6 Reasons Sleep Paralysis Is The Most Terrifying Thing Ever
The human brain is, in many ways, a piece of shit. Even minor glitches can turn your world into a living nightmare. Take sleep paralysis, for instance, which does so literally. That's the terrifying yet extremely common experience of waking up, being unable to move, and having vivid hallucinations which you're helpless to resist.
We spoke with some people who have suffered from this disorder, including "Sean," "Cory," and "Bill," to see what it's like to have your nightmares follow you into real life. Spoiler: It's not good.
It Can Happen To Anyone, Including You
Sleep paralysis sounds simple enough. It's the mind continuing to dream when the body is awake. When you dream in REM sleep, your brain releases chemicals to prevent you from moving around. That's why most people won't get out of bed to do some sick nollie kick-flips when they're dreaming about being best friends with Tony Hawk. Some people don't get enough of this chemical, which leads to sleepwalking.
In a way, sleep paralysis is simply the opposite of sleepwalking. You are awake, but your brain is still releasing those chemicals to prevent you from moving around. So if actual Tony Hawk walked into your room to ask you to be his best friend, you wouldn't be able to nod or speak or anything. Sadly, most people won't see Tony Hawk; they'll instead have hallucinations of what our interviewees pleasantly described as "shadow people."
Research suggests that approximately 8 percent of the population suffers from chronic sleep paralysis. That number increases to 28 percent in people who have other disrupted sleep patterns, and it increases even more to 34 percent in people who suffer from psychiatric disorders like depression. However, while chronic cases are rare, some studies suggest up to one out of every four people will experience sleep paralysis at least once. In many cases, they won't know it's a sleep disorder; they'll think they've seen an actual ghost or demon.
In fact, it's theorized that much of humanity's belief in such phenomena stems from this one weird brain misfire. That's how realistic these waking dreams can be. They've motivated generations of people to call for exorcisms or just move out of the damned house altogether.
When The Visions Aren't Shadow People, They're Even More Horrifying
Sleep paralysis hallucinations can be visual, like the shadow people, or auditory, which seems to mostly consist of hearing horrific screeching, like someone stepping on a Lego made of nails. Many times, the shadow people just kind of surround your bed. Sometimes they'll move. Sean described an experience wherein he saw a shadow person flailing like a Wacky Inflatable Tube Man. But when he was a child, he had an experience in which he hallucinated seeing his mother.
"I was very young, probably five or six, and I remember my mother coming into my bedroom late one night. I remember not being able to move and thinking that there was definitely something wrong and my mother coming to help. But as she got closer to the bed, I remember her movement looking strange and unnatural. Her face was different somehow, and before I knew it, she was sitting on my bed and staring down at me, smiling. I couldn't react, and soon her face slowly morphed into something demonic-looking, still smiling at me, and I felt a heavy pressure and closed my eyes, unable to cry out."
Years later, as an adult, Sean's wife turned up in another sleep paralysis vision. "I wake up one night to my wife talking to me, but her voice is kind of slurred and distorted. At first I'm confused and trying to figure out what's going on, and it slowly dawns on me that I can't move and am having an episode. Once this realization occurs, her voice goes to normal and she says, 'Oh, by the way, I'm not really Emily,' and then suddenly something grabs my throat and starts choking me."
Oh yeah, that feeling of choking or suffocation is common during these episodes, most likely due to the muscles in the upper airways being in a state of paralysis. How many of you are feeling a slight sense of panic just imagining this shit?
Sometimes The Hallucinations Are Cute (Or Sexual)
Both Sean's mother and grandmother suffered from the condition, which makes sense when you consider one recent study found a possible link between sleep paralysis and genetics (some people get genes for height and luxurious hair, others get nocturnal demon visits). But according to Sean, his mother never got shadow people. She just saw cats scampering about her bedroom. Not even, like, demon cats that constantly meow even though you just refilled their bowls. Just regular old cats.
"According to her, it was always black cats kind of scampering about, hopping up on dressers, walking around in the room, that kind of thing. Nothing sinister, just normal cat-like things. I'm pretty jealous."
Sean would also probably be a little jealous of some of the vaguely sexual hallucinations Cory got. And we mean sexual in the classiest possible way:
"So the way that it typically goes down is I wake up in my bed but know that it's an episode. I then wait to figure out who it is that is going to visit me. I'll know when she's coming because I'll see the leaves of cherry blossoms floating around my room ... I will lock eyes with this character and it gazes straight into my eyes, and the longer it lasts, the more her pupils grow to take up the entire eye, and then start to glow in this same amber light. As this is happening, I feel a sexual sensation, but it's really hard to describe. It's not like the real thing, it's more sort of from the inside, if that makes sense."
Actually ... yeah, that's still pretty terrifying.
The Hallucinations Can Interact With The Real World In Weird Ways
Hang on, because this is about to get even weirder.
Sean had one experience with the shadow people where instead of just hanging around his bed spooking him like they usually do, they actually entered through the door first. Sean remembers hearing the door unlatch and slowly creak open. Suddenly, a group of shadow people rushed into the room and surrounded him. Presumably, the parts of his body in control of shitting his pants were also paralyzed at the time.
The next night, he came up with a plan. Since the shadow people entered through the door, he thought he could avoid another terror by locking it before going to bed. To his surprise, it actually worked. Well, kind of.
Instead of bursting in, the intruders would jiggle the handle and scratch at the door. Eventually, they would even resort to banging on the door until finally he would snap out of it and the noises would end. See? That's so much better.
Sleep Paralysis Has Etched Itself Into Our Culture
Not everyone's experience ends with terrifying visions and shortness of breath. Many people will experience the sensation of getting dragged or floated through the air (including Sean, who's had episodes in which he felt like he was getting dragged off this bed). This is often accompanied by muffled, unintelligible voices.
That's why many experts believe when Americans claim to have experienced an alien abduction, they are actually referring to a sleep paralysis episode. Meanwhile, in the West Indies, they called sleep paralysis kokma and believed it involved a ghost baby attacking the sleeper's throat while jumping on their chest. The Chinese called it gui ya, and believed a ghost sits on your chest assaulting you as you sleep. Everyone just attributes it to whatever mythology they have on hand.
You also see it turn up in famous works of art, like The Nightmare from Henry Fuseli, which demonstrates all the classic sleep paralysis tropes:
There's a woman on her back, a demon on her chest (making it hard to breathe), and shadowy figures in the background. We like to think he called the painting The Nightmare due to the dark horse in the background -- just because you have demons doesn't mean you can't enjoy a solid pun. Cory has also created paintings and music inspired by his hallucinations. They're about as calming and tranquil as you'd expect:
There Is No Easy Cure
So what in the hell do you do if this happens to you? Once an episode has started, not a whole lot. There is plenty of anecdotal advice on the internet to just try to relax (whereas attempting to fight the apparitions just increases your panic, since it's a fight you're obviously not going to win). Others insist you can break the paralysis by focusing on just one toe or finger, that if you get it to move, you'll "break the spell." One of our interviewees, Bill, says this isn't exactly easy.
"There is an overwhelming sense that I have to force myself to physically move or I will die, and any type of movement feels incredibly difficult. I usually try to start wiggling a toe or moving some other extremity, and it takes every ounce of strength I have to force myself to fully wake up and move, and if I stop putting forth constant effort I have to start all over again. If I know someone is near me I will try to call out to them to help, but usually only manage to mumble a few incoherent words."
The key is prevention. Most scientists believe people can manage it by maintaining a more consistent sleep schedule. As we mentioned earlier, sleep paralysis is usually a symptom of other problems. And if you ever needed motivation to get to bed on time, there you go: It'll keep the fucking monsters out of your room.
You can follow Mike Bedard on Twitter, because what else have you got to do right now? And if you want to stay up to date with the non-sleep paralysis part of Cory's life, follow him on Twitter @LoaGaze.
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