Sleep paralysis, a nightmarish disorder that affects at least 20 percent of the population, strikes without warning or discrimination. During an episode, a sufferer is aware of his or her surroundings but completely immobile. As they lay frozen, fanged demons, ink-eyed witches or other fearsome apparations slink over from darkened corners. The presences torment sufferers, many of whom report similar sightings of creatures, and this worldwide commonality has given the disorder a rather terrifying legacy.
In truth, being immobilized during sleep is a completely natural part of the act itself: our brain freezes our body so that we don't act out our dreams. During episodes of sleep paralysis, however, something is off: The chemicals from our brainstem keep us frozen, but we remain aware of our surroundings. As the brain struggles to reconcile the body’s immobility with its own continued activity, our imagination goes into overdrive.
Regardless of scientific reasoning, the state is still understudied and quite terrifying for those who are afflicted. That's why we asked seven people to share their stories, which involve everything from alien sightings to animal attacks. While each is specific to the sufferer, all have common threads running through them. Regardless of the content, one thing is certain: each experience is profound enough to shape a person's life.
Area: Calgary, Canada
I have sleep paralysis at least twice a week. Most nights are uneventful — I wake up unable to move, pull myself out of it, and try to force myself to stay awake for at least five minutes. If I don't, I'll immediately go right back into paralysis and that cycle will repeat itself until my body is too tired to play games.
Other times aren't so easy. A recurring vision of mine was an alien abduction. Hyper-realistic and always terrifying. I can always tell when it's starting because my room gets incredibly cold and everything grows silent. I open my eyes. I'm in a white room. Blue, faceless, ovals poke and prod until I pass out. Once, they paid special attention to my wrist. When I woke up the next day, I found a bump in my arm. Probably a coincidence, but I'm too afraid to check.
Area: Albuquerque, New Mexico
I was hospitalized several times at around 18 months with severe respiratory infections. I don't know whether this had any bearing on the sleep paralysis, but I mention this because I was often sick as a child, and the first episodes I remember were when I was sick around age three. From then on, I experienced sleep paralysis occasionally, but it really peaked in my teenage years. It was around this period that the frequency and intensity, for lack of a better word, of the episodes really started increasing.
I've experienced visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. Open-eye visuals are least common, but they do happen. I've seen my body falsely reposition or move; objects hovering over my bed, the funniest being a gigantic teddy bear and a sewing machine; and my visual field painted with strange colors, shadows, or “effects” — for example, something like a cheesy film grain photoshop filter.
I've heard every range of sounds, bur the most common sensations are the tactile ones. It's what I can only describe as a pulsing electrical-like sensation moving in waves over my body — with buzzing, humming, or ringing in my ears rising and falling at the same frequency.
I know a lot of people describe a sense that someone else is in the room with them. When I was young I'd experience this, but that isn't really what I'd call a defining characteristic of my sleep paralysis today. When I was younger the sleep paralysis definitely caused terror, and I think this is what essentially causes the feeling of being not-alone that so many people describe. After having experienced it so many times, however, I know what to expect. And although sleep paralysis is always unsettling, the fear definitely isn't what I used to feel.
A typical episode will last 20-40 seconds, although the longest lasted 70 seconds. It always happens as I'm falling asleep. Sometimes it'll happen after a few minutes of lying down, other times it hits right as I close my eyes. Normally, but not always, I'll feel the pulsing sensation I describe above.
I can control my eyes and my breathing while I'm “under.” I try to breathe quite deeply and quickly during an episode — my significant other tells me it's annoying — because it seems to make the paralysis come to an end more quickly. Whether this is actually true or not, I don't know. At any rate, it keeps me focused and gives me something to concentrate on other than fear or panic.
The paralysis ends pretty suddenly, with me regaining control over my body at a single moment, as though a switch has been flipped. This will happen several times a night on nights that it does happen, with one episode beginning on the heels of the previous one, often as soon as I close my eyes and get comfortable again. More than anything it's frustrating because I just want to get to sleep: Every attack delays sleep by a few minutes.
Area: New York
I saw glowing red eyes at the foot of my bed, which turned out to be a mutated-looking black dog. At first it was barking and growling really close to my feet; I soon noticed it wasn't alone and a bunch of them started biting and gnawing on me, particularly my feet. They ripped off a couple chunks before I kind of blacked out and woke up. When I woke up, I got a second shock. I saw what looked like two glowing red eyes, but then I quickly realized it was just the LED lights from an air purifier in my room.
Another time I woke up in my room, on my back, but I felt scared and could feel something on my go into me. I felt like it had possessed me. I felt hands and feet slide under my skin and slide along my hands and feet until they were completely covered. I even felt like what was a person pressing his chest against my back, his head was leaning in over my left shoulder, pressed against my face. I woke up when it felt like the head was going into my head.
When I was little, sleep paralysis was the scariest thing ever. As I grew up and I experienced it more often, it's become simply an annoying hassle. I used to just keep trying to move until I managed to break free and wake up; since I have enough awareness to think a bit during sleep paralysis, I've experimented. Now my preferred method to breaking free is to keep breathing out until my body forces me to take a deep breath, which wakes me up. I've noticed that most of the time when I wake up, I'm usually on my back. But every once in a while, I find myself waking up on my stomach.
The position I'm in when I go to sleep seems to affect how likely I am to experience sleep paralysis. Being on my back or stomach greatly increases the chances, so I tend to sleep on my side now. Now, sleep paralysis much more rare for me. I've noticed that I never get paralysis in the middle of the night. It's always in the really early hours of the morning — when it's still dark and people in my neighborhood are leaving to go to work.
My most frightening episode happened a few months ago. I had just gotten home from breakfast with a friend, and I decided to take a nap before work. I fell asleep awkwardly on the couch with a full outfit on and, if I remember correctly, I slept on my side. After about an hour, I felt myself falling in and out of consciousness. I was trying to wake up but my body would not let me. I began to panic.
It feels like pressure on my head and upper body — it's very uncomfortable and honestly almost hurts. I can always hear the sound of air that gets louder as I'm falling back into paralysis. Like a fan is on and it's getting closer to my head. On this particular occasion, I was downstairs and I thought I could hear footsteps upstairs, even though I was alone.
I began to hallucinate when I was in between being awake and asleep. At one point I thought I surely saw a small white dog walk in front of the couch. I slept facing the fireplace and I thought I could see various images in the glass. One was a demonic face, another was the reflection of my sister sitting at the table in front of me and another was of a person just standing. At one point, I even sat completely up on the couch trying to fight it and stay awake, only to basically pass out and fall back over asleep.
The paralysis lasted for what felt like about thirty minutes and I ended up falling completely back into deep sleep. I woke up feeling exhausted and sore with a throbbing headache. That experience was the longest and most terrifying that I have had so far.
I haven't had any that severe since. My episodes are usually quite brief, and I try to keep myself calm so I won’t hallucinate. I calmly wiggle my toes and slowly try to move until I am awake.
Area: New Jersey
It never happened often, but when it did, it was always vivid.
The one time I remember most was when I had opened my eyes and it felt like there was a person — a woman specifically — lying next to me. She didn't make any noise, just kind of kept moving, and at one point I felt her crawl over the top of my body.
I couldn't see her, so I had to pretty much imagine what she looked like. And when you're left to your imagination, things get pretty scary. So I was absolutely terrified of this woman getting ready to kill me, but of course, I couldn't move. I was ten times as scared because, you know, someone's in your bed trying to murder you and you can't move, scream, or even turn your head away.
The thing is, though, for some reason I always knew how to get out of it. In the moment, it never would have occurred to me that I was just suffering through a sleep paralysis episode. But I always managed to get myself out of it by blinking rapidly and aggressively. I don't know why it works for me, but it somehow snaps my brain out of it and I can "wake up."
Another time it happened, I had fallen asleep with the television on. This time I had opened my eyes and was hearing this awful, horrible screeching noise coming from the TV, and I even remember the image of the screen being gray static. But, when I woke myself up — again, by blinking a lot —a normal show was on. My TV doesn't even get static; I have FiOs.
It always feels like it's really happening. I used to really want to try lucid dreaming, and one of the ways someone could do it, as I had found online, was going into sleep paralysis, then just closing your eyes. I could never do it because I'm always getting "murdered" in my hallucinations.
Aside from my hallucinations, the physical feeling of it was scary enough. The only thing I could consciously move were my eyes. I couldn't turn my head, flex my hands or fingers, nothing. Couldn't even make noise from my throat.
Area: United Kingdom
I've experienced sleep paralysis countless times. It started in my early teens, and although I can't remember the initial incident specifically, I do remember researching it online and reading about sleep paralysis for the first time. Not much has changed about the experience itself over the years, but it has occurred with more regularity since about the age of 19 or so.
It happens when I'm drifting off to sleep: Instead of descending into unconsciousness, I'll feel my heart start to race and the inability to move sweep over me. I'll hear my heart beating loudly in my ears, often accompanied by an intense buzzing sound and feeling. As soon as I realize what's happening, I always attempt to snap out of it, and it generally only takes a few seconds to do. While I try and force myself to move, my head will start to shake uncontrollably, and — according to my girlfriend — it looks like I'm having a fit. Similarly, I've often tried to speak or yell out, but apparently it just sounds like gibberish.
That's the basic gist. It might be partly due to having experienced it so many times, but I've never felt particularly scared either during or afterwards. The heart racing does concern me somewhat, and it's because of this that I've never really allowed the paralysis to run its full course, despite how curious I am to see what happens.
I've read a lot about other people's experiences and the various sights they see, and although I've kinda seen things on the odd occasion, it's never been anything particularly memorable — just dark shapes. I do sometimes feel a kind of “impending doom” sensation, as if something is getting closer to me, but that only tends to happen if the paralysis lasts a bit longer than usual. My heart rate is fine when I wake up, so I'm not entirely sure how much of it is actually a reality.
Area: Newfoundland, Canada
The first time I experienced sleep paralysis, I was about 16. I remember “waking up,” meaning I became lucid. I was aware that I was in my bedroom, but I was hallucinating sounds and colors. Nothing in particular — just vibrating ambient sound — but it was all I could hear. The visual hallucinations were in the form of colors, what I can only describe as electric light.
I honestly believed I had just died in my sleep and this is what dying must feel like. Well, obviously I never died, but this continued a few times, so I tried to find out what was happening. This was around '98, so the Internet was still a new thing. After not being able to find anything in my local library, I searched the Internet and discovered that there was a thing called “sleep paralysis” and lots of people experienced it.
Once I learned what it was, my mind was instantly at ease. I could ride out the paralysis calmly; when I would slip back to sleep, I would have lucid dreams. What I noticed was that irregular sleep patterns and a daytime nap was guaranteed to trigger sleep paralysis. When I went to college I would have sleep paralysis and lucid dreams daily. It was just a part of life — I actually enjoyed it.
Things changed when I left school and began a nine-to-five work life. The paralysis ended for the most part, and when it would occur, it was often unpleasant. There have been a few times when it was accompanied by a nightmare, making the nightmare feel very real. And right now when it occurs I have the sensation of being smothered, which triggers panic, which is exacerbated by being unable to move.