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Letter to the Editor: More Ghosts More Business a


Michele A. Riva & Lucio Tremolizzo a

Section of the History of Medicine, University of Milano-Bicocca, Monza, Italy b

Section of Neurology, DCMT and Neuro-MI, University of MilanoBicocca, Monza, Italy Published online: 15 Oct 2014.

Click for updates To cite this article: Michele A. Riva & Lucio Tremolizzo (2014) Letter to the Editor: More Ghosts More Business, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and Clinical Perspectives, 23:4, 422-423, DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2014.955948 To link to this article:

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Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 23:422–423, 2014 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0964-704X print / 1744-5213 online DOI: 10.1080/0964704X.2014.955948

Letter to the Editor: More Ghosts More Business MICHELE A. RIVA1 AND LUCIO TREMOLIZZO2 1

Section of the History of Medicine, University of Milano-Bicocca, Monza, Italy Section of Neurology, DCMT and Neuro-MI, University of Milano-Bicocca, Monza, Italy

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In their fascinating short paper, “Kanashibari: A Ghost’s Business,” Olry and Haines (2014) guide the readers throughout the meaning of a kanashibari experience, defined as “pressure on the body, hallucinations, breathing difficulties and anxiety” (p. 193) during sleep, undoubtedly referring to a list of parasomnias, including sleep paralysis. The authors further demonstrate the unequivocal spiritual nature bestowed on this phenomenon by the Japanese folk culture, implying a ghost as the possible (frightening) culprit (Olry & Haines, 2014). This is perfectly understandable from anyone ever experiencing these phenomena, since hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations plausibly led people to visualize demons or spirits in their bedrooms, and they could be unable to move due to sleep paralysis, often associated in the narcoleptic tetrad (Riva & Tremolizzo, 2013). The authors conclude their journey throughout Asia, showing few examples in Western countries and asking the reader to be careful with Japanese ghosts even outside Japan (Olry & Haines, 2014). We now may, perhaps, further highlight their excellent contribution by stating that, as a matter of fact, these beliefs are not just typical of the Asian cultures but haunt the whole Occident as well and for many centuries rather than only in late-first millennium as suggested by the authors. In fact, in Roman mythology, an “incubus” (from the Italian word “incubo” translated in “nightmare”) was a male supernatural entity who laid upon the chest of female sleepers, causing nightmares but, notably, also preventing them from moving (Riva & Tremolizzo, 2013). These ghosts were represented with a conical cap on the head, which they often lose. People who found one of these caps, immediately acquired the power to discover hidden treasures (Grimal, 1990). During the Christian Age, these ghosts were considered a demonic presence—“the Devil himself was seen as an insomniac” (SummersBremner, 2008, p. 52)—who tempted and played jokes to faithful and observant Christians during the night. So, during the Middle Ages, the “succubus,” a female counterpart of the incubus, was believed to seduce young monks and priests in sleep, explaining, in a way, the phenomenon of nocturnal pollution (Riva & Tremolizzo, 2013). Curiously, in the same period, the monk Alcher of Clairvaux used the Greek word “phàntasma” (the etymological root of phantom) to define a nightmare or an evil dream in his “Liber de spiritu et anima” (12th century; Schmitt, 2013). As is known, one of the most renowned representations of this incubus demon in Western art is the painting “The Nightmare” by H. Fuseli (1781; Pearce, 1993). This “spiritual” involvement has even been consistently projected beyond sleep paralysis to include many other parasomnias as well, such as the case of somnambulism (Riva et al., 2010). Address correspondence to Michele A. Riva, MD, Section of the History of Medicine, University of Milano-Bicocca, Via Cadore 48, I-20900 Monza, Italy. E-mail: [email protected]


More Ghosts More Business


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Again, as Olry and Haines (2014) nicely did, and as previously suggested (Stores, 1998), we can find traces of this ghost business surviving in Western popular folklore. For example, we already recognized the “scazzamureddhu” (sometimes known as “laùru”) as a playful imp but more often a little ghost (in this case of a dead child) that could ride people’s chest during sleep in the Salento subpeninsula in South-Eastern Italy (Riva & Tremolizzo, 2013). Indeed, examples of ghosts or other supernatural presences pressing down people’s chests and restraining them from moving are scattered throughout Europe and Africa as well, besides the already cited Old Hag in Eastern Canada (Ness, 1978). In modern times, terms may change but not the archetypes, and, possibly, alien abduction experiences might be intriguingly reinterpreted as cases of sleep paralysis and hallucinations (McNally & Clancy, 2005). Therefore, beware of ghosts no matter where they come from!

References Grimal P (1990): Enciclopedia dei miti. Milan, Garzanti. McNally RJ, Clancy SA (2005): Sleep paralysis, sexual abuse, and space alien abduction. Transcultural Psychiatry 42: 113–122. Ness RC (1978): The Old Hag phenomenon as sleep paralysis: A biocultural interpretation. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 2: 15–39. Olry R, Haines DE (2014): Kanashibari: A ghost’s business. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 23: 192–197. Pearce JM (1993): Early descriptions of sleep paralysis. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 56: 1302. Riva MA, Sironi VA, Tremolizzo L, Lombardi C, De Vito G, Ferrarese C, Cesana G (2010): Sleepwalking in Italian operas: A window on popular and scientific knowledge on sleep disorders in the 19th century. European Neurology 63: 116–121. Riva MA, Tremolizzo L (2013): History—Features, factors, and characteristics of parasomnias. In: Kushida C, ed., The Encyclopedia of Sleep. Waltham, MA, Academic Press, 4th volume, pp. 152–156. Schmitt JC (2013): Medioevo superstizioso. Rome, Laterza, p. 81. Stores G (1998): Sleep paralysis and hallucinosis. Behavioural Neurology 11: 109–112. Summers-Bremner E (2008): Insomnia: A Cultural History. London, Reaktion Books Ltd.

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