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Saturday 17 August 2019

Sleep Paralysis - A Ghost Story

I’ve just had my first sleep paralysis with shadows.

Champion of ghost stories, sleep paralysis is thought to lie behind hundreds and thousands of ghost stories and alien abductions every year.

It affects up to half of us during our lifetimes. It may even have happened to you.

We still have much to learn about how sleep works, how the brain works, and how our emotions guide understanding. One fascinating insight is this phenomenon. Rather like opening up the back of a watch, it spills its guts and opens up more scientific questions than it answers.

Shadow -  © TWDK
Sleep paralysis happens when the waking and sleeping parts of the brain become confused, usually just when you are about to drift off, or just as you awaken. When we’re in REM sleep, all of our muscles are frozen, except those in our eyes and diaphragm, to prevent us from acting out our dreams: when we suffer sleep paralysis, they remain frozen, even though our minds – our desperately trapped, struggling brains – are wide, wide awake.

It feels like you’re being held in place by invisible forces: unable to scream, unable to sit up. Worse, your paralysed torso forces you to breathe shallowly, and during the few seconds or minutes that sleep paralysis takes hold, it feels like a weight has been placed upon your chest, the ghost is sitting on you, squeezing out all the air… And, with air deficiency comes a real feeling of panic, and a powerful sense of impending doom.

Some people hear noises: footsteps, laughter. Some people see flashing coloured lights, or shadows, like people just out of sight moving across the room, even when the door was locked…

So ubiquitous is the phenomenon of sleep paralysis that it’s known of and fabled across the world. Different cultures have different names for it, and different evil creatures to blame: amuku be, phi am, dukak, Haddiela, kokma, pesanta, sayaa or the Hag. It takes the shape of a man, a woman, a dog, a corpse or an unsubstantiated force.

I’ve experienced sleep paralysis all my life, for as long as I can remember. Far fewer people experience recurrent sleep paralysis like this, and there are usually factors... Disturbed sleepers, whether they are travellers, shift-workers, or insomniacs, are more likely to get recurrent sleep paralysis. You’re also more likely to get it during adulthood, between the ages of 25 and 44, or if you’re sleeping somewhere strange, but some people just get it – like me. In fact, I didn’t even realise that it was strange or terrifying, that it wasn’t just what happened during sleep – until one day I was sitting in a science lecture where they told us all about sleep paralysis. I was astonished. Alien invasions? Ghosts sitting on your chest? Not being able to move when you woke up and feeling like you were suffocating was annoying, sure, but it had never occurred to me to think it was sinister.

But, of course, I never got the shadows. Until recently.

I had been ill, and probably my breathing was already restricted a little when I went for a lie down and a nap. My anxiety must’ve been high because I was sleeping in the middle of the day, without an alarm on. And maybe that was what set it off?

Alarm clock - Public Domain via Alexas_Fotos (Pixabay)

I awoke. I checked the time. I had been asleep for nearly twenty minutes. I lay back again and closed my eyes, contemplating whether to rise when I heard the noise of the animals entering the room: first the dog, with his little bell on, then the cat. The cat jumped on the bed, and I felt her feet as she walked up alongside my body, indenting the covers beside me under her weight; I reached out to stroke her head – and couldn’t.

Ugh! I thought. Another episode of sleep paralysis. I will just have to wait it out.

It was then that I heard human footsteps. And not just any human. I recognised the sound of my husband’s step, the sound of his gait and the way he moved through the house, his symmetry. But I had locked the door before I came upstairs: I had not heard the door unlocked, the dog had not barked, and my husband was supposed to be at work. What if I were wrong that it was him… what if it were someone else entirely?

I struggled to sit upright. Failed. At the edge of my peripheral vision, a shadow entered the room. A rainbow of light from between the crack in the curtains danced across my blurry vision as I strained my eye to see. He came along the side of the bed on the far side from me – his side. He knelt down.

Finally, I was able to pull myself from the grasp of sleep paralysis and sat up, shaking.

I was alone. Quite alone.

The animals had remained downstairs. The dog had not barked for a reason. Not a soul had entered the room since I closed my eyes the first time. There was no crack of light between the curtains.

To find out more about sleep paralysis and the mysteries of sleep, visit our article on the topic, or watch our video:

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