Interpreting Anomalous Experiences:
Maupassant's Le Horla and the
Cultural-Historical Transformation of the Alien.
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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).
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!’”
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
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,
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
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
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
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