It was the summer of 1993. I had travelled to Japan to spend the summer as part of a contingent of English teachers selected by a mission agency. After a week’s training in Sapporo we were sent off to our respective towns. I was sent to a scenic town on the coast which looked like it came straight out of a Miyazaki film.
The job was simple enough. Teach English for about 45 minutes to locals and give the pastor the last ten minutes for an evangelistic message. My living quarters were also simple, but in a good way. I lived in the church along with the pastor’s family. They had a small apartment within the small church, and I occupied a room in that apartment which had one door to the apartment and another door to the church proper.
That night I had a terrible nightmare. I woke up about 3 AM with a deep sense of fear which was quickly replaced by enormous relief when I realized it was just a dream. And then in the stillness of the night I suddenly heard what sounded like an old man clearing his throat right at my door. The sound was unmistakably human, and was suggestive of someone announcing their presence upon entering a room. That caught my attention as you can imagine because it came from the church door (not the apartment door) and nobody should be in the church at 3 AM. In addition, the pastor was a relatively young man — somewhere in his mid forties — and this did not sound like him at all.
You can imagine my sense of fear (if you can’t relate, being that you’re an uber-machismo Sylvester Stallone type, well then hats off to you). I lay in bed deathly still, listening. The church was an old building. Every step you’d take would result in a creak from a floor board. So as I lay there with a great sense of fear I listened with the utmost attentiveness for any sound of creaking floor boards which would signal the person moving away. But no sound ever came.
Perhaps twenty minutes later I suddenly felt a presence in the room, as if the presence behind the voice I had heard had now entered in. Then I felt something descending upon me and covering me somewhat like a blanket. As a result I was completely immobilized and, I soon discovered, unable to speak. I tried to scream but I could hear only the faintest whisper.
And then I heard it, although this voice was not audible. It was in my head. The first thing I heard was a growling sound, as if I had stuck my head in the mouth of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers. Then along with the growling came the voice. This was no old man’s voice. Imagine that you have a sound effects CD which includes “demonic voice” among its many effects. That was what this voice was like. With the growling sound in the background it spoke, saying my name and then saying “Easy does it” twice. Strange. I would have expected perhaps “Get the hell out of here”. Nonetheless I think I understood the message. I took “Easy does it” to mean “Don’t get too comfortable here. I’m in control.” The way the voice spoke added to this interpretation as if it were mocking me.
After that all I heard was the growling. It continued for perhaps another thirty seconds and then the presence lifted and I could move again. At that point I had a sense that the presence had left and I did the only thing I could: pray. And I continued to pray until the grey dawn light coming through my window had reached a “safe” degree of illumination.
At that point I reached for my old King James Bible sitting beside the bed. I opened it up at random and read these words: “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) The context of the passage is Paul praying to Jesus three times and asking for a “thorn in the flesh”, that is some kind of personal burden or oppression, to be released. It provided an enormous comfort in that moment. Incidentally, the spine of the book was not cracked such that it would naturally tend to open to this page.
Shortly after this I called the head missionary in Sapporo — the pastor didn’t speak enough English to understand my experiences — and I told her what had happened. For a moment there was silence on the other end of the phone. And then she told me that the same events had happened the previous summer to the young western man who had stayed in this church. (By contrast, nothing similar had ever happened to the other nine people teaching English throughout Hokkaido.)
That morning I learned a new term in Japanese: kanashibari. I learned that many people are familiar with what is often described as waking with an old man sitting on your chest. (Oy vey! That sounds unpleasant!) It is captured in this classic painting by John Henry Fuseli called “The Nightmare.” In the west we refer to this as sleep paralysis. It can occur either at the point of falling asleep or waking up whenREM atonia, the natural paralysis that prevents us from acting out our dreams, is operative when we are conscious. Sometimes this can work in reverse too. My old roommate once had a dream in which he was a soccer goalie. REM atonia ceased during his dream and he ended up knocking his lamp on the floor while trying to block a soccer ball. So we should be very thankful that REM atonia prevents us from acting out our dreams. But it can be terrifying when REM atonia has not worn off upon waking, particularly when this is accompanied — it often is — by hallucinations.
So was my experience simply a case of sleep paralysis? First off let me say that calling something sleep paralysis may deal with the physiological level of explanation. But it simply does not address whether there is an additional spiritual dimension. This is important to remember because too often there is an assumption that to provide a “diagnosis” (e.g. “Oh, that was sleep paralysis”) can slip into a potentially reductive analysis (“Oh that was nothing but sleep paralysis.”) So even if my experience was simply a case of sleep paralysis, that does not mean there was not a supernatural agency involved in the events.
So again, was my experience a case of sleep paralysis? Maybe. The paralysis point was certainly there. And one could argue that the voices were hallucinatory. But there are a number of points that contradict the diagnosis. For example, most people who experience sleep paralysis are in the supine position (i.e. lying on their backs) but I was in the prostrate position (i.e. lying on my stomach). Next, sleep paralysis often occurs when the person is in a new context. This might explain my case although by this time I had been in Japan for several weeks.
The biggest problem with diagnosing the case as sleep paralysis was that I had been awake for twenty minutes or more. And here you must rely on my sober testimony. After hearing that very audible old man’s voice I was very much awake and fully able to move. So the paralysis and voices I experienced occurred a significant amount of time after I woke up and thus, it seems to me, could not be explained as a lingering REM atonia.
Regardless, there are the other remaining facts that are suggestive of something more including what seemed to me a piercingly relevant scriptural passage and the missionary’s testimony that the same thing had happened the previous summer to another young man.
So did a demon actually oppress me at 3 AM those eighteen years ago? Relative to my background set of beliefs in which are are non-physical agencies some of which are malevolent, this makes good sense. But as with so many events in our lives, it remains open to interpretation.