“Everything horrible, disgusting or terrific in the physical or moral world, is brought before him in fearful array; he is hissed at by serpents, tortured by demons, stunned by the hollow voices and cold touch of apparitions.”
-Robert Macnish, The Philosophy of Sleep
A few months ago, I awoke to a figure standing in the corner of my room. It was early morning, probably four or five AM. I was fully awake; lying on my back I could see my legs, my grey duvet cover, my boyfriend sleeping soundly to my left. The figure whispered my name—distinctly, horribly, in a voice no human could possibly muster. My pulse began to race. I knew I was awake. I knew I was not dreaming. And I could not move.
Sleep Paralysis is a phenomenon in which the body exists between a waking and dreaming state; the mind is awake, yet the body remains paralyzed. The experience typically occurs upon being woken from REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. “In REM sleep,” explains sleep specialist Dr. Dev Banerjee of the Woolcock Institute, “your body is intrinsically relaxed and floppy; it’s a mechanism to stop you acting out your dreams and falling out of bed . . . you become aware of this loss of muscle tone [upon waking], and this leads to the perception of paralysis.” Hallucinations—visual, auditory and sensory—occur as a result of “drifting in and out of sleep, and because REM sleep is accompanied by dreaming and imagery, that’s where the hallucinations come from,” according to Banerjee.
I’ve experienced Sleep Paralysis at least once a month for the past decade, and it has genuinely altered my perception of reality. What’s happening is happening, but not quite. When you realize what your mind is capable of designing, the line between what is real and what is not becomes…well, blurry.
The physical sensation of Sleep Paralysis is hard to describe. You’re trapped in your body, and no amount of effort can shake the spell. You can’t move, you can’t scream. You feel the scream swell in the back of your throat, and swear you can hear yourself pleading at the top of your lungs—but nothing comes out. On a trip with a friend I experienced this paralysis, and knew I was screaming my friend’s name for help. With every fiber of my being I felt myself screaming, felt myself struggling. When the spell lifted, I walked out into the living room to find my friend sitting casually at the kitchen table, having heard nothing at all.
It’s truly a living nightmare. I’ve seen demons take on the form of my parents, my boyfriend, my beloved grandmother. I’ve heard whisperings. I’ve felt taps and tugs on my pajamas. These occurrences are obviously horrible, but I’ve also seen strangely comic visions: A discombobulated hand, similar to Thing from the Addams Family, performed a can-can dance with its fingers on the edge of my bed; cherubic baby demons have giggled and winked at me; I’ve even heard a demon hum the tune to “Wonderwall,” Oasis’ perennial classic.
Dr. Banerjee, the sleep specialist, notes that Sleep Paralysis has puzzled us for thousands of years. The earliest record of this phenomenon dates back to 2400 BCE, a Sumerian text which references the incubus, a male demon that seduces women while they sleep. Nearly every culture’s folklore includes either the incubus or the succubus (the female version of the incubus) and tales of demons taunting, enticing and sitting on helpless observers in the night. The word “nightmare” is even a reference to the demons seen during Sleep Paralysis, coming from the Old English word “mare,” meaning goblin or demon. Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting, The Nightmare, which portrays an incubus figure sitting on a woman’s chest as she remains helplessly draped across her bed, is perhaps one of the most well-known artistic representations of this occurrence.
On the Nightmare, a fascinating psychological examination of Sleep Paralysis by Ernest Jones from 1931, defines this disorder—or as he called it, The Nightmare—as having three main features: “(1) agonizing dread; (2) sense of oppression or weight at the chest which alarmingly interferes with respiration; (3) conviction of helpless paralysis.” Luckily, I rarely experience the second of these characteristics, and instead remain helpless while I see various scenes play out before me. Rarely do I feel the sensation of touch, although in the past year the physical and auditory sensations have increased, much to my alarm.
Jones continues: “The dread that occurs in the Nightmare and in other unpleasant dreams is best denoted by the German word Angst, for there is in English no term that indicates the precise combination of fearful apprehension, of panic-stricken terror, of awful anxiety, dread and anguish that goes to make up the emotion of which we are treating. The striking characteristic of it in pronounced cases of Nightmare is its appalling intensity.”
To add insult to injury, the events of Sleep Paralysis which affect you so profoundly are not technically real. They’re real in a physiological sense, certainly; you are indeed seeing a demon in front of you, physically feeling its weight as it presses down on you, and the sweat on your brow is not some facsimile of human perspiration, but unquestionably tangible. Yet at the same time, everything that occurs during this arrested state has been concocted, almost devilishly curated, by your own mind. It is at once the most vivid and ephemeral of experiences. Somehow, at some point, there is a break in the terror. You can move once more. And you are simply in bed, lying motionless, while moments ago you felt extreme panic and dread.
Fortunately, less than eight percent of the population experience Sleep Paralysis regularly; unfortunately, there is no cure for those of us who do experience this phenomenon. Not sleeping on your back is really the only preventative measure you can take (scientists aren’t exactly sure why this is), as well as maintaining a healthy lifestyle and sleep schedule. Oh, and the more you think about Sleep Paralysis, the more likely it is to occur. Remember, there’s no shame in sleeping with the lights on…