So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o’er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder’d maid with sleep oppress’d,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.
— “Night-Mare,” Erasmus Darwin, b. 1731
You wake up in the dark, the night crackling around you like a TV on a nonexistent channel. It’s harder to see than it should be — and what’s that sound? The static, again. It’s audible. By now you’re getting a little scared; your eyes aren’t adjusting at all and you’re becoming certain you’re not alone, something is in here with you, maybe a few feet from the bed? There. A dark shape, and a feeling in your chest more visceral than anything you’ve experienced, a fight-or-flight response like no other. Only you can’t move. At all.
This is sleep paralysis, and it’s as unnerving as it sounds.
Though studied for only several decades, the phenomenon of audio-visual hallucinations we call sleep paralysis dates much further back, weaving in and out of visual art, literature, and folktales throughout history. As you might expect, immobility and hallucinations occurring only at night were often attributed to the supernatural. Demons, aliens, angels, and your run-of-the-mill creepy old woman have been accused of inciting this state in its unwilling participant, depending on “your cultural background and level of fear,” as Ryan Hurd puts it in his essay, “Sleep Paralysis Visions: Demons, Succubi, and the Archetypal Mind.”
As our minds attempt to understand what’s happening, we conjure the supernatural — or that’s the theory, anyway. Sleep paralysis has a whole checklist of symptoms ranging from annoying noises to total out-of-body experiences, and you don’t necessarily experience all of them in each episode, or ever. The “intruder” or “demon” remains the most oft-cited of the lot, perhaps because that’s the one which takes the sensation from a simple bad dream to something unforgettably petrifying. Your body feels paralyzed because it literally is: REM sleep induces a state of immobility and an episode of sleep paralysis occurs when wakefulness and REM overlap. It’s a parasomnia, a disorder associated with that liminal space twixt dreams and reality. Your mind has turned on, your eyes dart left and right, but your body remains utterly frozen as darkness closes in, leaving you not only vulnerable but watched.
4 out of 10 people claim to have had sleep paralysis, though it’s difficult to tell whether this number is under- or over-reported. Without proper terminology to guide you, a trip to the doctor’s office with symptoms of demons and hallucinations could end with a diagnosis of something closer to schizophrenia, assuming you’re even taken seriously. On the other hand, most people experience sleep paralysis only a few times in their life; seeking medical intervention makes it likely that the patient has a particularly severe case, where the half-asleep half-awake terror world extends its grasp far beyond the early morning to wreak havoc on their daily life. (Some such cases are described in the 2015 movie The Nightmare.)
My dance with this devil, almost a decade before I first heard the term “sleep paralysis,” began when I was 18. In reading the few available studies on the subject, I’ve found this onset age to be common. Though some people exhibit sleep disorders as very young children or continue to experience them as adults, there seems to be a sweet spot in the late teens and early twenties, perhaps as school-related stress and erratic sleep schedules converge to create a perfect storm of godawful sleep hygiene. Another interesting theory blames geological anomalies, with Jorge Conesa-Sevilla pointing out that,“cultures living in the Ring of Fire, the geomagnetically unstable areas of Central America, the Pacific Coast of the US, Southern Alaska, Hawaii, and Indonesia, have a much more developed vocabulary for sleep paralysis and its accompanying hallucinations than anywhere else in the world.”
“Developed vocabulary?” you ask. OH, YES. In addition to the ubiquitous “night hag” and “incubus,” sleep paralysis is alternately called “ghost pressing on body” (China), “crushing demon” (Hmong culture of South East Asia), “held down by the ghost” (Vietnam), “witches’ pressure” (Hungary), “bound in metal” (Japan), and the somewhat sweet-sounding “elf pressing” (Germany) — sweet, that is, until you realize these elves are less Galadriel and more Gollum. The translation of “elf” from German “Alp” evokes the word’s more modern meaning; originally, “Alp” referred to a mythological being closer to what we call a goblin and remains in German only in the compound words for “sleep paralysis” and “nightmare.” Finland ends our etymological tour of terror on an optimistic note, with the Finnish word for “nightmare” being formed from the verb “to press/push,” and a diminutive suffix. So it’s only a little demon, at least. No big deal. It can always be worse.
So how can you arm yourself against these freaky sleep-crushers? Doctors suggest maintaining a full and consistent sleep schedule and avoiding sleeping on one’s back. People who do experience sleep paralysis tend to test positive for things like anxiety and paranoia (I’m imagining a strip like those used for pregnancy tests: YOU’RE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK) but ultimately it’s not clear whether anxiety triggers sleep paralysis or people with sleep paralysis are, as a result, anxious. Gender is no help either, for those firmly lodged in the binary: in sleep studies, both male and female subjects reported occurrences of sleep paralysis at similar rates, though generally women have more nightmares. Something as yet untested but incredibly fascinating to me is the perceived gender of the “intruder” — most biographical accounts from the last ten years describe a male intruder, but historically the beings often presented as female, especially in cultures with proclivities towards accusing women of witchcraft. There’s also a potential link between sleep paralysis and witchcraft-related phenomena like poltergeists, with both focusing their attention on adolescents.
I’m curious how those statistics might slowly shift and change. Will advances in both science (“Probably not a demon!”) and communication (“That happens to me, too!”) alter the archetypes we draw from to explain things like sleep paralysis? Will that, in turn, cause the condition itself to transform? It seems possible: it’s now frequently offered as an explanation for alien abductions, which are basically the demonic possessions of the twentieth century. And there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting paralytic episodes often decrease in frequency. In the years since I learned my spooky nighttime issues were a somewhat-scientifically-explained condition and not some kind of personal psychosis, I’ve had sleep paralysis only three or four times — and never felt the profound terror of my earlier episodes.
Another possibility is that sleep paralysis functions like a meme in the original sense of the word: a unit of cultural information, spread like a virus. This kind of sleep paralysis is more analogous to an extra-creepy cold than a fringe medical condition. Anna Schegoleva’s essay “Sleepless in Japan: the kanashibari phenomenon” details her own studies on the attitudes of Japanese schoolchildren towards sleep paralysis:
Some informants even say that the first time they got kanashibari was after watching a TV programme with a detailed explanation of the experiences […] the mass media actively participate in the formation of popular attitudes toward kanashibari and even influence the manner in which kanashibari happens to sufferers.
Writing about sleep paralysis is cathartic for me and the other people who lived through it before the days of Wikipedia, certainly. But what if the writing only serves to spread the condition further, like a cursed video tape? Have WebMD and creepypasta assuaged our fears, or amplified them? I suppose it’s up to the individual, but what I find to be the most paralyzing–pun intended–is always the strange and inexplicable. “Better the devil you know” is a phrase for a reason, after all. Good luck tonight.