Many of us have had that eerie feeling of awakening in the middle of the night and sensing a malevolent presence in the room — but we’re paralyzed and barely even able to scream. Well, according to some scientists, it’s all in your head:
It was gone, but I was still screaming. Its form is hard to describe now, thinking back to the night when I woke up terrified in the dark. I remember some sort of floating orb with a red, ghoulish face surrounded by black smoke. I can’t help but describe my demon as an evil-looking Gastly. Right then and there, as I leaned up in bed, I understood why peoples across culture and time have said they’ve been visited by demons in the night. It would have made a believer out of me too, had I not known about the visceral, unforgettable experience of sleep paralysis.
If you’re sleeping well, the brain and the body usually get along. After drifting off to sleep, the brain eventually reaches the only stage we can remember: the REM (rapid eye movement) stage, characterized by rapid movement of the eyes underneath their lids. Here we dream, and just to make sure those dreams aren’t aped by our bodies, the brain releases two chemicals, a neurotransmitter called glycine and a nerve receptor in muscles called GABA, that paralyze the muscles we can move voluntarily.
During normal sleep, these chemicals wear off by the time we wake. But if you’re sleep deprived, on certain medications, or simply unlucky, the paralyzing chemicals will still be active as the brain wakes in the middle of REM sleep. You become conscious while dreaming, unable to move. When this happens, people report seeing everything from ghosts to demons to mysterious black figures on or near their beds. Sleep paralysis strikes an estimated 6.2 percent of the general population at least once in their lives.
Me, I prefer to believe in things that go bump in the night. After all, can billions of people in every culture be wrong?
For whatever reason, despite the wonderlands of imagination dreams transport us to, the experience of sleep paralysis has surprisingly common themes. There is usually an overcoming sense of fear and dread accompanied by the vision of some dark, humanoid figure on or around the bed. Breathing is also reportedly difficult, with a feeling of choking or pressure on the chest. This last symptom is common enough that cultures have made it the demons’ defining quality. Indonesian suffers of sleep paralysis call it “digeunton,” meaning “pressed on.” In Hungarian it is “boszorkany-nyomas,” or “witches’ pressure.” In Turkey it is “Karabasan,” in Thailand it is a ghost of the “Phi Am” folklore, and in the southern United States it is “witch riding.”
Odd that everyone should experience the exact same vision, eh? Please read the whole thing and then decide for yourself.