The Nightmare, 1781, by John Henry Fuseli
Throughout human history, people have experienced a horrifying phenomenon in which they wake up from sleep unable to move and see strange beings. The experience is known to virtually all cultures around the world, with almost all associating it with spirits or demons. The term nightmare comes from the Old English term mære, a mythological demon who torments people with terrifying dreams. In Indonesia, it’s called digeunton, “to press on”. In China, bei gui ya, “held by a ghost”. The Hungarians call it boszorkany-nyomas, “witches’ pressure”. Across the Caribbean, the term is kokma, which is the spirit of an unbaptized baby who strangles people in their sleep. In Persian culture, it is known as bakhtak, a dark shadowy ghost-like creature that sits on a person’s chest, making breathing difficult.
The Scientific term for it is sleep paralysis. People who have experienced sleep paralysis often describe waking up from sleep, not being able to move but retaining the ability to hear, see, and feel everything around them. Many times, they also see shadows, people, or strange creatures in the room with them, sometimes engaging in physical contact or whispering, speaking, and making noises. It can last for a few seconds, a few minutes, or even a few hours.
Although the exact cause is unknown, scientists have speculated that it may be due to the brain stem reticular formation failing to power down at the right moment, temporarily malfunctioning and causing the hallucinations of shadowy figures. Studies have also shown that sleep paralysis episodes are likely to occur if the person bypasses the stages of non-REM sleep and enters REM soon after falling asleep. REM sleep is the stage when, normally, the muscles of the body are temporarily paralyzed. Although science has provided explanations, there are currently no treatments or cures for those who suffer sleep paralysis, only suggestions on how to manage it. Maintaining a consistent sleeping pattern, reducing stress, and not sleeping on your back may help in reducing sleep paralysis. Some people say that during an actual sleep paralysis attack, wiggling your toes, then working your way up to the rest of the body can wake you up.
Many people who regularly experience sleep paralysis remain unconvinced by the scientific explanations, asserting that the supernatural is involved. Some believe that these experiences are actually alien abductions and have described experiences of aliens examining their bodies. While others believe that waking up under sleep paralysis allows people the ability to temporarily perceive the other dimensions that exist parallel to our own and the beings that exist within them. The religious believe that sleep paralysis episodes are attacks by evil spirits which can be resisted by calling on the name of God–Muslims say that saying Allah banishes the demons while Christians would say God or Jesus Christ. Some have claimed that just writing the name of Jesus with your finger could end the sleep paralysis episode.
What’s interesting to note is that many of the people who experience seeing entities during sleep paralysis often report seeing the same things—a tall black shadowy male figure, an old female witch, little aliens or shadow people, or shapeless dark masses. Though an explanation for this is that our brains are all wired the same, giving us similar hallucinations or that they are formed in our minds by the Jungian archetypes that transcends cultural boundaries. Regardless of exactly how these figures are formed into our consciousness, many people note them for how terrifyingly real they seem to be during sleep paralysis episodes.
Here are a couple of stories from a sleep paralysis thread on reddit:
“I was falling asleep with the TV and I realized I was locked in. I couldn’t move, but I could still hear the TV… I heard laughing from another direction, a cackle. And I could feel little things walking over me, starting at my legs, to my torso and up onto my chest… and that’s when I snapped out of it.
On another occasion, same scenario, still could hear the TV, but now I was being pulled into my bed by cold and callous hands as the devil laughed and watched from a dark corner. Worst dream of my life.”
“Woke up laying on my back, with my head tilted to the side. I heard heavy breathing and could just make out a dark figure in the corner, slowly making it’s way over to me. Every time I tried to move, the figure came closer and became more aggressive in its breathing. Eventually its “face” was inches from mine, I could actually feel the breath on my face, but I couldn’t move or close my eyes. I was in full panic mode by this point. It probably only lasted a few seconds, but it was terrifying.”
“…Another time I couldn’t move, but my eyes were open. I saw some black shadows in the air and it was moving from one side of the room to the other. Then I saw this black shadowy figure that looked like a girl in front of me, coming closer. Then she sat on my chest and I felt the pressure on my chest. And her face was above me. I finally was able to move, and it all went away. That was probably the scariest.”
“One of my worst ones were a few weeks ago. I was sleeping next to my gf, suddenly i woke up and was unable to move and i felt someone watching from the door. I was unable to turn my head to the door but somehow i knew that there was a whitedressed lady in the dooropening and i tried to scream to my gf but i could only hiss which terrified her.”
“I never saw a figure like most people. All I saw was a cloud of black smoke and I tried hard not to stare at it. I also tried to scream out for my parents when I got really scared, but it felt like I couldn’t open my mouth and I was choking on my words.
Not too long after I felt like a heavy weight was lifted from me and I just laid there… I wasn’t sure if I should get up and run or pull the sheets over my head, so I just tried to talk to prove to myself that whatever it was is gone. Then I ran out of my room as fast as I could.”
“My mom & her sister were in their late teenage years, and ended up being homeless. They were sleeping in my aunt’s car, they met this mid-twenties couple who offered to take them in. They take the couple up on the offer, wanting a hot shower and a bed. About a week goes by, they’re still staying at this house, they find out the couple is in to Satanism / Paganism. Probably unrelated, just relaying the story as I was told. A few days after they found out, my aunt experienced sleep paralysis. According to her, she woke up on her back, stuck. She was finally able to turn her head to the left, and saw this black figure laying next to her. Still unable to move, it started crawling on top of her, she tried to scream and couldn’t. My mom walked in to get her up for the daily chores, and “must have scared it away” because my aunt shot straight up in bed and started bawling.”