Alien abductions as sleep-related phenomena – Column
In his latest book, The Communion Letters (1997), self-claimed alien abductee Whitley Strieber, assisted by his wife Ann, offers a selection of letters Strieber has received in response to his various alien-abduction books, particularly the bestselling Communion: A True Story (1987). A careful analysis of these letters is illuminating.
The sixty-seven narratives making up The Communion Letters represent, the Striebers claim, what “could conceivably be the first true communication from another world that has ever been recorded.” Selected from nearly two hundred thousand letters, the collection, they assert, “will put certain shibboleths to rest forever,” namely that the phenomenon is limited to a few people, that they are alone when abducted, that the events are recalled only under hypnosis, and that the abductees are attention-seekers (Strieber and Strieber 1997, 3-4).
Be that as it may, the accounts are really surprising for their prevalence of simple, well-understood, sleep-related phenomena. Most, for example, include one or more experiences that can easily be attributed to some type of dream.
Clearly the dominant phenomenon in the accounts – albeit one little known to the public – is the common “waking dream.” This occurs when the subject is in the twilight state between waking and sleeping, and combines features of both. Such dreams typically include perception of bright lights or other bizarre imagery, such as apparitions of strange creatures. Auditory hallucinations are also possible. Waking dreams are termed hypnagogic hallucinations if the subject is going to sleep, or hypnopompic if he or she is awakened (Drever 1971, 125). Frequently the latter is accompanied by what is known as sleep paralysis, an inability to move caused by the body remaining in the sleep mode.
In the middle ages, waking dreams were often responsible for reports of demons (incubuses and succubuses) which, due to sleep paralysis, sometimes seemed to be sitting on the percipient’s chest or lying atop his or her body. At other times, waking dreams have been common sources of “ghosts,” “angels,” and other imagined entities (Nickell 1995). Now, as the collection of letters to the Striebers demonstrates, these experiences are producing “aliens” and related imagery. Some forty-two of the sixty-seven narratives include one or more apparent waking dreams.
For example, one man wrote: “I’d wake up and my heart would be pounding as if I was frightened. I’d also see two white lights, one slightly higher than the other, flying or floating across my room in a descending motion toward the floor. . . . I would have what I called a ‘dream,’ although I felt that I was totally awake because I could move my eyes. My body would be completely paralyzed. I couldn’t yell or scream, but wanted to” (p. 87). Another man reported: “At night, after my parents would put me to bed, I’d often see small, very white round faces with huge black eyes staring in at me from outside my bedroom window. Sometimes it was only one, but often it was several. . . . I saw them several nights a week almost into my teens” (p. 37). Still another man wrote: “When I was twenty-three I woke up one night to find a little gray man on the other side of my room. He looked about four feet tall and had very large orange cat eyes. I later learned that this was my ‘guardian'” (p. 135).
Although, as these accounts show, some of the “abductees” do not report paralysis, others describe that effect without imagery. For example, one writes: “. . . I woke up into one of the strangest experiences of my life. I was awake, could feel and could smell and think and reason, but I could not see. . . . I experimented with every part of my body to see if I could move; I couldn’t. There was a flashlight a few inches from my head, but I couldn’t make my arm respond to my mental commands” (p. 40).
Indeed, sleep paralysis accompanying a waking dream may well be a major factor in convincing some “abductees” they have been examined by aliens. Consider this woman’s account:
I often found myself being awakened in the deepest night by a feeling of someone touching me: pushing my stomach; poking my arms and legs; touching my head and neck; what felt like a breast exam and a heaviness across my chest, and someone holding my feet. This seemed to go on for three nights. On the last night. I vaguely saw, in my efficiently apartment, a “little man” running to and around my refrigerator. My door was always locked, as were the two windows.
Then one night I woke up to find myself in a strange room, strapped to a table, with my feet up. I felt that my lower half was undressed. . . . On another later night. I woke up strapped to a table in a reclining position (emphasis added). (pp. 250-51)
Another phenomenon reported in The Communion Letters is the out-of-body experience (OBE). This may be associated with a waking dream, as in this woman’s account: “When I was nineteen I had my first OBE. . . . I should say here that, to my knowledge, all my hundreds of OBEs throughout the years have been conscious ones, meaning that they’ve all occurred in the state just before sleep, where I am fully conscious and aware of the paralysis, the vibrations that occur, and of the actual separation. . . . On the night of March 15, 1989, I went to bed and fell asleep normally. Sometime during the night I awakened to find myself softly bumping against the ceiling, already separated from the physical. . . . I felt myself being turned around. I ‘saw’ a being standing in the middle of the open room, approximately fifteen feet away. A telepathic voice asked if I was afraid.” The woman goes on to describe a stereotypical alien (pp. 73-74).
Such “telepathic” voices – which are often part of a waking dream – are, of course, the person’s own. Even abduction guru David Jacobs admits that reports of telepathic communication with aliens may be nothing more than confabulation (the tendency of ordinary people to confuse fact with fantasy [Baker and Nickell 1992, 217]). Says Jacobs, “Abductees sometimes slip into a ‘channeling’ mode – in which the abductee ‘hears’ messages from his own mind and thinks they are coming from outside sources – and the researcher fails to catch it” (Jacobs 1998, 56).
No fewer than 18 letters in the Strieber collection describe one or more OBEs – or such related phenomena as “astral travel” or floating or flying dreams. The relationship between OBEs and sleep paralysis is demonstrated by a percipient who had “the strangest type of dream” up to three times a week. He would awaken to hear crackling noises followed by a loud boom, “at which point,” he says, “I would immediately go into paralysis. Then I would slowly begin to float toward my ceiling, unable to move a limb” (p. 130).
In a few instances the “abductee” is not in bed when the (apparent) waking dream occurs. He or she may be watching television, riding in a car, or – as in the case of one woman – sitting with her child in a rocking chair: “We must have rocked for twenty minutes, and I was actually becoming drowsy. My eyes were closed. Then an odd thing happened: I got a vision of three ‘grays’ standing in front of the rocking chair. It was as if I could see through my eyelids” (p. 17). The salient point is that the waking dream may occur virtually anywhere – as long as the person is in the state between waking and sleeping.
In fact, the subject may have similar experiences to those in waking dreams when he or she is simply exhausted – i.e., suffering from mental or physical fatigue (Baker 1992, 273). Such might be the explanation for eight reports, like that of one woman who told the Striebers: “I was going home from work [i.e., presumably tired], and in the middle of the Seventh Avenue subway rush hour crowd I saw a little man about four feet tall. He had a huge head, but it was the quality of his skin that first caught my attention. It didn’t look like human skin, but more like plastic or rubber. I knew he wasn’t human. I tried to follow him with my eyes, but he quickly got lost in the crowd. No one else seemed to notice. This disturbed me; I thought I was seeing things” (emphasis added). This person also had “recurrent dreams” of “spaceships hovering over the Hudson River and the Palisades. These dreams were always very vivid and powerful” (p. 207).
Other accounts in The Communion Letters clearly indicate ordinary dreaming, nightmares, “lucid” dreams (vivid, controllable dreams that occur when one is fully asleep), and the like – in all, reports by some twenty-two letter writers. At least four reports almost certainly involved somnambulism (walking or performing other activities while asleep). The letters also reported “near-death experiences” (two writers) and hypnosis (another two instances). A majority of the narratives contain more than one phenomenon, but in all at least fifty-nine of the sixty-seven letters consist of one or more instances of probable sleep-related phenomena such as discussed thus far. (In addition there were such reported conditions as migraines, panic attacks, post-traumatic syndrome disorder, even schizophrenia – one example of each. As many as eight people had a number of traits associated with what is termed “fantasy proneness.”)
Lest it be thought that the eight remaining letters are reports of genuine abductions, I consider three to be extremely doubtful, raising more questions than they answer and even containing internal inconsistencies or outright contradictions. Of the other five, two are reports of nothing more than unexplained knocking sounds and three consist merely of rather typical UFO sightings (two possibly weather balloons), with one writer specifically stating, “I do not believe that an abductee experience is in my recent history” (p. 180).
Strieber’s correspondents have, of course, read his books, Communion, Transformation, and Breakthrough, and they clearly have been influenced by them. Indeed, one writer’s experience with “the visitors” – an alleged abduction – “happened the night after I finished your last book, Breakthrough” (p. 144). Another, who has “had plenty of UFO experiences,” wrote: “I couldn’t get the picture of the being on the Communion cover out of my head” (pp. 134-135). A woman stated: “When I saw the cover of Communion I felt compelled to buy it. When I began to read it, I felt nauseated, burst into tears, was shaking, and was elated. Most books don’t elicit this reaction in me as I read the first few chapters” (p. 148). A policeman wrote: “Frankly the books scare the hell out of me. I did not sleep well for weeks following Communion. I again feel very restless after reading Breakthrough. I cannot explain this. Tell me I am imagining things” (p. 122). Obviously such correspondents are quite impressionable, to say the least.
Many who wrote did so in response to similar events reported by Strieber. Significantly, Strieber’s own abduction claims began with his having a waking dream! According to psychologist Robert A. Baker:
In Strieber’s Communion is a classic, textbook description of a hypnopompic hallucination, complete with the awakening from a sound sleep, the strong sense of reality and of being awake, the paralysis (due to the fact that the body’s neural circuits keep our muscles relaxed and help preserve our sleep), and the encounter with strange beings. Following the encounter, instead of jumping out of bed and going in search of the strangers he has seen, Strieber typically goes back to sleep. He even reports that the burglar alarm was still working – proof again that the intruders were mental rather than physical. Strieber also reports an occasion when he awakes and believes that the roof of his house in on fire and that the aliens are threatening his family. Yet his only response to this was to go peacefully back to sleep. Again, clear evidence of a hypnopompic dream. Strieber, of course, is convinced of the reality of these experiences. This too is expected. If he was not convinced of their reality, then the experience would not be hypnopompic or hallucinatory. (Baker 1987, 157)
Why some people’s waking dreams relate to extraterrestrials and others to different entities depends on the person’s expectations, which in turn are influenced by various cultural and psychological factors. Thus given different contexts, a waking dream involving a shadowy image and sleep paralysis may be variously reported: someone sleeping in a “haunted” manor house describes a ghostly figure and is “paralyzed with fear,” while another, undergoing a religious transformation, perceives an angel and is “transfixed with awe,” while yet another, having read Communion, sees an extraterrestrial being and feels “strapped to an examining table.”
Many of the communicants in The Communion Letters even show a willingness to reinterpret their original experiences in light of what they have since read in Strieber’s books. This transformational tendency seems quite strong. One woman, for example, who had “imaginary playmates” as a child in the 1940s now reports to Strieber: “The beings that I saw looked like the ones in your book” (p. 93). Another, who saw an entity during an obvious waking dream, reported that her first reaction after reading Communion “was to wonder if, in fact, what I recalled was all that had taken place the night of my experience” (p. 119). Still another, a man who would sometimes “wake up with little gray people around me,” admitted: “I never associated them with UFOs. As soon as I’d open my eyes, they’d all run away, right through the walls!” (p. 134). Now that he has read Communion he believes he was “manipulated” into buying it. This same person also had a “memory” which “came in the form of a vivid dream” and that involved himself, Strieber, and the aliens. “When I awoke,” he reported, “I felt as if you had been looking at me intently” (p. 136). In The Threat, David Jacobs even tries to convince his readers they should revise their experiences. He suggests their “ghost” or “guardian angel” experience should be considered possible alien encounters, and that they may therefore be “unaware abductees” (Jacobs 1998, 120).
It is distressing that such simple phenomena as waking dreams, sleep paralysis, and out-of-body hallucinations can be transformed into “close encounters.” The mechanism is what psychologists call contagion – the spreading of an idea, behavior, etc. from person to person by means of suggestion (Baker and Nickell 1992, 101). Examples of contagion are the Salem witch hysteria of 1692-1693, the spiritualist craze of the nineteenth century, the UFO furor that began in 1947, and, of course, its sequel, today’s alien-encounter delusion, which is aided in dissemination by the mass media.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that those who are hyping belief in extraterrestrial abductions ignore or underestimate the psychological factors. Strieber, for example, is a fiction writer, and Budd Hopkins, who helped boost public interest with his 1981 book Missing Time, is an artist. One would think that history professor David Jacobs would profit from mistakes of the past and not help repeat them. Even more curious is the involvement of clinical psychologist Edith Fiore (1989) and psychiatrist John Mack (1994). But both confess they are less interested in the truth or falsity of a given claim than what the individual believes happened, with the resulting significance to therapy and, in the case of Mack, to “the larger culture.” (Mack 1994, 382. See also Fiore 1989, 333-34; Jacobs 1998, 48-55.)
All of these abduction promoters have books to offer. Let the buyer beware.
As so often, I am grateful to psychologist Robert A. Baker for reading the manuscript and providing helpful suggestions.
Baker, Robert A. 1987. The aliens among us: Hypnotic regression revisited. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 12(2): 147-162.
—–. 1992. Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions from Within. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Drever, James. 1971. A Dictionary of Psychology. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
Fiore, Edith. 1989. Encounters: A Psychologist Reveals Case Studies of Abductions by Extraterrestrials. New York: Doubleday.
Jacobs, David. 1998. The Threat. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mack, John. 1994. Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. New York: Scribners.
Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, pp. 41, 46, 55, 59, 117, 131, 157, 209, 214. 268, 278.
Strieber, Whitley. 1987. Communion: A True Story. New York: William Morrow.
Strieber, Whitley, and Ann Strieber. 1997. The Communion Letters. New York: HarperPrism.
Joe Nickell is CSICOP’s Senior Research Fellow and author of numerous books including Secrets of the Supernatural (Prometheus, 1988).
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