Sleep Paralysis: What Rapid Eye Movement and “Demons” Have in Common (Nothing)

Sleep Paralysis Affects More People Than You Think

Sleep Paralysis Affects More People Than You Think

When I was 17, my brain woke up from sleep but my body didn’t. I was experiencing sleep paralysis. To date, ten years later, it’s happened maybe ten-twelve more times, to varying degrees. It happened again last night, too. When I tell my friends what’s happened, most of them are horrified. I guess they should be.

I won’t forget the first time. I was stressed out—dealing with serious familial issues, studying night and day for the SAT tests and, you know, being a teenager. I was sleeping very little. I also worked almost 25 hours per week while going to school. Things were crazy. The day before my SAT exam I fell asleep while studying on a Sunday afternoon.The light fell into the room, making it warm and fuzzy, and I fell asleep in the supine position (face up). I awoke abruptly—at least my brain did—and opened my eyes wide.

I couldn’t move, I couldn’t talk, or even breath. I tried to cry out or scream but nothing happened. All I felt was an intangible darkness, as though someone, a shadowy figure, was moving over me or behind me, trying to keep me down.The next thing I remembered was the feeling of seeing all the rooms in my house at once, covered in a sort of colorful aura. It’s like I was outside looking in from the roof; my view was expansive and rich. I could see details as though my home was were drawn onto a blueprint or a snapped as a photograph.

When I woke from this sort of out-of-body experience (which in retrospect only seemed to last fifteen to thirty seconds) I sat straight up and wept as though I were grieving. All I could feel was the desire to cry and run out of the house. I shook involuntarily, and ran downstairs to see the house empty and typical; I was awake and not dreaming. I went out to the porch and gasped for air, needing to separate myself form whatever the hell was “in” my house.

What happened?!

Okay—before you ask: no, I didn’t use drugs. I wasn’t even smoking weed. When I researched it, I found myself trying to explain it to the search engine. I typed, “scary experience sleeping” and “paralyzed when I woke up,” and “dark force over me when I sleep.” It sounded insane even to me. Imagine Bella from Twilight researching vampires and tribes before realizing her beau was a blood-sucker. Totally ridiculous.

So, I am not and was not religious nor particularly spiritual or superstitious, so I knew I didn’t actually think something was in the room with me. I asked my mother about it later, tripping over my words. How do you even summarize that sort of experience? It was so bizarre and left-field, and I’d never had an out-of-body experience. I had meditated a few times and only felt itchy, distracted, bored and silly. Times have changed, but it takes discipline for me to meditate.

“Your father had that growing up,” she said, not missing a beat. She said it was sleep paralysis, as did the internet. In fact, if you Google sleep paralysis, something that would seem entirely based in science, WebMD’s main page reads, “Sleep Paralysis: Demon in the Bedroom.” Yeah, Demon. Apparently we’re living in the 16th century.

For now, the scientific breakdown is this:

Researchers aren’t sure why it happens, but they think it might have to do with a broken rapid eye movement (REM) cycle. When we’re asleep, our brain paralyzes our bodies so dream enactment doesn’t occur: we’re stopped from watering the garden, dancing or somehow breaking our legs. When someone experiences sleep paralysis, they are awake or semi-awake—and conscious, for the most part—but their bodies don’t get the memo. The body doesn’t respond.

Plus, more people experience sleep paralysis than you might think! About 25-50 percent of people have had an occurence, according to WebMD. Some doctors say it’s even higher. So what causes it? Our genes might be at fault, while anxiety and stress are also thought of as major culprits. According to one doctor, more females experience sleep paralysis than males do.

And new shot film and art project by Carla MacKinnon is being made to explore the experience too.

While these scientific theories seem to hold up for me, I admit being interested in the more dramatic ones: many people the world over believe sleep paralysis is a demon, succubus or some other dark force dragging them into the bed. Others believe this occurrence is linked to alien abduction. Lots of people experience hynogogic (pre or post sleep) hallucinations, like I did, seeing demons or “old hags.” Even sleep paralysis seems to be sexist!

I don’t believe these demons are trying to have sex with me (that’s a theory too, Google it), though I do appreciate the idea that a demon thought I was sexy enough to have sex with while my nose was buried in a math textbook.

If you’re experiencing it, doctors have a few suggestions: you might want to try avoiding sleeping face-up (the supine position), taking irregular naps and getting control over your stressors. Obviously, that last suggestion is almost impossible, but if you can cut down on what’s ailing you, try. I also realized over time that trying to break the ‘spell’ doesn’t work. Screaming and exerting mental energy toward moving doesn’t relieve you, but doctors have suggested moving a pinky or a toe, since the smaller muscles aren’t usually paralyzed. I learned to just accept the paralysis and it seems to go away. Usually I fall back into sleep.

If it seems like I’m making light of something really scary, I am. I find that’s a good way of getting over the dark, dramatic ‘demons’ in our lives.

 Photo: Getty Images
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    • Liz

      I’ve have sleep paralysis multiple times, and I knew what it was pretty early cause my father and older sister had both experienced before I had. I have only ever felt like something was happening to me one of the many times its happened. I felt like my arms and legs where going up, and I could hear my friends talking and Monty Python playing in the background– odd experience. Regardless, once I knew what it was I can kind of acknowledge that it is happening, while it occurs. I usually experience it the most when my sleep schedule is off, or I nap/fall asleep as you did the first time you’ve experienced it. The only time it really scares me is when I feel like I can’t breathe— which obviously isn’t true, your body is still in the sleep deep breathing cycle that we never experience while waking.

      I have always wondered if there is some connection between the type of ppl who experience it. I am generally a good sleeper, and remember my dreams nightly. I know some people rarely remember dreams– maybe there is something about my REM cycle that causes both dream remembrance and sleep paralysis?

      • Lisa Marie Basile

        Good question! I remember every dream, every night, vividly. I wonder, too. It’s such an interesting phenomenon. Thanks for writing :)

    • Lisbeth

      I completely empathise – I was not much older when I first experienced it – same phenomenon, same mad searching for the answer to my horrific, nocturnal WTF. Turning it into a boon: it’s a fairly easy leap from paralysis to lucid dreaming (and considered something of a gift among that particular crowd). And of course, controlling your dream, ie. awakening from within it, allows you the opportunity to do whatever you want.

      I consistently choose either wild, hair-pulling sex or wings. ;)

      Loved this post, btw.

    • kj

      Yeah, it’s happened to me too, just that the “evil presence” is more like fear that someone bad is going to come into my room, or that my door is open.

    • Whitney

      Interesting post. I have experienced this quite a few times, usually if I am napping (like you were the first time) or if I am jet-lagged and my sleep schedule is off. Sometimes it will happen multiple times in a week and then not for a year or so. It definitely happens less since I graduated ;).