My night terrors began in my pre-teen years. I’d had nightmares before, some that I still remember 40 years later, but the terrors were different.
Here’s how they went: It is the middle of the night. I am in bed, sleeping. Suddenly I wake up to the sensation of a weight coming down upon the bed, like a cat jumping up near my feet, and then the covers begin to move, upwards. Something is—quite literally—pulling the blankets over my head. I sense an entity, feel its presence, but I am paralyzed—unable to move to stop the entity from pulling the blankets slowly, so slowly upward, and unable to cry out. A scream is trapped inside, a bubble of air in my throat, a thought in my mouth behind lips that cannot move. And the covers creep steadily upwards.
I turn to prayer. I’m a young Catholic. I attend weekly mass and go to Catholic school. I turn in desperation to a higher power. I say the Lord’s Prayer in my heart. I tell the entity, which I know is malevolent, I tell it that God is on my side and His light will blind my enemy and render him powerless.
Then I wait for what is probably seconds but feels like many long minutes. And the covers keep shifting. I wait until I am able to move. When the paralysis slowly lifts I summon every ounce of courage and tentatively reach my arm out from below the blankets toward the bedside light.
The little lamp is so beautiful. It has a base of honey-coloured maple wood fixed into a saucer of white bubble milk glass. Atop the turned wooden spool is a circa-1970s shade macramed by my mother in a ribbon-like cord of pale yellow. Her work is a fine pattern of neat little knots and tightly woven geometric shapes—hectagons, triangles and diamonds. The warmth of the incandescent bulb pierces the pattern’s tiny holes, suffusing the room with a golden glow.
Cautiously I look around the room. Nothing is there. I’m safe. The thing, the devil, the spirit, the presence is gone.
These visits continue for years. I’d thought when we left Montreal, that the spirit would be left in the rooms of that house, but the terrors continue in Oakville and gradually subside around age 17, although even into my 20s and 30s a few nights are disturbed by these unnatural events.
What were they? What really happened? I’ve never known. I have thought for many years, albeit not without doubts, that I might have been visited by a poltergeist. But I am a bit of a skeptic by nature. I remember when I first heard, as a child, the Bible story of Jesus’s post-resurrection visit to his apostles. Thomas doubts Jesus really has risen from the dead and puts his fingers in gaping wounds from the nails that penetrated his former teacher’s palms. We children were told that we should be horrified by Thomas’s insolence, his lack of faith, but I was left with overwhelming relief that finally there was someone in the Bible I really identified with—I got Thomas, I understood this story, I knew I’d have done the exact same thing. But I kept this private; my own insolence made me frightened for my soul.
And so while I could not deny the evidence built up over years and years of physically truly experiencing the covers move by hands unseen, a shard of doubt remained: perhaps, as my mother asserted, I was imagining this?
Last week, I was riveted to my radio for a segment on CBC’s The Current that explored the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
The condition, which they say has been experienced by cultures throughout the world from the beginning of recorded time, occurs when we fall into the REM state so quickly that our brains don’t realize we are dreaming; they become confused and completely freak out when we experience in our conscious mind the “limp paralysis” that accompanies REM. Our conscious brain thinks we are really paralyzed and activates the primitive fear-based part of our brain, which sends a message that we are in danger and must run for our lives, but we can’t. We also then try to make logical sense of what is happening and invent a narrative of an evil presence inflicting this state upon us, trying to suffocate us, immobilize us, kill us.
Sounds familiar. Apparently, sleep paralysis is sometimes accompanied with the feeling of a weight on the chest, and sometimes the malevolent presence is actually seen, as in the lore that has developed in Newfoundland of being visited by the Old Hag. Apparently, it is just Newfoundlanders who suffer from sleep paralysis.
Across all cultures and times, the scientists and anthropologists assert, people have recorded almost identical narratives to explain this physical state.
Well, that certainly sheds a new light on my poltergeist theory.
Before I’d heard of sleep paralysis, I spent years as an adult looking back, trying to make sense of it all. I began to believe that my terrors might have been precipitated by a visit to St. Joseph’s Oratory when I was quite little, perhaps nine or ten.
I cannot think of Montreal without seeing in my mind’s eye the green dome of the basilica atop Mount Royal. It is a landmark, known worldwide, especially since 2010, when Brother André, the man responsible for the existence of the shrine, was canonized by Benedict XVI. (You’ll have to forgive me for continuing to call him Brother André instead of Saint André of Montreal. I can’t get used to it.)
|The centre stair with pilgrims |
climbing on their knees.
On the visit I am thinking of, my only visit inside the Oratory, my mother and I climbed the 283 steps from the street to the main doors (others, I remember, climbed a special staircase of 99 steps reserved for pilgrims to mount on their knees). Inside we joined a tour.
Things started going bad when we got to the display of crutches mounted on the wall in a dimly lit enclave, where hundreds of votive candles flickered in red, blue and amber glass holders. The old wooden crutches spoke to me of broken and deformed bodies—I could not make the leap that was intended by the display. I could not imagine the miraculously healed whole bodies. There was no evidence of health before me, only the crutches.
|Brother Andre outside the chapel.|
The chapel seemed small and sweet under the trees. I felt comforted. I wanted to like this place, I wanted to like Brother André. I was an earnest child, longing for the magic and miracles followers of my religion accepted as fact.
|My First Communion.|
We entered the wooden building. It was like stepping back in time. We went up to Brother André’s little room above the sacristy, where he actually lived. It was a Spartan little room with a wood stove and a table and a bed. It did not feel warm and welcoming as I’d hoped, but cold and barren. It occurred to me Brother André was dead and I was in a dead man’s room.
I was the only child on the tour, I remember all the adult legs surrounding me like a close forest. And I remember the voice of the tour guide. His French accent, the monologue he spoke, the sense you could not interrupt, his reverence for Brother André, and his absolute belief.
This was the story he told: Brother André was a pious man, pure of spirit, so good that the Devil could not stand it, he could not stand that Jesus had such an obedient servant, and so the Devil visited Brother André, right here in his room, and he tormented him by moving furniture and breaking dishes and shaking, actually shaking, Brother André’s bed at night.
I looked at the iron bed, I imagined the heavy thing clanging against the hard wooden floor, I imagined laying in it, like the old man, the Devil shaking and shaking the bed.
I remember feeling hot as I stood listening to this story, realizing even then how inappropriate it was to tell a little child the story, but also knowing I was of no importance to the man speaking. He was transported by the message he was delivering. He was on a mission.
To this day I am not fond of iron beds!
What if Brother André suffered from sleep paralysis, too? What if his night terrors could be explained scientifically, as I am beginning to believe my own years of terrors can be? To be honest, though, I think sleep paralysis may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Brother André’s state of health.
From the Ottawa citizen, July 16, 1955:
“The worst cross of all, he felt, was his personal battle with the devil. He told his intimate friends that Satan appeared to him in the form of a large black cat; that the devil continually tempted and harassed him. Brother Andre met these temptations by rolling in the winter snow, by taking ice-cold showers and by prayer.”
|Jet. Five months.|
|Jet. A devilish mood.|
|His first Halloween. ’Nuf said.|
|Too lazy to be wicked, but thinking evil thoughts.|
Joking aside, what if all the countless spiritual experiences of Christian saints and mystics, and all the other spiritual beliefs of different peoples for thousands of years could be explained by various mix-ups in our brains, and by our compulsion to make sense of these neurological misfires by crafting narratives, stories, that eventually become beliefs, which eventually become religions? What if God can be scientifically explained away?
Physicist and author Alan Lightman, who self-identifies as an atheist, discusses the intersection of belief and scientific fact in his salon.com article, which features a surprising ending. You can read it here: http://life.salon.com/2011/10/02/how_science_and_faith_coexist/
To judge from the sometimes vitriolic response the article received at The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason http://richarddawkins.net/articles/643326-does-god-exist even questioning the work of scientists who are committed to proving God does not exist is committing scientific heresy. This seems a topic that cannot be broached without violent emotion on all sides.
But I do wonder about the mission of those scientists so keen to disprove the existence of a higher power. They largely operate from foregone conclusions, which seem antithetical to the scientific method itself. How is it that they are so certain?
I do not, personally, wish to imagine the demystification of everything. What a world. What a pursuit.
When I was six I attended my first funeral. It was my Granny Dore’s. Weeks before, I remember being shuffled into the little bedroom by the kitchen in the second-storey flat she shared with my aunts, Mame and Gerda (widowed and never married, respectively), and my Uncle Jim and his wife Dora.
I loved my Granny very much. She was a very quiet, very old lady even when I was just a little mite. We’d visit on Sundays after church. She’d sit straight and proud on the couch in the front room with its formal furniture and dark wood mouldings. A blanket was always folded neatly over her lap, and Granny always seemed to be smiling a smile that truly lit up the room.
|Grandpa and Granny Beattie, and Granny Dore holding me on the day of my christening.|
|My grannies on my christening day.|
She’d beckon to me and I’d go to her. She’d reach a shaky hand toward a small round tin on the side table, and pry off the lid with little back-and-forth motions. She’d nod her head at me encouragingly and hold out the tin filled with a rainbow of almost flat round candies in every fruit flavour, little disks dusted in powdered sugar. I’d pick red, cherry; green if red was gone. I’d smile and thank her and pop it in my mouth. This was, largely, the extent of our interactions, yet it was as rich an exchange as any long-term relationship.
On the day they took me to her bedroom, I did not go willingly. They said she was dying. I must go and say good-bye.
Her room was a tiny cell-like space. I always wondered why Granny had the smallest room by the back kitchen when her children had beautiful bedrooms filled with gleaming mahogany furniture in the more formal part of the flat. By comparison, her room seemed dingy, with dusty yellow walls and a small window fitted with a semi-transparent blind. I know she must have insisted on it, for she was held in reverence by all her children and they would not have given it to her willingly. I think she was a very simple woman, risen from absolute poverty as a Catholic servant to a wealthy Protestant family in Ireland.
I went in to the room. It smelt off. Gentle hands were on my shoulders guiding me inevitably closer to the bed. There she was. Maybe someone said, “Hold her hand?” Maybe. I tried not to inhale and took her hand. It was light as a feather and cool. She had no words and her eyes held pain. I think they made me kiss her.
At the funeral, I wouldn’t go in the viewing room, where my relatives filed past the open coffin. I hid behind my sister Mary in the hallway. She would have been 13 at the time. I peered around her through the double wooden doors to the casket and saw my father standing there beside his mother. She did actually look asleep, just as Mary said she would. My little mind tried to understand how this was different.
That night, as usual, I slept in my room, which I shared with both my older sisters, Mary and Margaret. There was a chest of drawers beside my bed at that time. It was six-drawers high, quite towering to a six year old looking up from her bed. In the middle of the night, I suddenly woke. Beside me was my grandmother, standing and looking down at me, plain as day. I could see right through her to the chest of drawers; through her head was the globe of the earth that was atop the chest, its bright blue misted by her cloud of brighter-than-white hair.
She was smiling. Positively glowing. The room was dark, but there she was, a light all her own. She smiled down at me with such love it never occurred to me to be afraid. I was happy she was with me.
For many, many years I never told anyone about that “visit” from Granny Dore. I never even thought about it. It had just happened and seemed completely normal. I never said to myself: I’ve seen a ghost. I don’t believe I even knew what a ghost was at that age. To me I’d simply seen Granny, who’d come to say goodbye.
No one can prove, actually prove, otherwise. No one can say what exactly love is, what power the energy of love wields. Nor can they say what happens to our energy after death. In the end, it is a matter of belief.
I believe in what I saw that night. It held a completely different quality than the night terrors, which came years later. It was unusual and surprising to see Granny, standing tall beside me when she’d always been seated, and in my room, but not frightening. I clearly remember the very real love that shone from her sweet eyes and smile. She looked at me. Eye contact.
It perhaps seems illogical that while I accept that my night terrors were likely due to sleep paralysis, I also reject that Granny’s ghost was a figment of my mixed-up brain. I can only explain it by saying I believe love exerts a mysterious power that is intangible, unexplainable, unquantifiable.
I am content with that mystery. Even more, the existence of that mystery is, paradoxically, where I place my faith.
|Me and Aaron, age four months, November 2001|