Waking Nightmares: Yes, It’s a Thing by Lorraine Sharma Nelson

The very idea of a waking nightmare sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? Being awake, yet experiencing something that should only be experienced in your deepest slumber? Something that belongs only in the nightmare realm?

Yet, for Dr. Leena Rai, a staff paleontologist at New York City’s Natural History Museum, waking nightmares are real. So real, in fact, that she hardly knows when real life ends and her nightmares begin. You see, Leena is caught in a liminal state (which also happens to be the title of my story, but I digress).

What is a liminal state or space? According to psychologytoday.com, liminal comes from the Latin word, limens, meaning ‘Threshold.’ To further extrapolate, courtesy of the author, Richard Rohr: it is “where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.” In other words, it is a place of transition.

I took the basic concept of a liminal space and expanded it to include the world just beyond ours, where one goes when one falls asleep. Specifically, where you go when nightmares take hold, gripping you so completely you believe, unequivocally, that it is actually happening.

Except in Leena’s case, it is actually happening.

Welcome to a liminal state.

For Leena, things get a tad out of hand. At first the nightmares are disturbing. Then things start to get really strange. She finds herself being pulled into this liminal state at different times of the day and night, with no control over when and where it happens.

Okay, so that’s just a story. But what about the real world? Do people experience anything like what Leena does? Well, maybe they don’t get sucked into a strange portal leading into a nightmare dimension as she does, but people–millions of people around the world–have reported waking nightmares. Or, as they’re more commonly referred to: sleep paralysis.

So, what exactly is sleep paralysis?

An article on psychologytoday.com, entitled “Sleep Paralysis: A glitch in the sleep-wake switch,”  (09/20/14), describes it as follows: “You stumble into consciousness from a foggy dream, staring at the black of your eyelids–a sliver of light crawls through the legs of your lashes. Your eyes rattle with resistance as you strain to pry them open. You cannot move and your chest is sinking under a thick pressure. You sense a malevolent shadow moving in your periphery, watching, approaching. You try to scream but barely a whimper escapes.”

Just reading this makes me feel claustrophobic. Mostly, because I’ve been there. I still break out in a cold sweat when I recall that terrifying feeling of being awake and yet knowing I was still trapped in a dream. I struggled to move but was paralyzed, and each time I thought I’d broken through the nightmare to wake up, I realized I was still trapped in that dreamlike state. I remember trying to scream for my husband to help me, but I couldn’t open my mouth. Couldn’t utter a sound.

Let me be clear when I say I never want to experience that again. Ever.

The same article clarifies this phenomenon as a state “where a person awakens from sleep to find they are unable to move or speak. It often occurs during transitions from REM sleep, a paradoxical sleep stage where vivid dreams are coupled with complete muscle paralysis, to inhibit the body from acting out dreams. During sleep paralysis, the mind awakens from REM sleep before the body paralysis has subsided. This creates a terrifying experience: awakening in the darkness, helpless and paralyzed, and you cannot scream or fully open your eyes.” (Sleep Paralysis: A glitch in the sleep-wake switch.)

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, right?

All kidding aside, waking nightmares, or sleep paralyses, are very real. And by real, I mean that people do experience them in that delicate state just before awakening fully. But awaken you do, and as unsettled as you may feel after having experienced something like that, you take comfort in the knowledge that it can’t haunt you in your waking life. That the dream world will remain just that – a dream world.

As for Dr. Leena Rai? Well, she doesn’t have that reassurance. In her world, her waking life and her waking nightmares are about to collide. And if she doesn’t find a way to conquer that liminal state, she risks being trapped in it with no way out.



 Lorraine grew up globally, constantly having to adapt to different cultures. Writing was her escape from the reality of always being the new girl in school. These days she writes for the pure joy of creating new stories instead of escapism. Her short stories have been published in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and mystery/crime anthologies, and usually feature an Indian protagonist.

Find her on Twitter, on Instagram, on Goodreads, and at her website.


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Featured image “Nightmares” (C) Jeremiah Morelli



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