5 Jan 2008

The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste

"H. Fuseli, "Nightmare", 1802 Lately I have been delving into the dark world of night terrors. I do it mainly because I really like the words "NIGHT TERRORS". Those two words hint at a part of the brain that can't be controlled; the unknowable world of the dream-state. Night terrors (ooohhh) have been around since people have first dreamed. They're always the same, cutting through cultural differences to a specific manifestation. The fact they're terrifyingly unknowable also makes then fascinating, of course. When I was about 5 or 6, I experienced a short but sharp taste of night terrors. It was the natural response (if I am capable of having such a thing) to starting school. Apparently many people experience a sort of burst at this time - did you? You may have forgotten. I never really did, recalling it as a first awakening of my imagination (and a very bad dream). I received at least one visitation apiece from the Hag and the Shadowman; or at least I have come to believe as much. At any rate, this has given me a personal interest in the subject. They went away later, as is apparently the case for most people. Some unfortunates are tortured with constant terrors throughout their life, with serious consequences on their physical and mental health. Other people experience periods of them in adult life, usually as a result of trauma. The effect of a night terror is that the body enters a lucid mental state, while being physically paralysed in a dream state. Your body shuts down when you dream to stop you sleepwalking (and when it doesn't, of course, it doesn't). You think you're awake but you can't move. Then the strange stuff happens. As I mentioned above, there are two archetypal figures - the Hag and the Shadowman - that many cultures relate to. There has been a great deal of debate about the first figure. They traditionally manifest as a grotesque, hunched figure squatting on your chest, and/or throttling you with hands as strong as steel. This is a result of the paralysis; the constriction of the chest creates a terrible strangling sensation. The 'hag' appellation is perhaps not entirely true; it represents, perhaps, something out of a northern European context. I come from a Norse background mythologically speaking; I always knew of the Mara; it could be the classic hag, and is definitely an account of night terrors. Sometimes a goblin-type creature is represented, as in Fuseli's famous painting above. There are also, of course, the incubi and succubi of legend. But the idea of a wickedly evil midget woman who is immensely strong and looks like fear incarnate is pretty vivid, right? And remember that Mercutio makes this weird little statement during his famous Queen Mab speech: This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, That presses them, and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage. Shakespeare, as usual, dumps a whole bunch of sexual psychology on us with this. He's referring to the incubus; the night terror as sexual assault. This speech refers to a lot of dark dream world horrors that the Elizabethans, with their witch-crazes and faeries, understood well. It cuts off just as Mercutio is about to detail the hag further; his greater theme is of course not nightmares, but it seems a bizarrely appropriate inclusion. The Shadowman is a bit vaguer and more sinister. It can't be seen, moving at the edges of peripheral vision, but slowly approaching nonetheless. It too moves into throttle you, but it's main effect is just being there - an unseen horror, just out of sight, waiting to strike. This is the closest link to that incubus idea again; in fact there was a particularly strange and nasty little movie based on a supposed incidence of this (and since shown to be a hoax, BTW). The Shadowman disturbs people more as a paranormal thing than a psychological thing - most people see it as a ghost. For my part, I think 'ghosts' are more likely to be a mental projection - a lucid dream, like a day terror. So I see it the other way round. At any rate, this manifestation strikes a lot more fear than the Hag. Other than nightmares, my other buzz at the moment is cryptozoology. Actually, I've always loved that - who isn't into weird and unknown creatures? We've a few 'round our way. You spend a night out in the bush near here and it's total Blair Witch. We don't have a culture of stuff like Sasquatch, but the cruel poetry of some Maori cryptids intrigues me. A specific example is the Ngarara. This roughly translates as lizard or reptile. In Maori belief lizards are immensely tapu, and were considered to have powerful magical abilities. The slopes of Mount Taranaki are haunted, it is said, by a particularly nasty one. It can be heard bellowing at night as the winds howl down through the gullies. Of course, no giant lizard is going to survive up there for very long; this is a very implausible cryptid, but one that inspired me. There's a staggering amount of these things. It's worth noting here that many species you could name were once considered myths. The orang-utan and the panda were both considered "officially" legendary in the West before examples were captured and sent to Europe. So no cryptid can be truly written off, no matter how unlikely. Nature is an insane frenzy, as we all know. I like the old school-demonic ones, like Black Shuck, and the satyr-type beast seen across the U.S., or my old favourite, the haunting and mind-bending Bunyip. Every part of the world has their own versions. Sometimes they have already retreated into myth before we could ever know if they were real in the first place. Could large and aggressive reptiles have survived far longer than we currently believe? And not just the awesome T-Rex, I mean things like my aforementioned Ngarara, or any number of such monsters? Of course, logic dictates their size and massive appetite would see them wiped out soon enough - the Komodo dragon, which could be considered the closest thing we've got to a big scaly killing machine, only survived so long because they had a few perfect islands to live on. So while there may once have been places were one was warned, "here be dragons", that would have passed a long time ago. Crikey, when you consider the number of known species we've blown off the face of the planet, what chance did cryptids have? My personal favourite urban legend/cryptid/nightmare, to round off the blog? The beautifully named Pope Lick Monster, from Kentucky. What do people see when they cross that trestle bridge? This is the stuff that fascinates me; those things that come crawling out of our mind.

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