Wide-eyed but falling to sleep, unable to move, unable to breathe, consumed in fear. Your night was like every other moments ago: lights off, eyes closed, waiting to drift away. But you’ve noticed something in your bedroom where there was nothing before, there in the corner, standing beside your window, silent, watchful, alive. You cannot scream. You cannot move. You struggle for air. Try closing your eyes because it’s all just a dream. But it isn’t. Reopen them onto a monstrous face filling your field of vision. The thing from your window is sitting on your chest now; its hands are wrapped around your throat.
This is not a nightmare. This is real.
In our formative years many of us experience what we call night terrors, bursts of sudden panic and inconsolability. Sufferers often bolt upright, scream, flail, and are left temporarily amnesic. Scary stuff for an 8-year-old.
But the night terror has a sibling, one rarer, more mysterious, and far more terrifying than any dream: sleep paralysis. Fuseli’s Nightmare. The Incubus. The Old Hag.
Those who experience sleep paralysis experience it maybe once or twice in their lifetimes. Maybe you’ve already awoken in the middle of the night with a strange pressure on your chest and an eerie feeling that someone else is in your room. You see impossible things. And pain. You feel pain.
When we fall asleep at night, our brains release a hormone that paralyzes our bodies in preparation for dreaming. They do this to keep us safe from ourselves, to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Likewise, our bodies know when they’re dreaming — they accept whatever craziness we conjure up, which is why we don’t hyperventilate when we’re presented with otherwise unimaginable horrors. During sleep paralysis, however, our bodies get the timing wrong: our bodies paralyze themselves while we’re still “awake” but continue to dream.
Unlike a traditional dream, we cannot wake up from — or “wake out of” — sleep paralysis simply by recognizing our peril. Suddenly realizing that we are experiencing sleep paralysis will not remedy an episode; our bodies will refuse to believe we’re in a state of dreaming, and our minds won’t so readily accept the strange visions surrounding us.
Likewise, legitimate pain may be imminent. As our brains often function on anticipation, we will sometimes predict what pain would feel like if whatever happens during sleep paralysis were to happen while we’re awake. For example, in one of my most personally troublesome episodes, a faceless man sitting on the edge of my bed cut my forearm with a knife. Despite not actually knowing what this pain would feel like, my body anticipated what it would and the feeling I recognize as a deep paper cut — a pain I definitely remember — slid across my skin.
Perhaps more frightening is the accompanying sense of helplessness; experiencing sleep paralysing in bed beside your partner who is awake, for example, means being aware enough to know everything he’s doing, but “asleep” enough to be unable to cry out for help. That you are paralyzed, he cannot know your distress.
Sleep paralysis feels so real that it is often mistaken for supernatural encounters: what one experiences during an episode is shocking enough to know it’s unbelievable, but feels real enough that it must be real. Thus, sleep paralysis often serves as a scientific explanation behind ghostly premonitions. Those who endure only a few episodes in their lifetimes will easily mistake their hallucinations for actuality. How would they know any better?
At least one study estimates that four in ten people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetimes. Experiencing it more than a few times is exceedingly rare (I’m one of the lucky people who experience it three or more times a week). It happens in real time. Common episodes range in length from a few seconds to a couple of minutes, though a single episode could last for hours.
Sleep paralysis isn’t all bad once you’re used to it. What is at first terrifying becomes curious. The “visions” change, they become more complex, and even movement can be imagined. This sometimes affords chronic sufferers the ability to lucid dream, to control one’s surroundings, for what takes the dreamer out of a dream is sometimes the realization that he’s dreaming, while those in paralysis can both realize they’re dreaming but cannot wake. This is a consolation prize at best. I’ve been able to pull this off only once in the thousands of times I’ve tried.
To cap this unworthy overview and to admit my own curiosity, it is perhaps most interesting to know that, unlike nightmares and terrors, whose sufferers experience completely different scenarios during their dreams, those who suffer sleep paralysis all report experiencing fundamental commonalities: a pressure on one’s chest, mortal danger without cause, knowing that there is something in your bedroom that shouldn’t be, and, most alarmingly, those who suffer sleep paralysis provide strikingly similar physical descriptions of that thing that shouldn’t be. Which is why sleep paralysis has a couple of nicknames: The Incubus and the Old Hag.