Night Terrors: Sleep paralysis

Night Terrors: Sleep paralysis, old hags and sitting ghosts. Published for The Skeptic online on 05th October 2009.

Nat Guest explores and explains the phenomenon of sleep paralysis; the state between sleep and wakefulness.

It rolled over her and landed bodily on her chest. There it sat. It breathed airlessly, pressing her, sapping her. ‘Oh, no. A Sitting Ghost.’
– Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

I was once attacked by a lion in my own bed.

At least, I thought it was a lion. All auditory and sensory input was pointing to it being a lion; the rasping, growling in my ear; its hot breath in my face; the enormous shaggy weight of it on top of me and the razor sharp teeth and claws mauling at my neck.

But not quite all input. Because how ever hard I tried, I could not open my eyes, and I could not move any part of my body. I could feel my bed beneath me, and I could feel the sheets around me. I could feel what position I was lying in. I simply could not move. I, like somewhere between 25-40% of the population (depending on which study you go by), was suffering from an episode of sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon which can occur in the state between REM sleep, where dreaming occurs, and waking up. During REM sleep, the brain paralyses the body to avoid us carrying out our dream-actions and harming ourselves somehow. Sometimes, on waking, the brain does not quite turn off these dreams – or the paralysis accompanying them – resulting in a potentially intensely frightening experience. I have always regarded sleep paralysis as lucid dreaming’s ugly sister, in that both occur when there is some discrepancy between different parts of the brain, some parts of which still believe you are asleep and continue to dream away happily, whilst other parts are lucid and know full well that you are actually awake.

When the paralysis is accompanied by a feeling of a weight or malevolent presence crushing you, as mine was, it is known as ‘old hag’ syndrome. This ‘heaviness’ on your chest may be accompanied by other hallucinations, auditory, visual or tactile, and a feeling of terror and mounting panic. These hallucinations are known as hynagogic (if occurring at the onset of sleep) or hypnopompic (if occurring just before waking). The phenomenon of sleep paralysis is little-heard of by most, although its influence is far-reaching; echoes of it run throughout human mythology and folklore, amid superstitions that it was caused by witches (the ‘old hag’), demons and other evil spirits sitting on your chest. Indeed, the ‘-mare’ of ‘nightmare’ actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘merren’, meaning ‘to crush’, because of exactly these associations. Though this type of explanation may seem outdated now, it has by no means disappeared. A colleague of mine once recounted to me the story of how, waking in the middle of the night, her husband had felt a presence sitting on his chest and attempting to strangle him. Understandably scared, and having heard stories from neighbours about his house being haunted, her husband attributed the strangling to a malevolent spirit and had been living in fear ever since.

Another common manifestation of sleep paralysis is ‘the visitor’, where the sleeper will wake, helpless and unable to move (their eyes may be open or closed), and have a strong feeling that there is a something watching them from a corner of the room. It has been theorised that it is precisely this type of ‘visitation’ which leads to accounts of extra-terrestrial visits.

Though both of these hallucinatory types of experience can be terrifying, there are methods that can be employed to end the paralysis. Some people swear by concentrating on moving just one finger or toe, and say that once you have managed to move a tiny part of you, the spell will be broken. Some people try to scream or make a noise to in order wake themselves up. These techniques can be effective, but there is something to be said for simple awareness of the scientific explanation. On hearing of my colleague’s husband’s plight, I immediately printed off reams of information on the subject for him. She reported back that he was relieved to discover that what he had experienced was in fact something perfectly rational, and indeed relatively common.

After jolting fully awake from my own episode of paralysis to find that there was no lion or similar in my bedroom, it didn’t take long for me to realise what had actually happened; at which point it ceased immediately to be something horrific and monstrous and instead just led to a feeling of excitement. Though my experience of the event had not changed, the way I viewed it had. “Oh, well that was quite interesting”, I thought, “Can I do it again?”. This, perhaps, is the better way to view the darker, more mysterious workings of the mind: not with fear, but with curiosity.


Natalie Guest is a freelance writer and a member of today’s “lost generation”. She blogs sporadically and can play the spoons.