What if you couldn’t jolt awake to escape from the demons and goblins in your dreams? What if they were there in your room, skulking, waiting for you to wake up?
When I younger, around 16, there was a period of time in which I had nightmares almost every night. It was an occurrence that seemed to beget and beget; after a few times, I would go to sleep wondering what the next nightmare would be, so of course, I had one. A fair portion of these experiences included sleep paralysis.
It wasn’t the first time I had experienced anxiety surrounding sleep. As a child, I got into the habit of sleeping as close to my wall as possible to avoid the view of my window, because I was paranoid that a strange man-ghost was staring at me through my window and if I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me. I imagined that soldiers were going to climb through my window and brutally murder me, but as long as I didn’t look at that bedroom window, their reality didn’t exist; they couldn’t cross the threshold, they couldn’t “get” me. With time, these fancies moved to the interior of my house; over and over I had a vision of a shadow figure moving slowly up my stairs and soon, soon, it would appear at my door.
I grew up in a Christian school and tried and failed to be religious – agnosticism is in my bones – but still, the only thing that calmed me down during these nocturnal attacks was repeating the Lord’s Prayer over, over, over again. It was so much engrained in me that it was the first mantra my mind jumped to, just something I knew off by heart. I repeated it to try to keep the terror at bay until I finally fell asleep. It was like counting sheep.
There were, of course, phases where I slept like a baby, as I mostly do now. Sometimes, though, in unfamiliar places, it would get worse. During my first without-family holiday with my friends, I woke up in the middle of the night and every object around me took a human shape – I had to wake my unfortunate friend to ask her to turn the light on because I was so scared I didn’t want to leave my covers. Needless to say, it was embarrassing.
But I never imagined that one day I would wake up and physically not be able to move.
If you are unfamiliar with the condition, Wikipedia is your friend:
‘Sleep paralysis is when, during awakening or falling asleep, one is aware but unable to move. During an episode, one may hear, feel, or see things that are not there. It often results in fear. Episodes generally last less than a couple of minutes. It may occur as a single episode or be recurrent. […] The central symptoms of sleep paralysis is during awakening being aware but being unable to move.
Humming, hissing, static, zapping and buzzing noises are reported during sleep paralysis. Imagined sounds (voices, whispers and roars) are also experienced. These symptoms are usually accompanied by intense emotions: such as fear, and panic. People also have sensations of being dragged out of bed or of flying, and feelings of electric tingles or vibrations running through their body.
Sleep paralysis may include hallucinations, such as a supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing. Another example of a hallucination involves a menacing shadowy figure entering one’s room or lurking outside one’s window, while the subject is paralysed.’
I don’t know why it suddenly picked on me when I was in my teenage years. I woke up to the sensation of tingling in the tips of my fingers, like pins and needles, which spread like a violent shudder through my whole body, and then I couldn’t move. The only movement I could make was with my eyes; in their childish instinct, they moved toward the door. I only saw darkness, but I felt strongly that there was a presence. I felt like it was suffocating me, and my heart was racing. It was like a dark, oppressive shadow in my periphery that I knew was there but I could never see directly. Because I didn’t know what it was, I struggled against it, which makes it worse, like thrashing around in quicksand. This must have only happened for a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an age, and eventually, it became so distressing that I blacked out.
This happened a few times in a short period and a couple of times throughout the years, but the other main event I remember is when I was asleep on the couch in my living room. I woke up with the similar pins-and-needles sensation – by now, it was a familiar indicator of what was about to happen. I looked at the living room around me, one of the most familiar sights in the world, but… I can’t even explain it… it was almost like I wasn’t looking at it from my body. It was too still, a perfect camera pan like I was dreaming it but I knew I was awake. The most familiar room to me became strangely alien and uncanny to me and I knew I couldn’t move, and in the safest space, I didn’t feel safe. When I look back on this since watching Twin Peaks a year or so after the event, it reminds me of the ominous shots of the ceiling fan in the Palmer residence.
I liked to think I’d changed, grown out of it. Last night, I thought my sleep paralysis was going to come back. Luckily, I bolted awake from my bad dream (which involved some kind of demonic figure) and didn’t get stuck in that liminal space. But I knew if tried to go straight back to sleep it would occur. I just knew it by instinct. In fact, my paranoia had shot up so high after that bad dream that I was convinced the demon in my dream had woken me up just to make me see or feel them in the waking world. I was terrified to go back to sleep. Childhood fears came flooding back, “I’m a bad person, they know I’m a bad person, demons exist and they want to take me, they want to scare me and punish me.” I still don’t follow a religion and yet I felt sin weighing on my chest. I tucked all of my limbs into my covers. I looked at the clock and of course it was 3 am which, if like me you’re interested in the paranormal or have watched one episode of Most Haunted, you’ll know is the “Witching Hour”. I resigned myself to stay awake for a bit, mentally poking a bit of fun at myself. Something was bugging me about my dream and I was trying to think of where I got the word ‘Hepzibah’ from in it, which I now remember is the name of a character in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. I heard dogs howling outside and chuckled at my immediate thought that this was classic confirmation that there was something afoot, as clearly I have watched too much Hammer Horror.
Finally, I closed my eyes, sighed and, from my heathen lips, uttered the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in Heaven…
Out like a light.