Sleep paralysis can be scary and make you see the most frightening visions you've ever imagined.
You dream that you’re walking around your house. The lights are off, and you can barely see where you’re stepping. You hear a strange whisper, but you know you’re alone… At least, you think you're alone. You look for the source of the whisper: it’s the computer in the middle of your living room. You don’t remember leaving it there, but you just walk over to it casually to turn it off. But, as you get closer to it, the volume of the whispering increases, and now you can clearly hear strange voices saying things in your ear. You realize that your computer isn’t turned off, and you look at your puzzled reflection on the screen only to see another face next to yours, looking right at you, smiling, its dark, empty eyes fixed on you.
You wake up, covered in sweat, grateful that you woke up just before the nightmare got even worse. But then, when you try to turn on the lights, you realize you can’t move. It feels like there's a heavy block of concrete on top of you. You gasp as you try to breathe, but that invisible block has completely paralyzed you. You try to scream, but no sound comes from your mouth, not even the slightest moan. You’re awake, you’re sure of that, yet the horror that freezes you makes you feel like you're trapped in the worst nightmare of your life. You can only move your eyes. That’s how you catch a glimpse of a dark silhouette lying next to you on the bed. You recognize those empty eyes, their black aura blending in with the shadows of your room, just staring at you silently. Their silence and that dark, cold stare let you know that the nightmare is far from over, even though you're not asleep anymore.
The scenario I’ve just described sounds like something straight out of a horror movie. However, I actually heard it a couple of weeks ago from a close friend who saw a strange creature lying next to her on her bed after having a nightmare. Before you say it's BS, here's one more thing: throughout her life she has suffered from sleep paralysis, a pretty common condition that any of us can experience while we’re sleeping and that, in most cases, makes you see monstrous figures, humanoid silhouettes, and ghost-like apparitions.
Throughout history, sleep paralysis has been associated to supernatural apparitions and demons, such as succubus and incubus, who were thought to sexually attack sleepers. Also, during witch hunts, many of the people who said they were being haunted were, in fact, describing the symptoms of this condition. However, in reality, sleep paralysis isn’t as monstrous and supernatural as it might sound. It is basically the inability to move or speak just after you wake up, especially after having nightmares. In simple terms, this is caused because your brain takes more time than usual to tell the rest of your body that you’ve woken up. For that to happen, your brain should be on the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, that is, when you’re dreaming. By this stage of sleep, the rest of your body “turns off,” so you don't move or do the things you're doing in your dreams, like running, eating, or talking. However, if you wake up before your brain gets to the REM stage, the rest of your body won’t move, making you feel like you’ve been paralyzed and, perhaps the scariest part, you’ll keep “seeing” your dreams. That’s why so many people say they’ve seen ghosts, demons, and other monstrous apparitions after a sleep paralysis episode.
Some people are more prone to suffer from sleep paralysis than others, and that has to do with several factors, like their sleep routine, age, genes, and mental health. For instance, people who suffer from post-traumatic stress, anxiety, or depression are more likely to experience these episodes. However, it has also been found frequently in young people between the ages of 10 and 25, in those who often experience sleep deprivation or jet lag, and in patients who suffer from other sleep disorders, like narcolepsy. While these episodes aren’t very frequent, and there isn’t really a way to “cure” them, it’s recommended that you pay a visit to your doctor if they’re stopping you from going to sleep due to the anxiety they generate, or if, along with sleep paralysis, you fall asleep out of the blue, as this last combination is a symptom of narcolepsy, another sleeping disorder that does need treatment. Moreover, if you’re prone to suffer from them due to other mental conditions, it’s better to treat them, so it's less likely that those nightmarish episodes happen again.
Now, if you actually see ghostly apparitions in your house throughout the day, find things in places where you didn't leave them, or hear blood-curdling screams in your cellar, perhaps you are being haunted, my friend, and you should leave your house and cleanse yourself ASAP. But if it’s a garden-variety scary vision of a monster lying in bed with you or staring at you in your room while you’re paralyzed, that’s just your brain trolling you, so there’s nothing to worry about. It’s frightening, yes, but in the end, it’s harmless, just like a nightmare.
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Cover image from the short film "Bedfellows"
Photos from the documentary The Nightmare