Awoken by Fear – An Exploration of Sleep Paralysis

The only light in the room came from the red digits glaring off a clock. If there was a figure, I couldn’t see it. But I thought someone was in my bedroom. Despite my blindness to the presence, I could hear its disturbing menace loom over me. The whispers of unintelligible language and the echoing sounds rang in my ears as I lost all sense of time and reality. I tried to get up, but my body failed to react. Was I dreaming?

I never told my parents. The nightmares kept coming back, though it was difficult to distinguish between the dream state and reality. Bedtime was a chore, and not something that I looked forward to as an opportunity for rest. Keep in mind: I was only 8 years old at the height of my episodes. They were horrifying.

Often I would wake up unable to move or speak. It felt like something was in the room with me, though I never saw anything. The noise was deafening. It can only be described as a loud, echoing pitch ringing in and out of my ears – like something heard deep in a cave. Though I would later learn that this was an auditory hallucination, my childhood implication was that the presence was very real. The inability to cry for help troubled me most.

The film E.T. resonates with me in a lot of ways, but it is especially relevant in this case. I think back to the scene when Elliot sees E.T. for the first time. The young boy wakes up on his porch paralyzed in fear and can only whisper pleas for help. That moment is a taste of what sleep paralysis is like.

Ironically, sleep paralysis is medically harmless. A common form of it occurs when the victim becomes aware while the muscles are turned off in an REM cycle. Some report strange noises like my experiences. Others describe vivid, shadowy images that appear at the foot of their beds. A few report no hallucinations at all, or some sort of combination. Aside from being terrifying, the effects lead to an inconvenient sleep schedule. However, sleep paralysis is absent of serious health risks.

Some experts describe the phenomenon as a symptom of narcolepsy, a rare brain disorder that causes the affected to fall asleep at an inconvenient time. But sleep paralysis extends far beyond those dealing with narcolepsy. Studies vary wildly in determining how many people suffer from it. One of the more comprehensive studies, Dr. Brian Sharpless’ 2011 paper Prevalence of Sleep Paralysis, concluded that just under 8 percent of the general population experiences it.

One of these people is Cameron McPherson, a 21-year-old at the University of Oregon. The Boston native lives a typical college life. He majors in psychology with a minor in computer science. His frame is fairly athletic, his height average. You can typically see McPherson roaming around campus wearing one of his baseball caps. He is well-spoken, kind, and enjoys a happy relationship with his girlfriend, Ali. But nighttime can be far less typical.

He first experienced sleep paralysis as a sophomore in 2013. Under the stress of studying for fall term finals, McPherson had his first conscious nightmare.

“The most intense part was when I started to see what looked like a person coming into my room, and I tried to move and I just couldn’t at all,” says the University of Oregon senior. “It started coming closer to me, and that’s when I really started to freak out.”

The nightmare finally ended and he moved again. McPherson, frightened and confused, searched for answers the next morning. After some Googling, he discovered what so many before him had realized: he just had sleep paralysis. Though he told his family that he didn’t want to see a doctor, he admits he was scared.

“The next night, I was almost too scared to go to sleep because I thought it was going to happen again,” says McPherson. “I stayed up until three in the morning, worried that I would hallucinate again.”

Though he was not paralyzed that night, McPherson’s encounters with the nightmare world were far from over.

He says he experiences sleep paralysis about once every three months. Linking the high stress and exhaustion of college to his recurring episodes, he tries to go to sleep earlier. Many (including McPherson) don’t sleep on their backs in an attempt to avoid the problem altogether. It can occur in any sleeping position, but many find relief when they try to sleep on their sides or stomachs. A study at the University of Waterloo concluded that 60 percent of sleep paralysis experiences occur when the patient sleeps on the back.

McPherson’s sleep paralysis is unique in that it sometimes occurs while he is falling asleep. This is called hypnagogic sleep paralysis. Humans typically lose consciousness as their muscles begin to shut down as they fall asleep. If McPherson remains consciously aware, he will realize that he cannot move his muscles. The nightmare begins.

“I start to fall asleep, but then I have these weird thoughts in my head. It doesn’t feel right,” explains McPherson. “That’s when it happens.”

McPherson developed sleep paralysis before he met his girlfriend Ali Brown in 2014. Brown had never heard of it before.

“I thought it sounded really weird and scary,” says the 22-year-old University of Oregon journalism student. “It’s kind of weird to hear that someone is going through that when you’re right next to them.”

When the couple is in the same bed, McPherson says there probably isn’t anything that she can do. Brown has always been sleeping during his infrequent sleep paralysis episodes. One of his scariest memories occurred when she was in bed with him. He describes three shadowed figures looming over the bed, drawing closer to them.

“I was trying so hard to talk or say something. I wanted to will her to wake up so that she would push me, so that I could snap out of it,” says McPherson, who could only look with desperation as he failed to move. “After I finally woke myself up, I rolled over and woke her up. I was so freaked out.”

Despite such intense sessions, things are improving for McPherson. He still has not seen a doctor despite protests from his family. He trains himself to focus on moving his fingers first, while also telling himself that the hallucinations are not real. He has only suffered from sleep paralysis for a couple of years. Others have dealt with it much longer.

Cultures have recognized sleep paralysis for centuries. It had been attributed to diet or even the paranormal depending on the culture. A common theory links the phenomenon to alien abduction. When Rachel Murray first had sleep paralysis when she was 13, she considered this possibility and other paranormal explanations.

“It’s really hard to explain to yourself that it’s just a dream,” says the 29-year-old Australian. “It was a bit confronting because I’m not a religious person.”

Her older brother Brendan had taken an interest in the paranormal. To the young teenager, Murray describes him as her “encyclopedia of knowledge” and someone she immediately went to for advice. Upon questioning, Brendan immediately assured her that her encounter was nothing paranormal, but rather a physiological phenomenon that so many have experienced.

Despite a firm understanding of the disorder, the episodes remained terrifying. Unlike McPherson, Murray can have sleep paralysis in any position. A particularly frightening recurrence happens when she sleeps on her side.

This typical episode begins with the sound of a rustling paper. She looks and sees a person with a newspaper sitting at her bedside, flipping through the pages. The figure is human, but indistinguishable.

“They become aware that I am looking at them,” says Murray, “Then they turn around and get right into my face, and that’s usually when I scrunch my eyes really tight and try and break the paralysis.”

Her hallucinations are something out of a horror movie. Director Rodney Ascher was inspired by the terrifying experiences of those with sleep paralysis. He directed horror documentary The Nightmare, released in January 2015. The film relies on testimonies of those with sleep paralysis and attempts to reenact them. Before filming, Ascher put out a callout for people to share their stories relating to sleep paralysis. Murray considered sharing her struggles.

“I wasn’t really sure if that was something I wanted to do then,” says Murray, who ultimately chose not to share, nor has she seen the film. “I’m interested, but I’m also scared that it might trigger sleep paralysis that night.”

The title Nightmare is connected to the spiritual connotations that intrigued Murray at age 13. A common name for the phenomenon in 18th century England was Old Hag Syndrome. The idea was that the figures seen during sleep paralysis were demons or night hags, and that the struggle was linked to possession. The creatures were sometimes referred to as mares, hence the term nightmare. It was much later that nightmares were associated with general bad dreams.   

For Murray, the nightmares show little sign of slowing down. She says that while she would like the problem to go away, it does not cripple her life. Doctors have told her that it could be a neurological disorder due to the frequency of her sleep paralysis. Though she has dealt with the issue for some time, others have shown that they can break the cycle even after years of sleep paralysis.

Some report that relief of stress often coincides with decreased instances of sleep paralysis. That may have been a contributing factor for Elizabeth Pressler-Henderson, a health coach from Oklahoma City. She attributes the origins of her struggles to stress as a 23-year-old graduate student.

The first episode occurred on her couch when she was disturbed by sleep paralysis multiple times during a nap. Similar to Murray, she initially thought it might have something to do with the spiritual realm.

“At the time, I thought that there was an evil force in the room,” says the 36-year-old. “I thought it was through spiritual will that prevented me from getting up off the couch, causing me to fall back into nightmares.”

Pressler-Henderson describes herself as a spiritual agnostic at that point in her life. Even while being open to those kinds of ideas, she did not believe that something paranormal happened to her upon fully waking up. She attributed the evil force as a part of a dream unlike which she had ever experienced.

Her hallucinations were not like others. In fact, they barely existed. The force she describes was not a visible being, nor something that she could hear. But she could tell that something was in the room with her.

“I was positive that there was an unseeable force,” says Pressler-Henderson, “I could just feel a malevolent force.”

Despite the initial confusion and fear of an insidious being, she was able to begin to think reasonably and logically during her episodes. Sleep paralysis was a consistent part of her life for 11 years. As the stress went down, her sleep paralysis decreased in frequency. At the same time, Pressler-Henderson was dealing with depression and anxiety.

“The better controlled those are, especially the anxiety, I feel like the less sleep paralysis has happened.”

Eventually, the problem diminished altogether two years ago. That was the last time she experienced sleep paralysis. She considers it a past part of her life, but does not rule out the possibility that it could haunt her once again.

“I don’t think that someone could 100 percent say that they’re over it because it’s one of those things that can happen anytime to anyone,” explains Pressler-Henderson.

I tell people that I’m over sleep paralysis, but I do not doubt that it could come back. A strange part of me wants to feel that sensation once again. I often crave things from my childhood, and this is oddly no exception. I certainly would not want to experience it every day, but the fear won’t stop me from sleeping on my back on occasion.

Why did I never tell my parents? Though the noises were haunting, I simply thought that it was a normal part of sleeping. There was no Google for the young me to turn to — so, I would close my eyes every night, wondering if the next thing I saw would be a brand new day, or something more sinister.

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