Why are we so fascinated with the paranormal? We love to hear creepy stories, then sleep with the lights on, after checking under the bed and behind the curtains, just in case. Maybe it’s our natural inquisitiveness that attracts us to the unexplained and supernatural. Ghosts, aliens, demons and the undead are entertaining when they’re the fantastic products of creative imaginations, and nothing more. But what if some of the weird phenomena out there turned out to be real? Many people swear that they’ve encountered ghosts, been abducted by aliens, cast out evil spirits, and communicated with the dead. These people are either making up stories for attention or profit, are delusional … or maybe they’re telling the truth. We’ll never know for sure — unless it happens to us. In the meantime, here are five creepy phenomena that haven’t been explained.
5. Demonic Possession
Demonic possession has inspired numerous books, movies and TV shows, most notably The Exorcist (1973). Of course, these fictional accounts are sensationalized for entertainment value, whereas in the real world widespread confusion and skepticism persists on this issue. Most religions claim that demonic spirits can in fact, possess humans. In the Christian tradition, a possession comes when Satan or some demon takes full possession of a person’s body without their consent, so the victim is therefore morally blameless. If a possession is reported, the Church conducts an investigation to determine whether it is a genuine case and if an exorcism is needed. In 2014, the Catholic Church officially recognized The International Association of Exorcists, a trade group for some 250 priests around the world who perform exorcisms.
Yet apparently “real” cases of demonic possession are very rare. Skeptics point out that signs of possession, such as abnormal changes to the voice, shouting out profanities, and the desire to hurt oneself or others, can mimic symptoms of mental illness, including Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia, and some priests consult with psychiatrists before proceeding with an exorcism. Then there’s the issue of exorcism for profit, with exorcism ministries sprouting up all over the country, some of them even televising exorcisms.
But there have been cases that witnesses claim are very convincing. Dr. Richard E. Gallagher, a board-certified psychiatrist and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College, documented what he claimed was a “clear-cut case of demonic possession” in the New Oxford Review in 2008. As he observed an exorcism involving an American woman, she levitated 6 inches off the ground, demonstrated paranormal powers, and spoke foreign languages unknown to her. Objects flew off the shelves, the woman exhibited enormous strength, and she relayed information about the exorcism team members that she could not possibly have known.
4. Spontaneous Human Combustion
How can people burst into flames with no apparent external source of ignition and burn so completely without setting fire to anything else around them? This is the mystery surrounding spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Just as with everything else in this story, it’s easy to scoff at this phenomenon as an urban legend, but there have been hundreds of reported cases through the centuries. Scientists have explored several theories as to what causes SHC, such as static build up of electricity inside the body, and a build up of methane in the intestines, which is sparked by enzymes. But none of these theories have proved satisfactory. In addition, no one has ever witnessed someone spontaneously bursting into flames. Reports reveal similarities in the victims’ habits and circumstances, with many being obese, sedentary and elderly, often living alone. Others were alcoholics and smokers who may have fallen asleep with a lit cigarette, pipe or cigar. But why did the surrounding furniture and bedding remain largely untouched?
One scientific explanation for this is the wick effect, which suggests that the body, when ignited by some external heat source such as a lit cigarette, acts very much like an inside out candle, which causes the body to burn very slowly. Another possibility is that some of these fires were acts of arson. Yet some SHC cases remain unexplained and some victims do not fit this profile. No one has been able to conclusively prove or disprove the existence of SHC, but most scientists agree that there are other, more likely explanations for these events. Yet some authorities are willing to claim it is a very real occurrence — in 2010, a coroner in Ireland officially attributed the death of a 76-year-old man to spontaneous human combustion.
3. Real-Life Zombies
Whether they’re reanimated corpses hunting and devouring the living, or unfortunate victims of viruses turning into raging killers, zombies have had a huge impact on 21st century popular culture. But surprisingly few modern movie and TV adaptations have explored the fascinating Haitian origins of the zombie legend. For many people in Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean — where belief in magic and witchcraft is widespread — zombies are a very real phenomenon. In Haiti, zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead and controlled through magic by voodoo priests called bokors or houngan. They supposedly performed the zombification either as punishment or to create slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations. Horror director Wes Craven tackled the Haitian phenomenon in the 1988 movie The Serpent and The Rainbow. Based on a book of the same title by Wade Davis, the movie follows the trail of a scientist who claimed to have found a substance that could create zombies. Davis believed that “zombie” victims were poisoned with a potion that included an extremely powerful neurotoxin (tetrodotoxin) found in pufferfish.
Davis theorized that tetrodotoxin produces a state indistinguishable from death, and that bokors exhume the body after burial, and are able to resuscitate the victims. According to legend, the body wakes up, but the consciousness and personality are gone, leaving in its place a zombie-like being that can be controlled by the bokor. Skeptics challenged Davis’ theories, claiming the methods were unscientific; Davis himself acknowledged some problems. But he does believe there are elements of truth to his theories and there was much more to the zombie phenomenon than the powder itself, which was just one part of a deep-rooted sociocultural belief in the power of black magic.
2. Sleep Paralysis
You wake up in the dead of night and sense a malevolent presence … the bedroom door slowly creaks open. Somebody’s there. Terrified, you try to get up, but realize you cannot move. You try turning your head but it won’t budge. You scream for help but no sound escapes your mouth. You’re paralyzed, lying helplessly on the bed. Something presses down on your chest and a creepy voice whispers in your ear. Then suddenly the spell is broken and you can move again. You grab for the light and scan the room for intruders. Nobody’s there. Anyone who’s suffered from sleep paralysis (SP) will recognize this scenario. The SP episode may have been followed by lucid dreaming, a state in which you can control your own dreams, and even an out-of-body experience or astral projection.
A 2011 study by Penn State University found that nearly 8 percent of the general population has problems with sleep paralysis. Most experts classify this phenomenon as a treatable sleep disorder. But legends and folklore worldwide offer more sinister interpretations, and almost every country has a name for these nighttime intruders. Sometimes the devil himself is implicated, and if not the devil then his minions are responsible. Other legends point to the “Old Hag” as the culprit, out to possess the soul of the subject or to take their life. Others believe these are descriptions of alien abductions. There are also claims that this may mark the beginning of an enlightening spiritual journey.
In physiological terms this is a condition characterized by a temporary paralysis shortly after waking or before falling asleep. It is closely correlated to the paralysis that occurs naturally as part of REM sleep known as REM atonia. The root cause of sleep paralysis is when the brain awakes from an REM state but the bodily paralysis continues. Consequently the sufferer is fully conscious and aware but cannot move. And according to the experts, this state may be accompanied by hypnagogic hallucinations. Is sleep paralysis a scary but harmless biological occurrence? Or is there something more sinister at work here? Those who have experienced SP will tell you that during one of these episodes the feelings are so intense and real, and the fear so all-encompassing that scientific explanations seem inadequate and even ridiculous.
1. Black-Eyed Children
The creepiest phenomenon here by far is the legend of the black-eyed children. (If you’re home alone at night, read this at your own risk!) Since the late 1980s, thousands of people worldwide have reported encounters with black-eyed children who ask to be let in to their houses, vehicles, and even hotel rooms. The kids range in ages between 6 and 16, show up at night, and appear in pairs or groups. The most notable feature is the solid black eyes, lacking any color or the white part of the eye, known as the sclera.
Witnesses report these children knocking on their doors and asking to be let in to use the phone or tapping on car windows asking for a ride home because they’re lost or forgot something. Witnesses commonly report feeling intense feelings of dread and fear, and even being under the influence of hypnosis when they look into those creepy black eyes. If the person closes the door or drives away the children apparently disappear. Some claim they’re extraterrestrials, others say they’re inter-dimensional beings, vampires, alien hybrids, time travelers or even demonic entities. Others say it’s just an elaborate hoax or at best an urban legend. Either way, skeptic or not, if you hear a knock on the door and see some kids outside, check their eyes before you open the door. Better to be safe than sorry.