A few decades ago I inhabited a creaky old house I’d bought as a fixer-upper. Except for a squirrel that sometimes gnawed its way into the attic, I lived there alone. The house always felt a little strange to me, but I chalked that up to age (the house) and imagination (me).
One night, however, I awoke in the wee dark hours, filled with terror, staring at the ceiling. I was wide awake but unable to move. I had no control over my limbs, my mouth, my breathing, anything.
More frighteningly, I sensed a foreboding, malevolent presence in the room. I felt it moving around me and above me, ominously close. I could not move, could not speak, and was scared witless. I had no idea what was happening. But I could tell I was awake. Definitely not dreaming.
I lay there paralyzed, completely freaked out for something like 30 minutes.
Eventually – somehow – I fell back to sleep. When I woke up hours later it was daylight and I could move my body. The “presence” was gone, but still vivid in my mind. Hormones on high alert. No idea what happened.
I called a friend.
I told my friend about it, and he offered this helpful advice: “Get the hell out of there as quick as you can and never go back. Never spend another night in that house.”
I’m not the bravest guy in the world. I’ve never been a fan of zombies, vampires, or any of that creepy undead, supernatural stuff. Horror movies frightened the hell out of me when I was a kid. I never saw The Exorcist. Was never even tempted.
But whatever this was, real or imagined, I just couldn’t let myself give in to it. In the safety of daylight, it just seemed silly. So I did nothing. Just tried to forget it.
Then, two weeks later…
It happened again. Everything was the same, except worse because I was awake longer. Maybe an hour and a half. Still unable to move or speak. Still in the presence of what felt like evil. Still terrified. Afraid to close my eyes, afraid to keep them open.
The next day I called my friend again. He offered to let me move in with him. I was tempted.
Another two weeks went by. Again, I woke up in the dark, paralyzed and terrorized. I lay awake for hours, unable to move. It felt like a devil in the room with me.
The next day I wondered if I needed medical help. Or spiritual help. Or a realtor.
Then, for some reason I never understood, that was the end of it. Whatever was going on simply stopped.
* A couple of years later that house caught fire and burned down. The fire marshal and the insurance investigator agreed that it was a “wiring problem,” but they could never figure out how or where it started.
All these years since, I’ve wondered what the hell was going on with me and that old house. The mystery of it has always bugged me.
And now I know exactly what happened.
I’ve been listening to the audio version of The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery. It’s by Sam Kean, who writes readable, enjoyable books about science.
Right there smack dab in chapter one, he describes exactly what I went through. He explains how it happens to lots of people. He tells how some of them lay awake for hours in sheer terror. He reports that many of them are convinced they have a demon sitting on their chest. One Korean War veteran describes it as more frightening than anything he experienced in battle.
So what is it?
It’s called Sleep Paralysis.
To put it simply, when we go to sleep the brain kind of divides into three parts. One part regulates breathing, heart rate, etc. Another part handles the dreaming and unconsciousness. And the third part basically relaxes our body into near paralysis, so we don’t act out our dreams in bed and inflict bodily harm on ourselves (or a companion) fighting dream dragons or flying to Neverland with Peter Pan.
But sometimes one of these brain parts wakes up by itself. It’s not supposed to, but it can. So if the dreaming part of our brain wakes up and the “relaxed into paralysis” part doesn’t, we have an episode exactly like what I went through. Wide awake, but unable to move. And sometimes it feels like there’s a monster in the room.
But it happens – for physiological reasons he describes in the book – only when we sleep on our back. Like I did those three nights.
Kean speculates: it’s easy to understand how people experiencing sleep paralysis, especially before humans knew much about the brain and/or sleep, could come to believe in demons and possession. And how it could also – in more recent times – lead to feeling visited or even “kidnapped” by aliens, like in the book Communion.
* Not stating an opinion here about the reality of demons, UFOs or alien encounters. Just reporting what Kean says.
If you’re still with me, I’m sure you can imagine how satisfying it is to have this bizarre, terrifying experience explained simply, even all these years later.
And on a lighter note…
Sometimes in sleep paralysis only part of the body stays “paralyzed.” One morning in that old house the telephone woke me up. I rolled out of bed not realizing my legs were completely asleep. I did a full-frontal, arms windmilling, face plant onto the carpet. Had to drag myself over to the phone. But I was laughing.
If you’ve had your own version of sleep paralysis, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave your reply below, so we can all read it. Thanks.
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© 2017 Greg Tamblyn