If you’re bedeviled by demons, vexed by witches, or mildly annoyed by stubborn shadow people, you can either call the Ghostbusters, or consider that you are suffering from sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a weird disorder that traps people in waking nightmares. When we sleep deeply, our bodies essentially become paralyzed (probably so we don’t act out our dreams), but some people seem to slip between the cracks of these two states of consciousness. Stuck between dreams and reality, they are unable to move, but are awake enough to be completely aware of their surrounding. That’s when the terror begins. Unable to move, cry out, or wake up, they experience literal waking nightmares, where their worst fears materialize in the real world.
Accounts of sleep paralysis are found throughout history and across cultures, and creepily, the sleep-paralyzed often report having similar visions. The parallels are so uncanny and the experiences so unsettling and real-seeming, visions from sleep paralysis may explain a host of “paranormal” experiences, including hauntings, alien abductions, astral projection, and demonic sexual assault.
Perhaps the most common modern manifestation of sleep paralysis is belief in alien abduction. Author Whitley Strieber kicked off the trend with the publication of Communion, his best-selling 1987 book chronically nighttime calls from mysterious “visitors.” He didn’t say for sure that they were aliens, but he described the stereotypical “Grey” exactly. A few years later, tenured Harvard professor and psychiatrist John E. Mack published a study of over 200 alien abductees. He noted that abductees didn’t seem to suffer from mental illness, and that their accounts of alien abduction were eerily similar, even though they had no contact with one another. Mack came to an even-handed conclusion, but he didn’t rule out the possibly that disparate people reported the same experience because it actually happened to them. As for what happens, you probably know the story: In the middle of the night, tiny men with big, dark eyes enter your bedroom and paralyze you, either with a hypodermic needle, a gas, or some kind of beam of light. Now helpless, you are prodded, examined, and anally probed. Sometimes, the alien visitors rape you as part of a human-alien breeding initiative of some kind. Mack never offered sleep paralysis as an explanation for alien abduction, but it seems more plausible than an unbelievably technologically advanced civilization traveling countless light-years to conduct scientific experiments on our anuses.
The “Night Hag”
This creature from folklore has different names and manifestations in different cultures. In Newfoundland, South Carolina, and Georgia it’s a disembodied witch who visits in the night. In Fiji, it’s a vengeful ghost. In Turkey, it’s a Jinn. In China, it’s a mouse that steals your breath. In Vietnam, it’s a silent shadow. But no matter the name or face, the Night Hag behaves the same way. She/he/it steals silently into your room in the dead of night, projecting malevolence and evil, and sits on your chest, keeping you from moving and making breathing difficult. The cross-cultural similarities in these stories could come from sleep paralysis: Night hags come at night because that’s when we typically sleep. They hold you down because that’s what sleep paralysis feels like. The differences in night hag appearance, though, seem to be cultural. A vengeful ghost of a relative makes sense in a culture where family ties are central, but since we now live in a world steeped in technology, it stands to reason that our “night hag” visits through science fiction scenarios. Of course, that doesn’t explain why so many abductees report similar looking aliens…
The phenomenon of shadow people took off on the April 12, 2001 episode of radio show Coast to Coast AM, when host Art Bell interviewed Native American elder Harley “SwiftDeer” Reagan about the shapeless, dark figures that haunt him. Listeners were encouraged to submit drawings of shadow people they’d seen, and the drawings were strikingly similar. People’s descriptions of what the shadow people actually do are similar as well. They visit in the night, and lurk around people’s bedrooms, impassively staring down at their helpless prey. They often jump on people’s chests and/or try to choke them. Interestingly, where alien abductees often report beings with similar facial features, many people report seeing a shadow person wearing an overcoat and fedora. These visions are so common, he even has a name: The Hatman.
In medieval times, night terrors were positively sexy. People believed that the incubus, a lusty male demon, would ravish women as they slept, and that medieval dudes would be seduced by the succubus, a horny girl-demon. The incubus/succubus enters in the night, sits on your chest, and has sex with you, thus impregnating you with some kind of horrible abomination if you’re a woman, and simply kills you if you’re a man. See the pattern? Held down. Paralyzed. Probed/raped. Like a modern day alien attack with sexier aliens. Stories of incubi and succubi aren’t relegated to medieval era. A quick Google search will turn up as many modern ghost-and-demon-sex-stories as you’d ever care to look at.
Not all experiences with sleep paralysis are horrifying nightmares (only most of them). Some people reports that sleep paralysis is the perfect jumping off point for an out-of-body experience. Some astral projectionists say that being conscious while paralyzed is the perfect time to move your awareness into your “astral vehicle” so you can fly around in space and secretly watch people take showers and stuff. Similarly, some sufferers of sleep paralysis report that their experiences lead to full control over the dream state, as sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming are both, basically, blended states of consciousness. There are even specific techniques people use to turn their sleep paralysis hellscapes into lucid dream heavens.
Maybe It’s All Sleep Paralysis, But It’s Still Really Weird
Even if all of the above supposedly paranormal phenomena are caused by sleep paralysis, it doesn’t really explain anything. Whether you label it a “night-hag” or “common sleep disorder,” there is something distinctly unsettling and inexplicable about disparate people all having the same horrifying dreams. Even if aliens aren’t being drawn here by our unbelievably attractive anuses, who’s to say whether some supernatural intelligence is making itself known in our dreams somehow, or we’re catching glimpses of trans-dimensional beings that live in the borders between our lives and our dreams.