looking over my shoulder

Everyone has their private rituals of relaxation: a glass of wine, a cup of cocoa, a walk in the woods, a frivolous novel, a spree at the shoe store, a mountain hike.

My private relaxation ritual is… different.

After a long stretch of hard work, my brain simply locks up; hours after turning in a big project (or, as it happened this week, two big projects), I’m a dazed and blinking fool.

In the aftermath, I don’t need comfort. I need catharsis. There’s nothing quite as effective for me as getting safely scared silly. This might mean turning out all the lights and watching a stack of David Cronenberg films, or reading Lovecraft, or waiting until night and reading everything on wikipedia that makes me curiously aware that the bedroom door just… behind… me… is… open. And creaking.

For whatever reason, there’s a particular category of stuff*, an upsetting intersection of medical and mythical, that I find particularly unnerving. And by “particularly unnerving,” I mean it makes all the little vellus hairs on my body stand on end.


I just learned that the medical subset is lumped together under the name delusional misidentification syndrome. Delusional misidentification syndrome includes:

Capgras delusion, in which the sufferer believes that a loved one has been replaced by a stranger of identical appearance. (Capgras delusion is alluded to in the first act of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

Fregoli delusion, in which the sufferer believes that various people (even, and sometimes especially, loved ones) are not in fact the people they appear to be, but one individual altering his/her appearance to take the guise of many others.

Mirrored self-misidentification, in which the sufferer believes that his/her own reflection is actually another person, usually an unknown figure who is following the sufferer for unknown purposes. Gah.

Syndrome of subjective doubles, in which the sufferer believes in the existence of one or more doppelgängers of himself/herself, engaging in independent (and possibly malevolent) action.

– also scary: everything on the wikipedia doppelgänger page, and especially the medical explanations, and its description of an experiment in which the subject’s left temporoparietal junction was electromagnetically stimulated:

The patient immediately felt the presence of another person in her “extrapersonal space.” […] The other person was located exactly behind her, almost touching and therefore within the bed that the patient was lying on.

Oh no oh no oh no oh no.

A second electrical stimulation was applied with slightly more intensity, while the patient was sitting up with her arms folded. This time the patient felt the presence of a “man” who had his arms wrapped around her. She described the sensation as highly unpleasant and electrical stimulation was stopped.

“Highly unpleasant.” I’ll say.

– also highly unpleasant: somatoparaphrenia, in which the sufferer fails to recognize his or her own limbs and identifies them as someone else’s limbs, inexplicably left beind or — shudder — stuck to the sufferer’s body. Oddly enough, this notion in the abstract strikes me as terribly sad, but not in the least horrifying… as long as I can suppress the memory of reading Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Fell Out Bed on a dark lonely night, at a tender age, while in bed with my left leg falling asleep. Yikes.

*I recognize another category of Idiosyncratically Upsetting Stuff, one that is (I think) entirely unrelated to this one, and no doubt I’ll detail it before too long. I’ve informally designated it Architectural Integrity Failure, and it’s scary as hell.

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