Where I Go When I Go To Sleep
The night-mare, poised as it is between the supernatural and the natural worlds, and between the meaningful and the biological, is perfectly positioned to teach us about the seamless connection between our minds and our bodies.
- Shelley Adler, Professor in the Department of Family Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco
The first time it happened I was 14 years old. My bedroom door had a very distinctive creak. I heard it around midnight, as I lay face down wrapped up in my bedding. Someone had opened my door, I knew that much for sure, but in my mindless state of half-sleep I did not think to get up or even turn my head. It wasn’t until I felt the weight of someone pressing down on my bed that I thought to turn around – but I couldn’t. I was suddenly aware of my inability to move. There was someone in my room; I could feel them on the end of my bed. Or were they right by my face? There was heavy breath falling on the side of my cheek. I tried to reassure myself that it was just a dream, but I knew I was awake. I was aware of my body, still in the position that I had fallen asleep in: half on my stomach, half on my side, with blankets right up around my head. Someone was sliding my duvet down the bed to expose my face. The breath was getting stronger. I suddenly became conscious of my own too-shallow breathing. I felt like there was not enough oxygen entering my body to support my now panicked state, and it was getting worse. My chest felt so restricted, I wasn’t even sure if I was breathing anymore. I needed to open my eyes. If I didn’t, I was going to suffocate. I told myself to count to three in my head, and as I did, each number became more desperate than the last. The breath on my face was becoming as strong as wind. After a torturous few seconds I got to three, and used every ounce of strength in my body to open my eyes.
It all stopped. The wind disappeared, the pressure on my chest was released, and there was no one at the end of my bed. Completely exhausted, my gasping breaths were the only movement disturbing the eerie silence in the room. I was entirely conscious now, but the air felt harmful. There was an inexplicable presence lingering, and I felt like I was being watched. After briefly entertaining the idea that maybe I did, in fact, believe in the supernatural, I later discovered that what I had experienced was actually the first of many times in my life that sleep paralysis would rear its ugly head.
Sleep paralysis is a disorder that belongs to the ‘parasomnia’ family, along with its cousins: sleepwalking, sleep talking and sleep aggression. Although all of these conditions are disturbing in their own way, sleep paralysis really is from the side of the family you’d rather not spend Christmas with.
Despite its complexity, the brain can be divided into three main parts. At the deepest level, there is the primitive brain. This area is mostly comprised of the brain stem, and controls all things fundamental to our basic survival, such as breathing, heart rate, digestion and sleep. The second part contains areas that control more conscious matters, such as sensory processing and memory. Finally, there is the outer cortex, which controls complex functions such as higher thinking, fine movement and goal setting. While this trio of consciousness usually communicates seamlessly, every once in a while there is a glitch, and things can go very wrong.
During sleep, the brain stem does two things: firstly, it fires signals to the cortex to initiate dreaming. In addition to this, it sends chemical signals down the spine to put the body in a state of paralysis. For the most part, this is a protective action to stop us from recklessly running around the house trying to act out our dreams, or worse, our nightmares. All in all, it’s a great system – until it malfunctions. Occasionally, just after you’ve fallen asleep, your brain decides that it needs more oxygen. It does this by sending out signals to adjust your sleeping position and free up the airways. Usually, it goes something like this: the brainstem sends a signal to the spinal cord, the temporary paralysis subsides, you fidget a bit in a half-asleep state, take a deep breath, and life goes on uninterrupted. Unfortunately there are times when the spinal cord doesn’t quite get the memo, and fails to bring the body out of its paralytic state. This could be due to the brain falling too quickly into the deepest stage of sleep (REM), without moving through each lighter stage first. Here you are, half-awake, feeling like you need more oxygen, but completely unable to move.
In this half-conscious state of frustration, a region of the brain called the amygdala awakes. This area, responsible for alerting the rest of our body that we are in danger, tries to activate the fight-or-flight instinct. In an inconvenient turn of events, the body cannot move and consequently is in no state to fight, let alone prepare for flight. Panic ensues – and remains – because this is when the hallucinations often start. So on top of everything else, in case this wasn’t enough of an event already, the brain often confuses reality with dreams – resulting in visions of shadows, moving objects or even people that aren’t actually there.
When I was 13, my neighbour showed up at my door, looked at me somewhat apologetically, and asked to speak to my mum. He told her that he had caught someone from his deck watching me through my window late the night before. It was a grown man, he said, probably around 40 years old. He knew exactly how to get around the back of my house to my bedroom window – he’d been there before. The police caught him a few nights later running down the road away from my house – disappointed, perhaps. I had gone to stay with family. They raided his house; they took his photos, his souvenirs from my washing line. They jailed him, for the second time – he was already a convicted sex offender. They did everything they should have done, but it’s near impossible to forget how unsettling it feels for someone to know so much about you, when you’ve never even seen their face.
Even if I was willing to consciously forget, and I certainly was, my subconscious was not so abiding. The unsettling feeling was festering under the surface, and in that same bedroom, six months later, it would reveal itself in the form of a creaking door and an inability to turn and see who was entering.
Hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis come in all forms. In some ways, I am lucky that most of my hallucinations are auditory or tactile. I hear someone come into my room, I feel them pull my duvet off my bed, but I never see their face. Some sufferers, unfortunately, are not this lucky.
‘It was a woman,’ author Rob Gunther remembers. ‘The details of her face remained still mostly featureless, but I could definitely make out that taught, white skin, the same gaping holes where the eyes and mouth were supposed to be.’ Gunther’s vision jerked its way towards him from the other side of the room, all the while filling the air with disturbing, guttural noises. Eventually, she lay down next to him where his wife should have been, staring at him until he forced himself to wake up.
Many others recall their respective demonic visions asking, ‘Do you remember me?’ Often, their visions represent evil or harmful versions of diseased loved ones. Contrastingly, one victim fondly remembers waking up regularly to the sight and sound of a colourful mariachi band performing at the end of her bed.
‘The hallucinations are always evil. Even if I can’t see anything, there is an overwhelming presence in the room and it is always evil.’ This feeling, though from one anonymous account, is virtually universal among sufferers. Sometimes – the worst times – this presence lingers long after full consciousness returns. This remaining feeling is what brings the dream entirely into the real world. You do not get the relief of waking up from a nightmare and realising it was all in your head, because no matter what, there is a small part of you that believes it wasn’t. This belief, especially without the reassurance of science, is likely to be what spawned the mythological explanations for the traumatising disorder throughout history.
The Alp, an evil character from German folklore, is characterised by the way he appears at night and sits on the victim’s chest, crushing their lungs and drawing the life out of them until they suffocate. Similarly, the Old Hag, a witch-like woman from English folklore, appears as an evil presence in the sleeper’s room to sit on their chest and torture them. Almost every culture has a similar character, from kanashibari in Japan to boratat in Morocco. It’s always the same: they only visit while the victim sleeps, bringing with them an evil presence and harmful intentions. Most importantly, there is always an element of suffocation.
It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there... he could not move or speak.
- Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
The nightmarish episodes feel unmistakably paranormal, begging for an explanation beyond the realms of our logical world. Even more so, the experience is so evil that it is near impossible to accept that it lies within the capabilities of our own mind. Though science can now return The Alp and The Old Hag to the world of fiction, it is in some ways more terrifying to know that these evil beings only reside within our own thoughts.
Our body is based on a series of butterfly effects, where one tiny change can have huge effects in a different place or at a later date. Science writer Sam Kean acknowledges in his book, The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, that sleep paralysis is just one of countless examples within the body that emphasises the delicate and precise nature in which everything is connected. Tiny glitches between neurons or chemical signals can have life-changing implications. In the case of sleep paralysis, one small, disrupted signal can cause not only traumatising insomnia for the victim, but also evidently the belief in mythical demons. Similarly, the extremely severe blood condition, sickle-cell anaemia, is caused by a single point mutation in a specific gene. This means that the smallest section of DNA possible has been mutated, but its detrimental effect is amplified throughout the whole body.
When I go to sleep, I go to the realm of neither-here-nor-there, where the line dividing reality and fiction is fluid. I claw my way out of malice-ridden sleep, only to find myself back there again as soon as I close my eyes. Although I want to resent my disorder, the more overwhelming feeling is fascination. Being able to experience first-hand one of the most interesting neurological flaws known to humans is both terrifying and enthralling. While in the midst of a midnight episode there is nothing I want more than to be rid of it, in the comfort of midday I am all but intrigued.
Yasmin Nouri is a 22-year-old biomedical science and English literature student who spends her spare time baking, writing and watching Game of Thrones.