Sleep Paralysis - A Haunting Condition
Many of us have experienced it. One moment you’re asleep and then before you know it, you’re awake. … But not quite. You remain teetering on the edge between dreaming and waking life, your mind racing to catch up with your sudden jolt into consciousness. Sleep paralysis is described as the feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It can happen during the time between the stages of wakefulness and sleep. People who experience sleep paralysis will typically be unable to move or speak upon waking, which may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. The idea of being temporarily paralyzed is unsettling enough, but sleep paralysis can also come with a much more sinister symptom.
Many people who experience sleep paralysis describe witnessing vivid hallucinations. These can be auditory, tactile, olfactory, or visual. It’s these visual hallucinations that tend to be most commonly associated with sleep paralysis and are the source of the horror stories that surround the syndrome.
One legend around sleep paralysis is The Old Hag, which is why sleep paralysis has also been known as “old hag syndrome.” The “old hag” or “night hag” that is associated with the condition comes from a common hallucination of witnessing a presence in the room. This presence typically manifests as a supernatural malevolent being — oftentimes that of an old hag, shadow, dark figure, ghost, or demon. Many experience the feeling of being immobilized, as if the being is sitting on their chest or at the foot of their bed. In Old English, the name for these otherworldly beings was “mare.” Consequently, the word "night-mare," or "nightmare," was initially used to describe this phenomenon prior to its evolution into its modern, more widely accepted meaning.
Sleep paralysis and the legends surrounding it spans history and cultures. Many cultures have different names for the phenomenon and for the supernatural character with which it is associated. While the names and legends may vary from country to country and person to person, one thing that remains most common is the feeling of abject terror that sleep paralysis sufferers sometimes experience when confronted by their otherworldly tormentor.
Of course, the scientific community has posited rational explanations for the hallucinations experienced during sleep paralysis. There is ample evidence to suggest that the paralysis itself is caused by an overlap of REM sleep and wakefulness. Meanwhile, the hallucinations that accompany the phenomenon have been described as identical to hypnagogic hallucinations — a consequence of dream imagery happening while the individual is awake. This can be caused by an overlap of waking up and rapid eye movement.
Not all people are eager to accept a rational, scientific explanation for the phenomenon, however. Many believe that sleep paralysis hallucinations are real. The cause has been attributed to ghosts, witches, demons, or other supernatural forces. Some cultures believe it is caused by a vengeful spirit trying to suffocate its enemies in their sleep. Others believe it is caused by spells cast by shamans. Still, others believe it is the Grim Reaper, who has come to claim another soul. Not exactly the most comforting explanations.
"The cause has been attributed to ghosts, witches, demons, or other supernatural forces. Some cultures believe it is caused by a vengeful spirit trying to suffocate its enemies in their sleep. Others believe it is caused by spells cast by shamans. Still, others believe it is the Grim Reaper, who has come to claim another soul."
Despite the legends, science does suggest that sleep paralysis and its accompanying hallucinations is a normal, while unsettling, experience with a biological explanation. So, you shouldn’t have anything real to fear, no matter how terrifying the occurrence. That isn’t to minimize the fear you may experience, however.
I know what the fear can feel like firsthand because I’ve experienced sleep paralysis myself.
There’s one dream in recent memory that truly disturbed me: I was in the woods, it was gray, and everything was covered in a thick fog. I was trying with all of my might to flee from a terrifying pursuer who was trying to hurt me. The fog was too thick and I couldn’t make any progress. I knew my stalker was getting closer … and I knew he was going to hurt me in the worst ways my demented subconscious could come up with when he caught up with me. I had never been so scared. Suddenly, my fear became my savior when I realized somewhere deep inside that I was actually dreaming. Typically, when I realize that I’m dreaming during a dream, I can wake myself up easily. But not this time …
The realization of my dream state did nothing to change my worsening situation. I was still in the woods. I was still being hunted. The only difference was that now I could feel that my body was paralyzed in the real world. As a result, my dream self became stuck in place, too. No matter how hard I tried to wake up, no matter how many times I told myself “WAKE UP!” I still couldn’t stop the relentless nightmare. And he was getting closer …
I was frantically willing myself to open my eyes, to no avail. I began to panic that I would be stuck in this nightmare forever. I mustered up all of my energy and made one last mental push. In the dream, I was able to finally make my arms move. I then lifted my hands to my eyes and I pried them open. That action in my sleep managed to snap my eyes open in the real world. I was back in my bed, in my room. However, I was still unable to move.
It may have only been a few seconds, but it felt like I was paralyzed for minutes. When I finally regained control of my body, I pushed myself into a sitting position — there was no way I was taking the chance of falling back asleep. My heart was pounding, but I was safe.