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.
Posted on October 25, 2006, in Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged H.P. Lovecraft, horror, john carpenter, Sleep Paralysis, Thomas Ligotti. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.