I was 19 when I first experienced sleep paralysis, and that time it took the form of man lying on top of me, so heavy that it was hard for me to breathe. I’d been dreaming of a heritage village in the South Island town my mother lives, a fenced in collection of buildings with a windmill and a cafe and a book fair every year. It was a pretty innocuous dream, at first; everything was sunny and gentle and not much was happening. At the front gates I saw a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a long time, and while I was trying to talk to her I became aware of a man approaching me to my left. He was trying to get my attention. From the corner of my eyes—or perhaps just because you know these things in dreams without having to look at them directly—I could make out that he was a bit shorter than me, and unshaven, with lank blonde hair that fell to his shoulders. When I ignored him, he came and stood very close, which was when I turned, and the minute I looked at him I woke up. By which I mean I seemed to wake up, but he was still there.
He was heavy. I tried to shift my arms, but they were pinned to my sides. And I could smell him, which was the worst of it—the bitter combination of feeling a rough jaw against the skin of my neck, and the terror of being unable to breathe. I choked. He smelt like sweat and something else—something ugly.
Over his shoulder, I could see the objects of the furniture in my room, all regular and known and ordinary. I think I knew I was dreaming because I remember something turning in my mind, like something was trying to rouse me. Something was forcing me upwards into consciousness like a swimmer through currents. Wrenched into wakefulness, the man vanished, the pressure left my chest, and my room was the same as it had always been. I was shaking and terrified and confused. I’d read about sleep paralysis—and thank god we don’t believe in demons—but trying to move and finding myself unable to had left me feeling exhausted and also intensely, intensely vulnerable. It took a long time to get to sleep again that night.
I don’t know I spoke to anyone about it for a few days, because what do you say?
Reduced simply, sleep paralysis occurs when, in transition between sleeping and wakefulness, the mind is alert but the body still sleeping. For most people, this happens during their waking process; while REM sleep allows for sight and hearing, movement is suppressed. Typically, this muscle atonia is accompanied by the idea of a direct threat: the hallucination of an intruder in the room, or something or someone pressing down physically on your chest.
Folklore the world-over has provided explanations and narratives for these experiences (which feel, at the time, so real—the smell! the touch!) and have given us a dense library of different, terrifying nighttime visitors: incubus, succubus, the Old Hag. Newfoundland gives us the terrifying expression of being “hag rid," or ridden by the hag. In Chinese culture it is called, in pinyin, guǐ yā shēn (“ghost pressing on body”), in Turkish karabasan (“the dark assailant”), and in Vietnamese ma đè means “held down by the ghost.” The Hungarian term boszorkany-nyomas means “witches pressure”, while German has alpdrucken, or “elf pressing." This is an old story. The experience, though terrifying, is nothing new.
My hallucinations have never taken the form of a "hag," but I have experienced sleep paralysis of most the other, archetypal obvious types, so I can imagine it. I get the weight and fear of it, the visceral and necessary experience that would lead to that term: ridden by the hag.
For me it is like this: I open my eyes and feel like I am totally awake, except for a peculiar sense of dread, or perhaps some piece of dream that had previously been in my head will now seem to be fully outside of me. It is always menacing. Usually, the dread comes first, and then, slowly, I am hit with the realization that I cannot move. By now I will know that I am experiencing sleep paralysis, and I will know that if I ignore whatever is threatening and concentrate only on my breathing I will fall back down into darkness and wake a few minutes later, properly, to a normal room and total control of all my limbs. Still, it’s never pleasant.
To a critical mind, it's easy to track the hallucinations back to a probable cause: the clothes on the ground that look like they could be a body, a mark on the wall which could easily be confused for a face. Once I woke to find a small man standing beside the bed in my boyfriend’s room. Talking rapidly, he let off a shrill narration of things that would happen imminently—things he would do to me, and bad things in the world, like earthquakes, fires, and bombs. Sleep paralysis, I thought dimly. Breathe it out. But it was hard to ignore the monologue from the man beside the bed. He spoke so urgently.
"He’s going to wake up soon," he said, pointing at my sleeping boyfriend, "And then he will get up, he will leave the room, and he won’t see me." He started to giggle.
When I fully woke, I was kicking my boyfriend in the shins repeatedly (like this would make him less inclined to wake up and move away from me), and probably harder than was entirely necessary. Then, quiet, I lay in the dark, wide awake, staring around the room. Just above where the man had been standing was a reading lamp. It’s the type that has a bending neck for twisting into different angles. That night the neck was curved over into an arc. If you looked at it a certain way, it could appear to be the outline of a head. Maybe even the peculiarly rounded head of a person who would stand as high as my waist.
You can realize these things, as you lie there in the dark, still trying to fight off the lingering sense of vulnerability and fear, but that is not to say they help all that much at the time.
Early cases of sleep paralysis seem to be clearly linked with the idea of dreaming. The word "nightmare" can be traced back to old Norse and Germanic words ("mare" or "mara" or "mahr") that were used to describe the hag that sits on peoples chests while they sleep and brings them bad dreams; the spirit was also thought to ride horses in the night, leaving them exhausted by the morning. (Norwegian and Danish words for "nightmare" are mareritt and mareridt, which translate to "mare-ride.") A Persian medical text from the 10th century describes a nightmare in which “the person senses a heavy thing upon him and finds he is unable to scream” and suggests that "the nightmare... is caused by rising of vapours from the stomach to the brain... The therapy includes bloodletting from the superficial vein of the arm and from the leg vein and thinning the diet, especially in patients with red eyes and face."
But sleep paralysis has also, frequently, been associated with the workings of the supernatural. As time passed, the mara figure transmuted into a more current fear for the superstitious—the devil, demons, witches. In the Salem witch trials, John Louder recounted how, after arguing with the accused Bridget Bishop, "he did awake in the night by moonlight, and did see clearly the likeness of this woman grievously oppressing him; in which miserable condition she held him, unable to help himself, till near day." In 1595, in another trial, Dorothy Jackson accused several neighbors of witchcraft, saying she was "ridden with a witch three times of one night, being thereby greatly astonished and upon her astonishment awaked her husband"; in the late 17th century, Nicolas Raynes provided testimony at the trial of a purported witch and said that his wife, “after being threatened, has been continually tormented by Elizabeth, a reputed witch, who rides on her, and attempts to pull her on to the floor."
In more modern attempts to understand the occurrences, we've attempted to draw links between the brain patterns of interrupted sleep and the various and many strains of old hag folklore. During REM sleep, the body shuts down its motonuerons to stop the body from acting out dreams. In sleep paralysis, this function is still active: although the mind has woken up, the body remains locked down. The muscle paralysis removes the voluntary control of breathing, while the REM breathing patterns can feel, to the waking mind, like suffocation. The accompanying sense of terror is believed to come from the brain’s emergency response mechanisms; the vulnerability we feel with paralysis cues the brain into a hyper-vigilant response. Alert to any possible threat, and with all senses suddenly hyperactive, real-word stimuli is exaggerated to the point of hallucination.
In my own experiences, when I lie awake afterward, piecing together the shapes in the room, I've thought about how it is perhaps all made more terrifying for coming from inside the head than from without it—like the phone call that is coming from inside the building. The mind knows what the mind fears. I figure that's I’ve never been visited by a hag. Witches have never really caused me much unease.
It's been about a year since I was last seized by sleep paralysis. For a while, it would visit me every few months, and it was exhausting. I realized that I was only affected when I was sleeping on my back, and I’ve been trying not to do that. It seems to be working.
It is a strange thing, though, to see the things that scare us and look at them directly—all the murky, unshaped fears that lurk in some primal bog at the base of our skulls suddenly grow legs and arms and teeth and stare at us from the bedside or rest their chins on ours. And if I look at the forms my nighttime visitors have taken over the years, I suppose it is interesting to review their patterns—a misshapen parade of vague, malevolent intent—and to compare them to those in old folklore. For one thing, my visitors are mostly men: devilish sometimes, or shadowy and unformed, or just a regular sort of a man who might be holding something heavy. Ghoulish women, or witches or hags, never visit me in my sleep.
I wonder about that sometimes, but only in the daytime. I try not to think about these things when it gets dark.
Jenah Shaw writes and edits and lives in Wellington, New Zealand.