Chasing Hypnagogic Hallucinations

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

About seven years ago, I had this bizarre and beautiful thing happen to me. I was on the verge of sleep when a slideshow of images started flashing behind my closed eyes. The images weren’t things I’d ever seen before but each one was rendered in stunning detail—completely captivating—then gone onto the next. The only one I still remember was a live deer standing on a dining-room table, its antlers interlocked with the chandelier. The dining-room was as lush, quirky and detailed as a Wes Anderson set.

I wasn’t asleep but, as with dreaming, I was making no conscious effort. It was automatic. But the effort did fatigue some part of my brain. It lasted forty seconds, a few minutes?

None of my friends, including a few therapists, knew what I was talking about. One suggested that, as a prolific novelist, some part of my brain went into an inexplicable overdrive. Others just shrugged.

I shut up about it, accepting it as a small, erratic, rare gift.

This summer in a used bookstore, I found The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Embarrassed I’d never read it, I bought it and fell in love with it. I then picked up a bunch of his other books, including Hallucinations. The chapter “On the Threshold of Sleep” caught my eye. I flipped to it.

There, my small erratic rare gift was explained.

Hypnagogic hallucinations: “involuntary images or quasi-hallucinations appearing just before sleep.” [p. 200] The term was coined in 1848 by a French psychologist. The majority of people have them, though they might not even realize it.

Nabokov did. Some of his hallucinations were auditory in either English or Russian. And in Speak, Memory, he describes his visual ones as “…roguish profiles… some coarse-featured and florid dwarf with a swelling nostril or ear…gray figures walking between beehives, or small black parrots gradually vanishing among mountain snows…”

Poe loved his hypnagogic hallucinations so much that he’d wake himself fully to remember what he saw and use them in his work.

When I read about these two in Hallucinations, I hadn’t had a hypnagogic hallucination in a few years. I thought why should just wait passively for one to show up? I could actively set out into the dark woods of my mind and try to lure them into a moonlit clearing.

I know what you’re thinking. Baggott, just take some hallucinogens. Shroom already.

But I hate not knowing if things are real or not. I want to be in some kind of control of the slideshow. I didn’t want Baggott’s brain on drugs. I wanted to get full credit for the wild flitting hyper-detailed otherworldliness as provided by the deep recesses in my own imagination. I’d done it before. I could do it again. In fact, maybe I could even become an expert hypnagogic hunter.

Edison got his best ideas between waking and dreaming. Sitting in an armchair, ball bearings in his hands and pie-pans below, he’d stared into a fire. Once drowsy, his hands would relax and the ball bearings would fall, clattering against the pie pans, waking him up. He’d jot what he was thinking.

My plan was simpler: lie down in bed and imagine things. How hard could it be?

Reader, it was hard.

When I closed my eyes, I looked out as if through my eyelids. The room was dark except for a streetlight. I stared hard as if I could see into that fuzzily-lit darkness and drag images from it.

I couldn’t.

I looked upward, as if the inner skull of my forehead were a screen. I waited for it to fill with images.

It refused.

I hoped that my literal eyes would flip to my mind’s eye. It was all too self-conscious.

I tried to imagine the faces of various celebrities — a vague Matt Damon, a young Carol Burnett, the actress who played Olive in Little Miss Sunshine.

None of it was automatic.

Once or twice the grainy light behind my lids popped into something like driftwood or feathers—a good sign. But then it stalled.

I decided that my husband should try it too, an attempt to split the failure fifty-fifty. He was game.

I put my head on his chest and asked if he’d rub my head. A head massage would be a nice consolation prize for my failure.

As we started, I explained the bit about the eyes and he knew exactly what I meant.

“Stop talking,” he said.

We focused. I was sleepier than usual, in large part, because of the head massage. When I tried to imagine a face, Cyndi Lauper popped up—recent Lauper, not 80s Lauper.

As my husband rubbed my head, a man in a well-tailored blue suit appeared. His head was on fire. He tilted forward—jerkily—then back. Crisp and clear. His hand was in his jacket pocket, his suit had a sheen to it.

The feathers were back! The beak and eyes of a crow appeared.

Then gone, replaced by woman in a leather cap with a chin strap.

Each time my husband slowly rubbed my head, the image lifted then was replaced.

When things stalled, I asked for the man with the fiery head to appear.

He obliged—like a portal keeper—and I’d start again.

Once, I ran my leg across the sheets and bulky creatures, as if designed by a child but drawn by a master illustrator, labored across a dark sandy field.

When I stopped, I told my husband as much as I could remember. He hadn’t seen anything. Overall, it was less automatic, but still self-generating.

I try it most nights now, a hunter with a skull and flashlight and a fire-headed guide. To be honest, I’ve never gotten back to the completely automatic slideshow. It’s out there, tiptoeing through the woods. One day, I hope the hunter becomes the hunted and the images attack me again, a ferocious mauling.

Last night? Only this: a ten-year-old in a Girl Scout uniform, standing on a dark suburban street, staring into the large black mouth of an enormous sinkhole.

infinity-thumbnailJulianna Baggott is the author of over twenty books including The Pure Trilogy and, most recently, The Infinity of You and Me, under J.Q. Coyle, the joint pen name she shares with author Quinn Dalton.

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