of the time, for understandable monetary reasons; if the public expressed interest in mesmerism or Egyptology, he provided tales on the subject.  Cataplexy was public knowledge and might well have figured in numerous tales because of its exotic popular appear. 
            The combination of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations has been recognized in folklore by the term "nightmare."  The classic description was written in 1753:
"The Night-mare generally seizes people who sleep on their backs, and often begins with frightful dreams, which are soon succeeded by a difficult respiration, a violent oppression on the breast, and a total privation of voluntary motion.  In this agony they sigh, groan, utter indistinct sounds, and remain in the jaws of death, till, by the utmost efforts of nature, or some external assistance, they escape out of their dreadful torpid state." (Bond)
The author then postulates mechanisms which are strikingly similar to our current knowledge:
". . . power over the Voluntary Muscles is some way suspended...  the Mind generally ascribes the immobility of the Body to some great weight laid on the Breast; whereas the cause is really internal...  Besides, in heavy or profound sleep, the voluntary motions are generally stop'd.  Hence, when people awake suddenly, they are for some time Paralytic, before the Animal Spirits obey the commands of the Mind, and actuate the Muscles in the usual manner." (Bond)
            The distinguishing features of the classic nightmare include 1) the feeling of agonizing dread, 2) a sense of weight on the chest which seems to interfere with respiration, and 3) the feeling of helpless paralysis (Liddon, quoting Jones).  Writing in 1916 in "A Treatise on the Incubus or Nightmare," Waller described a victim who
"... makes violent efforts to move his limbs, especially his arms, as if throwing off incumbent weight, but they will not obey the impulse of the will; he groans aloud, if he has the strength to do so, while every effort he makes seems to exhaust his remaining vigor."
Liddon has pointed out that the nightmare and sleep paralysis correspond in all defining characteristics, with victims unable to move, subject to great anxiety, and aware of a feeling of suffocation attributed to a weight on the chest.
            A comprehensive discussion of the phenomenon of the nightmare appeared in the medical literature in the American Journal of Medical Science in 1834, when Poe was 25 years old, written by a physician describing his person experience with the entity:
"It makes its attack on the system in that stage of sleep when the voluntary power is suspended, and the imagination is free from those restraints imposed upon it in the state of wakefulness...  through all he feels spell-bound and unable to help or defend himself: he struggles with all his power to be released...  until at last...  a sudden bound frees him from his condition...  as the first shades of sleep again descend upon him, he very perceptibly feels the approach of the disease a second time...  From a lack of energy to change his position and shake off the predisposition now formed, he remains quiet, perfectly conscious of the advancing symptoms which are gradually stealing over him, until the power of voluntary motion is again suspended...  there is the sensation of a load upon the chest, and some fancy it a monster attempting to suffocate them.  In these attacks many faculties of the mind are active...  This is displayed in the exertion to move one part of the body and then another alternately, knowing if we succeed relief will be obtained.  A person...  can see whatever comes directly in front of him...  is conscious of conversation when it takes place in his presence; he has the sense of touch...  he knows that he breathes but with much difficulty; he has the power of natural voice, but not of speech, and volition is perfect, but her  organs are not obedient to her mandates."  (Fosgate)
            In 1852, also writing in the American Journal of Medical Science, Rauch said of a nightmare victim that
"He had no power to move or speak, and the only effort he could make to arouse himself was that of loud and heavy breathing, and the exertions he made to throw off the incubus increased it."
            In addition to these printed sources, it has been suggested (Mabbott in Mod Libr intro) that Poe may have had an indebtedness to stories told to him by sailors and Negroes.  In American Negro folklore there is cultural evidence of a high incidence of sleep paralysis, with references to the experience "the witch is riding you."  (Bell, JNMA).  Poe would have had access to this folklore, and in fact referred to his Negro friend, Armistead Gordon, as the most interesting man he had ever talked to.

Did Poe experience Sleep Paralysis?
            It is interesting to speculate on the possibility that Poe may have had first-hand knowledge of the phenomena he describes.  First of all, the entity of sleep paralysis is a common disorder.  It has been detected by questionnaire in 6-15% of medical students, usually without associated narcolepsy (Penn; Goode; Everett).  Several epidemiologic studies (Bell; Fukuda) have detected isolated sleep paralysis in 40% of normal subjects.
            Sleep paralysis is also a cross-cultural phenomenon, having been reported with similar frequency in American blacks (Bell) and Japanese college students (Fukuda).  In the most comprehensive cultural study of the condition, Ness in 1978 examined the "Old Hag" phenomenon among residents of a community if Newfoundland.  Among 69 adults interviewed, 43 acknowledged experience with the Old Hag, described as occurring shortly after falling asleep and associated with an inability to move or speak.  During this paralysis the subjects often felt as though a heavy weight were pressing on their chest, and occasionally reported seeing the figure of an animal or human astride their chest.  The episode could be terminated by someone simply bending the victim's toe or finger.  The subjects considered the phenomenon to be normal and unrelated to overall health except that it was occasionally precipitated by strenuous work.  Their explanation that it is caused by "stagnation of the blood" echoes the explanation offered by Bond in 1753.
            This recognition that hard work might predispose to occurrences of sleep paralysis has been reported by others, with the suggestion that both physical and psychologic stress might be implicated in the genesis of the disorder, presumably through an interruption of the normal sleep-wake cycle leading to discoordinated sleep.  It is clear that Poe's daily life was such that psychologic stress was more the norm than the exception.
            Alcohol is also well recognized as being  disruptive to normal sleep architecture, decreasing latency to sleep, but fragmenting sleep with frequent awakenings and REM sleep deprivation (Lester).  Poe shared with his sister an apparently familial susceptibility to the effects of alcohol (Weiss, Home Life).
            It is unfortunate that Poe never wrote of the content of his dreams or the nature of his sleep; the bulk of his known correspondence consists of wearily repetitive appeals for financial support from his minimally supportive father and his long-suffering literary friends.  It is known, however, that Poe once said that the most horrible thing he could imagine as a boy was to feel an ice-cold hand laid upon his face in a pitch-dark room when alone at night; or to awaken in semi-darkness and see an evil face gazing close into his own; and that these fancies had so haunted him that he would often keep his head under the bed-covering until nearly suffocated" (Weiss, Home Life)  (cf. Premature Burial: "Methought I was immersed in a cataleptic trance of more than usual duration and profundity.  Suddenly there came an icy hand upon my forehead . . . ") (p. 156).  This brief anecdote has been interpreted as reflecting a "fear of the dark" (Mabbott p. 953, Piethmann p. 149).  In light of our current knowledge, it might, however, more appropriately reflect a childhood experience with the nightmare phenomenon. 
            There has been considerable disagreement regarding whether Poe wrote from life or whether the poems and tales are simply cleverly crafted works designed to appeal to the public.  Of the craft there is much evidence, exemplified by a detailed account by Poe of the techniques he used for the structure and content of "The Raven."  While such an account seems to dispel the notion of the poetic muse inspiring the author to heights of artistic creativity, there are also statements in Poe's work suggesting the importance of writing from life.  The most elaborate is in "How to Write a Blackwoods Article," a parody of literary journals of the time, in which he states that "Nothing so well assists the fancy, as an experimental knowledge of the matter in hand."  Baudelaire, who idolized Poe, was convinced that Poe wrote from life.
            Finally there is an intriguing discussion by Poe in his "Marginalia" which describes a state between wakefulness and sleep.  The "Marginalia," though purported by Poe to represent a collection of his spontaneous marginal notes, was in fact a vehicle he used to publish an assortment of opinions, literary critique, theories, and prejudices which could not be published in other formats.  In Marginalia #5 (written March, 1846), Poe describes personal experiences which he labels "fancies" which arise "at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams."  He claimed to be able to control the condition, experiencing the fancies while preventing the progression to full sleep, and to be able to force himself into wakefulness, transferring the fancies to conscious memory.  Finally he postulates that these fancies in the moments between wakefulness and sleep may be common to all mankind, but never previously recorded:  "In a word - should I ever write a paper on this topic, the world will be compelled to acknowledge that, at last, I have done an original thing." 

Sleep Paralysis in other American Fiction
            Other descriptions of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis have been identified in American literature published since Poe's death.  The earliest, written by Thomas Hardy, appeared in his Wessex Tales in 1896:
            [need to find and fill in]

            In Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" the protagonist, facing his impending death, experiences sleep paralysis with visual and olfactory hallucination:
"Death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath...  It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it...  it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there...  he could not move, or speak... 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."
            It is not known whether Hemingway experienced sleep paralysis.  Schneck has found evidence, however, that F. Scott Fitzgerald may have experienced the phenomenon shortly before his death when his physician reported that Fitzgerald "had imagined himself to be paralysed in his half-asleep state."  Earlier, Fitzgerald had incorporated a description of sleep paralysis in his novel The Beautiful and Damned:
"She was in a state half-way between sleeping and waking, with neither condition predominant... and she was harassed by a desire to rid herself of a weight pressing down upon her breast.  She felt that if she could cry the weight would be lifted..  And this weight was pressing on her, pressing on her...  Some one had come to the door...  an indescribable and subtly menacing terror...  Yet her tired heart, beating until it shook her breasts, made her sure that there was still life in her...  Blood rushed back into her limbs, blood and life together.  With a start of energy she sat upright... " (Schneck, NY State J Med).
It must be clearly stated that there is no firm evidence that Poe ever personally experienced sleep paralysis or hypnagogic hallucinations.  There are, however, in his works sufficient references to such conditions to indicate familiarity with the phenomenon.  He provides some of the earliest and most graphic portrayals of these states, well before they were adequately defined in the medial literature. 


As I look at the manuscript now with older and wiser eyes, it's obvious that the final paragraph is a particularly weak ending, especially after straying away from Poe toward other authors.  I think I should have excised the references to Hardy, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald and used them for a separate manuscript rather than tossing them in here.

As I think back to that era, I remember that at this point I ventured into library research about sleep paralysis in ancient and modern folklore (from witchcraft to alien abductions), created a lecture that I took "on the road" to a variety of conferences and annual meetings, then never got back to the Poe paper.

I know a number of readers of this blog have experience as copyeditors and very likely as manuscript reviewers.  Please feel free to criticize freely in the Comments; perhaps with the resources of the internet at hand I can someday finish fleshing this out into a proper publication.

Image: A portrait of Edgar Allan Poe by Charles Hine (1855; oil on canvas, 16 3/4 x 14 1/2 inches, courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library), via The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Those wishing to learn more about Poe would be well served by starting their internet explorations at the society's home page.


  1. Narcolepsy in Lewis Carrol. "Sylvia and Bruno" and "Sylvia and Bruno Concluded".

    1. I don't have those in my research files. Tx, BJ - I'll look into them.

  2. Have you read Carl Sagan's _The Demon-Haunted World_? I read it more than a decade ago, but I remember him addressing sleep paralysis in one part, tracing it as an explanation of modern accounts of alien abduction back through stories of encounters with angels, demons, and various magical/mythical beings.

    1. I don't remember having read it. Tx for the heads-up.

  3. (a) I found the paper very interesting. Thank you very much for sharing it with us.

    (b) I think the strongest evidence that Poe himself did experience the phenomenon comes from the Susan Archer Weiss reference: "[Poe feared] to awaken in semi-darkness and see an evil face gazing close into his own; and that these fancies had so haunted him that he would often keep his head under the bed-covering until nearly suffocated" I haven't read it myself, but if there is anything more to mine in that vein it may be profitable.

    (c) I agree with your analysis that the "Sleep Paralysis in other American Fiction" section is best in another manuscript. There is likely much more material to fill up a long paper on that topic.

    (d) As you can see from the third shelf down, 6th book from the right I also recommend Prof. Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World".

  4. I was reading "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde last night and came across the following passage that reminded me of this thread:

    "There are few of us who have not sometimes wakened before dawn, either after one of those dreamless nights that make us almost enamoured of death, or one of those nights of horror and misshapen joy, when through the chambers of the brain sweep phantoms more terrible than reality itself, and instinct with that vivid life that lurks in all grotesques, and that lends to Gothic art its enduring vitality, this art being, one might fancy, especially the art of those whose minds have been troubled with the malady of reverie. Gradually white fingers creep through the curtains, and they appear to tremble. In black fantastic shapes, dumb shadows crawl into the corners of the room, and crouch there. Outside, there is the stirring of birds among the leaves, or the sound of men going forth to their work, or the sigh and sob of the wind coming down from the hills, and wandering round the silent house, as though it feared to wake the sleepers, and yet must needs call forth sleep from her purple cave. Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted, and by degrees the forms and colours of things are restored to them, and we watch the dawn remaking the world in its antique pattern."


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...