Sleep Paralysis Redux

As I’ve alluded to several times, late last year was a period of intense stress and emotional turmoil for me. So it wasn’t surprising that my brain started playing tricks on me about that time. Some of you may recall my “sleep paralysis” episode of that period. My blog entry from Nov 25, 2004, is reprinted here:

Okay, I have a very creepy dream to relate to you all. I know, I know, everybody’s dreams are boring; it’s true. But mine has a phsyiological moral to it. Last night (morning) I went to bed at 4:AM, ’cause I work late these days. No sooner had my mind drifted to neverland when I sensed an evil presence in the room, and felt strong hands pinning me to the bed, holding my ankles and shoulders. I could see no faces and, most terrifying, I couldn’t even speak! I kept trying to yell, “f@ck off!” but all that dribbled out of my mouth were incoherent mutterings. Some seconds later, I was okay again and wide awake. The clock read 4:20 AM, and the weirdest part of all was that my ankles and shoulders still tingled from where they had been held. It hadn’t felt like a dream at all, but rather like a hazy drugged experience.

Now, the paranormal enthusiasts out there are immediately thinking of stories of “the Old Hag” or the incubus or succubus myths of the Middle Ages. Maybe even the precursor to alien abduction? Meanwhile, the pragmatists are thinking poor widdle Raywat had a bad dream and now he’s awwww upset. But the truth is that I experienced something that is physiologically common but not well known or understood: Awareness during Sleep Paralysis, or ASP.

Sleep paralysis consists of a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset (called hypnogogic or predormital form) or upon awakening (called hypnopompic or postdormtal form). See, your body goes into paralysis just before REM sleep to prevent you from acting out your dreams. But sometimes it does so prematurely, or fails to come out of paralysis once you awake. The strange thing is that, almost universally, the experience is accompanied, as in my case, by a sense of presence of a “malevolent being” who is often suffocating you or sitting on your chest. It really is one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, and yet it is simply a –well– brain fart.

So if your brain ever farts, don’t call the paranormal police. Just mutter, “f@ck off!” and everything will be okay.

Some months later, I discovered an epidemic of sleep paralysis cases in Zanzibar, with the added characterstic of forced sodomy. Let me point out that there was no hanky panky involved in my sleep paralysis experience! Now my readings are pointing to a connection between sleep paralysis, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks. Cambodian refugees, for example, report a high incidence of sleep paralysis episodes. Meanwhile, a friend who does research on the paranormal suggests that the prevailing neurological models do not adequately explain the demonic experiences of sleep paralysis. Rather, he suggests that perhaps it is merely an altered state on consciousness that permits us to perceive things that are truly there, but which are typically shrouded from our view. Creeeepy.