Sleep Paralysis: When Nightmares Come to Life
More Than a Nightmare
Our bodies are amazing creations that possess abilities we cannot begin to fully understand. Take sleep for instance. This is a built-in mechanism that allows us to regenerate cells while we lie blissfully unaware of the processes at work.
While our bodies are being repaired, we are relieved of our stresses in the form of dreams. They may carry us to far away lands or allow us to fly. That is, if we are among the fortunate ones who are allowed the luxury of restful sleep.
Normally, we experience our most intense dreams during the period of sleep known as "REM" or "rapid eye movement." This is when we are in a deep state of unconsciousness, yet our minds are a flurry of activity. During this time, our body's defense mechanism paralyzes us so that we cannot act out the events occurring in our dreams.
Sleep paralysis takes place when we wake up during this time of deep sleep. When this occurs, the body doesn't realize that the mind is no longer at rest. As a result, the sleeping person can see and hear everything around them, but they are powerless to move. The very paralysis that is meant to protect the individual becomes their prison as horrifying acts play out around them.
My first experience with probable sleep paralysis occurred when I was a child. My family was staying at my grandmother's house in the country at the time of my terrifying encounter with something in the night.
My mother told me after the fact that I had awakened during the night and screamed that something was after me. I remember lying in the dark room and seeing lights flashing all around me. I lay glued to the bed as the room spun at a dizzying speed. There is no telling how long the waking nightmare lasted before I finally was able to call out to my mother for help.
Since anyone who had ever spent time at my grandmother's house thought it to be haunted, I always assumed that the attack had been perpetrated by the spirits who had infested the house. Upon learning about sleep paralysis, it seemed a possible explanation for what I had experienced.
Years later, I once again fell victim to disturbances that seemed to point to sleep paralysis as the culprit. These events occurred at the home that I shared with my husband when we were first married. It was during this time that I was introduced to a lesser known aspect of sleep paralysis called "exploding head syndrome."
I can't pinpoint when it began, but I do know that the sound of something akin to a gunshot going off inside my head occurred in my sleep on numerous occasions over the course of several months. When this happened, I would be jolted awake by a thunder clap that only I could hear.
It is impossible to describe how loud and frightening the sound is to the sufferer. It was so real to me that I feared that I may have suffered an aneurism. After the first few times, I came to the realization that this was not a physical problem. Something I didn't understand at the time was happening to me when my body should have been fast asleep. I know now that this scary event is a lesser known aspect of sleep paralysis.
Ironically, the house we were living in when my exploding head syndrome was in full force was also thought to be haunted. It was there that my young daughter was so traumatized by something that invaded her room at night that I was forced to sleep in the floor beside her crib. This is also when I, once again, began to experience the spinning room and flashing lights that had so terrified me decades earlier at my grandmother's house.
I don't know to this day if my night terrors and exploding head syndrome were a result of paranormal activity or sleep paralysis. Perhaps, somehow, the two things fed off of each other. In any event, when we moved to a new house in a different town the nightly onslaught came to an abrupt halt. Since our move, I have not had a single episode that even remotely resembles sleep paralysis.
It Comes at Night
I have written extensively on the subject of sleep paralysis in the past, not realizing that others in my extended family have also been touched by this frightening occurrence. One of my cousins contacted me after reading a book that I had published on the condition. He wanted to share with me the story of his lifelong struggle with sleep paralysis. The experiences he revealed were the stuff of nightmares.
The cousin in question asked that I not use his real name in this article so I will refer to him as "Mark." I always liked Mark, although I can't say that we were close growing up. Our families lived on opposite sides of the state of West Virginia making geography our enemy. Still, we usually got together every summer for reunions.
Mark was always the cousin who stood out in a crowd. He was tall and lanky with a head covered in long, wavy hair, but what made him unique was his brilliant mind. Although he was not an outstanding student or scholar, he was blessed with an intelligence that mystified nearly everyone around him.
Mark just seemed to know things that other people didn't. He remembered everything he read, saw and heard. He was a human sponge who absorbed information like no other I had ever seen. He read incessantly and could emote on any subject without hesitation. He wasn't a know-it-all per se, he was simply someone who possessed an above average intelligence.
Mark's struggle with sleep paralysis apparently began when he was a small child. He says that he cannot remember a time when he wasn't terrorized in his sleep by something that he thought for years was sent to take his soul. The thing that he refers to as a "demon" is common to sufferers of sleep paralysis. There is even a name given to this formidable creature: the night hag.
The details of his earliest encounters with the night hag have faded from Mark's memory. He does, however, recall having terrible nightmares in which a monster was trying to smother or choke him. These dreams followed him throughout his teenage years and into adulthood with little to no variations.
Mark recalls the night terrors being so violent and horrifying that, at times, he would wet his bed. Even as an adult, he would sometimes wake to find the sheets soaked. This is not the first time that this reaction has been reported. A few of the sleep paralysis victims who contacted me regarding their experiences also confessed to losing control of their body functions during their ordeals.
Even though sleep paralysis has tormented Mark on and off since he can remember, he asserts that the worst time for him had been when he was in his late teens and early twenties. Perhaps the stress of reaching adulthood and finding his way in life contributed to the severity of the incidents during this time. Mark certainly thinks so.
When asked to describe a typical episode, Mark says that they all begin and end in almost the same way. He settles into bed and falls asleep with little effort. During the night, he will awaken to the presence of a dark figure in the room. Sometimes it will start out as a shadow that slowly takes the form of a witch-like entity. At other times, the figure is fully formed and only inches away from his face when he opens his eyes.
Mark says that he is completely helpless throughout the encounter. He cannot move his arms, legs or head. He's not even sure if he can blink. He does know that his eyes are open and that he can see everything going on in front of him. Mark also claims that his sense of smell is fully active. He reports that the scent of something burning is one that is most often present.
Whether the hag is across the room or nearby when Mark first becomes aware of its presence, the creature always ends up on the bed with him. He says that he can do nothing as the hag hovers over him, its face almost touching his own.
Mark recounts that the night hag seems to be trying to suck the air from his nose and mouth as it rests its face near his. The being also presses down hard on his chest as though attempting to force the last bit of air out of his lungs. Mark says that in his mind he is struggling to free himself, but his body doesn't cooperate.
Although this scenario has played itself out hundreds of times for Mark, he still fears that he will die each and every time that the night hag visits. He doesn't know if the power of his mind causes the attack to end or if the feeling of losing his last bit of oxygen snaps him back into reality. All he can say is that he wakes up shaken and out of breath. The fear remains with him for hours after the daylight frees him.
For reasons he cannot explain, Mark has never had a sleep paralysis incident when the sun was up, although others have. Even when he worked third shift and had to sleep all day, he never once experienced an episode.
Mark is now in his fifties and still has the occasional encounter with the night hag. He says that the events are few and far between, but they remain intensely disturbing. It's not as bad as it used to be, but for him the struggle for sleep continues.
Where the Truth Lies
Most people who have experienced the terror of sleep paralysis, find it hard to believe that the thing that torments them is only a trick of the mind. Mark, who possesses a greater understanding of the world than most, still can't completely accept that the night hag is a symptom of sleep paralysis and nothing more. For him, and others like him, the creature that threatens to take their very essence is quite real.
One common explanation for the shared phenomenon of the night hag is that it is the mind's way of dealing with the unnatural occurrence of being partially awake while still in a dream state. Since the body and mind are no longer in sync, the victim conjures up this creature that is pressing down upon them in order to explain the fact that they are awake, but unable to move.
This entire occurrence is something that we are not meant to be aware of, but rather our body's way of protecting us from harm during dreams and nightmares. The flaw is only revealed if one happens to wake up during the process. In this event, quite literally, all Hell breaks loose.
Some people have overcome their sleep paralysis with therapy and medication. Others claim that they can end the nightmare by convincing themselves that it is only their imagination. For people like Mark, the events don't end although they do fade over time.
So, whether the night hag is born in the minds of the sufferers of sleep paralysis or something real that we dare not speak of, the nightmare is ongoing for those around us who are victims of the night. For them, a good night's sleep is something that exists only in fairy tales.