The demon came as demons do, during the faithless hours of early morning. I’d been ascending through ever shallowing layers of sleep when finally I breached the surface. I stretched for my phone and groaned. 4 a.m. is a brutal time to wake up. Too late for a sleeping pill, too early for a new day. I shut my eyes again but almost at once the usual worries began crowding me, quickly magnifying from the banal to the absurd. What if the accumulation of everything I’ve learned adds up to nothing? What if the story I’ve sold myself about life isn’t the real story? What if I’m dying of that rare kidney disorder I read about in Time last week? 4.02. A branch tapped against the curtainless window. Outside was wintry black. The night had a child’s-picture-book quality to it: a waxing gibbous moon, spores of mist drifting through it. The air became eerily still and for a moment I felt dislocated, suspended in time. My insomnia makes me vulnerable to the tricks night plays, so I wiggled my toes under the blankets; then, reassured I was awake, resolved to count my way back to sleep on the rhythm of tiny taps and creaks generated by the silence. I was close to succeeding too when I heard something, at first faintly, then increasingly clearly – the tread of footsteps coming up the stairs.
My eyes snapped back open. I was alone on the property and this was the first night I’d slept there. The grounds were still a building site, my bed the only piece of furniture in the house. This isn’t right, I told myself. I’d distinctly remembered locking doors and bolting windows. But – and this perhaps was the first sign that my thoughts were originating from a place below the level of conscious reasoning – instead of fear, I felt mild outrage, as though whatever was coming up those stairs was not playing fair, not playing by the rules. Somewhere deep inside me, I think I already knew that whatever I was dealing with was not human.
My husband and I had bought the property two years earlier and immediately begun renovations. To say that the project was stressful was a gross understatement. It was as though the house had been storing up its grievances for centuries, and now with every brick pulled was releasing them back upon us. Bats, rats, floods, rot – one by one they came, the seven plagues of Oxfordshire. The house was an old rectory next to a Norman church and graveyard. There was a sense of unrest about the graveyard’s higgledy-piggledy layout, as if bodies and bones had been shifted to make room for newcomers and now the original occupants were muttering like angry commuters on a packed train. It was possible, I suppose, that this honey-coloured village had been an idyll for milkmaids marrying their farming loves, but it was equally likely that it had been a finger-pointing, witch-burning community, meting out who knew what kind of innovative torture in the name of God. Long before the footsteps started up the stairs, I’d wondered whether the place might be haunted.
I became aware of a presence in the room. The side of my bed dipped as if someone had sat down heavily. Arms encircled me from behind. I felt the embrace of pins and needles as a body pressed against mine. It seemed to be made of iron filings – millions of them, detached, free moving, yet somehow magnetically drawn together into a human shape. I never saw it, but this was the image that developed in my head as the arms gathered me in. Good God, was it spooning me? For the first time in a long time I felt cherished and safe. Tears blurred my eyes. I was exhausted, demoralised, struggling to finish a novel. The building project had caused so much antipathy between my husband and me that we were barely speaking, let alone spooning. I sighed. The arms tightened in response, as if aware of the comfort they were giving. I sighed again. Again the arms tightened – the iron filings moving fluidly into the gap left by my exhalation. I pushed out against my diaphragm but once again, as my lungs deflated, the space was stolen from me. I began to panic. Whatever this thing was, it was not benign. I called out but no sound came. I tried to break free but found I could move neither my arms nor my legs. Soon I could no longer breathe. Pressure rose in my chest. I’d experienced something similar to this once before – after the delivery of my first child by Caesarean. Something went wrong while they were stitching me up and the pressure had built, culminating in a tremendous burst of pain in my heart. Simultaneously I heard the beep of the monitor flatlining. As medics pounced, some misplaced survival instinct told me they were trying to kill me and I’d fought them with the last of my strength. Now I did the same – mustering something internal, something almost telekinetic. There was a rushing in my ears, I felt the violent throwback of an explosion and, suddenly, I was free.
In the bathroom, I splashed cold water onto my face and stared into the mirror. My skin was the colour of parchment, my eyes flat.
I’ve always suffered from nightmares. I can’t tell you the multitude of ways I’ve watched my family being dispatched to their graves over the years. I’ve seen my brother hanging bloodied out of the mouths of monsters, a faceless woman leading my mother away, my son waving at me, then turning to jump to his death down a bottomless black hole. Nor am I merely a spectator at the horror show of my subconscious: my hands have been chewed off by creatures of the deep, my eyes prised from their sockets by gelatinous fingers. In one of my cheerier recurring dreams I am forced to walk down a narrow corridor whose walls are a pulsing, rippling lattice of serpents, some oily and brown, others speckled and wickedly fluorescent, all with tongues that flick out as I pass. Like the video game whose next level is unattainable, I am invariably struck before I reach safety.
I have tried to understand the psychology of these nightmares and the experiences that fuel them. Humans, of course, are born with an evolutionary bias that predisposes us to fear any creature that poses a threat. Estimates put snakebites at around 5.5 million a year, resulting in 125,000 deaths, 30,000 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa alone. That’s a lot of venom, but then I don’t live in sub-Saharan Africa; I live in London. What I had was a rational fear repeated in an irrational setting – in other words, a phobia.
There’s a school of psychoanalysis that suggests that something grisly in childhood accounts for adult obsession and fears. My mother grew up in Africa, and certainly her stories of being chased across the plains by the black mamba were the stuff of bedtime legend. Closer to home, I remember running barefoot through the long grass at my grandmother’s house and seeing the writhing coils of mating grass snakes below me. In that one airborne second, I managed to adjust my trajectory. Grass snakes are harmless, amiable creatures; nevertheless I later felt sick at how close I’d come to landing on that foul, spongy mass. Further back still there had been a strange incident at the Bronx Zoo. A cobra, demented by captivity, had repeatedly bashed itself against the glass of its cage. Even as my mother tried to pull me away, I’d stood my ground, as fascinated as I was scared. So, yes, snake nightmares I could account for – as for the rest, who knew? Not that it was relevant anyway, because the iron filings had been no nightmare. It had happened while I was awake.
‘Fuck,’ I said to my reflection. ‘Fuck fuck fuck.’
4.20 a.m. No possibility of sleep now. Back in bed, I tried to regulate my breathing but after a while became aware of my body feeling fractionally out of sync with its surroundings. A branch scraped against the window – the Maurice Sendak world of moons and interwoven fairy tales knocking to come in. Again the air went still. No, I thought, please no! I wiggled my toes under the covers and looked round the room. Everything was as it should be: the edge of the fireplace, the splintery uncarpeted floorboards, my hand raised in the gloamy light.
This time when the bed dipped, I felt a burning sensation on my skin. Arms closed around me and tightened. Overwhelmed by a sense of inevitability, I felt myself soften. The pressure began building, quicker this time, more urgently, but instead of fear or panic I felt a savage, primordial arousal, then the sensation of being penetrated, utterly possessed, before the unstoppable rush to orgasm, as intense as it was short, after which, once again, spell broken, I found myself alone.
Everyone relishes a good haunting story. Bella has a sex ghost. The delighted whisper came back to me full circle within the week. Suggestions poured in. I should hire a paranormal investigator, approach the local priest. Friends recommended their exorcist in the same casual manner they might have passed on their plumber or family doctor. By the time my dentist, who’d just completed a course in hypnotherapy, offered to have strict words with my subconscious, I was so unsettled by all the teasing that when he told me to relax and find a happy place, the best I could come up with was the chocolate-croissant counter in Pret A Manger. During all this, there were two more visits, both at 4 a.m., both while I was awake. On each occasion, the presence – as it was now officially known – returned a few minutes after I had initially broken free to push into the empty crevices of my body, take me to the edge of the sexual abyss and then carelessly drop me over, adding a frisson of shame to what was already a profoundly frightening experience. I was raped, brutalised. The creature had worked its full will upon my body and yet, yet . . . I’d taken pleasure in it?
It was left to my friend, a journalist and polymath, to identify the problem. ‘What you’ve described,’ he said over dinner, ‘is a classic visitation from an incubus.’
I Wikipediaed ‘incubus’. Under a helpfully graphic image of a satanic creature hovering over a prone unconscious female were the words: ‘An incubus is a demon in male form who lies upon sleepers, especially women, in order to engage in sexual activity with them.’ Attributed to everything from incest to the slovenly habit of eating in bed, the appearance of the incubus turns out to be a phenomenon in every corner of the globe. The Ecuadorian Tintín, for instance, is said to be a dwarf with a penchant for overly hairy women whom he serenades with a guitar. In Brazil, the Boto is a dolphin in the form of a beautiful man who, when dragging his women to the river, considerately wears a hat to disguise his blowhole. Germanic folklore tells of a winged goblin that rides on the chest of humans while they sleep. And so it goes on, round the world – imps, jinns and spirits from South Africa to Russia. Cultural and mythological variations aside, all incubi come with the same dread warning on the label: ‘Repeated sexual activity with them may result in the deterioration of health, or even death.’
Thoroughly spooked, I moved the bed into a different room and refused to sleep alone in the house. After the building project was completed, I went to Australia to finish my book. A new country, new people, new sounds and smells – Australia was escape and escape is my oxygen. I hadn’t thought about the incubus for months, when somewhere north of Adelaide, alone in a sweet roadside motel, I woke to a sense of heightened unreality and the presence between my thighs. I reached down in protest and the unmistakable iron fingers closed over my hand and pushed me away.
By the end of that year, having experienced three more visitations in Mexico, in Colorado, in Afghanistan – all places I had gone to lose myself – I understood with a terrible clarity that I couldn’t outrun this thing. Wherever I went, however far I travelled, there it was, next to me on the aeroplane, unfolding its iron-filing legs, reading the in-flight magazine and ordering the chicken or fish. There was no demon living in the spare room of a Cotswold house back in England. The demon lived inside me.
In the panoply of the supernatural, possession is one of the more terrifying concepts: the idea of something lurking inside you, something inherently evil, something that can’t be controlled or killed off. I thought about my other phobias and the stories that I had collected around them. The Chinese man with a live worm eating through his brain; the woman who had swallowed a snake egg in a river in India that hatched inside her, coiling around her organs, stealing into the hollow spaces of her body until, eventually, on the white sheets of the operating table, unable to move or breathe, she’d died – no longer human but merely the shell, the husk of a malevolent guest.
Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity, The Devil Inside. Like everyone else, I’d watched these horror flicks through spread fingers, laughing nervously at the pastiche of the woman in her white nightie – haunted, controlled, before finally being dragged across the bedroom, her nails leaving raw scratch marks on the wooden boards. Suddenly it all felt very close to home. Paranoia is not good for insomnia. I shut windows, slept with the lights on, tuned the audio of my hearing to its most sensitive frequency to listen for signs of unlawful entry. Nothing helped. It wasn’t long before I found myself caving in to the self-pitying mantra of the victim: why me?
The upside of being a writer is that whatever answers you’re unable to find within your own life, you can simply make up. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. If the thing was feeding on fear, I would make light of it; better still, mock it. I’d exorcise my incubus by writing the thing clean out of me. I began working on a comic novel about a depressed obsessive–compulsive who falls in love with his succubus, as the female of the species is known. She was fleshy, voluptuous and a marvellous cook, if something of a slob, who left crumbs in his bed and liked to eat Viennese Sachertorte in his bath.
I couldn’t make a single story thread connect. Would my hero choose death and happiness with a figment of his imagination or the misery of life with his unloving, bloodless wife? Writers create characters and the world for them to inhabit, and usually it’s a world so much more captivating than our own that we happily fall into it for years at a time. In this imaginary kingdom, we are the legislators of laws, the architects of every edifice. Writing fiction is the ultimate expression of megalomania, but when you’ve lost control of your own life, you lose the ability to puppeteer the lives of others.
The creative block that followed was both absolute and shattering. Day after day I sat blankly at my desk while, like grain filling a barn, the iron filings continued to pour into the empty store of my imagination.
Repeated visits from an incubus can cause illness and sometimes death. Death of what? I thought bitterly.
My publishers were patient. My husband was practical. ‘It’ll come when it comes,’ he said. I couldn’t quite make him understand the problem. It wasn’t just that I’d lost a muse; my muse had been replaced by a ravenous parasite.
And then I discovered science. How on earth did it take me so long to get there? In my defence I can only say that the mythological explanation of my demon was so uncannily accurate that it never occurred to me to look for another. But suddenly there it was on my screen, the result of a few minutes’ distracted googling. ‘Sleep paralysis is a state between wakefulness and sleep characterised by complete muscle atonia and often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations – specifically of an intruder in the room.’
Sleep paralysis always happens during REM – dream sleep – to prevent Tarantino-style carnage as we act out our nightmares. During REM, body and mind cooperate beautifully, ensuring that when the cycle finishes, so too does the paralysis. At least this is how it works for most people. For others – narcoleptics, night workers or unlucky souls such as myself – something goes awry. In our case, mind and body are not on speaking terms, allowing us to drift into sentience before the REM cycle has finished.
And it’s at this point that the science gets really interesting. When we wake up paralysed we feel under threat, which, under normal circumstances, triggers a fight-or-flight reflex. Being paralysed, of course, we can do neither and this throws us into a state of terror. It turns out, however, that the brain is a bureaucratic organ with an almost neurotic determination to balance its books. To account to the department of logic for this terror, it calls on the office of imagination to conjure up a worthy vision. Enter the incubus, the malevolent intruder, the giggling goblin squatting on your chest. Enter your deepest terror, courtesy of your own subconscious.
So forget the monsters, the pulsing tapestry of snakes, forget the bottomless black hole. Though these too grew out of subconscious fears, they were subconscious fears in concert with recognisable outside influences, and they didn’t leave any lasting impact on my psyche and soul. The incubus felt different. The incubus made me feel that the thing I was most frightened of was myself.
‘You don’t need an exorcist,’ my husband told me. ‘You need a good shrink.’
On the continuum of sanity I’ve always considered myself closer to normal than the twitchy loon of the asylum, plucking flies out of the air and eating them. Perhaps that sounds smug – or lacking in self-awareness – but on the whole I’ve always been pretty sure of who I am and what I believe. I hate bigots, snobs and ignorance, and even if the inside of my head is a pinboard of politically incorrect gags, snap judgements and coloured flash cards of what to eat for my next meal, that’s a paradox I’ve learned to live with. Believe me, nothing any doctor can say is going to straighten out the kinks in those telephone wires.
I understand that psychoanalysis works miracles for some people, but I was brought up to believe that talking about yourself was the height of boorishness, not to mention very un-English. The suggestion that I should go out and find a shrink raised in me a whole new raft of anxieties. I have to admit that in general I’m leery of doctors and their credentials. You only have to look at my incubus to see I haven’t always been the best picker of men. If the shrink I chose was subpar, he’d probably fall for my tricks and lies; if he was savvy enough to tap into the dark oily streams of my unconscious, chances are I’d be spending the rest of my days among the whispery chatter and muted shrieks of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. I’m not sure I believe in the process of therapy either. However crooked the journey that brings us here, here is where we are, and to trawl through the past looking for someone to take the rap for the way you turned out seems neither fair nor right. I come from generations of pragmatic, stubborn DIY copers and I was determined to work this thing out myself.
Sleep paralysis was a stunning revelation. The scientific narrative stopped me from feeling like a crazy person. Once I stumbled over it, sleep paralysis was everywhere. In forums, medical journals, splashed over blogs. It even had its own documentary film about to premiere at Sundance. And take it back as far as you like: how many ghosts, how many Gothic stories and devils in literature could be attributed to it?
I decided to revisit some of the ghost stories that scared me as a teenager: The Turn of the Screw, A Christmas Carol, Edith Wharton’s ‘ The Eyes’. It seemed to me that the last two were both cut-and-dried cases of sleep paralysis. Scrooge is haunted by his own greed and misanthropy, while Culwin’s egotism is tormented by a pair of red eyes at the foot of his bed, which turn out to be the manifestation of his guilt and shame. It occurred to me that my ‘ghost’ might also be a metaphor for some secret if unexpressed emotion. Who hasn’t at one point or another been possessed by the demons of jealousy, hatred, lust, low self-worth?
I don’t consider myself an addict. I smoke a little, chug down the odd shot of alcohol and will happily swallow any pill that’s slipped to me, but I can easily live without these things. Escape, running away, solitude: these are the highs I crave. When I’m at home I love everything it represents, but sooner or later it becomes too comfortable, too easy, and a fear of complacency sets in. I veer quickly from feeling safe and loved to feeling edgy, unable to breathe and finally so claustrophobic that I will do anything to break free – to experience the adrenaline and bliss of freedom.
And how compellingly similar was this pattern to the one of my haunting? I thought back to that day in the Bronx Zoo, standing hypnotised as the cobra banged its head against the glass in its determination to escape. The following day it had. The glass smashed, and the snake was gone. As a little girl this had terrified me. The serpent had had me in its sights, with every intention of hunting me down. But now I thought of it slithering through the unfamiliar streets of the city, excitedly taking in the new sights and smells, revelling in its liberty and independence. I fear that snake, but I understand it too. How long before it tired of freedom, before it curled up in an alley, cold and lonely, dreaming of a dead mouse and a dry cage? How long before it yearned to go home, back to the only place where things made sense?
This opposing pull between home and away has been the central struggle of my life for as long as I can remember. Addiction doesn’t always come out of a bottle. It can be any habit that most adversely affects our behaviour, our sanity or the people around us. I have studiously avoided dealing with this issue, preferring instead to live in the eye of the storm, seeking out adventure and needless danger, immersing myself in worlds that are not my own and shutting myself off from the ones that are. I have driven my family crazy with this selfish behaviour until finally my guilt and unease began manifesting themselves in some sort of inhuman form. No wonder I couldn’t move on. Deal with me, my demon is saying. I am your demon and you need to pay attention to me or I will paralyse you forever.
As a diagnosis, it’s muddled, simplistic and moulded to the shape that suits me. Have I really dealt with the sexual aspect of it? Not even vaguely, but what does it matter? This is my demon. I conjured him up out of the nocturnal landscape of my own subconscious. The only person he has to answer to is me.
We still see each other from time to time, my incubus and I, though it’s fair to say that some of the heat has gone out of our relationship. Sometimes I wake to find his hand on my shoulder before he slips away between the shadowy gaps of my sleep. Recently he’s even acquired a sense of humour – should you choose to call it that. Earlier this year, as I felt his iron filings drain from my body, he touched the palm of my hand with his finger and said, ‘You do know I’m married, don’t you?’ The day I began writing this piece, he appeared to me, no longer a collection of iron filings but made of flesh-coloured sandstone and, instead of a finger, he had a rotating drill on the end of his hand, which he extended towards me. ‘Don’t even think about it,’ I said scornfully, and went back to sleep. Only later did the significance of this encounter occur to me: It was the first time I’d seen him, not as an image in my head, but as a ‘real’ entity outside it. Though in terms of recovery, arguably we still have some way to go, I took this as progress.
The truth is, I no longer wish to be rid of my demon. His visits always come when I’m alone, usually far from home, and they serve as a reminder to pay attention, not to mess with the balance of my life – and that makes him a friend, not an enemy. Besides, what’s hidden deep inside us can also be the thing that drives us forwards. I’ve started working on a new project. A collection of non-fiction stories about a fickle, restless writer, forever probing new people and places. Even if the journey that has brought us here is crooked and can’t be changed, I’ve decided it can’t hurt to take a look at it. Books after all, are not unlike nightmares. They too can grow out of grisly past experiences.
Artwork © Paolo Čerić