With despair, I recognized the feeling straight away, although it hadn’t happened to me for some time.
My limbs had seized up completely, like an extreme version of sitting on your foot for too long, except the motionlessness ran throughout the length of my body.
I was rigid. A stiff, inanimate wedge of flesh between mattress and duvet. I could not scream, and could only emit the faintest of cracking sounds from somewhere in my throat if I exerted myself.
Sometimes during my sleep paralysis episodes, I could make a faint humming noise if I used all my energy. I could even twitch my toes a bit. But this was not one of those times, and I braced myself to stay as calm as humanly possible for what was to come.
My thoughts were clear and lucid – awake – and I dredged up happy moments to quash my rising panic. I replayed sitcom scenes in my head, forcing myself to remember there would be laughter again, that I wouldn’t stay petrified forever.
Beyond the rectangular confines of my bed, I could pick out the usual, quiet early morning noises of warming radiators and tyres easing over gravel.
And then, mirroring the thudding mass of dread in my chest, I heard it. Quick, heavy, thumping footsteps on the stairs; deliberate and undeniable. Familiar. I had experienced this many times before, but not for a long and blessed while.
The terror settled around me like a dense, heavy mist, and the only movement I could make was to my clamp my eyes shut. But not before I saw a very tall, enraged figure in the doorway.
At times, this being had been an old woman with a mottled, corpse-like pallor and a rictus grin. I came to refer to her as ‘the witch’; to recognize her coarse, matted hair and bloodshot gaze as she leaned over me again and again.
This time it was the shadowy, male figure who felt less definable, but stronger. Sometimes he would simply lurk in the doorway, head cocked to one side as he watched me. But this time, he was coming towards the bed, slowly and purposefully.
The next dreadful moments played out as I knew they would. The figure approached the bed, and the mattress sagged substantially as it climbed up, looming over me. I could hear its animalistic rasp, its guttural, unintelligible voice.
I scrunched my eyelids tight so I wouldn’t see the hideous, nightmarish figure some strange part of my brain had dreamed up. As had long been the case, I felt its focus on me, that boiling, malevolent rage.
It felt like hours, and all I could do was wait for my body to lift itself up from this murky half world. When it finally did, I couldn’t bear to open my eyes for fear of seeing lingering traces of the monster.
‘Waking’ was like being wrenched upwards into a different reality, bursting from the surface of a dark and muddy pool. It has never been like waking from a bad dream, where you find yourself drenched with cold sweat and healthy, heart-pounding relief.
The layer between wakefulness and sleep paralysis is so much thinner. As a teen, I would regularly hear the ordinary sounds of my family preparing breakfast in the kitchen, all while a monstrous face leered inches from my own.
Under the spell of sleep paralysis, I have felt cold, palpable flesh press against me; long fingers tighten around my throat and wet tongues slide against my cheek. I have felt crushed and breathless beneath a body more powerful than my own.
And I have run from my own room in terror as soon as I was able, only to see raw, red marks on my neck and arms in the bathroom mirror. Long after waking, I would be too traumatized to peer too closely into dark corners.
My severe sleep paralysis and night terrors hit when I was 14 years old and happened to me on an almost nightly basis until I was around 20. I strongly feel this experience continues to affect me, with my arm hair still prickling at the memory.
For years, I was frightened by the prospect of sleep, knowing all too well what could be waiting for me on the other side of my consciousness. And so I would often stay awake until my brain throbbed with tiredness and I could stand it no more.
My heart would continue to thud and jump throughout the day. A nervous teenager with serious issues with depression and anxiety, I was left severely shaken by exhaustion and paranoid, delirious superstitions.
At times, I felt like a girl from a horror movie who had to focus all her energies on learning about and defeating the demon who had singled her out. And I still cannot help but obsess over what happened to me back then, and why.
Sleep paralysis ain’t no mf joke.
— LIZETH✨ (@Lizfitnessbby) May 5, 2019
I spoke with Dr Irshaad Ebrahim from the London Sleep Centre, a leading organisation which provides diagnostic and treatment services for those with sleep disorders. I was eager to hear his scientific perspective on what had once appeared to me to be a full blown haunting.
Dr Ebrahim told UNILAD how the best way to understand sleep paralysis was to know about the two broad types of sleep:
We have non-rapid eye movement sleep, which most of our sleep is. We don’t have any perception of the environment, our brain is slowed down, our body is resting.
But then we have another type of sleep called rapid eye movement sleep, and that has often been called paradoxical sleep because the brain is very active. But the body, or the muscles of the body, is virtually paralyzed.
REM sleep is in essence a very active brain in a paralyzed body. And what happens when we are in REM sleep is that our brain and our spinal chord turn off. We are unable to move. And at that time, the brain stem – the back part of the brain, the posterior part of the brain that connects to the spinal chord – is very active.
Dr Ebrahim continued:
It’s also during this time that we are dreaming. The reason our eyes are moving side to side is because the area that controls the eye movement is in the brain stem.
So now that we understand the difference between non-rapid eye movement sleep and rapid eye movement sleep, it’s easy then to understand what happens to people who have a condition of sleep paralysis. In the condition of sleep paralysis, what is essentially happening is that we are waking up from sleep.
But that element that paralyses our muscles in sleep, does not follow on by reversing the paralysis. So in essence we are awake but we still have the sleep paralysis that we experience in REM sleep.
And that is why sleep paralysis can be terrifying to people.
According to Dr Ebrahim, sleep paralysis episodes usually occur for about half a minute to a minute. However, it often felt far longer.
Growing up Catholic – and predictably guilty – I was once convinced that something sinister was happening, that some insidious, otherworldly force had sunk its claws into my body, my soul. Had marked me out.
It’s easy to see how people have previously attributed their personal experiences of sleep paralysis to supernatural causes – hauntings and demonic possession – as well as alien abductions.
Dr Ebrahim told UNILAD how lots of horror movies draw inspiration from sleep paralysis, and it’s understandable why people might leap to supernatural conclusions:
The more information that we have now that we are in the information age, it’s becoming less frequent. In other cultures though, there is still some element that you have been possessed and you need to be dispossessed.
It makes sense why people came to that conclusion, but once they’re given the knowledge and it’s described to them, they realize, ‘Hang on a second, this is just one of the small wirings in the brain that can be very easily corrected’.
For a long time, I would sleep with a reading light on, feeling a slender sense of protection from the little puddle of light on my nightstand.
In wilder moments, I felt – inspired by horror movie logic – darkness would attract the monster and light would keep it at bay. This didn’t work for me, but it was comforting to at least feel a little bit in control.
Over time, the experiences became more warped, more shocking. There were times when I genuinely felt all the breath had been sucked from my body and I felt certain I was going to die.
Other times I could feel unbearable pressure inside my skull to the point where I felt my brain was about to burst like a huge, pulsating zit.
Ur sleep paralysis demon in the corner of ur room at 3 am pic.twitter.com/zQxdMuNRfJ
— FETISHccine alfredHOE (@peachykinn_) May 7, 2019
The most disturbing episode occurred when I was 16 and has stayed with me for many years. Because this was the moment I realized the terrors could adapt; tricking me and gnawing away at any sensations of safety or comfort.
I was completely unable to move one Saturday morning, breathing only the most shallow breaths and clenching my eyelids shut, when I heard the voice of my little sister beside the bed.
She tugged at my arm and I felt a warm rush of relief in my frozen limbs. Family members had previously helped release me from sleep paralysis by placing a concerned hand on my arm.
I opened my eyes and fixed them on my sister. But it wasn’t her, not really. Her hair was straw-like and filthy. Her eyes were glazed and cruel. Her flesh was bluish white and partially decayed.
The being had taken the form of a family member to trick me into opening my eyes and looking at it, and – as it grinned with my sister’s mouth – I felt its triumph at having outwitted me. At having let me know it would always be one step ahead of me.
Heading off to university – and knowing I would be sleeping in a strange room miles from home – left me petrified. Predictably, the paralysis and hallucinations followed me to my halls of residence, leading to awkward conversations about why I slept with the light on like a child.
The terrors lessened slightly in my early twenties – to about once a week – and then slowed down as I reached my mid twenties. Interestingly, I went on anti-depressants at the age of 23 – for unrelated reasons – and found this eased my sleep paralysis episodes considerably.
Dr Ebrahim told me:
The abnormality which causes sleep paralysis is based in the serotonin system. So by enhancing your serotonin metabolism, you can treat sleep paralysis.
Basic anti-depressant medication for a short period of time can sort it out. So the good news is that sleep paralysis can be treated, and effectively treated, and possibly even cured by using a short course of serotonin medication such as those which are used for depression.
I felt happier, safer and more able to bear it; imagining my brain had shed whatever shadows had passed during those formative years. But then, at almost 25, my sleep paralysis returned for a brief, sharp period of time, bringing with it the tall, rasping figures who had haunted my adolescence.
I have taken some comfort knowing that my experiences are chemical, explicable and feel some sort of relief knowing that sleep paralysis affects many others.
Although the experience itself had a very personal, emotional quality, I’m certainly not the only person to have suffered from profound night terrors and sleep paralysis.
Dr Ebrahim has explained that sleep paralysis can be common among those who suffer from narcolepsy, explaining:
Narcolepsy is an abnormality of our REM sleep and is a condition which causes you to be very sleepy in the day. But sleep paralysis, and its dream-like images occur very commonly in narcolepsy.
So these people are sleepy, and if they fall asleep they have these vivid images and have frequent sleep paralysis. And a lot of the time they have this sense of weight on their chest. If somebody has sleep paralysis and is sleepy in the day, they need to be tested for narcolepsy
— a single bee earring (@metgalacochair) May 6, 2019
Strangely, I have grown to like creepy things, even watching Hereditary all by myself for the cathartic thrill of being a bit spooked on a hungover Sunday afternoon.
However, I still live in fear that a slight change to my brain chemistry or a period of intense stress could bring back my night time visitor.
I hope I have had my fill of the sleep paralysis demon. But I still cannot shake the occasional shudder when I climb into bed at night, making sure I am within reaching distance of my reading light.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.