Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Development Of Story: Shadow People - From Supernatural Myth to Psychological Study

As part of my second year on the creative writing degree, I had to conduct a research project and tie it in with a piece of creative fiction. As I was starting to write the first Louise Miller book, Dirty Little Secret, I figured I'd hit two birds with one stone and do a research project on a particular aspect of that. 

I've kept the references in but any others such as Appendix entries, won't be displayed.

When I got the original idea for the book, Dirty Little Secret, I wanted a reason that someone would think there was another person in their room but not be worried about it. Reading several articles and medical studies, I found the reason in the phenomena of sleep paralysis. This is an illness in which the sufferer finds they can’t move their bodies, and sometimes struggle to breathe. Sleep is a period of unconscious mystery, a time of peace and content, and yet some find themselves in the grip of such a terrifying experience. Stoker commentates as such[1], though he refers to the deadly curse of Dracula rather than the terror of sleep paralysis.

My novel opens with the character of ten year old Joanna suffering from an episode of sleep paralysis which ends with devastating consequences and I thought it would stop there, but the more I looked into the topic, the more I discovered in relation to how stories change and adapt to fit  the culture and/or society of the time.  (for an example of how this research was used, read the opening chapter to the novel as Appendix A).

In this research study I’ll be looking at the myth/legend/tale of the shadow person, an elusive being that appears to those who suffer sleep paralysis and how it has changed over many centuries, as it is a strong foundation of the novel I’ve written. I’ll look at the early origins and some of its journey to present day representations, including how it has affected some aspects of language itself.

With the notion of sleep paralysis, I started to look back to its origins and discovered that even the early Egyptians had stories about being visited when sleeping, and their souls becoming wandering deities. In fact, the Egyptians belief system was heavily centred around the concept of the soul, breaking it into nine separate entities, each one overseen by its own god. In his book Temple Of The Cosmos, Jeremy Naydler commits two chapters to this subject; The Soul Incarnate and The Soul Discarnate[2]. One such aspect was that of Shut, the shadow or silhouette of the soul. In the opening commentary to The Egyptian Book Of The Dead (an ancient Egyptian funeral text), Egyptologist Ogden Goelet, Jr. described how the entombed would leave their shrines to wander as a formless shadow[3], and it is from this initial tale that I believe all the future stories would be formed.

In fact this would be further expanded upon by Dr Kasia Szpakowska, in her detailed study The Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project: Second Millennium BC[4]. This study gave deep analysis of the iconographic, archaeological and philogical aspects of every demon found in many texts, decorations and papyrus manuscripts, such as The Book Of The Dead. It is during an interview with Ancient World Magazine, where she discusses the Pavor Nocturne (night terrors) and from the Ramesside Period the Papyrus Leiden I, 348, an incantation against sleep paralysis.[5]

An example of the way in which these stories are adapted and changed can be seen in the collaboration with Dr Szpakowska’s academic study and the modern dance of choreographer Betsy Baytos, in which she discusses the connection to Egyptian iconography, and this modern form of storytelling.[6]

From this research I was able to include some details for further rewrites of the novel, such as the introduction of scarring on the body of Egyptian symbols of shadow deities as well as more detailed dialogue between characters as to the nature of sleep paralysis origins.

But as the story developed, I felt that there was more of a deeper evil lying beneath the surface. This was where I found the Japanese tales of the kanashibari intriguing, as these would add more of a layer of horror to the tale, creating a unique horror/crime hybrid. Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo) explored many such occurrences in his collection In Ghostly Japan, most notably in the story A Passional Karma, where the main character is visited by nightly terrors in the form of two women[7]. The subject matter of the nightly terror has now changed with the Japanese culture, moving away from the deity to be worshipped, to the demon to be feared. A later work, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things would explore this topic further, and later be adapted into the 1965 anthology horror film, Kwaidan[8].

It would be in his book, Kanashibari: True Encounters With The Paranormal In Japan, that Thomas Bauerle would examine encounters with sleep paralysis entities. One such occurrence he describes in detail[9]. The book then goes on to detail the shift from historic folkloric tale to recent mental health diagnosis studies. This obvious shift in tone poses many questions ripe for further study: How did the storytelling change from ancient Egypt, to feudal Japan? Is this a societal shift or one of cultural difference? As this is beyond the scope for this report, one such starting point would be the excellent blog post Culture Change: The Waves of Storytelling[10].

A pattern was beginning to emerge of women representing the shadow personalities; the Egyptian texts refer to Shut in the feminine, while the Japanese shadow demons always took the form of women or old hags. The stories were changing again and as the Gothic tale now began to emerge with writings such as Walpole’s novel The Castle Of Otranto, or Radcliffes The Romance Of The Forest, so too did the tale of the shadow person evolve once more. Gothic fiction blends pleasure with terror, emotion and romance and some saw the appearance of the shadow person as the embrace of a lover. In her article Your Dark Side: Shadow Aspects of the 7 Feminine Archetypes, writer Ayesha uses the word shadow to describe the flip side of feminine personalities, tying several into Greek myth[11] – I look at the subversion of the language surrounding Shadow people later in this report.

In Appendix C, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781) is a further example of the Gothic imagination as previously shown in literature, with the fair maiden lying prone while she is dominated by the repressed desire of the male. Poking its head through the curtains is a literal depiction of the title, a dark horse, or night mare. Yet again this is a classic example of the heavy feeling victims of sleep paralysis feel on their chests. It has now become a trope of the tale, and I have further interpreted this to express the repression of women; my novel is set in 1987 when women in the Police Force were looked down upon and shunned by their male colleagues. That it still occurs to this day is obvious and abhorrent, but in the time I set the book, it was even worse. And this all ties in with the progression of the shadow people tale, not only as the sleep paralysis but the repression of the female characters.

As the twenty-first century arrived, the tales of shadow people had morphed once again, moving into the realm of outright horror, most notably depicted by the Slender Man. The very act of storytelling itself has moved from ancient Egypt where everyone told stories, to the Japanese lone Rakugo, wandering from village to village and now to modern day, where the Slender Man version began on an online platform called Creepypasta[12]. Here, it was acknowledged that several different countries all had the same story, each one derived from ancient tales of the shadow people, but now it was used for pure entertainment as opposed to furthering either religion or community. While the site is entertaining, none of the stories have any way of being verified as factual or based in reality and to that extent it can only be shown as how the tales have transitioned into modern day as pure entertainment.

However, a troubling side effect has been the effect on mental health, especially of young people who read these stories and take them on face value. I will briefly touch on how medical studies have been carried out into the phenomena of sleep paralysis later, but there is a more deeper potential study to be found here into the effects of mental health on the development of story, but that is beyond the scope of this report. I will add that in the case of CreepyPasta and the Slender Man story, this led to the attempted murder of Payton Leutner in 2014 in Wisconsin, where her two friends led her into the woods and stabbed her 19 times – she survived this – done to appease Slender Man. A documentary on this can be found here.[13]

What is central to this study about the tales of shadow people and sleep paralysis are the medical studies conducted on those who suffer sleep paralysis – because in our modern society, those who tell such tales are not to be taken on their word but instead studied and probed to find whatever infliction there is that causes them to think such things. I created a character who is a psychologist to explore this topic in more detail (and offer readers another possible suspect).

It was Shelly Adler in her book Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection who describes in clinical terms the stages that those who suffer this affliction go through; not in terms of myth or legend, but actual physical occurrences from first hand witnesses[14]. Now, sleep paralysis is no longer simply a tall tale told around a campfire, but an illness that required treatment. Further studies into this phenomena continue to this day, the most recent being a paper about the effects of sleep paralysis on a sample of Polish students, in which fear and visual hallucinations were reported.[15]

Even the use of the word shadow has changed over time. The ancient Egyptians called the soul, the ba or shadow of one’s self[16]. Today, we have the term shadow governments, policed by shadow men as discussed in the book Shadow Men by Anthony Napoleon, PH.D. The term shadow people is also used to describe those who fall beneath societies norms, especially people addicted to methamphetamine; ironic as that is one of the drugs used to treat sleep paralysis. Huey Lewis sings: “She’s shadow boxing and losing the bout!” in his song Stop Trying, implying the woman of their affacetions is swinging at nothing but their own fear (and losing).

The tale of shadow people has been used to explain sleep paralysis through the centuries, the stories adapting to fit their time and culture, and yet they all retain central themes: a strong, unseen presence; the feeling of weight or being held down; unexplained noises and smells. Modern day culture has seized on the supernatural aspects of the story, expanding the horror to better entertain. The ailment has developed into an area of medical study that now has its own research departments in hospitals across the world, all of which stem from the first telling of the shadow of ones soul in Ancient Egypt. It is a fascinating subject and one I have only scratched the surface of in my quest to find a suitable narrative hook for my own novel with many diverging branches including the evolution of language, religion, physical and psychological doctoring and, of course, the campfire tale.


[1] Stoker, B. (1897). Dracula. London, UK. Archibald Constable & Company. “How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads, to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”

[2] Naydler, J. (1996). Temple Of The Cosmos. Rochester, Vermont. Inner Traditions International.

[3] Goelet, O. (2015). The Egyptian Book Of The Dead: The Book Of Going Forth By Day: The Complete Papyrus of Ani. Chronicle Books.In many BD papyri and tombs the deceased is depicted emerging from the tomb by day in shadow form, a thin, black, featureless silhouette of a person.”

[4] Szpakowska, A. (2016). Demon Things: The Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project: Second Millenium BCE. (19/12/2020)

[5] Szpakowska, A. (2019). Egypts Nightworld: An Interview With Dr. Kasia Szpakowska. (22/12/2020). “Papyrus Leiden I, 348 (Ramesside Period) seems to be an incantation to guard against nightmares. It begins stating that it is to ward against “terrors that fall upon a man in the night” which matches one of the most common symptoms of a nightmare – that inability to move like something is on top of you.”

[6] Baytos, B. and Szpakowska, A. (2019). Eccentric Dance Timeline. (18/12/2020). “After researching for several years the iconography of these ancient Bes figures, circa 1300 BC, I now recognise a distinct parallel to movement of the Eccentric Dance.”

[7] Hearn, L (1899). In Ghostly Japan: A Passional Karma. Japan. Curtis, Brown and Little. “Night after night the shadows came at the Hour of the Ox; and nightly Shinzaburô heard the weeping of O-Tsuyu.”

[8] Kobayashi, M (dir.) (1965). Kwaidan. Film. Japan. Bengei Pro Ninjin Club Production Company.

[9] Bauerle, T. (2017). Kanashibari: True Encounters With The Paranormal In Japan. London, UK. Asteroth’s Books. “…all of a sudden my eyes snapped open and I found myself wide-awake…I looked up to see a woman standing above my wife Tuesday as she slept…”

[10] Walters, A. (date published unknown). Culture Change: The Waves Of Storytelling. (22/12/2020).

[11] Ayesha. (2017). Your Dark Side: ‘Shadow’ Aspects of the 7 Feminine Archetypes. (19/12/2020). “In the shadows, the lover loses her self-sufficiency and comes to rely soley on her connection with others for validation.”

[12] (2010). Slenderman. (11/12/2020) “The Slender Man is an alleged paranormal figure purported to have been in existence for centuries, covering a large geographic area. Believers in the Slender Man tie his appearances in with many other legends around the world, including; Fear Dubh (or, The Dark Man) in Scotland, the Dutch Takkenmann (Branch Man), and the German legend of Der GroBmann or Der Grosse Mann (the Tall Man).”

[13] Crime Vault. (2018). Slenderman Stabbing: Documentary. (23/12/2020)

[14] Adler, S. (1963). Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. New Jersey, US. Rutgers University Press. “…these typically occur in clusters: (1) a sense of an evil presence accompanied by various sounds (footsteps, whispering); (2) breathing difficulties, feelings of suffocation, bodily pressure, sense of doom; and (3) sensations of floating, flying and falling (including out-of-body experiences and viewing one’s body from an external perspective.”

[15] Wrobel-Knybel, P; Karakula-Juchnowicz, H; Flis, M; Rog, J; Hinton, D.E; Boguta, P and Jala, B. (2020). Prevalence and Clinical Picture of Sleep Paralysis in a Polish Student Sample. Environmental Research and Public Health. Poland. (23/12/2020). “93% reported fear (most commonly fear of death, 46%), and 66% reported hallucinations (most commonly visual hallucinations, 37%”

[16] Wasserman, J. (1994). Fascimile of a vignette from the Book Of The Dead of Ani. (19/12/2020).

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