It isn’t exactly unheard of. You wake up in the small hours of the night, unable to move or vocalize, and sense a ‘presence’ or witness something crouched on your chest. You strain to move your muscles, even if it’s just curling a finger and whimper, all the while feeling a wave of malice encroach. Or maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s likely the latter.
Unlike night terrors or good ole somnambulism, sleep paralysis isn’t the most widely reported sleep disorder, although a good number of people experience it at least a handful of times. I doubt I’m wrong in saying it has existed for as long as human beings have known sleep and has been the basis of folklore worldover.
I was in my early twenties when I had an episode of sleep paralysis for the first time. Needless to say I was more than shaken up. And like anyone living in the smartphone age, I fired up Google, and Google didn’t disappoint. One of the articles I read on the subject described it as ‘run to your momma scary,’ and I think that ought to be a part of the technical description, because it’s exactly that. In a nutshell, it occurs when you awake during REM sleep, lying on the cusp of wakefulness and dreams, aware but immobile. Despite now having an insight into the neuroscience behind the phenomenon, some are still of the opinion that it’s a result of supernatural forces, whether it’s hauntings, devils, or alien abductions. Something for everyone! Is it a danger to one’s health? No, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
What’s terrifying isn’t simply the loss of mobility but the accompanying hallucinations, ranging from surreal happenings, sensing a malicious presence in the room to out-of-body experiences or feeling the crushing weight of a demon or hag-like figure on your chest. This last is the subject of Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, which depicts a woman lolling off a bed and a grimacing demon perched on her abdomen, and poking from between the drapes in the background is a horse’s head, its eyes domes of white. This picture has sort of become the unofficial poster for sleep paralysis.
The phenomenon has been recorded widely and has likewise inspired other works of art, and mention of it can be found in literature, as well. Namely in Guy de Maupassant’s brilliant short story “The Horla” in which a man believes he’s being choked by an invisible presence in his room. In his second novel, The Beautiful and The Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly depicts an instance of sleep paralysis, describing Gloria in “a state half-way between sleeping and waking” wanting to “rid herself of a weight pressing down upon her breast.” It’s also famously referenced in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
In my own short story, “I Dream of Desirée” in Transcendent, a scene towards the end was inspired by a SP episode I had just days away from finishing it. I didn’t replicate it moment for moment, but a lot of it made it into the story, and it dovetailed neatly.
While sleep paralysis remains the reason behind a host of unpleasant things, it’s also something I find myself intrigued by. The idea of a collective unconscious as outlined by Carl Jung appeals to me, and it’s fascinating to think that across hundreds of years and various isolated cultures, certain archetypes when it comes to fear (The Intruder, The Night Hag, The Demon, The Phantom) have remained a constant, emerging from the cavern of our unconscious during hypnagogic hallucinations. What peeves me is branding them as manifestations of external forces. Because despite how terrifying they may seem in the moment, at the end of the day they’re nothing more than brain mists. Nothing to lose sleep over.
When you get ready to turn in for the night, though, it’s always a good idea to keep your feet tucked inside the covers. I’m not saying there’s something under your bed. But, you know, just for safesies.
Rohit Sawant’s fiction is forthcoming in Weirdbook Magazine and has been featured in the anthologies On Fire, Down with the Fallen, Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of H.G. Wells and elsewhere. He lives in Mumbai, India. Enjoys sketching, films, and his favorite Batman is Kevin Conroy.