I open my eyes. Something’s wrong. Very wrong. I’m in a world of trouble but I don’t know why.
Then I see it; half-see it. I can’t bear to look at it dead-on but it’s there – a shadowy malevolence, burning black in the corner of my room. It wants to hurt me. It is hurt, it is pain. Christ, I must be dreaming – too much cheese before bed.
But it sure doesn’t feel like I’m dreaming. Everything else is exactly as it always is. I can make out my TV at the foot of the bed; the cabinet next to it; the sliding door that leads on to the balcony; and the curtains (are they wafting just a little?). This better be a fucking dream because that thing is still there and it’s absolutely terrifying. I’m ending this trip and turning the light on.
But I can’t.
I can’t move my head, nor my arm – not anything. Shit-shit-shit, why can’t I move!? I have to get to the lamp. I have to scream. But I just can’t. I’m paralyzed. And that hovering mass of hate did it to me.
I know it did.
I’m panicking, yet my breath is so shallow that I’m not even sure I am breathing. The shadow-thing remains. I’m consumed by that fact. It’s going to get me. Sooner or later it’s going to rush down from its obscene perch and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. There’s nothing anyone in the world could ever do to stop it.
I will myself to lean over and turn on the light. God-knows how that would help, but if I could only move just a little… the lamp is right there. But It doesn’t want that.
It wants things nice and dark.
Yet still I try, while It continues to peer through me like the Eye-of-Sauron-times-a-million. And then, at last, my arm is reaching across the bedside table.
Have I woken up? Don’t know, don’t care.
I flip the switch and flick my eyes to the corner of the room. Nothing. Whatever it was is gone. And I’m not paralysed anymore.
It’s late and I should try to go back to sleep. Eventually, I do.
But I keep the light on.
That’s an account of my experience a few months ago and it fails miserably at describing the all-consuming horror of what I now know to be sleep paralysis.
What made it intensely disturbing was how very real it felt. Sure, I’ve had vivid nightmares before; those are the kinds of dreams that, no matter how familiar or plausible the subject matter, eventually give way to relief once you wake up and gather yourself.
Phew! It was only a dream! My family hasn’t been nibbled to death by a swarm of menopausal ladybugs.
Not so with this.
With the kind of experience I had, the transition between the (so-called) dream and the real world is completely seamless. Suddenly I could use my arm again, and when I turned on the light, the demon-thing in my room simply wasn’t there (anymore?).
I didn’t snap back to reality (“oh, there goes gravity”) because it felt as if I had never left it.
What science says (I think)
Sleep paralysis happens when your brain (for whatever reason) fails to properly move from Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep to wakefulness, or vice-versa.
Essentially, your mind starts to move out of REM sleep but forgets to bring your body with it, or vice versa. The shitty thing about REM sleep is that it’s the dreaming state and it requires your body to be on lock down (paralysed) so that you don’t run into the street screaming when the Teletubbies-turned-bad are chasing you through your nightmare.
So now you’re in a kind of sleeping-conscious limbo, stuck in the middle of the dreaming-wakefulness divide. And as I understand it, the part of your mind that is awake and “aware” freaks-the-fuck-out because of this.
The sense of dread and panic of not being able to move then manifests itself (with the help of your still-dreaming mind) as a perceived malevolent presence or intruder in the real world.
Breathlessness is a common trait of sleep paralysis. In my case, I was convinced that the demon-thing was somehow responsible, that it had partially paralysed my lungs with its ancient black magic (or something). For others, the breathlessness often manifests itself as either a vague feeling of pressure on the chest or the sense that the intruder/demon/incubus is actually sitting on them.
In fact, The Sleep Paralysis Project suggests that the word “nightmare” was invented to describe this sensation specifically –
The ‘mare’ of the word ‘nightmare’ is derived from the Norse word ‘mara’. This refers to a supernatural – usually female – being that lies on people’s chests at night suffocating them.
Of course, this feeling of having the spawn of Satan take a squat on your chest is easily explained away: it’s just another manifestation tied to the very shallow breathing that naturally comes with REM sleep. Duh.
“Relax, bro. I’m like, totally not real.”
You can read up on the ideas surrounding sleep paralysis in more detail if you like. But, bar some more esoteric reasoning, it’s defined as nothing more than an incomprehensibly terrifying brain fart – one that doesn’t even last that long. So, no biggie, right?
The theory sounds good. A little too good if you ask me…
If I were a witch, a malevolent shadow demon, or even just a lesser demon with a chest-squatting fetish, that’s exactly what I’d want – for the scientific reasoning to add up.
Think about it. Who’s to say all the evil creatures of the night aren’t sitting around a table somewhere laughing at the latest journal paper on sleep paralysis? Who’s to say they didn’t dream up the science behind it themselves?
Satan to Cthulhu: And then Mara said, “We’ll blame it on REM and cheese!”
(Hearty chortling ensues)
I might have laughed that whole idea off too, but that was before I woke up in the middle of night, in Athens, paralysed, with a piece of Hell floating in the corner of my room.