On the edge of the real

Susan Blackmore

Abstract for Perrott-Warrick Conference, Cambridge, April 3-5 2000

Strange things happen on the borders between the real and imagined – from visions of the future and horrifying monsters, to out-of-body experiences and abduction by aliens. One possibility is that states in which reality and imagination are confused are conducive to psychic phenomena. We explored this with a number of false memory experiments, with case studies, and by testing psychic claimants. We obtained no evidence of psi. Alternatively people may misinterpret peculiar, but natural experiences as paranormal or supernatural. We solicited for descriptions of such experiences and obtained nearly four hundred accounts. Surprisingly, the vast majority had indications of sleep paralysis, a state in which the mind is active and the person believes they are awake, but the body is paralysed. Common features include humming noises, feelings of being touched or pulled, floating sensations, and seen or unseen presences (usually frightening ones); features that are easily incorporated into a convincingly real out-of-body journey or abduction by aliens. We have explored some of the ways in which people misinterpret these experiences. I suggest that people’s determination to make a clear cut distinction between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ causes many of the misinterpretations.


I had one where I felt a presence in my room. I thought I was awake at the time and it was very scary. I could feel something trying to turn me around on my bed. I opened my eyes and it was very dark but I noticed that my bed was on the opposite side of the room and I suddenly realised that I could wake up.

I awoke to see a tall black shape at the foot of my bed pulling at my feet through the covers. I could feel “it” pulling me out of the bottom of the bed and I managed to scream through my clenched teeth, sounding more like the neigh of a terrified horse than a human. This time my husband did hear and leaned over and thumped my shoulder saying “shut up”. I did wake up properly then.

I have on at least a couple of occasions had sleep paralysis, combined with a terrifying dream of something unseen but truly awful that was trying to ‘get’ me. One ‘thing’ was in a large wooden chest beneath a window, and it was evil personified, and the other was something clawing away behind a curtain.