cultural-historical psychology

Interpreting Anomalous Experiences:

Maupassant's Le Horla and the Cultural-Historical Transformation of the Alien.

Al. Cheyne
University of Waterloo
Draft: August, 1998

J. A. Cheyne
Department of Psychology
University of Waterloo
200 University Avenue
Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1 Canada
(519) 885-1211 (ext. 3054)
fax: 746-8631

Making sense of anomalous experiences requires that people draw on a variety of cultural resources. In Le Horla, Guy de Maupassant presents an account of a 19th century intellectual who draws on diverse cultural sources to interpret a confusing array of highly unusual experiences. A focal point of the story is a vivid account of hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis. Such experiences have been implicated as sources of traditional narratives of alien spirit attacks and abductions and, more recently, as the experiential foundation of a modern legend of abduction by extraterrestrial aliens. I argue that one effect of the increasing availability of popular science in the 19th century was to provide new grounds and material for explaining bizarre and uncanny experiences. The resulting accounts did not, however, simply replace traditional narrative themes with scientific explanations but conflated them. These hybridized accounts are often most at odds with mainstream scientific explanations, in part because scientific paradigms change with time and because discarded scientific accounts often become incorporated into the cultural tradition.
I sleep—for a while—two or three hours—then a dream—no—a nightmare seizes me in its grip, I know full well that I am lying down and that I am asleep . . . I sense it and I know it . . . and I am also aware that somebody is coming up to me, looking at me, running his fingers over me, climbing on to my bed, kneeling on my chest, taking me by the throat and squeezing . . . squeezing . . . with all its might, trying to strangle me. 
I struggle, but I am tied down by that dreadful feeling of helplessness which paralyzes us in our dreams. I want to cry out—but I can't. I want to move——I can't do it. I try, making terrible, strenuous efforts, gasping for breath, to turn on my side, to throw off this creature who is crushing me and choking me—but I can't! 
Then, suddenly, I wake up, panic-stricken, covered in sweat. I light a candle. I am alone. (p. 893) 
    Guy de Maupassant — Le Horla 
The passage above, excerpted from Guy de Maupassant's gripping tale of horror, Le Horla—published, in its better known form  in January, 1887—presents a remarkably thorough and highly evocative account of several phenomena associated with sleep paralysis (SP) (Schneck, 1994). Maupassant's story appeared about the same time as some of the earliest reports of SP in the medical literature (e.g., Mitchell, 1876) and details of his account are remarkably consistent with current descriptions of SP (Hufford, 1982; Hishikawa, 1976). In addition, Maupassant links these experiences to a number of psychological phenomena, such as anxiety, hypnosis, agoraphobia, panic attacks, and other forms of pathology in a manner that is remarkably contemporary. Finally, he makes a connection between these experiences and the notion of alien possession/abduction, also a subject of recent research and speculation (Baker, 1992; Blackmore, 1998; Hufford, 1982; Liddon, 1967; Spanos, 1996). 

Unusual and extraordinary experiences have recently been the focus of a psychology of anomalous experiences (McClenon, 1984, 1994; Reed, 1988; Zusne & Jones, 1982). Among the phenomena addressed by this emergent area of research are alien abduction, ESP, incubus attacks, out-of-body experiences, occult experiences, possession, and other unusual and marginalized experiences. Remarkably, Maupassant touches upon almost all of the phenomena that would be covered by a psychology of anomalous experiences. 

Maupassant's narrative treatment of his own anomalous experiences and those of his protagonists in numerous semi-autobiographical short stories vacillates between, and sometimes combines, folk and scientific accounts—including a straightforward medical account of "madness." Indeed, although many analyses treat Le Horla as a masterful tale of madness and a near clinical account of Maupassant’s own deterioration, the present analysis focuses on Maupassant's creative use of a broad array of available cultural materials to interpret anomalous experiences. 

Anomalous Experience: Cultural Source and Experiential Source Programs

If we detach ourselves completely from the impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word, from which we can learn nothing at all about the situation or the fate of the word in life. To study the word as such, ignoring the impulse that reaches out beyond it, it is just as senseless as to study psychological experience outside the context of that real life toward which it was directed and by which it is determined (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 292). 

Hufford (1982, 1988) contrasts cultural and experiential source hypotheses in the context of accounts of anomalous experiences. The cultural source hypothesis is the conjecture that paranormal and occult accounts have their origins solely in social structures, stories, and beliefs that stimulate the imagination and give rise to misinterpretations of everyday experiences. The cultural source hypothesis is not usually articulated as a specific set of theses or conjectures but rather constitutes certain implicit presuppositions of mainstream social science (McClenon, 1994). The cultural hypothesis is probably not best described as an hypothesis but rather as an assumption at the "hard core" (Lakatos, 1970) of what has been referred to as the standard social science research program (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). This hard core is never tested directly but appears to service a "protective belt" of specific auxiliary hypotheses about specific cultural processes. In contrast, the "hard core" assumption of the experiential source hypothesis is that such cultural accounts have their source in truly unusual, out-of-the ordinary experiences grounded in physical, physiological, and psychological events that do not depend upon any particular cultural context. The experiential hypothesis further states that, although anomalous experiences may be amplified and modified by specific cultural beliefs, the degree to which this is possible is markedly constrained by culturally universal components. As Josephs (1996) points out interesting questions are often neglected in advocacy of one or the other of these perspectives. More interesting to Josephs are questions such as how a " person makes sense of his or her wondrous experiences, how does he or she use them to reframe his or her biography, and how do they serve as semiotic tools for constructing the future" (p. 217)? 

The present analysis has been guided by an interest in understanding how the experiential and the cultural hypotheses might be productively and concretely combined to address the sorts of questions raised by Josephs. The initial assumption here is, consistent with the experiential source hypothesis, that unusual experiences (i.e., anomalous events that have been lived through) motivate post hoc investigative sense making. Essential to this notion of experience "is that it cannot be exhausted in what can be said of it and in what can be grasped of its meaning" (Gadamer, 1960/1988, p. 67). The second assumption is that a primary role of cultural traditions is to serve as a resource for explanatory and narrative accounts of experiences that capture our attention and are deemed worthy of explaining. This view of culture is consistent with the interpretive views of Geertz (1973) for whom culture is "historically transmitted patterns of meanings embodied in symbols" through which we communicate, sustain, and change our "knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (p. 89). The explanatory function of cultural tradition is to highlight conditions, contexts, and processes that potentially predict, prevent, or modify experiences. The narrative role is to render experiences coherent by organizing, ordering, and sequencing the events they comprise, as well as incorporating conditions and contexts suggested by causal explanations (Cheyne & Tarulli, 1998). Traditional cultures have ready-to-hand a finite set of explanations that are shared by many, if not all, members. Modern industrialized cultures also have a large and diverse array of explanations and narratives, many of which are fleeting and few of which are known by the majority of their members. This large and often conflicting set of accounts might be said to compete to provide the most complete, parsimonious, coherent, and otherwise satisfying accounts of significant experiences (Dawkins, 1976). Whether or not such personification of accounts is helpful remains to be seen. It is a significant task, nonetheless, to understand how we sort through, select, and combine our personal understandings of our lived experiences from a wealth of cultural material.

Unusual Experiences and their Interpretation

Entities usually thought to be associated with uncanny experiences have typically been assumed to be not of this world. It is therefore not surprising that accounts of abduction by extra-terrestrial aliens has been considered a modern version of age-old folk narratives of possession and abduction by alien creatures (e.g., Ellis, 1988). Moreover, the alien abduction experience appears naturally connected with, indeed a historical extension of UFO lore on sightings of alien craft, both being based on the common theme of extraterrestrial origins (Whitmore, 1995). Professional scientists, and particularly, popular conveyers of images of mainstream science, such as James Gleick (1996) and the late Carl Sagan (1996), inveigh against the anti-scientific nature of such beliefs. It will be argued here, however, that it is precisely popular notions of what constitutes scientifically based justifications that have transformed our accounts of the experience of the alien and, perhaps ironically, produced the modern notion of alien abduction. Aliens arriving in fantastic craft from the stars are more in keeping with narratives for a scientific age than are ogres and demons materializing from a metaphysically dubious and archaic spirit world. I shall argue, moreover, that the physical sciences, again somewhat ironically, provide a means of saving the experience from reduction to mere psychological syndromes of suggestion, false memory, hallucination, and delusion. 

Alien abductions are reported overwhelmingly to take place at night when the victim is asleep or about to fall asleep. A crucial telltale sign of authenticity of the experience is the "sense of presence" in one's bedroom just as one is falling asleep (e.g., Hopkins, 1987). Then there is the almost inevitable paralysis or immobility during which the victim feels "very, very heavy -- as if I weighed ten thousand pounds, or frozen, immobilized," as well as a suffocating feeling during which "You can't breathe, you can't move" (Velez, 1996). Then comes the terror: " . . . usually the first few moments of these experiences involve initial confusion, then shock, fear, terror . . . I was in a pure state of pure panic and terror" (Velez, 1996). Also consistent with the lack of explicit sensory qualities to the auditory and visual hallucinations is the report that aliens communicate through telepathy, bypassing the external senses, and directly entering the mind. "You hear that all in your head. They communicate telepathically. They think at you, and you hear it in your head. Actually, what I hear in my mind -- what I remember hearing in my mind, during hypnosis, is a very soft raspy whisper. Their voices sound like they're whispering in your head"(Velez, 1996). In the course of all of these confusing and frightening experiences abductees are often “floated" up to waiting craft (Hopkins, 1987). The consistency of these features in the literature has been taken by apologists for alien abduction theories as a criterion of genuineness (Whitmore, 1995).

Sleep Paralysis and Associated Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences

SP is a conscious state of involuntary immobility occurring just prior to falling asleep or immediately upon wakening. SP is generally classified as a parasomnia (Thorpy, 1990, Williams & Karacan, 1978) and traditionally associated with narcolepsy (Yoss & Daly, 1957) but has, more recently, been found to be common in non-clinical populations (e.g., Spanos, McNulty, DuBreuil, Pires, & Burgess, 1995). Although SP is a REM phenomenon (Hishikawa & Shimizu, 1995) with many features remarkably consistent with REM neurophysiology (Cheyne, Rueffer, & Newby-Clark, 1998), SP is a waking not a dream state. Victims are aware of their state and can later describe the experience vividly and provide accurate reports on environmental events during the episode (Hishikawa, 1976; Hishikawa & Kaneko, 1965). People frequently report feeling a "presence" that is often described as malevolent, threatening, or evil. The presence is likely to be vaguely felt or sensed just out of sight but thought to be watching or monitoring the victim, often with intense interest, sometimes standing by, or sitting on, the bed. On some occasions the presence may attack, strangling the victim and exerting crushing pressure on the chest. Victims also report auditory, visual, proprioceptive, and tactile hallucinations, as well as floating sensations and out-of-body experiences (Hufford, 1982). These various sensory experiences have been referred to collectively as hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHEs) (Cheyne, Newby-Clark, & Rueffer, 1998). People frequently try, unsuccessfully, to cry out. After seconds or minutes one feels suddenly released from the paralysis, but may be left with a lingering anxiety. 

SP and associated HHEs appears to be transcultural with numerous cultures having widely known terms, explanations, and well defined narratives associated with this experience (Adler, 1994; Bloom & Gelardin, 1976; Firestone, 1985; Foster, 1973; Fukuda, Miyasita, & Ishihara, 1987; Hufford, 1982; Ness, 1978; Tillhagen, 1969). SP with HHEs is a likely source of the notion of the traditional images of nocturnal assaults by incubi, witches, mare, spirits, and demons (Keissling, 1977; Roscher, 1900/1979; Simpson & Weiner, 1989), and may be the original referent for the term "nightmare" (Liddon, 1967). Fuseli's famous painting entitled "The Nightmare," for example, seems more likely inspired by the notion of SP rather than any sleeping dream (Schneck, 1969). One of the most thoroughly studied cultural accounts of SP with HHEs is that of the "Old Hag" experience of Newfoundland (Firestone, 1985; Hufford, 1982; Ness, 1978). The "Old Hag" is a very concrete version of an alien presence that sits on the afflicted person's chest while attempting to throttle the helpless victim. The Newfoundlander's notion of the hag likely had its origins in the British Isles where the hag or haegtesse is related to witches (Simpson, 1973), That the Old Hag experience was also well known during Shakespeare's time is suggested by Mercutio's Queen Mab speech:

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them, and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
Romeo and Juliet, I, 4
The present argument is not that all possession, alien abduction, and similar accounts are instances of SP. Rather it is proposed that the alien abduction/possession account provides a relatively complete and, for some, plausible and satisfying account of that experience. In common with the Velez' accounts cited earlier, numerous descriptions of abduction experiences in the letters to Communion author Whitley Strieber, for example, are difficult to distinguish from experiences presented as accounts of SP with HHEs.
I'd be in bed and very much aware of my surroundings . . . I'd hear music, interrupted by a mechanical type of voice, but I could never remember what was said. I'd feel the mattress depress and the springs pressing down, and I knew someone had sat down beside me. But I was paralyzed, and couldn't utter a sound, swallow, or move in any way. My eyes were open, though I was always facing in the opposite direction from where "the presence" remained. I would be there about ten minutes, it seemed. (Strieber & Strieber, 1997, p. 84-85)

Le Horla

Although cases have been made for literary references to SP by a variety of writers since Shakespeare, including Dickens, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Melville (Cosnett, 1992; Herman, 1997; Schneck, 1962, 1971) these are often ambiguous or incidental references. In Le Horla, however, Maupassant not only presents one of the most evocative and unambiguous literary accounts of SP and associated HHEs, he makes the episode the central event connecting and driving virtually all aspects of the story. Throughout the 1880's Maupassant had a number of anomalous experiences that troubled him deeply and led him not only to seek medical help but also to explore a variety of alternative explanations. Maupassant's conjectures and musings appear in his diary, letters, and in several short stories written between 1883 and 1890. The latter include, most directly,  Lui? (1883), La Peur (1884), Un Fou? (1884), Qui Sait? (1890), and two versions of Le Horla (1886, 1887). As noted earlier, these are typically considered tales of madness that track the deteriorating mental state of the author as well as his protagonists. It is certainly true that Maupassant entertained the possibility of madness for his characters and for himself. He was, at the same time, struck by his own lucidity in this period, during which he was very productive, a point raised both in his personal correspondence and in his character's ruminations. Upon sending off the manuscript of Le Horla, he commented to a friend that people might well think him mad, given its contents, but that he had written it in an entirely sane and lucid spirit. "In a few days, you will see how all the papers will report I am mad. They can rest assured, indeed, that I am quite sane, and that I knew exactly what I was doing when I wrote this story" (Troyat, 1989, p. 171). This is consistent with the stance of the protagonist in the earlier version of Le Horla. "In a little while, you will understand that I am completely sane, lucid, and clear headed as anyone . . ." (Cogny, 1970, p. 47). Clearly, he was well prepared to accept interpretations consistent with this stance. 

Maupassant's aliens arrive at the very beginning of his story (although this is not at all evident, at the time, to either the reader or the protagonist) in “a magnificent Brazilian three-master, completely white, wonderfully clean and shining” (Maupassant, 1988, p. 891). It is significant, in view of later developments, that the appearance of this ship interrupts some pleasant reflections on his heritage and love for the countryside in which his forefathers had lived and died. Within a few days he is unwell and depressed, in striking contrast to his near euphoric state at the time of the passage of the Brazilian ship. In addition to several physical symptoms he begins to develop obsessions with the "invisible," with the limitations of the "normal" senses, and with the resulting inability of humans to comprehend the very large and the very small. Even in his initial philosophical rumination we are presented with a metaphor mixing the folk notion of fairies and the scientific notion of physical force.

How profound it is, this mystery of the Invisible. We cannot plumb its depths with our wretched senses, with our eyes that cannot perceive what is very small, or very large, or very close, or very far, or see the inhabitants of stars or those in a drop of water . . . with our ears that deceive us, because they convey to us vibrations of the air in the form of sounds. They are the fairies who perform this miracle of changing movement into sound (p. 892).
The theme of this fatal vulnerability—the inherent fallibility of our most fundamental senses—pervades the story and is one the Maupassant had delved into previously in Un Fou? Beset by these ruminations, the protagonist of Le Horla develops signs of great agitation, which escalate to a rather serious anxiety attack during which he notes such clinical signs as accelerated pulse rate and pupil dilation. He is overcome with a "dreadful sensation" of immanent threat. His discourse is of constant fear: “I'm afraid . . . but of what? I was never afraid of anything before” (p. 893). His condition is such that he seeks medical advice, leading to a medical regimen of cold showers and potassium bromide. He continues, however, to be filled with keen anticipations of impending doom. “I wait for sleep just as one would wait for an executioner. I wait for it, terrified at the prospect of its arrival, with my heart pounding and my legs trembling" (p. 893). When sleep comes it brings with it a terror that will be named only later. 

Maupassant's account of this terrifying seminal experience is an evocative description of a prototypical SP experience with HHEs (See opening quote). There is a sense of presence; first monitoring, then threatening, finally attacking. These impressions are amplified by sensations of pressure on the chest, of being strangled, and of being paralyzed and mute, unable even to cry out. The initial episode is followed by nightly repetition of the experience. During this period he experiences a pervasive sense of presence associated with feelings ranging from vague apprehension to extreme terror. On his walks, he thinks someone is following him, "nearly treading" on his heels. In spite of the extreme proximity of the presence he cannot give it form, cannot fully comprehend the entity that hovers just over his shoulder. He becomes extremely disoriented and suffers episodes of panic and agoraphobia. He does find a brief respite in a holiday to Mont-Saint-Michel. Even here, however, his obsession with that which escapes the normal range of senses is reinforced in his discussion with a monk about legends surrounding Mont-Saint-Michel. After listening to several old stories, Maupassant's character expresses some skepticism regarding the existence of the chimerical creatures of these legends. "If there have been other beings on the earth besides us; how is it," he says,  "that we have never actually encountered them in all this time?" Evoking a metaphor of the power of the invisible wind, the monk replies, “Can we see even a hundred-thousandth part of what actually exists?” (p. 895). 

 Shortly after his return home, his former malady returns and the nocturnal assaults resume. “Last night I felt that somebody was squatting on me, putting his mouth on mine, drinking my life out through my lips. Yes, I really felt he was sucking my life out through my throat, just like a leech would do” (p. 895). During this period he notices that water is mysteriously disappearing from his decanter on the table by his bed. He vacillates between two hypotheses, which will gradually merge.

Someone had drunk the water. Who? Was it I? Without a doubt. It could not be anybody but me. Then I must be the sleepwalker, I must be living, without knowing it, that mysterious double life which makes us wonder whether there are two beings inhabiting one body, or whether there is some alien, unknowable, and invisible being which occasionally takes over when our spirit is benumbed, forcing our captive body to obey it, just as it obeys ourselves--even more than it obeys us. (p. 896)
Azam, in 1860, published a famous case of "double consciousness" in a patient known as Félida. Félida was reputed to have undergone a number of changes, such as becoming more animated, physically stronger, and quite loquacious during her "crises." A now familiar phenomenon exhibited by Félida was that one of the alternating conscious states was aware of events during the other state but this was not reciprocal (Lawrence & Perry, 1988). In the first version of Le Horla, Maupassant's protagonist notes that when possessed by this presence his senses, like those of the hypnotic subjects, “have lost their normal aversions and acquired different tastes”(Cogny, 1970, p. 50). Two well-known contemporaries of Maupassant who developed a new literary genre based on dissociation were Poe, in William Wilson, first published in 1839 (Clarke, 1991) and Stevenson, first in a play, Deacon Brodie, published in 1880, and later in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published 1886 (Geduld, 1983). The distinction between two versions of dissociation, one as two local cohabiting souls, the other as an alien soul usurping a captive body, will gradually evaporated from Maupassant's deliberations. 
Another trip, this time to Paris, again restores him to a semblance of his old self. Distanced from the anomalous experiences and their context, he once again reverts to scientific explanations for his "terrors and suppositions" and is now seized with amazement at his earlier gullibility and lack of critical good sense. As was the case during the trip to Mont-Saint-Michel, however, events eventually conspire to feed his imagination. The incidents this time center on hypnotism. In Paris, he witnesses demonstrations of several hypnotic phenomena. In his description of these phenomena, Maupassant reveals a mixture of scientific and occult understanding. It is, however, a rather conventional and non-occult demonstration of post-hypnotic suggestion involving his cousin that leaves him profoundly shaken. It causes him to reflect on the relativity of all experience, and on how easily humans are influenced by their immediate context. “To believe in the supernatural when you're on the island of La Grenouillère would be the height of folly . . . But what if when you're on top of Mont-Saint-Michel? . . . Or in India?” (p. 12). 

Shortly after his return from Paris, he speculates that some brain dysfunction must account for these hallucinations. He comments also on his apparent lucidity in the face of incredible experiences. Perhaps, he thinks, some mechanisms associated with dreams explain his experiences, including his daytime fantasies. He persists briefly in his scientific analysis of his symptoms, making reference to notions of cerebral localization current at the time.

Similar phenomena occur in dreams, which lead us through the most incredible fantasies, and we never experience any surprise over it, because the mechanisms of verification and control are asleep, whereas the imaginative part of us is awake and functioning. Might it not be that one of the imperceptible keys of the cerebral keyboard has become stuck in my case? Some people, after an accident, find that they cannot remember proper nouns, verbs or letters, or only dates. The localization of mental functions in the brain has just recently been proved. Well, what is so remarkable about my mechanism that distinguishes between hallucination and reality becoming sluggish? (pp. 902-903)
The second half of the 19th century was a time of revival of localizationist notions of cerebral functioning. In the 1860s, Broca's reports of an association between lesions in the left frontal lobe of the cortex and aphasia, argued against Flouren's doctrine of the unity of the nervous system (Boring, 1950). Beyond specific localization issues, Broca's work raised the salience of the notion of lateralization. Issues of lateralization were implicated in theories of madness and criminality and the notion arose, in the 19th century, of an uncivilized and immoral right brain at war with a moral and rational left brain (Finger, 1994). This moral and intellectual splitting of the brain was matched by interest in a similar split in the mind of distinct and opposing forces. 

Maupassant's protagonist begins to show further signs of agoraphobia about this time. While out walking along the riverbank he is consumed by a growing apprehension of something preventing him from proceeding. He is overcome by a feeling that he must get home as soon as possible. During his outings he is overcome by sudden panic attacks. “Then just as I was getting back into my carriage, and was intending to say: ‘Drive to the station!’ I found myself shouting, in a voice so loud that passers-by turned around: ‘Drive me home!’” (p. 904). 

His impression grows that an entity has taken possession of him and is sapping his will. He has become unable to make the simplest decisions and feels he is a helpless spectator who can no longer control his own body. He concludes that his behavior is controlled by an invisible alien just as that of his cousin was controlled by the "alien will" of the hypnotist in Paris. As a literate member of an industrialized society he seeks authoritative guidance from the local library in the learned treatises of one Herman Herestrauss, "doctor of philosophy and theogony," who has written on "all of the invisible beings which haunt mankind or appear in dreams." In spite of his diligent research he does not find an immediate answer to his own particular possession. The treatise of the learned doctor does, however, instill, or perhaps simply clarify, certain ideas. These are evolutionary ideas about the possibility of the emergence of some new creatures who will be the successors of humans. He then begins to speculate on the possibility of extraterrestrial life in the faraway worlds among the stars. What superior powers must they possess? 

One of them, one day or another, will travel through space and come to this earth and conquer it, rather like the Normans in the olden days crossed the sea to subjugate weaker races! 
We are so feeble, so helpless, so ignorant, so tiny, we creatures on this whirling speck of mud and water. (p. 905)
Here his speculations reflect Spencerian progressivist notions of evolution prevalent at the time (Gould, 1977). The Horla, in contrast to feeble, archaic humans, represents a new "advance" in evolution up the scala naturae, an entity whose "nature is nearer perfection" than our own. Le Horla here takes on the character of science fiction, but of a different stripe than that of Maupassant's more sanguine contemporary, Jules Verne, and one guided implicitly by 18th and 19th century Naturphilosophie transformed by vague evolutionary notions. 

One day he reads an account of “an epidemic of madness, similar to the contagious insanity that attacked European populations in the Middle Ages" (p. 906), sweeping through Brazil. Here a guiding explanatory metaphor is provided by notion of “contagion” by invisible microorganisms, popularized by the late 19th century through the efforts of the Hygienists and Pateurizers (Latour, 1988, Perrot, 1990). The alien possession theme now begins to dominate. He reflects back upon the handsome three-masted Brazilian schooner that sailed past his house on the Seine. He imagines that the entity must have seen him, and his house "white like the ship"—and jumped ashore. “Now I know. I can forsee it. The reign of humanity has come to an end” (p. 904). This is a line of thought encouraged by the evolutionary scenarios inspired by the treatises of Dr. Herestrauss. He speculates that Mesmer had merely foreshadowed a glimpse of the power these beings possess. The learned doctors using hypnosis are, he now thinks, like irresponsible children playing with powerful forces that they scarcely understand. 

The popular notion of hypnosis as the imposition of the "alien" will of the hypnotist upon the helpless subject clearly reinforced the plausibility of the abduction of the will of Maupassant's protagonist by unknown alien agents. This "abduction of the will" metaphor had been emphasized in the demonstrations of hypnotic and post-hypnotic effects encountered in Paris. It was not only the demonstration of a particular phenomenon, but also of a scientific explanation that seized his mind--or rather a constellation of explanations that had evolved over the preceding century. Hypnotism had attained a status as a marginal but very popular quasi-scientific phenomenon at the time of Maupassant's writing. Hypnotism was, then as now, being explored on the margins of science, tinged with an aura of the occult that rendered its scientific investigation suspect. 

Several of Maupassant's short stories refer frequently to Mesmer and the notion of "animal magnetism." The analogy to the effect of magnetism on the "will" of iron bars was already an old and scientifically discredited idea by the time of Maupassant. Mesmer had created a sensation in Paris in the 1770's and 1780's with his version of "animal magnetism." Independent scientific investigations of Mesmer's work had revealed little evidence for anything even remotely analogous to magnetism. Mesmer's own abandonment of the use of magnets suggests that he had come to a similar conclusion himself, but was unable to provide a satisfactory alternative explanation. It was likely as much Mesmer's inability to offer a plausible alternative scientific explanation as any doubts about the validity of the phenomenon itself that lead to his disgrace and withdrawal from Paris (Boring, 1950). The scientific investigations of the learned commissions did not demonstrate that the mesmeric phenomena lacked validity but that the magnetic theory was not credible (Bowers, 1976). It was not the case, however, that the theory was considered inherently nonsensical or far-fetched. It was, on the contrary, quite in keeping with the scientific temper of the time (Dixon & Lawrence, 1992). It was, nonetheless, very susceptible to empirical disconfirmation. Without a solid, or even tentative, alternative scientific explanation, Mesmer's effects, it was concluded, could only be magic or fraud. Mesmer's flair for drama and spectacle doubtless reinforced consideration of these alternatives. 

Later, during much of the 19th century medical journals ignored this hypnosis (in spite of considerable interest and activity by sometimes quite eminent scientists). By the 1860's, however, hypnotism was experiencing something of a revival in France, spearheaded by the work of Charcot at the Saltpêtrière. Charcot was widely acknowledged as the preeminent neurologist of his time and his fame was at its height throughout the 1880s. Maupassant had attended some of Charcot's lectures on the subject (Kellet, 1989). Indeed, Charcot’s lectures were considered social events and were attended by many of the rich and famous and the performances of his hysterical patients were said to rival those of the great opera stars and stage actors of the day (Perrot, 1990). Charcot himself was the model for characters in many novels and plays (Ellenberger, 1970). Moreover, Maupassant knew Charcot personally, having dined with him at the home of Edmond de Goncourt and, on at least one occasion, Maupassant's mother was examined by Charcot himself (Troyat, 1989). Charcot offered a vague but more or less scientifically respectable theory of hysteria that appeared to account for hypnotic phenomena and that was acceptable to the Academy. Hypnosis, as a symptom of hysteria and later as a form of dissociation, consolidated a view that different and opposing forces or souls vied for control of the body. Evocative photographs of patients acting out hysteria for the camera gave substance and credence to sensational newspaper stories of the aboyeuses and possédées and to later forms of mass hysteria that occurred throughout the 19th century in France (Perrot, 1990). 

Thus Maupassant's rough amalgam of popular and marginalized science, contemporary fads and discredited scientific theories, folk images, tabloid journalism and learned treatises, and his own bizarre personal experiences, conjured up a quasi-scientific alien abduction hypothesis. He finds a name for his own particular demon, the "Horla," or rather, imagines that he hears this name spoken by the entity itself. There has been considerable speculation about the manner in which Maupassant came up with that particular name (e.g., Cogny, 1970). Perhaps the most obvious is simply that it is le hors-là—the outside-there—a sort of inverted and perverse Dasein of utter otherness. This is very consistent with one of the most fundamental aspects of the HHEs accompanying SP, the sense of an evil presence, an alien other poised by one's bed waiting to destroy one's body and abduct one's soul. Popular views of hypnosis (“animal magnetism,” “fascination”) reinforced the evolutionary explanation of this particular experience. “In animals, hypnotism appears to result from a kind of paralysis of the will. It looks like a capitulation in front of a superior will” (Lysing, 1892; cited in Laurence & Perry, 1988). Thus, the experience of the alien other, imposing its superior will merges easily with the evolutionary trend of thought suggested earlier and Maupassant quickly incorporates all of this into a crude survival-of-the-fittest analogy.

Ah! The vulture has eaten the dove; the wolf has eaten the sheep; the lion has devoured the buffalo with his sharp-pointed horns; man has killed the lion with arrow, spear, and gun; but the Horla is going to do to man just what we have done to the horse and to the cattle: he is going to use us as his property, his servant, and his food, simply by the power of his will. Woe to us. (p. 906)
At this point, confrontedwith this compelling Spencerian evolutionary narrative, he concludes that there can be little question of opposing the Horla. We humans, he concludes, are too weak and our senses too feeble to even detect, except dimly through intuition, such a superior being—let alone defeat it. Nonetheless, he makes one last attempt to destroy the alien. Unfortunately, he manages instead to destroy his home and, in the process, watch his servants perish in a conflagration of his devising. There is a brief consoling hope that he has also destroyed the alien. In the end, however, his doubts reemerge and he despairs of ever defeating the alien except through his own annihilation. The story ends as the protagonist anticipates his own suicide. 

Thus, the notions of the physical and physiological plausibility of invisible agents and physical forces acting on bodies and minds, multiple agents in one body, alien control of thought and action through hypnosis, life on other planets, progressive evolution?all lend plausibility to the belief in possession by alien entities. The invisible demons of earlier superstitious ages are resuscitated in this marriage of evolution and hypnosis. In the end he accepts the reality of the alien, not as the product of a psychological process of imagination/suggestion or errant brain processes as he had earlier conjectured, but literally as a bodily abduction by a superior alien species. Psychological and neurological interpretations succumb to those of hypnotic mind control and evolutionary biology.

Explanation and Understanding

The alternation between and intermixing of scientific explanations and narrative interpretations of unusual, surprising, and frightening experiences by Maupassant's protagonist is scarcely unique. In his study of the "Old Hag" experiences of Newfoundlanders, Ness (1978) documents the easy and natural alternation between, and mixing of, causal and narrative accounts. On the one hand, a very common explanation for the experience of Hagging is that of blood stagnation. "Old timers say its your blood standin' still" (p. 17). The condition of blood stagnation is declared, in turn, to result from over-work, fatigue, and stress. "The way I figures it, back in those days [when Hagging was experienced in the lumber camps] everyone punished their bodies, didn't sleep right, or get the proper food" (p. 17). These causal accounts are, in their observable specifics, remarkably in agreement with contemporary psychological and medical opinion regarding the effects of stress and disruption of sleep patterns (Partinen, 1994). Only the details of conjectures about internal unobserved processes differ (e.g., references to blood changes and body fatigue rather than to neurotransmitters and neural architecture). These materialistic explanations coexist with occult accounts of conscious and unconscious charms and hexes arising from feelings of hostility. "Ya know there is some people can put it on you, like a charm" (Ness, 1978; p. 18). Different explanations are accepted by different people and even by the same people at different times or even coexist as plausible alternatives. In one account, comprising a half dozen sentences, a fisherman refers to stagnation of the blood, describes his wife as hagging him, and, simultaneously, explains that it is a kind of stroke (p. 19). The individual residents and victims of Hagging in "Northeast Harbour" did not create these explanations and narratives out of whole cloth but invoked more or less authoritative accounts from the cultural repertoire to explain universal experiences. These authoritative accounts fit the HHEs so closely (Cheyne, Rueffer, & Newby-Clark, 1998) that they likely arose as direct interpretations of the experiences themselves. In mainstream North American culture few victims of SP have prior access to any authoritative accounts relevant to their unusual experiences although the structure of their experiences equally fits the traditional narratives (Cheyne, Rueffer, & Newby-Clark, 1998). Occasionally, psychology or medical students stumble across scientific accounts of SP and are reassured by those authoritative explanations—as was the physician who was reduced to tears of relief when he discovered the affliction from which he had suffered for years described as "idiopathic sleep paralysis" (Hufford, 1982). Most intellectuals are well prepared to accept both the authority and the substance of the explanatory accounts offered in credible scientific sources. Others, perhaps Whitley Strieber (1987) among them, either prefer, or are exposed to, more narratively compelling hybrid quasi-scientific extraterrestrial accounts of their experiences. In Strieber's case he was perhaps especially prepared for the sort of account that was presented him. Ellis (1988) compares Strieber's recollection of his abduction experiences to a religious conversion. Ellis describes Strieber as being in "psychological disarray, alienated from his wife, unable to read or write, and suffering from a variety of physical symptoms" (p. 266). These are terms that aptly describe the protagonist of Le Horla. Strieber's case, however, appears to have had a happier resolution. Strieber's own Herestrauss, Bud Hopkins, appears to have greatly unburdened him of his anxieties, at least for that period of his life. Strieber's transformation does seem to have the qualities of religious conversion (Ellis, 1988, Whitmore, 1995) and his subsequent activities of researching, collecting, and analyzing abduction accounts seem more like missionary or messianic science than anti-science. 

Since alien abduction experiences are typically associated with the onset of sleep, and hence typically followed by sleep, it is tempting to suggest that they will be forgotten or repressed in the morning. Under hypnosis, or the persistent questioning of an interrogator, these would provide raw material for elaboration. This point about hypnosis has been dealt with extensively in the UFO literature by participants on all sides of the issue (Baker, 1997-88; Jacobs, 1992; Klass, 1988), as well as more broadly in the recovered/false memories literature (Spanos, 1996). Nonetheless, the present argument is not that accounts of UFO abductions are false memories, although it is not inconsistent with that view or the possiblity that they are often badly reconstructed, misinterpreted, and misattributed accounts (Clark & Loftus, 1996). Rather the present view is that they are often vivid and accurate memories of real and often truly bizarre experiences for which most members of industrialized societies have no immediate and convincing conventional explanation. The experiences are entirely consistent with nocturnal assault and abduction. Many elect to deny the evidence of their senses and accept mainstream scientific explanations having to do with psychological suggestion or brain functioning. A few, however, take their experiences at face value and continue to describe their experiences in narratively rich terms with incursions of cultural elements consistent with alien abduction.


Every other time I come home, I see my double. I open the door, and I see him sitting in my armchair. I know it for a hallucination, even while experiencing it. Curious! If I didn't have a little common sense, I'd be afraid.    (cited in Campbell, 1989)
This is not the protagonist of Le Horla speaking but Maupassant himself writing to his friend, Paul Bourget. In the letter he does sound very much like the protagonist of Le Horla early on in his experiences. Whether brought on by general paresis and heavy drug use—as suggested by many accounts (that are perhaps to much in line with a 19th century fabula of moral turpitude to be above suspicion)—or by some familial condition (his brother suffered a remarkably similar fate a few years earlier), Maupassant's condition deteriorated and his hallucinations increased. On New Year's Day, 1892, Maupassant fired several shots at an apparently imaginary intruder in his home, cut his own throat, was committed to an asylum in Paris, and died nineteen months later, on July 6, 1893. At forty-two, he was then the same age as the protagonist of Le Horla.


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