This Halloween we look at one of the most frightening and possibly misunderstood sleep disorders.
You wake from a nights sleep to find yourself paralysed, panicked and most disturbingly not alone!
We know, frightening stuff right? For many this may sound familiar as it is unfortunately the common side effects of a most terrifying sleep disorder, named sleep paralysis.
(still from film by Carla MacKinnon)
To explain, sleep paralysis is when your REM sleep (rapid eye movement) is disrupted and you wake whilst still in this cycle. You remain temporarily paralysed yet fully conscious. During this time you can see and hear but not move or speak. This muscular paralysis is normal during REM sleep; it’s thought to keep you from moving whilst in the dreaming stage of your seep.
One of the scary things is that whilst experiencing the sleep disorder it is common for people to feel as though there is a very real presence in the room with them. This alone is not the worst part. When paralysed yet still awake most people find it difficult to breath normally, most likely due to panic once waking and finding that your breathing pattern is still stuck in its involuntary rhythm we adopt once asleep. You can guess where this is going right? You then try to breath normally, yet your body finds it difficult to respond. This combined feeling of pressure on the chest and a presence in the room leads some to hallucinate people, or even demons in the room with them, sitting on their chest or even trying to choking them.
Though it is worth noting that though the whole experience is extremely terrifying, it is not at all harmful to your health. But we agree it’s incredibly scary!
According to the NHS many people experience sleep paralysis once or twice in their lifetime. Though it is more commonly found in teens or young adults, people who are sleep deprived, have a family history of sleep paralysis, or even suffering from narcolepsy.
Sleep paralysis in history
(The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli)
Accounts of the sleep disorder can be found across a number of cultures throughout history. It is even thought to have inspired masterpieces. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the painting titled, The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli in 1781. As shown in the painting, a woman lies in a sleep like state whilst a rather terrifying looking demon sits upon her chest. You can see how many believe it to be depicting a case of sleep paralysis, when there seems to be a few familiarities in the image and reports of the disorder.
Even the title “The Nightmare” possibly sheds some clues on the matter. The “night” part is rather obvious but in old English the “mare” part translates as incubus. The Middle English word became “Nightmare” an evil spirit that lies on sleepers and suffocates them or terrorises them at night. This could very well be a word that was used to describe this particular sleep disorder, rather than the generic term of a bad dream we use it for now.
The painting certainly depicts the idea of sleep paralysis rather well. What with the haunting creature sitting upon, possibly even crushing the seemingly unconscious paralysed women, Its all rather terrifyingly accurate in its illustration.
Workings of a witch?
What would a scary story be with out a few witches? During the time when people believed in the workings of witches, likely many cases of sleep paralysis were unfortunately mistaken for witchcraft. As the experience was undoubtedly frightening and even unforgettable, many sought to explain it away with witchcraft.
Unfortunately for many women during the period of the witch trials, in what is thought to be a number of cases, people full of superstition and belief in the workings of the devil, mistook this sleeping disorder with an encounter with a witch.
During the Salem witch trials of 1692, very real accusations of people being witches were heard after what was most likely experienced was a terrifying case of sleep paralysis. For example during the trials, Bernard Peach reported an encounter he believed was with a witch one night whilst in bed.
“He heard a scrabbling at the window, whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in, and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of the deponent’s feet, and drawing his body up into a heap, she lay upon him near two hours; in all which time he could neither speak nor stir.” (Mather, Cotton. Wonders of the Invisible World. 1692)
Here we see very similar events happening whilst a person was sleeping they were woken, sensed somebody in the room, before then seeing somebody in the room. You also hear the story of the person then being sat on unable to move or speak. All very classic signs of sleep paralysis, unfortunately unknown at the time. The terror of the experience and general superstition at the time likely led to a lot of unnecessary deaths of supposed witches.
Alien abductions and experimentations
The same misunderstanding of sleep paralysis could also be explaining a number of alien abductions cases. Many of these cases happen when the person was in bed or sleeping. A lot of cases report aliens in the room with them, then taking the somewhere and experimenting on them. It does sound like it could be a case of the sleeping disorder again with the paralysis, the presence in the room of “something evil” terrorising them.
Millions of people believe the have been abducted by aliens and in most cases the events happened while the person was sleeping. If we think about the common reports of alien abductions you think of this:
A person wakes from sleep to find the have been paralysed, they panic, suddenly the hear noises possibly buzzing, they see flashing lights; then they begin to levitate out of their bed. An alien begins experimenting on them or prodding them all whilst they are unable to move, terrified.
The problem here is if you are familiar with the sleep disorder, sleep paralysis and you experienced this, you would easily make the link between the experience and the disorder. The inability to move, the presence in the room the hallucinations and the sensation of something holding you down are all tell tale signs.
Unfortunately people who are unaware need to explain this, and much like the people of the witch trials, they look to whatever explanation they are being fed.
For example some who believe that they have been abducted try hypnoses to try and retrieve any possible lost memories they might have experienced. This can often leads to very detailed false memories, Making the experience feel even more real, and verifying their idea of an alien abduction in their mind.
Aliens are a common topic on TV, throughout books, and in general sci-fi media. So it could be very plausible that a lot of these cases could be of sleep paralysis and due to the horrifying experience people have filled in the gaps with stories they have seen about aliens.
So what we do you think?
This research of sleep paralysis is just a taster of what there is to know about the disorder, and the very tip of the iceberg of what people have experienced with the disorder. History has had its run in with the disorder, and though it has at times been confused with superstition fantasy and even witch craft. The truth is sleep paralysis is scary all on its own, with no need for explanation with witches or aliens. But we do understand why people would link the terrifying experience of sleep paralysis to things considered so evil and scary. When it comes to the actual existence of witches and aliens, we will let you make up your own minds.
In any case we hope you all sleep well tonight, and Happy Halloween!