A Psychological Case Study of ‘Demon and ‘Alien’ Visitation

Andrew D. Reisner

A clinical psychologist discusses a case of a depressed individual who misinterpreted hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations as visitations by demons and aliens. He came close to suicide, and even considered killing his family.

As Carl Sagan suggested, we humans are never far from the realm of the irrational despite the buffer of science and reason. Normal people can come uncomfortably close to this irrational realm when they are either half awake or half asleep, and experience either hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations. In these relatively common and normal experiences, a person may be temporarily unable to move, a state known as sleep paralysis, and may experience vivid hallucinations either when first falling asleep (hypnagogic hallucinations), or upon awakening (hypnopompic hallucinations) (Baker 1992, 1987; Fukuda et al. 1987; Penn et al. 1981; Liddon 1967).

It can be a terrifying experience, leaving the person wondering not only about the reality of what they have seen, but also about their own sanity. The hallucinations seem very real. This phenomenon is thought to occur due to a benign but abnormal transition between sleep and wakefulness. The victim is essentially experiencing a dream phenomenon while awake, and is unable to move, because during sleep, the bady’s movement is partially inhibited in order to prevent people from getting up and acting out their dreams (Liddon 1967; Dement 1976; Baker 1992). Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are thought to be the culprit in many paranormal phenomena, including nocturnal visits from aliens (Baker 1987; Klass 1989; Blackmore 1998; Nickell 1998) and ghosts and demons (Baker 1992; Baker and Nickell 1992; Sagan 1996).

John’s Case History

Ignorance of, and misunderstandings about, these types of normal hallucinations may cause unnecessary anxiety, or even play a significant role in the onset and progress of severe psychiatric symptoms, as in the case of John, a 36-year-old employed, married man. John’s difficulties started innocently enough. When he was five or six years old, while trying to get to sleep, he saw a little man in his room who was about six inches tall. John saw the little man go in and out of a door in the room. Later, at age twenty-six, after reading a popular book on UFO abduction (Strieber 1987), John woke up, unable to move, and saw a four-foot-tall, gray visitor, resembling the prototypic alien described in Strieber’s book. This led to some speculation on John’s part that he may have been abducted by aliens, perhaps more than once. The only adverse social or psychological consequence of this experience was that when he told others about it, and his speculations, he endured some teasing.

Under stress a few years later, John had more experiences of awakening in a paralyzed state and seeing a taller, dark and menacing visitor–one so tall it reached the top of a doorway. The apparition, moreover, wore a wide-brimmed black hat and black cloak, resembling characters from movies he had recently seen depicting “Zorro” and “The Shadow.” John considered, however, that the apparition “might be a demon.”

Some years later things took a turn for the worse when, despite his marriage of fourteen years, John began an affair with one of his old female friends. For John this was a storybook romance. It fulfilled fantasies left over from his adolescent years. John had never been popular with women, and having a woman fawning all over him was much too great a temptation. The affair almost led to divorce, but John’s wife finally talked him into breaking it off. John agreed, but shortly thereafter reconsidered and asked his lover to return. When she refused, John fell into a deep depression and seriously considered suicide.

John developed a friendship with Judy, a devotee of Wicca, a religion involving the worship of nature and the practice of “white magic.” After long talks and the exchange of personal paranormal experiences, the two friends became convinced that John’s recent visitor was a demon. Walking home late one night after one of their talks, the woman felt the sinister presence of a “demon” following her. This woman’s spiritual teacher had given her two special stones, and Judy ordered the “demon” into one of the stones. Giving the stones–one white and one black–to John, she told him to send his negative feelings into the black stone, where the “demon” now resided. Not wanting “a woman to do a man’s job,” however, John decided to release the demon from the stone, ostensibly so he could conquer it himself. Depressed over his marital problems, and drinking excessively, John’s judgment was slipping. One night he went to bed holding the stone, and on awakening, the black stone had turned green. To John this signified th e possible release of the demon from the stone. He had shown his wife the black stone earlier, and she agreed that, yes indeed, the stone had turned colors. When he handed his wife the green stone and she held it momentarily, it started turning black again. This frightened her so much she gave it back to John.

John’s depression worsened after asking for the demon’s release, and he became suicidal. John held the stone in his hand and told the “demon” that if he would show him the best way to commit suicide, he would do whatever the demon instructed him to do. Falling asleep that night, John had a vision of tying his wife down and then killing her and their two children. He also assumed that this “vision” represented the demon’s instructions. At first John reasoned that if he murdered his loved ones, he would then feel compelled to kill himself, thus accomplishing his suicidal objective. Realizing the insanity of this, however, John reneged on his deal with the “demon.” Suicide was still on John’s mind, however, and one day while riding his motorcycle down the highway at a speed of over 100 miles per hour, he envisioned himself crashing the bike into an oncoming truck. He also had considered ending his life with a shotgun he owned.

The most terrifying hallucination, however, occurred after consuming a substantial amount of alcohol along with his prescribed dose of antidepressant medication. As he was laying supine on the floor, passing out due to the beer and medication, he saw the same cloaked, dark figure with a wide-brimmed hat. This time the “demon” was bigger, taller than the door frame, and his cloak covered the ceiling. Although almost faceless, what there was of the dark, menacing figure’s face came down toward John’s face, as if the sinister intruder was trying to intimidate John by going nose to nose!

Following this hallucination, John was admitted for his first psychiatric hospitalization. While in the hospital he sensed the “demon” outside of the window, and felt the “demon” was angry. In his words, “the demon followed me to the hospital.”

John’s reports about his experiences in the hospital were inconsistent, however. At first he indicated that he sensed the demon present outside of the window while he was in bed, perhaps suggesting another hypnagogic or hypnopompic experience. During a second interview, however, he indicated that he was not in bed and was fully awake when he sensed the presence of the angry “demon” outside. In any event, it appears that prior to and during the hospitalization, he had become convinced of the reality of the demon and was considered psychotic.

Since John’s first hospitalization was ineffective, about six weeks later he was admitted to a different hospital. This is where I first met and evaluated him. Fortunately, his mental state improved quickly during the second hospitalization, after he started antipsychotic and antidepressant medications. John’s final psychiatric diagnosis was Major Depression, single episode, with psychotic features, along with alcohol and benzodiazapine abuse. (He had been taking a minor tranquilizer, classed as a benzodiazapine, and claimed he took it as prescribed, but he also drank eight ounces of Schnapps every day.)

Initially, it was unclear whether he might have had other episodes of severe depression. However, after additional evaluation, it appeared that no other episode of emotional difficulty could be qualified as a major depression, and that the current episode had spanned several months, and included both psychiatric hospitalizations. As an adolescent, he had become acutely upset after a girlfriend left him, and impulsively stuck a fork in an electrical outlet resulting in a severe shock. When they reconciled later in the day, his mood improved. On another occasion, when he realized that he lacked funds to complete his associate’s degree, John responded by drinking excessively for a month. John’s family also had a history of depression and reportedly one of his relatives had committed suicide. Whether or not he had other episodes of serious depression, it was clear that John adjusted poorly during stress, and occasionally engaged in excessive drinking.

On the second day of his second hospitalization, John was given the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2), a valid objective personality test. A relatively normal profile was obtained. Although mild defensiveness was noted on the validity scales, John’s depression and psychotic thinking had cleared, and he saw his unusual experiences in a more rational light. Possibly, what began as a mid-life crisis in an emotionally vulnerable, suggestible, imaginative man turned into a serious depression accompanied by a loss of contact with reality. This was fueled, no doubt, by a misinterpretation of his hypnopompic hallucinations, which had received consensual validation from his friend’s paranormal interpretation of the events.

Once in a psychiatric hospital, and separated from occult and paranormal views, the concepts of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations were offered, and John readily accepted them as the best explanation for his unusual experiences. In a way, John’s suggestibility was working in his favor. I had him read a few pages on the topic of hypnagogic hallucinations from a book on investigation and debunking paranormal phenomena (Baker and Nickell 1992), and he stated that he intended to obtain and read the entire book. On his own, John suggested that the “special stones” he had were probably made of the same material used for “mood rings,” and this accounted for the color changes. John now saw clearly just how he had become a victim of misinterpretation and suggestion, and he swore it would never happen again.

At the time of his discharge from the second six-day hospitalization, John was essentially free of depression and psychosis, as well as from suicidal and homicidal thoughts. He also promised he would stop drinking and would comply with his outpatient treatment. Finally, he returned to his wife with a greater appreciation of both her and his marriage. If you were to meet John on the street today you would see him as normal and well adjusted, and would never guess that he was recently considered psychotic.


In the world of science, an anecdotal case can never be used to prove anything, but case studies such as this are useful in illustrating unique situations involving matters that have been studied scientifically. This case in particular stresses the need for broader education regarding hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations, since ignorance and misinterpretations can lead to severe emotional distress or worse. Had John not reneged on his deal with the “demon,” he and his family might be dead. People would then wonder why such a seemingly normal, polite, and decent person could have done something so horrible. Fortunately, despite his turmoil and temporary loss of contact with reality, John’s good judgment prevailed. Unfortunately, at times we are grimly reminded that things do not always work out as well for others.

The varied, and at times culture-bound, content of alien and demonic hallucinations provides another clue that such phenomena originate in the mind or brain, rather than being actual visitations from elsewhere. Hypnagogic images can be as simple as balls of light (Baker 1992), or as apparently nonspiritual as an electrified telephone cord (Huston 1992), “bright green frogs” (McKellar 1954, 266), “colored trees” (269), or “a ship in a storm” (270). Among a sample of Japanese, one man awoke paralyzed and “… saw a figure, which resembled a Buddhist image, on my stomach.” People from other cultures may see “spiritual” images more in keeping with their own cultural expectations (Fukuda et al. 1987, 282). Although Siegel (1992, 89) notes some similarities in different historical culture’s experience of the “succubus” variant of the nightly intruder, he explains these similarities partly in terms of the half-asleep victim’s brain attempting to make sense of common physiological stimuli that occur during sleep par alysis, perhaps in combination with “a return to the frightening, looming shapes of the infant’s perceptual world.”

When people in different cultures are awakened, paralyzed, and see, hear, and/or feel an ominous presence, some type of explanation will always be sought by those afflicted. In different cultures, and at other historical times, hypnagogic hallucinations were considered to be attacks by spirits such as incubi, succubi, Lilith, “Mares” (Siegel 1992), or “Old Hags” (Baker 1992; Blackmore 1998). Interestingly, in the previously noted Japanese sample, 45 percent reportedly experienced an apparent variant of sleep paralysis, which was sometimes accompanied by hallucinations, and many of the subjects believed that evil spirits were involved with these attacks (Fukuda et al. 1987). Lacking accurate information about sleep paralysis with hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, it is easy to see why people look for supernatural and extraterrestrial explanations for such frightening and confusing phenomena (Baker 1992).

Belief in aliens or demons can be tenacious. Some suggest belief in aliens may, in some way, fulfill a religious need for those who have strayed from the conventional religious path (Kurtz 1991; Sagan 1996). Others note that belief in demons, and in the efficacy of exorcism, strengthens people’s belief in the conventional religions (Spanos 1996). When religious and quasi-religious beliefs become involved, with their attending implications for the meaning of life, and hopes for an afterlife, the ideological and emotional stakes can become very high, and these beliefs, and associated concepts, can become so firmly entrenched that they are highly resistant to modification (Kurtz 1991).


But what price might people pay when they are unaware of scientific explanations for visitations by aliens and demons? Since the experience of hypnagogic or hypnopompic phenomena is quite common, and since people often attribute supernatural causes to these experiences (Fukuda et al. 1987; Liddon 1967; McKellar 1954), from a statistical standpoint, it is not “abnormal” to engage in such spiritualistic speculation. Moreover, there is also evidence that people who believe that they have been abducted by aliens are, in general, not mentally ill (Klass 1989; Blackmore 1998). While there is evidence of some emotional difficulties among people who claim UFO abduction (Klass 1989), others insist that supposedly “genuine UFO abductees” may suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Hopkins et al. 1992). The likelihood, however, that these people were truly abducted has been called into question, and in most cases, hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations provide a better explanation (Klass 1993; Stires 1993; Reisner 1993; Blackmore 1998).

In general, it appears that most people who misinterpret hypnagogic hallucinations do not experience severe psychiatric consequences. But due to his unusual circumstances and a preexisting severe depression, John entered into a life-and-death struggle, partially fueled by his interpretation that the hypnopompic “demon” was real. He returned from the brink of destruction, hopefully wiser for the experience. Had his interpretations of his hypnopompic experiences led him to descend further into the abyss of unreason, the cost to himself and his family could have been immeasurable. The potential price of misunderstanding these phenomena clearly shows the need for a wider and better understanding of sleep paralysis, and the accompanying hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations.


I thank Robert A. Baker for his review of the manuscript, and for the many improvements that resulted from his efforts.

Andrew D. Reisner, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist at Appalachian Psychiatric Healthcare System (APHS), Cambridge Psychiatric Hospital, Cambridge, OH 43725. He has been a licensed psychologist since 1988, and has more than 20 years of experience in the mental health field. His interests include adult psychopathology and psychotherapy, the repressed memory controversy, and the phenomenon of iatrogenesis.


The name of this patient was changed, and this article was published with his informed consent. I thank John for allowing others to benefit from his experience.


Baker, Robert A. 1987. The aliens among us: Hypnotic regression revisited. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 12(2): 147-162.

_____. 1992. Alien abductions or human productions: Some not so unusual personal experiences. Unpublished manuscript.

Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.

Blackmore, Susan. 1998. Abduction by aliens or sleep paralysis? SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 22(3): 23-28.

Dement, William. 1976. Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep. New York: Norton & Co.

Fukuda, K., A. Miyasita, M. Inugami, and K. Ishihara. 1987. High prevalence of isolated sleep paralysis: Kanashibari phenomenon in Japan. Sleep 10(3): 279-286.

Hopkins, B., D. M. Jacobs, and R. Westrum. 1992. Unusual Personal Experiences: An Analysis of the Data From Three National Surveys Conducted by the Roper Organization. Bigelow Holding Corporation, 4640 South Eastern, Las Vegas, NV.

Huston, Peter. 1992. Night terrors, sleep paralysis, and devil-stricken phone cords from hell. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 17(1): 64-69.

Klass, Philip. 1989. UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game. Buffalo, N.Y: Prometheus Books.

_____. 1993. 3.7 Million Americans kidnapped by aliens? Part 2: Additional comments about the ‘Unusual Personal Experiences’ Survey. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 17: 145-146.

Kurtz, Paul. 1991. The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Liddon, S. C. 1967. Sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations. Archives of General Psychiatry 17: 88-96.

McKellar, Peter, and L. Simpson. 1954. Between wakefulness and sleep: Hypnagogic imaging. British Journal of Psychology 45: 266-276.

Nickell, Joe. 1998. Alien Abductions as sleep-related phenomena. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 22(3): 16-17.

Penn, Nolan, D. Kripke, and J. Scharff. 1981. Sleep paralysis among medical students. The Journal of Psychology 107: 247-252.

Reisner, Andrew. 1993. UFO abduction “test” lacks validity. Letter to the editor. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 17(4): 444-445.

Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon Haunted World. Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Siegel, Ronald. 1992. Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination. New York: Dutton.

Spanos, Nicholas. 1996. Multiple Identities and False Memories. A Sociocognitive Perspective. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Stires, L. 1993. 3.7 Million Americans kidnapped by aliens? Part 1: Critiquing the ‘Unusual Personal Experiences’ Survey. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 17: 142-144.

Strieber, Whitley. 1987. Communion: A True Story. New York: Avon Books.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Art bell’s show broadcasts Sylvia Browne failure about mine tragedy

Art bell’s show broadcasts Sylvia Browne failure about mine tragedy Benjamin Radford Self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne, the bes…

Psychic Sylvia Browne once failed to foresee her own criminal conviction

Psychic Sylvia Browne once failed to foresee her own criminal conviction Joe Nickell Self-claimed “psychic, medium, clair-voyant, c…

Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving

Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving – Review Kendrick Frazier Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mast…

John Mack: off the hook at Harvard, but with something akin to a warning

John Mack: off the hook at Harvard, but with something akin to a warning C. Eugene Emery, Jr. Dr. John Mack apparently is off the ho…