The Surreal Terror of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis has a logical and scientific explanation. It’s a phenomenon where you partially wake up from sleep, but your muscles still remain frozen. A biological glitch in our bodies causing one part of us to wake from the dream, while the rest of the body is on lockdown. Perfectly explainable. Yet try telling that to someone who’s lived through it.

The experience can be terrible. You’re still dreaming and the things you see appear real. But you cannot move or speak or scream.

You are frozen in terror, staring up at the monstrous creations of your subconscious.

Sleep paralysis is actually a protection mechanism designed to keep you safe while dreaming. The images and scenarios in your dream are vivid and seem real. If a tiger leaps out, you scream and run. Your muscles are locked down to prevent you from flailing about or making a large racket (that would have attracted predators back in the day).

Even as we understand more about this phenomenon, there’s no denying the surreal quality it evokes—to see your dreams as real, right there before you. Photographer Nicolas Bruno has captured some of these images. He is a victim of sleep paralysis and his photos are a window into his subconscious mind.

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Bruno began to jot down notes about his dreams. He wanted to recreate them using recurring imagery (like gas masks, bowler hats, or lanterns) and compose them the way a painter would. His photos show a haunting world that Bruno describes as  “a bittersweet homage” to his dream-world life.

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Often times, dreams serve as a way to work through the events of a day. But dreams aren’t logical. They are an emotional outlet. You typically see your fears come alive, such as being buried alive. The fears don’t make sense. It’s your minds way of dealing with them.

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Because dreams mash up images, the result can seem surreal and downright strange. We move from place to place instantly.

The glitch of sleep paralysis has haunted humanity for thousands of years. Over that time, cultures created creatures that stalk us in the night as a way to explain the frightening sessions of paralysis. They myths center around nocturnal monsters or demons.

In the Amazon, we have the Boto, a river dolphin that transforms at night into a vaguely human creature. It wears a hat to cover it’s blowhole. In Africa, the night prowler takes the form of a bear. Known as the Tokoloshe, it slinks in at night and bites the toes off children as they sleep.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

The folks at the Sleep Paralysis Project, along with director Carla MacKinnon, have created a documentary about sleep paralysis. This both serves as an explanation and a terrifying vision of the phenomenon. Be warned, if you don’t suffer from bad dreams, you will after watching this.

The film Devil in the Room depicts the grotesque creatures alongside the scientific explanation. It was meant to evoke the feeling of sleep paralysis and I say it does a damn good job.

Tim Kane

The Joy and Sorrow of Mistletoe

I’m a huge fan of folklore and the history behind traditions. Here’s what I dug up on Mistletoe, everyone’s favorite kissing plant.

It turns out that Avengers fans will recognize their favorite villain in the mistletoe story. Yes, Loki is responsible for more mischief. But, we’re ahead of ourselves. First let’s go the the number two power in the Norse universe (and one that seems to be absent in the Marvel films): Frigga. Like Odin, she could also see the future, but was less doom and gloom about it.

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“Frigga Spinning the Clouds” by John Charles Dollman

She gave birth to her son, Balder, on the winter solstice. He, being the god of light and truth, fits the season well as the days slowly grow longer leading up to the summer solstice. However, she also received a dream that her son would die. She asked all manner of things in the world to swear an oath to never hurt Balder. This was easy because he was the popular type, with a sunny disposition. (Yes I know, you can hate me now.)

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The Marvel version of Balder

The one she passed up was mistletoe. Accounts vary. Some say that mistletoe was too young and immature. Another version says that is was too small and inconsequential. Needless to say, this turned into Balder’s Achilles Heel.

The gods, being the ones to push things to the limit, decided to test Balder’s invulnerability. They hurled all sorts of weapons at him, including Thor’s axes. None harmed him. Loki sidled up to Hod, the blind god of darkness. Loki had fashioned a dart (some versions say an arrow, but mistletoe is tiny, so I buy the dart version). He helped Hod aim and shot it toward Balder, striking the god right in heart.

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Balder being Killed by Hod and Loki

At this point the story splits into a happy ending and a sad one. Let’s do the sad one first.

Balder died and went to Niflheim. The goddess Hel promised to return Balder to life if every living thing shed a tear for him. Loki again twisted the knife by assuming the form of the giantess Thok. In this form, he refused to cry, dooming Balder to remain in Niflheim forever.

The gods saw through Loki’s deception. The trickster transformed to a salmon to escape. And he almost slipped away. Except his brother, Thor, nabbed him. Loki was then bound in a cave with venom dripping on his chest until Ragnarok.

Now the happy ending.

After being struck by the mistletoe dart, Frigga cried over her fallen son. She cried so much, that mistletoe took pity and formed milky white berries to represent her tears. Her crying also restored Balder to life. Frigga made the plant a symbol for love and she promised to bestow a kiss on any who passed under it.

You pick the ending. Either way, there’s a lot more to this tiny plant than a seasonal amusement.

Tim Kane

Vanity Kills

Imagine if you stared into a mirror and the reflection began to change. It grew scales and glassy eyes. Gills and fins. You’re the same. Only the reflection has transformed. Then, of course, the reflected fish creature comes to get you.

That was the premise for a work of flash fiction I wrote over a year ago. It’s finally seeing publication in an anthology called Fish from Dagan Books.

The inspiration for this came from an old Chinese myth about a race of creatures that live in mirrors. I read about if from The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. In ancient times, there was a war between these creatures and mankind. The Yellow Emperor used magic to enslave these creatures in mirrors, forcing them to mimic our movements. If you stare into the depth of a mirror, you may sometimes see the fish shimmering just at the edges, ready to throw off its shackles and restart the ancient war.

That’s creepy. I thought, what if that really happened. I mean, you stare into a mirror and things start to change. A bit like a reverse Alice in Wonderland. Instead of you going in, the creatures come out.

Tim Kane

There Are No Original Ideas (And That’s A Good Thing)

Everyone goes on and on about original ideas, yet the the notion of an original idea in art has only been with us for about one-hundred years. This concept was propagated by the Modernists who sought to abandon the superstitions and folklore of the past. These Modernists valued the strange and surreal over traditional storytelling. Novelists like James Joyce and William Faulkner wanted their stories to be difficult and complex. They thought that if the story were intricate, then it would supersede oral tradition. (Ironically, Joyce’s seminal work, Ulysses, modeled itself off of the Odysseus myth.) Even today, we look for originality as a sign that something is “good”.

Skipping to before the twentieth century, we see that folklore and tradition reign. People retold stories over and over again, in a game of telephone that lasted centuries. The myth of Odysseus wasn’t even written down for ages. People simply memorized the story.

There’s also something to be said for a good story. Myth and folklore have plenty of great ideas. So use them. Why struggle to come up with something brand new, when the old tales work. They have to work. They survived. It’s evolution for writing. Even the US Government acknowledges this. You can copyright an execution (how you write something) but not an idea. That’s why you typically see two or even three movies about the same subject from Hollywood: Dante’s Peak and Volcano; Armageddon and Deep Impact.

Take Frankenweenie. It’s a rehash of the Frankenstein story. But who cares. I plan to see it. The concept was reinvented by Tim Burton to become a macabre comedy. The original short film was hilarious. Now that’s it’s expanded into a full film, it should be hilarious. Do I constantly think back to how Burton pirated from Mary Shelly? No. I think of how inventive he was in his adaptation.

If you feel hemmed in as an artists because you simply can’t think of an idea, reverse your strategy. Look for good stories and then write your own take on it. Reimagine and reinvent. Put your own spin on it.

Tim Kane

Beanstalk in a Box: The Advertisement

I penned “Beanstalk in a Box” for the Once Upon A Time flash fiction contest. However, I always envisioned it as a turn of the century, snake oil salesman, advertisement. Here is how I imagine the ad might run.

The next step would be newspaper ads and product design. So fun.

For a read of the original piece, I’ve reprinted it here (so convenient, Tim, thank you).

Beanstalk in a Box

Ever yearn to journey to the clouds? Intrigued by those darned cumulus ogres? Well, be curious no more. The new Beanstalk in a Box is available from Feefie Foofum Enterprises. This splendiferous invention will transport* you and your friends to the magical cloud realms above.

The price for a Beanstalk in a Box is one cow. (Due to the fact that bovines are difficult to acquire in urban areas, we will accept a cow-equivalent: seventy-five pounds of beef, four hooves, and one sweet bread.)

Your Beanstalk in a Box will arrive with three magic beans, each preinstalled with three cloud destinations (Cumulus, Stratocumulus, and Cumulonimbus). Please plant your beans outside in a open area** and leave overnight. Once your beanstalk has risen to cloud level, it is ready to climb. Despite the weather conditions in your area, be aware that temperatures in the troposphere can be downright chilly (-40°F), so bundle up.

CAUTION: When you reach your desired height, step onto the cloud using your cumulus clogs only. Failure to do so will result in insubstantial cloud buoyancy***.

Please be advised that ogres tend to frown on thievery. Consider a moment how you respond when ants scramble into your abode and make away with your food. You coat them with bug spray. As a cloud traveler, you might be interested in purchasing the optional gas mask rated for level 3 toxicity.

Exciting news, our beanstalks are now disposable! Yes, when you’re done traveling, simply use the included hatchet to chop the beanstalk down. Please allow five miles of open land for the disposed beanstalk to fall****.

Remember, souvenirs from the cloud realms are not allowed. Should an irate two-ton ogre follow you down, you may be tempted to cut the beanstalk right away. This will cause the ogre to plummet toward you and your abode. Listen Jack, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

* Users will need to climb the beanstalk.
** Allow 12 feet on all sides. Not responsible for root damage to dwellings.
*** Falling.
**** Yelling “Timber” does not protect from potential lawsuits.

Tim Kane

10 Words Derived from Greek Mythology

Some words have a distinct pedigree. These words hail from Mt. Olympus itself. Godly in origin, use them to spice up your conversation or writing.

1 Antaean

Antaeus was a gigantic and powerful wrestler, son of Gaea, goddess of the Earth, and Poseidon, the sea god. Whenever Antaeus touched his mother, his strength renewed. He always kicked butt when people threw him to the ground. Heracles, always a crafty fellow, bested him by lifting Antaeus off the ground. Then Heracles crushed the god to death.

In English, this word means mammoth, for Antaeus’ size, and superhuman strength.

2 Caduceus

The Greek god Hermes served as a herald and messenger for the other gods. He carried a winged staff with two snakes twisting around it. There is also another staff, that of Aesculapius, the god of healing. This had only one snake and no wings attached.

The Latin translation for herald is karyx, modified into karykeion. Is should only refer to the winged staff with two snakes, but in practice is also refers to the one snake healing staff as well. The staff of Aesculapius as well as the staff of Hermes are used as medical symbols.

3 Chimera (pronounced Kymera)

This was a fearsome beast with a lion’s head, goat’s body, and dragon’s tail. It breathed fire and terrified the people of Lydia. Finally, their king, Iobates, called in the hero Bellerophon. He didn’t actually want Bellerophon to win. The king’s son-in-law wanted the hero killed and the king thought the chimera would be the trick. Trouble was, Bellerophon summoned reinforcements: the winged horse Pegasus (not at all related to Perseus). Bellerophon then took down the creature from above.

Chimera lives on in Enlglish as an illusion or fabrication of the mind. It’s also an impossible dream.

4 Cornucopia

Zeus wasn’t always master of all the gods. In fact, he once was a baby too. As an infant, he was suckled from the horn of a goat. Later, this horn was filled with flowers and fruits and given as a present to Zeus. This filled horn then served as a symbol for abundance.

Besides as serving as a climactic battle scene in the Hunger Games, the word now means an inexhaustible store of something or simply abundance. That’s why it so often appears during Thanksgiving.

5 Halcyon

Alkyone, the daughter of the god of the winds (Aeolus), learned that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck. Her grief was unbearable, so she threw herself into the sea and was changed into a kingfisher. The Greeks call these birds alkyon or halkyon. Legend also has it that kingfishers build floating nests on the sea. Because of their heritage, the wind god clams the sea until the eggs have hatched.

The legend prompted people to associate calm and peaceful with the word halcyon. (Actual kingfishers make nests in tunnels dug into the ground).

6 Nemesis

Nemesis was the goddess of vengeance. She doled out rewards for noble deeds and cruel punishments for evil acts. She didn’t punish offenders instantly. Rather she might wait generations, inflicting her wrath on a descendant to avenge the crime.

In English, the word originally referred to someone who doled out just retribution, much like the goddess herself. Modern usage has transformed the word into someone (or something) that frustrated another person’s efforts (much like a curse or an adversary).

7 Paean

The Apollo sometimes disguised himself as Paean, the physician of the gods. Later, musical hymns were sung at to praise Apollo. These were called paeans. They evolved into songs sung at events ranging from  funerals to drinking festivals, as well as traditional marching songs for armies.

Now a paean is any song mean to celebrate joy, praise, or thanksgiving. It can also mean a tribute.

8 Promethean

Probably one of the most recognizable Greek myths is that of Prometheus. One of the Titan giants, he modeled humans from clay and taught them agriculture and how to live together. His final gift was fire that he stole from the gods so that humans could cook and have warmth and light. Zeus, however, wanted the humans to perish, so he punished Prometheus by tying him to a rock. An eagle tore at the giant’s liver every day for eternity.

The modern word bears out its heritage. Promethean means daringly original and creative (in the way that Prometheus helped create civilization). The word can also mean defiant of authority or limits (because Prometheus stole from the gods). Finally, Promethean signifies suffering on a grand scale (to represent the torture inflicted on Prometheus by Zeus).

9 Rhadamanthine

Three judges hold court in the the underworld: Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus. Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa. He had been the kind of Crete before dying and becoming supreme judge of the underworld. Aeacus, another son of Zeus (he got around) was king of Aegina before shuffling off the mortal coil and doning judges robes. Rhadamanthus was brother to Minos and king of the Cyclades Islands. He was known for being especially inflexible when handing down his judgements.

The word in English means rigorously strict or just.

10 Thanatology

Thanatos was the personification of death. His twin brother, Hypnos, was the personification of sleep (the root for hypnosis). The ancient Greeks began to use thanatos as a generic word for death.

Thanatology is the study of a description of death. It’s also the psychological methods for coping with death. In 1935, Thanatos came back to describe people with an unconscious tendency toward self-destruction.

Tim Kane