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The ghosts in our minds: Does a poltergeist haunt a Butte County firestation?


The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781) // Wiki
Believed to be a depiction of sleep paralysis as
understood in the 18th century

Ghosts and goblins have been a part of human history since humans first developed history. They taunt and torment us, throw things around our house, curse our livelihoods and in short act as the mental scapegoats for the uncertainties of life.

So despite their otherwise perfectly rational selves, it comes as no surprise to learn from that Butte County Fire Station 55 up in Bangor, has itself a ghost.

"Yes, there is a ghost. Many of us have dealt with it," said the captain in a matter-of-fact tone.

There isn't a hint of humor in McLean's voice when he makes the statement, and it isn't an "I believe" comment but a simple "I know" reality as far as the veteran firefighter is concerned.

"All of the people (at the station) have experienced it one time or another. It just happens. You just work with it," continued the captain.

So what sort of dastardly pranks does this mischievous spirit get up to that has so convinced members of Station 55 that it exists? Years ago the old gasoline-powered Fire-engine used to turn on randomly and worse yet, "objects are moved, doors opened, and noises are heard."

Outside of the fire-station, the legend of the haunted stations is known locally but few appear to take it seriously. Station 55 is old, with sagging floors and "other structural problems," which is why it is up for renovation in the city council. The station has, in the past, been infested with rats (which could explain why the previous station animal, a dog, was always perturbed, but the current cat is not) and as Janet Upton says "It is an extremely old building that creaks and groans, and things go bump in the night fairly regularly."

Misplacing an object, having a door that swings open at the slightest breeze and creaky spooky noises don't  really call for a supernatural or paranormal explanation, however fun those ideas might be. It's an old house, it creaks, it has rats that send your dog barking up a wall - all pretty normal everyday stuff.

Except for one thing. One event mentioned in the article isn't normal, nor is it an everyday event.

Firefighter Anthony Brown, who was assigned to Station 55 a year ago, was a mild believer when he arrived. "When I first came here I told the ghost, 'I'm here to work. I've got no problems with you. I don't want you to have any with me. I'm only here for three days out of the week.' Yeah, I mean everything was good up until that morning," said Brown.

"That morning" came at 1:05 a.m. April 10 of this year. Brown recalls he had just rolled over in bed and, "I was pinned down." Brown said it "absolutely" felt like somebody was holding him down. Brown desperately tried to call out to his partner, who was sleeping in an adjacent bedroom, "but it was all pretty much mumbles."

"Then I felt this blast of wind for 20 or 30 seconds, and then it passed. I was able to get up. I sat up for a few minutes, gathered my thoughts and bearings, and turned on every light possible. "

This is scary, even terrifying stuff, I know from personal experience and other firefighters from Station 55 testified to similar paralytic experiences.

You awake from a heavy sleep perfectly conscious and without the tiniest bit of control over your body. You can't move your arms, your legs, your toes, your fingers. Your head won't turn, your jaw won't work, nothing your mind is telling your body to do is getting through. A weight on your chest crushes you as the prison that has become your body simply does not work.

Then with a gasp, everything clicks on. You're fine. You wiggle your toes, get out of bed and wonder "What the hell was that?"

Cultures across the world have various (and varying) explanations for this event, from the demons an Incubi of Europe to the Hags of the America's southern states to the "kana tevoro" of Fiji. Spirits of the recently deceased, angered demigods, blood-thirsty witches and ghosts have all been attributed to this phenomena all across the world. That it happens in different times, in different places all over the world, and everyone almost universally comes to the same conclusion about its origins - some form of paranormal malevolent entity attacking a victim - is often seen as evidence of this beliefs validity.

It is certainly a fair conclusion to come to, on the face of it. There is another explanation however. Much like creaking noises and scared noises can be explained by rats in the wall, the human brain isn't without its own creaks and rattles.

Within the neuroscience community, the event Anthony Brown and thousands of others (myself included) experienced is known as Sleep Paralysis. While the specific causes of the disorder aren't entirely known, about 24% of people experience at least once in their life. Most commonly linked to narcolepsy, sleep paralysis can also be brought about by increased stress, irregular sleeping hours, insomnia and often simply being awoken immediately after a particularly lucid dream.

Screenshot of a patient in Slow Wave Sleep (stage 3)

When we sleep our brain goes into a sort of holding pattern, oscillating between several stages of sleep. Most of us are familiar with the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, where we have most of our dreams, but outside of REM there are other levels of brain activity categorized by the amount of energy coursing through our grey matter at any given time. These NREM (non-rapid eye) stages, known as N1, N2, and N3.

In N3 stages of sleep, our bodies are the most difficult to awaken. Known as Slow-wave sleep, the N3 stage is externally characterized by hard to remember dreams and a high prevalence of parasomnia events like sleep walking, sleep talking, restless leg syndrome, teeth grinding, and night terrors.

So what happens when you work in the high stress field of fire fighting, are sleeping irregular hours while on shift and abruptly wake up at 1:05 a.m, a time when you are most probably in a very deep stage of sleep?

Well, sleep paralysis. You might be fully awake, but your brain is still "stuck" in N3 theta-wave states, your body is still shut down. After a few (terrifying) moments things get flowing again and everything switches back to normal.

No ghosts, no demons, just your brain doing what it does to the best of its ability.


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