Editorial: Possessed

I achieved sleep paralysis on the third day of looking into the topic. One could say that I’m far too susceptible to suggestions to attempt this kind of research. But I did, and so there I lay, locked but wakeful, a scream trapped in my lungs.

Sleep paralysis is when you are awake and conscious, but your body can’t move. Because it can be accompanied by hallucinations, it has been used to explain a wide variety of phenomena such as alien abductions and hauntings. Which is essentially how I came across the term. I wasn’t just diving into obscure sleep research, I was immersing myself in the theme of this issue – possession, in the paranormal, demonic sense.

After all, what else could be pressing me into the sheets but a demon from hell? This wasn’t the chest pressure of heartburn after a rich holiday meal. No, it was a wild, malicious entrapment. Something was holding me back, pinning me down.

Obviously, this is a really helpful metaphor for…well, anything that feels complex and overwhelming. Like adolescence. Particularly for young women. Quite a few famous titles, in books and film, feature female characters growing up and inadvertently getting possessed. (Never mind the useful “first blood” imagery. And the historic demonization of women within church dogmas. That’s just gravy.)

As a youth pastor in Hendrix Grady’s book My Best Friend’s Exorcism puts it:

Adolescence is a complicated time, and some really bright people think that when the adult emerges, it’s like you’re being taken over by a different person. Almost like being possessed.

Not that teenagers have a lock on losing their sense of identity. Think about the cultural resonance of the phrase “midlife crisis”—an event in which the sufferer is in danger of a complete personality change.

I’ve already had one of those. Not sure I need my night demon to impel me to do anything more drastic than purchasing a literary magazine. [Looks at camera meaningfully.]

Terrified, I tried to release the scream building up inside of me, but it came out as a bark. Otherworldly barking—coming from inside me and all around me. Of course, your personal demon could take the form of an animal. Your personal curse might even be an object. My own, my precious.

When I could finally—gasp!!—move again, I lay stunned.

Sleep paralysis has probably occurred for all of human history, yet the experience didn’t feel like something that could be explained by science. This might have been what the medieval Europeans called an incubus. What the Arabians called a jinn. What the Norse called a mara. As I recalibrated my surroundings, I understood why ancients chose to believe in witchcraft and abductions. It felt evil, just like my sources promised.

In this issue, I have chosen a couple stories that make references to the religious trappings of possession. Our lead story, “Imago Dei,” by Josh Pearce, describes a trucker that picks up a young runaway who has delivered a very special child. For a more literary treatment, our reprint for the month–“Salt” by Emily Anderson Ula–depicts a wife dealing with her husband’s break with reality.

If you are seeking a science fiction version, look no further than Lora Gray’s “The Pieces of Her,” in which a cyborg is in possession of both a dead woman’s body and the mind of its AI creator.

Finally, what possession issue wouldn’t be complete without a story about a cursed heirloom? In “Wood, Amber, Smoke,” Lyndsie Manusos depicts a family haunted by grandpa’s pipe.

For this issue, I also asked the FFO staff to give me some of their favorite books about possession. We’ll be sharing these thoughts throughout the month, on Patreon and our various social media platforms.