This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books
Book: Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us
Author: Jason Offutt
Type of Book: Non-fiction, paranormal, paranormal squick
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: I tend to think most examinations of the paranormal are odd, and this one was no exception.
Availability: Published by 2009 by Anomalist Press, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Oh, lord help me, I love books like this. I love reading people’s accounts of the bizarre and how they filter their experiences through their own beliefs and fears. This book satisfied several book urges of mine at once. Paranormal tales, people telling their own stories, high pathos and low humor. Despite the fact that I had to create a category for this book called “Paranormal Squick,” that is not the fault of the author. Offutt structures this book in a manner wherein he categorizes the stories people have to tell. This book is not an advocacy – it is mostly Offutt’s attempts to sort and label people’s experiences. At no point does Jason Offutt attempt to say that he has a line on an explanation of Shadow People and since he does not have a specific advocacy, the at times horribleness that can come from books about paranormal were not his fault – but more laternon why I got a definite squick from a few of these stories, squick that could be avoided with a judicious application of science and reason.
According to this book, Shadow People are not really ghosts. They are a phenomenon that have occurred in various cultures yet are hard to pin down, definition-wise, as they manifest in various ways and impact people differently. In America, they’ve only really started being discussed in earnest in the last couple of decades but parapsychologists like Brad Steiger believe that Shadow People have always been around. They generally appear as black, opaque, and two-dimensional. Many report having seen Shadow People with red, glowing eyes. Most reports of these entities are negative, as in the person who saw the Shadow Person was scared or felt dread. There were some reports of the Shadow People as a sort of Watcher element, looking over people but not in an evil or negative manner, but the vast majority of Shadow People are reported to be negative entities.
Offutt, who got lots of examples of people’s experiences with Shadow People via his website, divided the stories he was told as best he could, categorizing them in obvious ways, like benign Shadow People and negative or demonic Shadow People. But he also has less obvious categories, like Shadow People wearing hats and Shadow Animals. In the face of the amorphous quality of the experiences and the varied details, Offutt does a pretty good job sorting it all out.
Offutt, who clearly has a belief in the paranormal, does his level best in one chapter to discuss the science of Shadow People, though the science chapter invokes quantum physics, which never fails to evoke a serious eye roll from me because it is, no matter what any True Believer says, a theory attempting to explain a theory and as such is not doing anyone much good as a solution (and Richard Feynman admitted that no one really understands quantum mechanics, so take it to the bank that all those people using quantum anything to explain ghosts, psychics and prosperity theology likely have no friggin’ idea what they are talking about). And to be frank, the other science sources Offutt uses generally back my guffaws but it is interesting to think about string theory and how it could explain seeing Shadow People.
In those ten pages of science, Offutt discusses the most likely explanation for the vast majority of Shadow People sightings: sleep paralysis, which in my mind also edges into the hypnagogic tendency to see and hear things that are not there when one is in a state where one is not entirely awake. But then Offutt starts to discuss archetypes, which is not really a hard science, but rather a soft science, as psychology is a very uneven science at best. So don’t put a whole lot of faith into any of the science in this other than people see things and experience things when they are asleep and just waking up.
And, without belaboring the point too much, it is my assertion that 99.75% of everyone who experiences a paranormal event in the middle of the night says immediately and without any hesitation that what they experienced was not sleep paralysis or hypnagogia. It was too real, the terror too palpable, the vision too clear. But it is my belief that almost all the Shadow People and Animals discussed in this book can be explained via sleep paralysis, hypnagogia and the often overlooked alcohol. In fact, the book contains perfect examples of people refusing to entertain the idea of sleep paralysis or hypnagogia (the latter is not a topic Offutt discusses in depth in the book, just to be clear). Here’s one example from a woman who claims she was attacked by a Shadow Person:
One possible explanation for her experiences is sleep paralysis, but Cathy quickly dismissed this possibility. “I know that sleep paralysis is something that many people would think happened,” she said. “All I can say to those is, unless you have actually been attacked in this way, I wouldn’t chalk other people’s experience up to that. Having experienced this, I know that I was attacked by something.”
So yeah, know that as you read this, Offutt doesn’t really try to force people into a reasonable frame of reference – and I don’t think he should have as letting people’s stories tell themselves is a fine approach – and that seldom does anyone who experiences Shadow People want to consider the idea that these things could have happened for any reason that is not supernatural. (And if there is a heaven, I wish it would preserve me from ever again reading this argument, that until one experiences something one cannot judge the experience. It is a plea in earnest from people that we take them at their word and I am sympathetic to a point but extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. “Take my word for it because you haven’t experienced it” isn’t extraordinary evidence.)
Only a handful of sightings reported in this book were positive. Most of the people who saw the Shadow People were scared, but not terrified. But a few were outright terrified, felt the shadows were demonic entities, or that their safety was in peril. And this is where I come to my sense of Paranormal Squick, because any point of view that rejects outright reasonable explanations and embraces a frame of mind that causes them terror and fear is squicky. As I said above, Offutt does not advocate this position. He simply relates the tales but in these tales lies the squicky sense that if people would embrace notions other than an evil presence out to hurt them, their minds, hearts and lives would improve.
Take this disturbing example from Anne Williams from Australia, who was “roused at 3:00 a.m. one day” by a Shadow Person. She felt a presence standing over her, saw a figure that sounds a lot like descriptions of the Grim Reaper. Suddenly Anne felt pinned to the bed, locked down in fact. Then it gets really bad for Anne:
Anne lay on her back, trying to scream as the figure leaned into her. “I felt that it shoved its arm down my neck and was choking me, as nothing came out of my mouth,” she said. “Like no noise. I could not even hear myself scream, but I was.”
Tears ran down her face, soaking her pillow as she tried to scream but couldn’t. “I was trying to get up, which I could not,” she said. “I felt that it was trying to scare me to death.”
Anne invoked the name of God and drove the Shadow away for the night but it returned the next night. She prayed again and again it left. It returned again much later but finally disappeared. Though this woman was eventually rid of her Shadow Person, she was absolutely terrified when she experienced what she experienced and felt she was in peril. The belief that there is a shadowy, not entirely definable presence out to hurt you, rather than accepting that sleep paralysis combined with hypnogogia was likely the best explanation for this experience, left this woman in a state in which she was terrified.
Then take the case of Pat. He has seen Shadow People his entire life and sees them during the day as well as at night.
“I have seen these things in various places and they seem to have been following me around everywhere,” Pat said. “The feeling of pure evil is what scared the crap out of me because there were other instances in my life growing up where my mother or I also felt that strong feeling of pure evil. They have followed me most of my life.”
Although Pat tries not to think about these Shadows, he can’t truly stop. “I’m still curious to what exactly they are and why they are following me around.”
This is utterly heartbreaking to be sure, to spend one’s life feeling as if one is being tracked and stalked by Shadow People with evil intent. And maybe Pat has undergone all kinds of processes before he immediately settled on the notion that he is being stalked by evil supernatural entities. But if so, that wasn’t presented in his story. I really want to know if Pat or his mother ever underwent cognitive tests to see if they process visual stimuli in a manner that might cause them to see Shadow People. Have either undergone psychiatric testing to see if there is some sort of disorder that would cause them to feel a sense of paranoia that evil is stalking them. I wonder if both were exposed to some element in their homes together that could have permanently altered their cognitive processes. There are a lot of questions people should ask before settling on the idea that events are paranormal but often, those questions get pushed aside in the horror of the moment and you end up with a young man like Pat who has spent a life feeling as if true evil was just over his shoulder. Maybe Pat has done all of this. Maybe the paranormal is the only option left to explain these events but I wish I knew more about him.
This book is full of examples of people who are scared, terrified, uneasy and sure that evil lurks and no real sense that much was done to explain those terrible feelings without immediately focusing on the paranormal. That is squicky to me, the idea of people suffering when there could be a very reasonable explanation of what happened to them.
Then, in the midst of all the terror, there was this inadvertently hilarious gem from the chapter on Shadow Cats and other animals.
Max and his cousin sat in the darkness on the back steps of the house. The sounds of laughter poured from inside the house, a party for Max’s uncle nearing full crescendo. As they sat in the tungsten glow from windows that bathed the yard in a dissipating yellow, they could make out the fence that lined the property.
But Max and his cousin wished they hadn’t. “We noticed a Shadow creeping along the fence,” Max said. “I guess it noticed it was being watched and stopped. It was hunched over like it was trying to be covert.”
The boys stared at a black, cat-shaped Shadow in curiosity, but the curiosity quickly faded into terror. “It turned its head to look at us,” Max said. “It had bright yellow eyes. As soon as it looked at us, it turned and ran into the shadows.” They ran inside.
What was the creeping Shadow in the back yard? Max didn’t know…
I’m gonna venture a guess that the creeping Shadow was a neighborhood cat stalking small bugs attracted by the yellow light. The slinking cat noticed there were humans on the back porch and the yellow light reflected off the cat’s already amber colored eyes and made the eyes seem like they were glowing yellow. The cat, realizing there were drunk humans nearby (no one said they were drinking but the idea of a raucous party lends well to the idea that a beer or two may have been consumed), slunk off into the shadows. So… two paranormal-impressionable young men who may or may not have been drinking saw a cat-shape hunched over near a fence line late in the evening, illuminated by yellowish light and immediately assumed it was a terrifying visage of a Shadow Cat. Oh my…
Despite moments of low humor, or maybe because of it, this book is well-worth reading. I appreciate that Offutt wasn’t pushing an agenda, that he let people tell their stories as they interpreted them, and while I was troubled by the fact that people lived in terror rather than examining the ideas of sleep-paralysis or investigating to see if there was a carbon monoxide leak in their rooms, none of that was Offutt’s fault and is an unavoidable by-product of almost all paranormal examinations. All in all, as a skeptic I got to recreate in my head explanations for some of the tales and as a person drawn to tales of the paranormal, I got to wallow in the weirdness. A win-win.
And how can I be both a skeptic and a lover of the paranormal? Though I am a skeptic in all matters paranormal, my mind is still strangely open. Mr. Oddbooks and I had a sustained paranormal experience that lasted for several years and still, from time to time, manifests. We tore each experience apart and could never find any explanation that did not venture into the realm of the paranormal. Mr. Oddbooks is a computer programmer. He is a man ruled by the rational. And I am an atheist who to this day cannot really reconcile the idea that a spirit might have attached herself to us. For if I don’t believe in god, souls, or the afterlife, how could a benevolent soul have come into my life? I am to this day challenged theologically by what happened to us.
But it must be said that when we experienced paranormal activities, we did everything we could to explain them rationally. First, we determined we were still sane (relatively speaking). Then we checked air vents, made sure there was no gas leak, tested sound, determined if there was anything in our environment that could create specific odors. We determined whether or not neighbors were home when certain events occurred. We wondered if our home was accessible to a prankster. We even grilled each other. We mulled every possibility. We could never find an active cause for the activity. But more importantly, we never determined a passive cause for the activity. We never once felt the activities at night. We did not hear voices or smell odors as we were about to fall asleep. We did not waken in the night to be confronted by phenomena. All the events and things we experienced happened during the day, when we were awake and active. The events occurred in multiple dwellings. One of my experiences happened when I was surfing the web and I could have been in a borderline hypnagogic state. Other than that, we were always clear minded, awake, alert and physically active when the events occurred.
But because the experience was overwhelmingly positive, I don’t worry too much. The feeling we had after the events was of comfort, that the Universe is largely benevolent and that there was a force we could not understand that was looking out for us. This is a huge stretch, I know that, to assign such feelings to something we cannot explain, and this is a gray area for us. We ultimately decided that the sense that there was maybe a spirit looking out for us in no way affected our common sense or provoked us into to feeling anything but a warm sense of kindness. The experience did not lead us to think we are bulletproof nor did it cause us to alter our behavior so settling on the idea of a benevolent spirit in no way harms us but also in no way makes us feel powerful. Perhaps one could argue that false comfort is a bad thing but in this case I tend to disagree. So in a sense, it is easier for me than the people who feel they have been attacked or stalked by evil because it seems as if it may be less important to explain lovely experiences than those that terrify you. But having been in a position wherein I could not then (nor can I now) explain what happened, I have a decided preference for looking at all options and exhausting all possibilities before settling on the paranormal. I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer but I keep hoping I will one day and I think that desire to find some explanation is why I continue to read books like this, even when I suspect they will end up worrying me or making me laugh.
So if you have an interest in this sort of thing, you can do much worse than reading Offutt’s work. I think I will be checking out other titles from him. Here’s hoping your holidays are calm and free of malignant spirits, unless you are a Scrooge and need a Marley to come and set you right.