WHAT IS SLEEP PARALYSIS?
Sleep paralysis, also known as Old Hag, is a phenomenon that is known, to some extent, by all cultures throughout the world. Some people say attacking aliens are the cause of sleep paralysis, while others credit the “Devil” himself and/or his minions, and if not that, then the classic “old hag” who sits on an unsuspecting sleeping person’s chest, and upon their waking realize they are powerless to move. For what ends a hag would do this are as varied as the cultures on the planet. Only the old hag does not always appear as a grotesque elderly matron. For more on the legends and lore of similar ‘old hag’ experiences, see the bottom part of this page.
Only in the last couple decades, and especially the last 10 or so years, have researchers begun to seriously study this bizarre happening. Nothing is as of yet in concrete, but we at least now have a solid place to begin. And I would like to further add, that although we may now have an explanation of the mechanics involved, it does not mean we know WHY or WHAT causes this strange phenomenon to occur, but only explains what is going on physically during an episode of sleep paralysis, or SP.
Sleep paralysis is a condition in which someone about to fall asleep, or just upon waking from sleep, realizes that they are unable to move or speak, but can still breathe and move their eyes. I like to call this “half-asleep/half-awake” stage the “twilight” stage. Your conscious mind has begun to drift into sleep but is not yet there, therefore you still retain a small amount of your waking conscious. It is a very transitory stage indeed, and one that seems to leave you “open” to certain experiences you would not otherwise be receptive to when fully conscious or fully asleep. It is also accepted by most researchers that although this can happen in any sleeping position, it most commonly occurs in the supine position (laying on your back).
Once the person realizes they are unable to move, they usually, but not always, leave this “twilight” stage and become fully awake, but still paralyzed. At this point the experience can go either way. The person may only experience a temporary paralysis, and after several seconds or up to a minute or so would then regain their movement and the event would be over. Researchers believe many people experience this at one point in their lives.
But the other scenario is much more frightening. Upon realizing one is paralyzed, a whole gamut of hallucinations may occur. Many people report hearing, seeing, and/or sensing a person or people in the room with them while they are paralyzed. There is also the common experience of a usually sensed, malevolent presence (or SMP). Note that not all sensed presences are felt as being malevolent, but very frequently they are. These SMP’s usually seem to be just out of view of the person experiencing the SP, who from here on in I will refer to as the ‘subject’, for the sole purpose of easily identifying the one experiencing the SP. As a frequent sufferer of sleep paralysis, I know that for me its relatively rare to have an episode complete with the SMP, but it does happen, and when it does, it is terrifying. The SMP is so incredibly intimidating and I feel that this very evil, terrible “thing” is just right outside my field of vision, and if I weren’t paralyzed and was able to turn my ahead just an inch or so, I would be able to see this horrid thing. At least, that’s the feeling I get, and other sufferer’s of SP have reported the same.
Sometimes it is reported that the subject feels crushed, smothered, or pushed into the bed. There are auditory hallucinations as well. A voice or voices may be heard, as well as footsteps. A loud buzzing noise is sometimes reported. Out-of-Body experiences are also frequently reported with SP, along with the sensation of floating and sometimes of “falling” through the bed.
During SP a person may try to cry out or “fight” the presence they believe is responsible for causing them to be paralyzed. This has never helped me nor anyone else I’ve ever heard of, but somehow we have the innate feeling that we must “fight” this feeling. Usually movement returns slowly, usually within a minute or so.
These hallucinations are called hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. These hallucinations are given these names because they occur at the onset of sleep, and the period just before waking, the period I call the ‘twilight’ stages of sleep. They can be auditory, visual, tactile and proprioceptive. A proprioceptor is a sensory receptor found mainly in the joints, muscles, tendons and inner ear that detects motion and can also can detect the position of a limb by responding to internal stimuli. This means when a person feels smashed into the bed or a creature is sitting on their chest that it really can be a VERY convincing hallucination. So I’d say that is possibly one of the single greatest arguments for a pro-“it’s all in your mind” stance on SP. Because of proprioceptors we can feel as though we’re falling through the bed, even though we actually are lying quite stationary, it can be among the most convincing of all hallucinations. I have never heard anyone mention gustatory hallucinations (relating to the nerve in the tip of our tongue responsible for the sense of taste), and have never hallucinated like that in any of my ’bouts’ of SP.
From my “research into other peoples’ research” I have found a few people (‘people’ meaning doctor’s studying sleep research and/or their students contributing to the research) that agree there can be several outside contributing factors to SP. Stress, emotional or physical, and one you have no power over, adolescence. The first time I heard this I automatically thought about the correlation between poltergeists and adolescent children, pre-pubescent or pubescent. Of course my train of thought ended there because I have no specialized skills in psychology, parapsychology or kids.
It is very hard to believe it is a hallucination, but, after all, that’s what a hallucination proper is. This, however, does not make the experience any less terrifying. While it is happening it feels pretty damn real! And remember, this is not written in stone. This is scientific theory, not scientific fact. Who’s to say these experiences aren’t real? Or for that matter, more real than anything we’ve ever experienced? Maybe they can be so terrifying because it’s a reality experienced on a totally different level. So who’s to say these aren’t angels here to show us another place? Maybe our fear is the totally normal and understandable fear of not wanting to leave our physical bodies. Maybe it’s NO ONE showing us anything, maybe we are doing the looking and the searching all on our own. And then again, maybe it’s just all in our heads.
Or conversely, something altogether more sinister. Maybe it is something so innately evil, even if we want to ‘go with the flow’ and see where the experience takes us, the deepest part of our minds will not let us, perhaps because we somehow already know of this nemesis. Who knows, maybe it’s just gas. And maybe it’s not, hmmm.
Some researchers at Waterloo University have done some of the most intense research on SP. They have studied the REM dream states and compared them to SP with hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, (or HHE’s) and have found some interesting results. While we are dreaming in a normal REM state, our minds send out a message to our body’s to cease our normal motor functions, our muscles “turn off” in a sense, so that we do not act out our dreams. This keeps us from possibly doing damage to ourselves or those around us. While in an REM state, we are experiencing stimuli manufactured from within our own minds, effectively “tuning out” the world around us.
REM SP with HHE’s differ from a normal period of REM in two significant ways. 1.) There is little or no blocking of external stimulation, and 2.) the sufferer of SP regains full consciousness, they were in the “twilight” stage of sleep, e.g. sleep onset or sleep offset, and instead of falling into a deeper sleep state, the person regains consciousness but continues to ‘dream’, almost always believing at the time that it is really happening and not being manufactured by their own mind. Researchers believe the paralysis is due to the failure of the brains neurons to “remind” the body it is now awake so it is unable to move (called muscle atonia). And remember, not only is the person unable to move, but they are also “dreaming while awake”, a condition that is very confusing and frightening. The hallucinations they encounter seem every bit as real as you sitting in front of the computer right now. This theory seems wrong to me, or at least it doesn’t seem to apply to my SP. Dreams are very distinct, they have an obvious ‘surrealness’ about them, whereas my SP is a totally different thing. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve experienced SP, I KNOW you know what I mean. (right?!) Since I believe my SP is something more, is it solely because I want to think I’m ‘special’ in some weird twisted way or is it because I am being genuinely fooled by these hallucinations which I can almost swear to are not a dream of any kind, sleeping or awake? It is so VERY HARD to be objective when you’re nothing BUT subjective when it comes to your own self. I try to step out of my ‘self’ and see my SP as a total stranger would, and I must say when I do that, the logic part of mind says there’s a perfectly plausible explanation for SP, that there is no such thing as monsters, etc. However, I can’t retain that opinion for long, because I DO believe in monsters! I use that term loosely, mind you! But I do happen to believe in ghosts, God, and a whole ‘nother world that lives alongside ours that we do not have the tools to identify or quantify. But I also do whole-heartedly believe that Logic exists, also. You can see I am torn.
Anyway, during episodes of hallucinogenic SP, the mind is not only accepting outside stimulation, but is also ‘warping’ it in much the same way as our dream states warp information. Its a melding of the two worlds, only the subject is not asleep.
It is not hard to see why demons, devils, and other beasties of the night have been blamed for these nocturnal ‘attacks’. Virtually all cultures with a written or oral history has some kind of form of SP they have reported, and with that a usually very colorful explanation as to why these things happen. But if you’re of an occult mind, or just an open one, it’s also not hard to see why scary folk of the night would take advantage of us while in such a vulnerable position. Either way, legend and lore abounds. SP is more commonly known as Old Hag, and the origin for this title may have roots as far back as the Sumerians. Ardat lili or Lilitu, an evil hag-demon, was said to have the power of flight, which she preferred to do at night when she would attack men in their sleep. This seems a very obvious reference to the original Lilith, who refused to lay on her back when laying with Adam, and was therefore thrown out of Eden for a more suitable (docile) mate for Adam. After she was thrown out of Eden a myriad of things happened, depending on who you hear tell it, but a few things remain constant, Lilith flew away and is now the eater of children, hers and others alike. (If they be her children, we at least know which position they were not bore. Ha.) She is a disgusting old hag, (aren’t all women who do not marry and obey they’re men?!!) who now flies over the land at night seeking revenge for being thrown out of Eden.
But this myth is hardly unique, as many she-devils and hag-demons have, over time, made their presence known in mythology. They take credit for the nocturnal assaults for one reason or another.
Surprisingly, though, is the consistency of such reports made by societies and cultures with no previous knowledge of each other or their lore. The main details remain constant. A man or woman is attacked during the night, usually lying on their back, when an evil entity sits upon their body, causes paralysis, and even sometimes chokes or smothers it’s victim. Though their motivation may differ, (possession, revenge, or just wanting to upset the living) the attack remains strikingly similar. And these stories are not limited to Western cultures, in fact, quite the contrary. In Thailand people refer to being Phi um (ghost covered) and phi kau (ghost possessed), and these experiences include a feeling of pressure, paralysis, and something black covering the body. In Japan, kanashibara (“to tie with an iron rope”) is a common known and accepted experience. In the Far North one speaks of agumangia (Inupik) or ukomiarik (Yupik) in which “a soul” tries to take possession of the paralyzed victim. In Laos, da chor is described as follows: “You want to listen, you can’t hear; you want to speak, you are dumb; you want to call out, you cannot; you feel you are dying, dying; you want to run away. You piss with fear in your sleep”
Truly, the area of research dealing with SP is in it’s infancy. Researchers are always on the lookout for sufferers of this bizarre yet not too uncommon condition. If you feel you suffer from SP, there are a number of websites on the internet that have surveys you can take. By just answering a few questions you could possibly help researchers attain a deeper understanding of this bizarre phenomena. And you never know, maybe there IS some truth in the old legends!
Finally, one last question that needs to be looked at here, how does one avoid a episode of SP? The most advice anyone who works closely with people who have ongoing SP can come up with is this: Don’t sleep in the supine position. (Don’t sleep on your back.) The reason for this is that most people are in the supine position when they have an episode of SP, so researchers believe that is the key to understanding what is going on when SP grips an innocent sleeper. What is so different when one lies on their back? Well, I can tell you from personal experience that that is not the case, at least not for me. Although I have noticed I’ll be lying on my back frequently when SP strikes, it still doesn’t matter if I move to another position because no matter how I sleep, SP can strike at any time. With me, I tend to have it more when I lie on my side anyway, but I have had SP in almost any and every sleeping position you could imagine.
If you have any questions or would like to relate to me your story, please feel free to e-mail me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.