Waking Terror

The Relief

Yesterday, I watched a documentary film called The Nightmare which presents people’s experiences with Sleep Paralysis. I cried almost the entire time from a mingled sense of fear and overwhelming relief. The fear was because listening to these stories reminded my body in a very real way of how it feels to actually have these experiences. The relief came from the knowledge that I am not alone.

I won’t pretend that this is the first time I have heard of Sleep Paralysis because it is not. However, all I knew of this condition was that your mind wakes up a bit before your body so you find yourself awake but unable to move for a short time. That is all I knew about it and I had no idea that there is more to it; I had no idea that the things I, and my family, have been going through can also be attributed to Sleep Paralysis.

The Science

According to medical science, sleep paralysis is closely related to REM atonia. This is a natural state of paralysis that occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep to prevent you from injuring yourself by physically acting out your dreams. Sleep paralysis is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep and is thought to be caused by a disruption of REM sleep. When it occurs upon falling asleep, the person remains aware while the body shuts down for REM sleep, a condition called hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis. When it occurs upon awakening, the person becomes aware before the REM cycle is complete, and it is called hypnopompic or postdormital sleep paralysis. The paralysis can last from several seconds to several minutes, with some rare cases being hours.

In order for an episode to be considered sleep paralysis, three symptoms must be present: being awake (this is an experience of waking consciousness, it is not a dream); having a realistic perception of your environment (usually observing distinctive elements surrounding the sufferer, such as a sleeping partner); and being unable to move (paralysis is one of the best known symptoms). These symptoms describe he most common experience of sleep paralysis. For many people, however, the experience is far more frightening.

The Intruder: Many people report sensing a presence in the room with them. This is almost always described as an ‘evil’ or ‘malevolent’ entity or being. These beings are commonly described as three-dimensional shadow men. Many people also speak of an entity known as the ‘Hat Man’. People also often report seeing black animals, especially cats. Whatever shape they take, these beings are often reported as having red eyes.

The Fear: Most sufferers will experience some sense of fear or foreboding (awake and unable to move, who wouldn’t), but many people report feeling such a strong sense of terror and dread that they find themselves completely unable to articulate its intensity.

The Inability to Breath: Many people report feeling as though a physical weight is being pressed down on their chest, inhibiting their ability to breath and giving a sense of suffocation.

The Out of Body Experience: Many sleep paralysis sufferers report the sensation of floating above their body.

Unusual Sensations: Sleep paralysis episodes are often accompanied by auditory, olfactory or physical hallucinations.  Those most commonly reported include doors opening, animals growling, screaming or crying, approaching footsteps, scratching, an internal buzzing noise, a tingling sensation, static electricity, malevolent whispering, smells of rotting flesh, ‘death’, decay, damp, mould and feelings of being moved, drifting, rolling, floating, cold or heat.

While sleep paralysis can be made worse by stress or exhaustion, scientists can not yet fully explain the whys and hows; however, they feel the symptoms are caused by various combinations of interrupted REM sleep; adrenalin (and the fight or flight response); muscle paralysis causing shallow breathing which then triggers the sufferer’s ‘threat vigilance system’;  the parts of the brain involved in coordinating movement and also working out where the body physically is in space messing up; and hypnagogic hallucination; which basically just boils down to a whole lot of fancy science-speak for ‘It’s all in your head’.

The Folklore

For many people, the explanations offered by science are inadequate. While believing the scientific explanation would make it so much easier to cope with the symptoms of sleep paralysis (that isn’t really a demon cat, it’s just my mind messing with me), anybody who has ever had these experiences will tell you that they feel as real as the device you are currently reading this on. It is not so easy to dismiss the shadow man as mere symptom when he is currently beside your bed reaching for your soul.

Visit any sleep paralysis forum and you will discover that most of the ‘symptoms’ described are discussed over and over and over again. These common experiences span all age groups, cultures and even centuries. Explained variously as hags, ghosts, demons, witches or succubi; the names may be different, but the experiences they describe are eerily similar.

My Family

One of the reasons The Nightmare affected me so profoundly is because I, and my family, have been very much affected by the phenomenon that is sleep paralysis. Two of my daughters tell me that they cannot recall ever experiencing sleep paralysis, but the rest of my family have felt its effects to some degree. Several years ago, my husband reported an incidence to me in which he had physical interactions with an invisible entity while awake but unable to move. My son has also had a small handful of experiences but has asked that they not be included in this blog. It is my middle daughter, as well as myself, that seem to be the worst affected, however, and we have both chosen to share some of our experiences, in our own words.


The past couple of days, I have come to find that sleep paralysis is actually quite common among many people. So here is a couple of sleep paralysis episodes which I have experienced…

The first episode I experienced was in a large house, built near some train tracks, I would wake up during the night and it would feel as if my bedroom light was on, brighter than usual and causing me a headache. I would try to sit up to turn out the light, assuming my big sister left it on when going to bed. But it felt as though my body was being pinned into my bed, preventing me from moving, my body would have a numb ache and I would try to scream for my parents, but my throat was tight and my mouth was dry, preventing me from making a sound. I would try to look out the window, as every time a train would pass by, I would frequently hear whispers hissing in a complicated sort of way, where I couldn’t make out what they were speaking about. I saw a 3D Shadow wander out through my closet and as it got closer, the heavier my chest felt and the harder it was to breathe. This shadow, would sort of loom over me and just stay there for a while, until it wandered back, crawling into my closet. I ran out of the room the moment I heard my mother going to bed, and I sat in her room waiting for her. The light was on so when she came in, my back was to her and all I could see was her shadow on the wall. It scared me half to death!

Another episode that happened was a few years later, when I was 12. I would lie down to fall asleep and my chest would immediately feel weighted. I fell asleep and re-awoke a few hours later with high ringing noise in my ears, my body felt tingly and heavy and I could not move. After the ringing would pass by I would here scratching and hissing coming from the walls. I started thinking about the last horror movie I had watched which certainly did not help my mental state in this situation. I felt a strong entity pulling me, and I pulled back, not wanting to give in to the presence. This Tug-of-War lasted for what felt like an eternity to which I finally gave in. I would here a scratchy voice mumbling in a barely audible voice, I would strain to hear it but could never make out the words. Once the old man stopped talking the scratching on the walls returned, only louder and the hissing sounding more urgent. Finally being able to move, I leapt out of bed and tried to wrench open my bedroom door, but it wouldn’t budge in my sweaty hands. I started screaming at a probably ear-splitting pitch and finally flung the door open, stumbling out of my room into my mum’s arms, on the verge of a panic attack.

I have had more episodes, but the last one affected me to the point of refusing to go into my bedroom alone at night. Sleep paralysis is no doubt the thing coming out of my boggart.


I have been experiencing bouts of sleep paralysis on and off since my early teens. Sometimes, it is nothing more than your classic OBE — a tingling vibration can be felt throughout my body, and I can feel my spiritual body beginning to separate from my physical body. It is generally just one part of my body. For example, I will find my foot sinking through the wood of the floor, down through the concrete, into the earth, even though I know my physical form is still where I am sleeping, unable to move. It is always only a part of my body, usually my leg or my arm. I don’t think I have ever had a full out of body experience.

Other times, though, my experiences have been far more frightening. I will sense a presence in the room with me and I will be absolutely terrified but unable to move or even speak. Once, when I was around fifteen, and again for a short while in my mid-twenties, I had a recurring ‘dream’ where I would wake up during the night, unable to move. I could feel an overwhelming pressure in my mind, as though some…thing…was trying to possess me. I knew instinctively that if it succeeded, I would suffer terribly so I fought with everything I had. During this struggle, time seemed to stretch, with a few minutes lasting an eternity.

Eventually, I could feel myself weakening and, just as this…whatever it was…was about to win, my ‘consciousness’ fled. It was like, one minute, I was in my head, fighting with everything I had, and the next minute I was ‘flying’ down a tunnel, leaving my physical body behind. Not the dark, ‘go towards the light’ type tunnel; more the kind of tunnel that leads to a cave, with stone walls, lit with the old-fashioned fire type torches. Anyway, I was fleeing down this tunnel and I could feel this thing chasing me and I was absolutely terrified of what would happen when it caught me — and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it would, I could feel it getting closer and closer.

After a while, I came to a cave containing a lake, or a pond of some sort. It was a dead-end and I could feel the thing coming to get me. I fled towards the far wall and I was batting against it like a fly on a window. All of a sudden, it was like I went through the cave wall and I was flying over the ocean. It was a beautiful sunny day and I could see two people in a row-boat. One was a man, maybe mid thirties. I have no idea who he was, but my ‘consciousness’ seemed to know him and seeing him filled me with an incredible sense of peace and safety. The other person in the boat I could not see clearly, but I floated down towards them and kind of ‘entered’ the other person and then the thing was gone. The man smiled and told me I was safe now and that it was gone (though he never said what ‘it’ was) and then I was back in my body, able to move and afraid to fall asleep again.

This happened every single night (and sometimes even in daylight) for several months before it suddenly stopped. I would like to stress that, despite how it sounds, this was not a dream. I was fully awake and aware the entire time, including the bit with the man in the boat. I have often wondered if my soul was so afraid that it fled to the astral plane and that man was some kind of higher being. I described this experience to Annie yesterday, after watching The Nightmare and she told me she has had this same exact ‘dream’.

The first instance of sleep paralysis I can recall happening to me was when I was around thirteen or fourteen. We lived at the bottom of a col-de-sac and my parents were attending a get-together at the house at the top of the col-de-sac, leaving my siblings and I at home in bed. During the night I awoke, unable to move. I could see adult sized shadows moving through the hallway outside my bedroom. At first, I thought my parents had come home and they looked like shadows because the hallway was bright and my room was dark. It didn’t take long before I realised I was wrong, when they began to enter my room. These beings were too thin and kind of stretched to be human and they did not have features. It was more like they were three-dimensional shadow people and, while I prefer not to bandy about terms like good and evil, these beings definitely felt malevolent, like they truly meant to harm me. In my child’s mind I decided that they were aliens come to kidnap me and I was absolutely terrified. After some time, I could hear my parents coming home and the shadow men disappeared. I started to cry and called out to my parents, but my dad told me it was just a dream and to stop acting like a baby.

That may be the first time I remember this happening to me, but I often wonder if perhaps it had been happening to me much earlier, because I remember as a young child, I had a very deep fear that the devil was coming to get me. I recall refusing outright to sleep alone and only ever felt truly safe in the bedroom of the teenage daughter of a family friend. I had no reason I can think of for this fear. My family wasn’t religious. We didn’t attend church. Nobody had been preaching fire and brimstone to me. I had no reason to even know what the devil was, yet I was completely convinced that he was coming for me. Perhaps I had some early episodes of sleep paralysis that I have since forgotten?

I do not know if these are symptoms of my mind, like the doctors say, or if they are real entities. They certainly feel real and they do not feel like creatures of the light. When they are nearby, I can feel a sense of oppressive malevolence and an overwhelming sense of fear. Anyone who has shared my experiences will immediately recognise how I felt. It is impossible to describe how utterly complete the sense of terror and horror I feel is to someone who has not felt it for themselves. No-one who has not felt it can ever truly understand that bone-chilling terror and there are simply no words in the English language that are adequate to describe its intensity.

I do know that if this never happens to me again, it will be too soon.

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