By: Emily Zuo
An emergency siren was blaring. As the horrifying, shrill scream resonating in my head grew louder, I tried to sit up – to wake up – but I couldn’t escape. My body seemed to be pinned to the bed, and my panicked efforts resulted only in strangled, sporadic jerks. My eyes, which seemed to be drifting open and closed, saw the sunlight on my bedroom ceiling, but it didn’t register. In that moment, I knew nothing of Saturday morning – only a visceral terror as I was continuously dragged back.
It sounds like something out of a horror story or nightmare, but actually, it was my first experience with sleep paralysis, though I had no idea at the time. Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which a person is unable to move or speak when waking up (or, less commonly, while falling asleep). This happens because your brain “shuts off” your muscles during REM sleep to prevent you from acting out dreams, and sometimes, you become conscious while your muscles are still in this state. This usually lasts a few seconds to several minutes, during which people often experience auditory or visual hallucinations, feel like they’re being suffocated, or sense a menacing presence. Needless to say, the entire experience is often disturbing and terrifying.
Throughout history, these episodes have been thought to be caused by demons and other supernatural figures. The phenomenon has been the basis of folklore in numerous cultures, spawning a malevolent creature generically known as “the night hag” who sits on a sleeping person’s chest to immobilize them. Additionally, ideas of alien abduction, near death experiences, and shadow people may have originated from incidences of sleep paralysis. Regardless of if you believe in the scientific or the supernatural, experiencing sleep paralysis is often like experiencing horror in real life; you have an awareness that you lack when just having a nightmare, while still being unable to do anything about your situation. It is a uniquely horrifying event that is different for everyone who experiences it.
I have had sleep paralysis several times since then. Luckily, I’ve never felt the suffocation or pressure on the chest I’ve seen so many people describe, but I have hallucinated intruders in my room and a shadowy presence lurking next to my bed – all, of course, while not being able to move. In fact, one episode happened just last month. I was taking a nap in the lounge chair in my room, during which the sun had gone down completely, and I suddenly woke up in utter darkness to the feeling that I wasn’t alone. I then heard whispering right next to my ear. Weirdly, a small, semi-logical part of my brain immediately thought that people had broken into my house. However, upon feeling that familiar paralysis, part of me recognized the episode for what it was. I convinced myself to stay as calm, attempted to wiggle my fingers (which is supposed to help wake up the muscles), and waited it out.
Fortunately, I can say that my first sleep paralysis experience was definitely my worst, since I didn’t know what was happening (and panicking definitely makes it worse). Nowadays, I can gain a semblance of logic and wait for the awful feelings to go away. But there are many other people out there who experience sleep paralysis in much more severe ways than I have. Here is a trailer for a 2015 documentary about sleep paralysis, with the horrifying input of several real victims: