Monday, 29 July 2013

The Terror That Comes In the Night by David J. Hufford (book review)

Chances are you've heard of sleep paralysis.  Five or ten years ago that might not have been true.  The internet has been a boon to many things, esoteric subject matter such as sleep paralysis being one of them.  But before all the hype, before all that was known or understood about the phenomenon was a well-worn cliche, David J. Hufford was out there, busting his ass, gathering data, shining a much needed light on the, at the time, poorly understood phenomenon.  One of the more substantial fruits of his tireless labors was a book called The Terror That Comes in the Night.  First published in 1982 it's the 'Black Sabbath' (1970) of sleep paralysis research, the first and in many ways still the best book on the subject.  Even after some 30 years it's still the definitive book on the matter.

The book's success lies in its accessibility.  Strictly speaking, it's not an academic book but it's by no means dumbed down "complete idiot's guide" either.  Hufford takes great pains to clearly delineate the definitions and meaning of his statements and the esoteric jargon he uses and all readers are the richer for it, including academics.  The book is full with some 36 case studies which appear in the form of transcripts of dialogues the author had with people who have experienced the phenomenon, which gives what could easily become a high-falutin' book a down to earth approach.  Real people telling real stories, often for the first time to anybody (Hufford met many of his interview subjects after lecture tour dates, but not all of them, many times however oft-embarrassed "confessors" would approach him after these talks).  These case studies are the meat and potatoes of the book, without a doubt, these are the juicy bits.  Most of these stories are simply unforgettable.  Hufford also spends a great deal of the book discussing the dozens(!) of discreet features of the experience, while taking pains to identify those elements which are most common, thus establishing the sleep paralysis narrative so many are now familiar with today.

The phenomenon of sleep paralysis is thought to afflict 30% of people at least once in their life, of course any real data of this nature is probably ultimately unknowable.  Academics now refer to it as sleep paralysis, but the experience has taken many names and aspects throughout the years: The Nightmare; incubus/succubus; vampire, alien abduction are just a few of the associated phenomena just from Western culture alone.  Keep in mind this is a worldwide occurance and is cross-cultural in most of its aspects and all of its major features.  The author refers to it as "'Old Hag' attack[s]" (linguistic origin from Newfoundland, Canada).

Just so you know, Hufford is Professor Emeritus of Medical Humanities, Penn State College of Medicine. Studying folklore while at a University in Newfoundland, Hufford kept hearing stories about an Old Hag experience which were strikingly similar to his own personal experiences, experiences which he had never shared with anyone before (another feature / response common to the phenomenon, that of fear of loss of sanity and/or embarrassment).  Hufford respected the people sharing their stories enough not to dismiss them  as ignorant and superstitious out of hand.  The thesis behind this book is that belief systems are rooted in experience, and though it sounds crazy, belief in an old hag or old witch that visits sleepers in the night to put a crushing weight on one's chest is actually rooted in experience.

It's an idea that might not have been taken at all seriously by academics before this book came along and that in and of itself makes it a groundbreaking work.

Why is it here?

Remember that crazy story about Geezer Butler's nocturnal visitation and how it directly led to the dark and heavy direction Black Sabbath took soon after?  That's a possible sleep paralysis episode right there.  Of course I should be a bit more cautious in assigning explanations to historical events, but this is my blog dagnabbit!  And this is an excellent book and an excellent read besides.  Better than most horror fiction because it's real folks' accounts of real experiences, The Terror That Comes in the Night is an indispensable addition to any paranoid library.

Rating: 5/5

Page Count: 278 pgs

From: Philadelphia, PA

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press

ISBN: 0-8122-1305-X

Genre: Non-fiction, Folklore, Sleep Studies, Nightmares, Incubi, Witches, Sleep Parlysis

Release Date: 1982

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