Adventures in nocturnal assault

In the early and mid-1990s, beginning immediately after my graduation from college, I began to suffer from a recurring experience of sleep paralysis. If you’re not familiar with this phenomenon, click the link just given or do a Web search. There’s plenty of detailed information available. The link above will take you to an article titled “Sleep Paralysis and Associated Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Experiences” by a professor at the University of Waterloo. Its opening paragraph gives as direct and accurate an explanation of the term as I could hope for:

Sleep paralysis, or more properly, sleep paralysis with hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations have been singled out as a particularly likely source of beliefs concerning not only alien abductions, but all manner of beliefs in alternative realities and otherworldly creatures. Sleep paralysis is a condition in which someone, most often lying in a supine position, about to drop off to sleep, or just upon waking from sleep realizes that s/he is unable to move, or speak, or cry out. This may last a few seconds or several moments, occasionally longer. People frequently report feeling a ‘presence’ that is often described as malevolent, threatening, or evil. An intense sense of dread and terror is very common. The presence is likely to be vaguely felt or sensed just out of sight but thought to be watching or monitoring, often with intense interest, sometimes standing by, or sitting on, the bed. On some occasions the presence may attack, strangling and exerting crushing pressure on the chest. People also report auditory, visual, proprioceptive, and tactile hallucinations, as well as floating sensations and out-of-body experiences. These various sensory experiences have been referred to collectively as hypnagogic and hypnopompic experiences (HHEs). People frequently try, unsuccessfully, to cry out. After seconds or minutes one feels suddenly released from the paralysis, but may be left with a lingering anxiety.

My own bouts with the condition have included most of the above, minus the out-of-body experiences. I have been overtaken by the customary hypnagogic visions of being visited by a malevolent presence in my bedroom. I have also experienced various other commonly reported phenomena, such as a sense of burning electricity surging through my body, and a rushing, swishing, or sizzling sound that seems preternaturally loud and vivid. These phenomena didn’t seem like dreams, but like actual experiences that were occurring in some sort of nightmarish otherworld, or sometimes in the real waking world itself. The most vivid such episode involved my emerging from a very deep sleep and becoming aware of the experience already in progress, which thus made for an authentically John Carpenter-ish sense of waking up into a nightmare (Carpenter plays masterfully upon this trope in his films In the Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness). That particular episode involved an especially nasty and vivid sense of a malevolent presence hovering at the foot of the bed like a black vortex and regarding me with supernaturally intense hatred. When my wife began shaking me in an effort to wake me — I was trying to thrash and scream — I thought she was reacting in terror to the very same presence I was seeing. It was an unnerving moment, I assure you.

My mature birth as a writer can actually be attributed in some measure to these sleep disruptions. Although I had already been addicted to horror literature and film for many years when the nocturnal problems started, and had tried my hand at writing a few stories, even winning a local writing contest in my hometown when I was a senior in high school, it was the changes that these episodes wrought upon my overall sense of psychic stability that led to my mature efforts at fiction writing. The pervasive mood of absolute, unbearable terror and horror that characterized many of my nights began to seep into my daylight hours and plague me with fears that I might be losing my mind. I was already a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, but as my worldview darkened, I began to sense a greater significance in the cosmic horror and twisted ontology of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds. Some years later, when I first began reading the works of Thomas Ligotti, my overwhelmingly powerful and appreciative response to them was due in large measure to the changes that had been worked upon my intellectual and emotional cast by my sleep disruptions. In Tom’s works I saw a miraculously pure and direct expression of the same principle or realm of ultimate, absolute nightmarishness that had opened up to me on many a bad night.

Again, if you’re not familiar with sleep paralysis, I urge you to do a Google search, because I think it’s probably a fascinating subject even for those who haven’t been afflicted with it. I recall that The Learning Channel produced a documentary about it a few years ago, so if you can get your hands on that, it might prove interesting. It certainly did to me, in part because it leaned in the direction of sensationalizing the experience by speculating that it really does involve paranormal visitation. This isn’t a new claim, of course; sleep paralysis is widely thought to be the origin of beliefs about supernatural nocturnal attacks throughout history, and also, perhaps, of stories about supernatural monsters in general, and even of mythology as a whole. As stated in another article at the University of Waterloo site, “Nightmares and nocturnal attacks have been closely connected to myths and monsters across time a cultures. It has even been even suggested that the nightmare is the origin of all mythology. Although few modern scholars would be quite so bold or sweeping in their claims, the pervasiveness of the nocturnal attack in mythology, religion, and legend is quite striking.”

As mentioned earlier, sleep paralysis has also been cited by numerous researchers as a likely contributing factor in the modern rash of alien abduction stories. Alas, I’ve never been abducted myself, but who can say what might happen tonight? I still suffer from occasional, although milder, bouts with this disorder, so I may well wake up tomorrow with a chip implanted at the base of my skull.

But seriously, sleep paralysis is the most dreadful thing you can imagine. The term “soul-searing” comes to mind but hardly does it justice. The sense of terror, and sometimes horror, and sometimes both, that accompanies it is literally unendurable. I wouldn’t wish the experience on anybody. But at least it provides useful grist for the mill. You’re more likely to write a decent horror story when your entire life has been overtaken to some degree by the pure, unmediated experience of horror itself, hideous and raw.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on October 25, 2006, in Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I never thought I’d be thankful for insomnia, but that of course is nothing compared to this kind of experience. Pretty much puts one in the mind of Fuseli’s The Nightmare.

    Here in the Philippines, this kind of sleeping disorder is a source of morbid fascination, especially when it leads to death. The Tagalog term we use for it is bangungot. Check out these articles, if you’re interested: one and two.

  2. Thanks for the fascinating links, Andrew. I wasn’t aware of this highly developed Philippino cultural response related to night terrors and sleep paralysis. The idea of death by nightmare is of course magnificently ripe for artistic use. (Wait a minute — Wes Craven already beat everybody to the punch, didn’t he?) And the idea that you’ll be saved if you can only move a mere finger or toe is common throughout the sleep paralysis literature. It’s one I can verify from experience, too. In the midst of an episode of paralysis, somehow you just *know* that the slightest successful movement will shatter the paralysis as a whole.

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually been able to break out of it on my own, though. If memory serves, it’s always had to either just subside on its own, without my actually breaking directly through the paralysis, or else my wife Teresa has touched, punched, whacked or shaken me, which effectively short-circuits the whole mess.

    In recent years I’ve begun having a most fascinating experience of remaining consciously calm and centered, in the heart of a concentrated point of self-awareness, while the episodes play themselves out. The terror washes over me in what were formerly unbearable waves, but now I actually attain a kind of lucidity and self-consciousness that allows me just to watch it all happen. Quite honestly (but partly metaphorically), it almost feels like a yogic victory, as if I’ve achieved some new level of spiritual transcendence or self-control.

  3. Wow, very intersting stuff. I’ve had those experiences since childhood, mixed with insomnia.

  4. This just happened to me for the first time 2 nights ago, so i have been doing research on it. Its weird because I said to my mom “i think i was abdicted by aliens” and then i did some research and found other people said the same thing. SO WEIRD.

  5. My sleep paralysis seems to occur a couple of days after I’ve stayed up all night taking amphetamine – the auditory hallucinations are quite something.

  6. Just a few weeks ago, a friend told me of his experience with an evil presence in his bedroom. It happened years ago, but it’s ironic that this is coming up now, again.

    I’ve experienced everything you’ve talked about minus the evil, danger, or etc.

    I’ve been analyzing and interpreting my dreams for, wow, almost twenty years now. There was a time when a recurring nightmare plagued me. I knew what the dreams represented, I didn’t know how to stop them. I set out researching and found ways to change the dreams. Very much like what you said about just being able to move a toe, I knew that if I could just change one part of the dream, the outcome would be advantageous rather than debilitating. A few books I read (Lord, that was before I was online and I had to go to the library!) suggested that seeing your own hand signaled lucid dreaming and at that point, one should be able to take control the dream. It took months, but eventually I saw my hand (in a different dream) it took several more attempts and I saw my hand in the recurring nightmares and changed the outcome.

    My waking life changed from that point on as well.

    Currently, I keep a journal of all the dreams I remember. I have trained myself to wake and write without being totally conscious and in the morning, I fill in details and set out to analyze and interpret them. Every dream I’ve remembered has had significant meaning to my waking life (whether I realized it at first or not.)

    I’m not sure this has a lot to do with HHE’s other than I have experienced them, but differently that what seems common and the fact that dreams have been a silent obsession of mine for two decades. (When did I get old?)

  1. Pingback: Shadow Visitors: Sleep paralysis and discarnate “dark ones”

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