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Cultural Explanations of Sleep Paralysis in Italy: The Pandafeche Attack and Associated Supernatural Beliefs

Abstract

The current study examines cultural explanations regarding sleep paralysis (SP) in Italy. The study explores (1) whether the phenomenology of SP generates culturally specific interpretations and causal explanations and (2) what are the beliefs and local traditions associated with such cultural explanations. The participants were Italian nationals from the general population (n = 68) recruited in the region of Abruzzo, Italy. All participants had experienced at least one lifetime episode of SP. The sleep paralysis experiences and phenomenology questionnaire were orally administered to participants. We found a multilayered cultural interpretation of SP, namely the Pandafeche attack, associated with various supernatural beliefs. Thirty-eight percent of participants believed that this supernatural being, the Pandafeche—often referred to as an evil witch, sometimes as a ghost-like spirit or a terrifying humanoid cat—might have caused their SP. Twenty-four percent of all participants sensed the Pandafeche was present during their SP. Strategies to prevent Pandafeche attack included sleeping in supine position, placing a broom by the bedroom door, or putting a pile of sand by the bed. Case studies are presented to illustrate the study findings. The Pandafeche attack thus constitutes a culturally specific, supernatural interpretation of the phenomenology of SP in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    One participant was originally from Senegal, but as he spoke fluent Italian and had lived in Italy since his teens (for more than 10 years) he was not excluded from the study. Two participants were recruited in the region of Marche in the border area between Abruzzo and Marche (north of Abruzzo). Two participants originated from Sicily but were currently residing in Abruzzo.

  2. 2.

    We shall elaborate on various cultural traditions and beliefs about this creature in the sections below.

  3. 3.

    One such supernatural account, was a Catholic-based explanation of SP as an attack by demons who tempt their victims. One participant currently believed in this spiritual explanation; additionally two participants had previously subscribed to this causal explanation but no longer did. These participants reported that Catholic monks originally narrated this causal explanation of SP to them.

  4. 4.

    Such a dual causal view of SP is also found in Egypt, Denmark, and the United States (Hufford 2005; Jalal et al. 2014a). This dual view often comes about as SP sufferers attempt to reconcile scientific and spiritual explanations of SP; for instance, by incorporating scientific explanations into their already established supernatural beliefs about the experience.

  5. 5.

    Of the participants who subscribed to neurophysiological causal explanations of their SP, 17% (6/35) reported that they had previously believed in a supernatural cause of SP, such as a Pandafeche attack. Moreover, 3 participants mentioned that while they believed in a “scientific” causal explanations, they had “seen” (i.e., hallucinated) the Pandafeche during an SP episode, and. Two other participants who believed their SP to be precipitated by neurophysiological factors “sensed the presence” of the Pandafeche during their SP.

  6. 6.

    As mentioned above, several participants who did not subscribe to the Pandafeche causal explanation of SP (but, for instance, believed exclusively in neurophysiological causal explanations) still reported to have hallucinated the Pandafeche creature during their SP.

  7. 7.

    Supernatural means to prevent SP varied greatly and several participants applied multiple approaches.

  8. 8.

    As mentioned above, these six methods to prevent SP are part of the local cultural tradition to hinder a Pandafeche attack.

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Correspondence to Baland Jalal.

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Jalal, B., Romanelli, A. & Hinton, D.E. Cultural Explanations of Sleep Paralysis in Italy: The Pandafeche Attack and Associated Supernatural Beliefs. Cult Med Psychiatry 39, 651–664 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-015-9442-y

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Keywords

  • Sleep paralysis
  • Cultural interpretation
  • Causal explanation
  • Supernatural beliefs