Thailand is known around the world as the Land of Smiles, but just as prevalent as the cheery grins are the widely-held belief in ghosts. Some of these old tales have a base in medical fact.
Phi Am for example
Anybody who has ever suffered from sleep paralysis may want to stop reading now. Phi Am is a ghost who is said to sit on the chests of people whilst they sleep, causing discomfort and even death. A way to combat them? Put on lipstick. Phi Am doesn’t attack women, and those who believe in her existence put on lipstick before sleeping to trick Phi Am into thinking they’re female. She’ll probably see right through it if you have a beard, though.
This was the comments of a patient who suffered one night.
“It was gone, but I was still screaming. Its form is hard to describe now, thinking back to the night when I woke up terrified in the dark. I remember some sort of floating orb with a red, ghoulish face surrounded by black smoke. I can’t help but describe my demon as an evil-looking Right then and there, as I leaned up in bed, I understood why peoples across culture and time have said they’ve been visited by demons in the night. It would have made a believer out of me too, had I not known about the visceral, unforgettable experience of sleep paralysis.”
If you’re sleeping well, the brain and the body usually get along. After drifting off to sleep, the brain eventually reaches the only stage we can remember: the REM (rapid eye movement) stage, characterized by rapid movement of the eyes underneath their lids. Here we dream, then to make sure those dreams aren’t copied by our bodies, the brain releases two chemicals, a neurotransmitter called glycine and a nerve receptor in muscles called GABA, that paralyze the muscles we can move voluntarily.
For whatever reason, despite the wonderlands of imagination dreams transport us to, the experience of sleep paralysis has surprisingly common themes. There is usually an overcoming sense of fear and dread accompanied by the vision of some dark, humanoid figure on or around the bed.
If an Indonesian suffers from sleep paralysis they call it “digeunton,” meaning “pressed on.” In Hungarian, it is called “boszorkany-nyomas,” or “witches’ pressure.” In Turkey, it is “Karabasan,” in Thailand, it is a ghost of the “Phi Am” folklore, and in the southern United States it is “witch riding.”
Given how terrifying sleep paralysis can be, the supernatural explanations are understandable. There simply isn’t another apparently conscious experience like it. While many people who have had sleep paralysis will only experience it once or twice in a lifetime (for others with chronic conditions like narcolepsy it can occur much more frequently), the event is debilitating. A demon stepped out of the ether and into your bedroom. It doesn’t matter if it won’t again; knowing that the portal is open and what can come through is enough.