The scene has all of the hallmarks of a horror movie. Hissing and static echo through the room. Intense fear and panic grip you while shadowy creatures and figures lurk in the room.
You’d scream or run out of the room except for one problem: Your body won’t move.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis occurs when a person has disrupted rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Normally the brain paralyzes the body during sleep so that it doesn’t hurt itself by acting out dreams. But when sleep paralysis occurs, the person wakes partially and can see but not move. This can last for anywhere between a few long seconds up to several eternal minutes. People who have experienced it describe it as terrifying.
Around 8 percent of people have had sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. Researchers still don’t entirely understand the phenomenon, but they believe it is caused by problems in the way REM and waking stages of sleep overlap with each other.
Scientists have discovered that some people have a genetic predisposition to suffer from sleep paralysis. Having an irregular sleep schedule or being sleep deprived can also increase the chances of having an occurrence of sleep paralysis.
Why is it so scary?
It makes sense that waking up paralyzed would be a scary experience, but having sleep paralysis is utterly terrifying. So what gives?
Scientists believe that the paralysis causes the brain to be hypervigilant. That means that your body senses the great danger of being paralyzed and goes into an emergency response mode. Remember, evolution occurs slowly. We still have many responses based on living in the wild. The response that may have once saved us from predators now serves only to frighten us.
There are some who hypothesize that the brain errs on the side of caution by perceiving any ambiguous stimuli as harmful. That would explain why people who experience sleep paralysis see shadows and interpret them as menacing shadow people.
Difficulty breathing is another symptom associated with sleep paralysis. According to the above theory, the brain tries to rouse the person out of their paralysis by interpreting this information in the worst way possible. That could help explain why people commonly hallucinate demons sitting on their chests during bouts of sleep paralysis.
What’s it really like?
Here are some sufferers of sleep paralysis describing it in their own words.
I’ve had ranging experiences. Continuations of feelings from dreams such as…hands gripping my limbs, one time a sad hug/embrace, being pulled out of bed (upon being able to move, seeing half of my body off the bed with my blanket folded, uncovering me), pressure pushing me into my bed, voices, screams. I’ve seen a woman sitting in my room turn around and scream at me, various lights and shadows. The works.”
Hearing the experiences of victims can be almost unbelievable. However, when you think of them in the context of your brain doing its best to wake you up, the hallucinations make more sense.
It happened once in my sister’s room. I was lying on my back and noticed a dark figure jumping from wall to wall. Alone, it wasn’t the most terrifying experience. I have sleep paralysis often so I didn’t even bother telling anyone else. The next week I was sitting at the table with my sister and she told me she had a weird dream (her first time with sleep paralysis) and she described the exact figure in detail.”
“I’ve never had any visual encounters but when it happened the first time I was laying on my left side and started to feel that pressure on my chest. When I realized I was paralyzed and started panicking, something whispered in my ear ‘Just coming in to say goodnight.’ That’s when I felt like something was pushing me towards the edge of my bed.”
There’s a taste of what sleep paralysis sufferers go through. If you ever fall victim, trying to wiggle a toe or say something out loud can help wake yourself. Just don’t be surprised if those long seconds of paralysis feel like an eternity.