I was 22 years old and living at home after a stint away at college, and my father had recently passed away. Battling insomnia, I had been lying in bed for hours. As I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling, trying to will my mind to settle down and stop thinking long enough to let me fall asleep, I kept imagining weird, creepy faces floating around my room. I told myself that this was the beginning of dreaming and I was FINALLY starting to drift off to sleep, and the dark nature of what I was seeing must be due to stress. But sleep still eluded me, and I was starting to get creeped out, so I decided to get up and read or watch TV or something.
Except as soon as I tried to move, I found myself frozen in place. When I tried to sit up it felt like a hand clamped down on my forehead, and when I tried to open my mouth and shout for help, I felt another hand clamp down over my mouth.
I had a religious upbringing, so the first thing that sprang to mind was that this was some kind of demonic attack, and that I needed to speak the name of Jesus to make it stop. But I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t scream. The best I could do was a weak whimper, barely audible to my own ears. I don’t know how long I lay there, struggling to move, to call out to Christ, to shout for my mom, anything. It became harder and harder to breathe as a weight pressed down on my chest. And then, some kind of demonic apparition appeared in my room, a green, goblin-like creature that emerged from the wall, and it was laughing at me. When I saw that it was laughing, I became more angry than scared, which gave me the strength I needed. I started screaming, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” and immediately the hands that were holding me down released me. I stood up in my bed and starting screaming at the goblin, “Get out! Get out in Jesus’ name!” and it went back into the wall the way it had come.
At this point my mom came into my room and asked what I was screaming about. Shaking and crying, I told her what had happened, and she immediately started praying over my room and over me. I asked if I could sleep with her for the rest of the night, and she agreed. I was twenty-two years old and I needed to sleep with my mommy, that’s how terrified I was. I spent the rest of the night curled up against her, shivering, afraid to open my eyes in case that laughing demon was there.
This was only the first of what would be many such incidents stretched out over the next ten years. I never saw the green goblin again, but I always felt paralyzed, helpless and vulnerable, and like there was something in my room that wanted to hurt me. Sometimes I could see a dark, faceless figure near my bed. On several occasions, it felt like a body suddenly materialized in the bed with me, spooning up against me almost tenderly at first and then becoming more aggressive. Sometimes I didn’t see anything, but I would hear voices, too muffled to make out, or what sounded like radio static, when you can hear the announcers talking through the white noise but you can’t get it in clearly enough to understand anything. This would always happen when I was awake. It usually happened when I lay on my back.
For years, I was convinced that these were demonic attacks, but I didn’t understand why they kept happening. I was a good Christian girl. Praying before I went to bed didn’t stop them. Sleeping with my Bible didn’t stop them, either. At one point, my mom even had our pastor come over and check my room out for anything that might be triggering these attacks, some object among all of my geek collectibles that might be unknowingly linked to the occult or somesuch. She blamed my collection of Stephen King and Anne Rice novels, but I felt somewhat vindicated when my pastor told her it was unlikely that those were the cause.
After several years of this, something made me wonder whether these incidents had anything to do with the high probability that I had inherited my dad’s sleep apnea. This was when I decided to go online and do some research, which is how I learned about sleep paralysis. It turns out that this is actually a pretty common occurrence, experienced at least once by about 60% of the population. A smaller percentage experience it frequently like I did, with the accompanying visions or “visitations.” The scientific explanation is that it’s a malfunction of REM sleep, which is when a chemical is released to temporarily paralyze us so that we don’t physically act out our dreams. Sometimes, this chemical gets released while we’re still conscious, or our mind comes out of REM sleep before our bodies do. So basically, our minds are awake but our bodies are still dreaming.
I was so relieved to find a medical explanation for what was happening to me that I embraced it 100%. While the incidents still happened, and they were still terrifying while they were happening, once they were over, I was finally able to just shrug it off and go back to sleep instead of sitting awake for hours with all of the lights on, too terrified to do anything else.
Still, part of me always wondered: if the things seen by those of us who have this experience are merely hallucinations, why do we all describe seeing and hearing the same things? Can this just be chalked up to the shared cultural imagination? Or is something darker at play? Recently, I came across an interview series on Youtube with the foremost authority on sleep paralysis research, David J. Hufford. Interestingly, he’s not convinced that the answer is as simple as cultural memory and shared hallucinations. According to this interview, Dr. Hufford thinks science is wrong to dismiss the possibility that something paranormal is accompanying bouts of sleep paralysis.
So was I repeatedly visited by demonic forces taking advantage of my vulnerable state throughout most of my twenties and early thirties? Or was it just a naturally-occurring equivalent of a bad acid trip? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to know. Either way, those experiences were the most terrifying of my life, and I’m thankful that, for whatever reason, they seem to have stopped for good.