In Sleep we lie all naked and alone, in Sleep we are united at the heart of night and darkness, and we are strange and beautiful asleep; for we are dying the darkness and we know no death. – Thomas Wolfe
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which people, either when falling asleep or wakening, temporarily experience an inability to move. More formally, it is a transition state between wakefulness and rest characterized by complete muscle atonia (muscle weakness).
Many people that experience sleep paralysis are struck with a deep sense of terror, because they sense a menacing presence in the room while paralyzed—hereafter referred to as the intruder. This phenomenon is believed to be the result of a hyper vigilant state created in the midbrain.More specifically, the emergency response activates in the brain when individuals wake up paralyzed and feel vulnerable to attack.
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli (1781) is thought to be one of the classic depictions of sleep paralysis perceived as a demonic visitation.
Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), by Eugène Thivier (1894)
Folk belief in Newfoundland, South Carolina and Georgia describe the negative figure of the hag who leaves her physical body at night, and sits on the chest of her victim. The victim usually wakes with a feeling of terror, has difficulty breathing because of a perceived heavy invisible weight on his or her chest, and is unable to move, experiences sleep paralysis. This nightmare experience is described as being “hag-ridden” in the Gullah lore. The “Old Hag” was a nightmare spirit in British and also Anglophone North American folklore.
In Finnish and Swedish folklore, sleep paralysis is caused by a mare, a supernatural creature related to incubi and succubi. The mare is a damned woman, who is cursed and her body is carried mysteriously during sleep and without her noticing. In this state, she visits villagers to sit on their rib cages while they are asleep, causing them to experience nightmares. The Swedish film Marianne examines the folklore surrounding sleep parálisis
It’s your fucking nightmare
(While your nightmare comes to life)
Can’t wake up and sweat
‘Cause it ain’t over yet
Still dancin’ with your demons
Victim of your own creation
In Turkey sleep paralysis is called karabasan, and is similar to other stories of demonic visitation during sleep. A demon, commonly known as a djinn (cin in Turkish), comes to the victim’s room, holds him or her down hard enough not to allow any kind of movement, and starts to strangle the person. To get rid of the demonic creature, one needs to pray to Allah with certain lines from the Qur’an.
In the Southern states of the United States, elders refer to it as the “witch riding your back.”
Sleep paralysis poses no serious health risk to those that experience it, despite the fact that it can be an intensely terrifying experience.
The safest treatment for sleep paralysis is for people to adopt healthier sleeping habits. However, in serious cases more clinical treatments are available. The most commonly used drugs are tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
The Household Cyclopedia (1881) offers the following advice about nightmares:
“Great attention is to be paid to regularity and choice of diet. Intemperance of every kind is hurtful, but nothing is more productive of this disease than drinking bad wine. Of eatables those which are most prejudicial are all fat and greasy meats and pastry… Moderate exercise contributes in a superior degree to promote the digestion of food and prevent flatulence; those, however, who are necessarily confined to a sedentary occupation, should particularly avoid applying themselves to study or bodily labor immediately after eating… Going to bed before the usual hour is a frequent cause of night-mare, as it either occasions the patient to sleep too long or to lie long awake in the night. Passing a whole night or part of a night without rest likewise gives birth to the disease, as it occasions the patient, on the succeeding night, to sleep too soundly. Indulging in sleep too late in the morning, is an almost certain method to bring on the paroxysm, and the more frequently it returns, the greater strength it acquires; the propensity to sleep at this time is almost irresistible.”
I was caught on the inside I’m afraid of the night
That my nightmare begin where reality ends
I won’t sleep tonight my head’s spinning ’round
I’m alone in a crowd I wait for the dark
For my nightmare to start I’m lonely at night
There will be sleeping enough in the grave – Benjamin Franklin
Thy eyes’ windows fall,
Like death, when he shuts up the day of life;
Each part, depriv’d of supple government,
Shall, stiff and stark and cold, appear like death.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)
I close my eyes
See a vision filled with wings
Head my way
Feel the presence
Of unknown power
Telling me to come
This is the only way