The problem with sleep paralysis is that no matter how much you know about it and how easily you can dismiss the things that happen as a side effect of coming out of REM sleep the wrong way, when it’s happening it can still feel like a ghost is attacking you.
If you don’t know or understand exactly what sleep paralysis is, let me explain. Sometimes the mind can wake up before the body. When you’re in REM sleep, your body usually paralyzes itself so that you don’t act out what happens in your dreams. This function is generally the problem when it comes to sleep walkers. However, what occurs to those experiencing sleep paralysis is the brain wakes up but fails to tell the body to move again. You are eccentrically trapped in your own body, unable to move until your body catches up with your brain.
Sleep paralysis can also have the nasty habit of making you imagine things as if your partially in the REM cycle. This is how a great many ghostly occurrences waking people up can be explained away. That’s easy enough to say, unless you’ve actually experienced it. Because when you’re in that moment, and even after, all those easy explanations still feel so woefully inadequate to validate what you feel lying there.
During college, I suffered from sleep paralysis often enough to be annoying. While it can happen anytime you sleep, it is more common when napping because you might wake up right after entering the REM cycle. I napped a lot in college, often in my recliner. My head would bob down and then I’d wake, but I wouldn’t be able to raise my head. I’d try and try to turn it, just a tiny fraction, a twitch of motion. It’s terrifying to have absolutely no control over something as simple as rolling your head to the other side. Now, imagine if you can, hearing your name whispered in your ear when all this is happening. That is the horrifying reality of sleep paralysis.
The worst part is that despite knowing exactly what happens in the brain to cause all of this to occur, part of me still believes that the apartment I had in college was haunted. Because even if the sounds and feelings and images were all in my head, they still feltreal. So, let me tell you a little bit about the two ghosts who haunted my sleep.
There was a woman and a man. The woman was a neutral force. Usually I would know her by hearing my name whispered in my ear. I’d hear her more when I fell asleep in my chair. I’d be alone, having dozed off in my chair, and wake to hear my name whispered and my body frozen for a second or two. Freaky, but not utterly terrifying. I was never scared of her.
The man was another story. I would feel the man when I’d experience sleep paralysis in bed. I hated the man’s presence. He terrified me. Maybe if I hadn’t dealt with him, it would be easier to dismiss the woman as being all in my head.
The worst Occurrence happened one afternoon when I’d taken a nap after my classes and before going to work. I hadn’t bothered to turn the lights off, because I didn’t want to go into a deep sleep and miss my alarm for work. I remember because it wasn’t dark when I opened my eyes.
I woke up naturally, not to my alarm, lying flat on my back unable to move. A weight pressed down on my chest like a body pressing me down into the bed. I tried to move my arms but the hands seemed to grip my wrists to keep them in place. A man’s voice drifted around me, not speaking words I could understand but there as if his lips were right next to my ear. No matter how much I struggled, I couldn’t even turn my head away.
At that moment there was no scientific understanding of sleep paralysis. There was only a man I couldn’t see lying atop me, keeping me from moving, and whispering in my ear. All I wanted to do was jump up and run to a different room, but instead I lay there screaming in my mind to just lift my head off the bed. For brief staccato moments I would gain control of my head, as if I were fighting with him. Finally, I regained full control of my body and could get up and breathe easily again.
He was realto me. His voice was real. The weight of his body was real. The fear coursing through my immobile body was real. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt him, and it wasn’t the last, but it was the worst of them.
Academically, and now that I’ve long since moved not only out of that apartment but that college town, it’s easier to analyze the entire experience with the understanding of how sleep paralysis works. I can explain away the ways that interrupted REM sleep can cause waking dreams that often incorporate things in the real world, like fear at not being able to move or the way that complete immobility can feel like something is holding you down.
And yet, part of me still thinks that apartment’s haunted, and I’m okay never going back.
Shana Scott is a digital archivist and content writer with a Master’s degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. She’s a member of SFWA, and her work has been published in magazines and podcasts such as Escape Pod, Bewildering Stories, and Wild Musette, as well as several anthologies, including, Gothic Fantasy: Agents & Spies and Mirrors & Thorns. Currently, she writes about the craft of world-building in her blog, Woman in the Red Room.