Sleep Paralysis

Sleep Paralysis November 21, 2007

I was lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep very early one morning and heard a sound at the door of my bedroom. I couldn’t quite make out what it was but as I lived in a shared student flat and we often did pranks on each other I assumed it was my flatmates messing around so I lay there still for a moment to see what they were up to.

I tried to move my arm a little and realised I couldn’t, I was completely unable to move except for breathing and blinking, I could not even speak. It’s frightening enough waking up paralysed but what was worse was that the sound by my door was, for a reason I can’t really describe, becoming increasingly ominous and also moving closer towards me.

It sounded like a shuffling sound and I could hear breathing. By now I was completely terrified, I was lying on my side desperately trying to move any part of my body even my face muscles or to produce some sort of vocal sound but I was failing as this figure was slowly moving towards me.

The figure seemed to stop moving just outside of my visual field but very close to my head, I could almost feel breathing on my face. Then a very clear voice, which sounded like an old woman but quite high pitched and slow, said “hello” into my ear. I immediately came out of the paralysis and practically jumped out of bed. There was of course no one else in the room but the experience was terrifying.

This experience is called sleep paralysis and is supposed to be quite common but people rarely talk about it thinking that it was either a simple dream (which it partly is) or that if they mention it people will think they are crazy. Luckily I had heard of this phenomenom before this happened, which is one time I have been very grateful for having a good knowledge of the unusual, if I hadn’t known about this I can’t imagine what I would have thought.

Sleep paralysis occurs because our bodies self-paralyse while dreaming in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams, at times during the stages between sleep and wakefulness this mechanism can go slightly awry resulting in being conscious, paralysed and dreaming all at the same time. I’m not sure why, but it is often associated with the feeling that there is a presence in the room, possibly due to the vulnerable feeling you have from being paralysed. My experience was quite mild really, commonly people see a figure climb on top of them and attack them.

Because it is a common and natural occurrence it has been reported throughout many cultures. Whatever that culture fears tends to be projected to the hallucination, people from cultures that fear witches see a witch, if they fear spirits they see a spirit. Christian cultures have identified it with both Lillith (the first wife of Adam, who was cast out of Eden for not taking her subordinate position under Adam) and the souls of unbaptised babies (roll up, roll up get your babies baptised). Nowadays it is thought to be responsible for alien abduction reports: science fiction replacing religion.

Sleep paralysis is an interesting example of how the mind on its own can generate extraordinary experiences which people can, quite understandably, attribute to the supernatural. However, understanding the scientific explanation can be, for one, very relieving but also hints at the power and strangeness of the human brain.

Browse Our Archives