Since man started telling stories to each other, there have been a number of themes that cross into nearly every culture, themes like the creation of the world in the past, the destruction of the world in the future, a separate world underneath ours where the dead go, devastating floods, a god above all other gods, vampires, etc. While the big ideas are the same, the details tend to fit into their own culture, like how the Norse legends told of about ice and irritability; Egyptian legends clustered around a river delta, just like the animals they deified; and Babylonian legends were fierce, angry, and unpredictable, much like the Tigris and Euphrates that brought life and death to their kingdoms. I could go on.
One of these myths, however, is the same everywhere, and it hasn’t changed at all over these thousands of years. I’m talking about the “Old Hag.” It’s called many different things—most notably “incubus”— but the story is the same: a person will wake to find they cannot move, almost as if something is pinning them down. They sense a malevolent presence nearby, and sure enough, a dark shape descends over them, which could be someone watching or even sitting on them. Sometimes this dark shape speaks, but often in gibberish. Sometimes the victim can’t breathe. But always, the dark shape is terrifying. Eventually, they are released from its grip, and understandably, it’s not so easy to get back to sleep. People have given various identities to these dark shapes. Some have called them demons (this is the origin of the incubi), some have called them evil cats (as if there’s any other kind), and more recently, some have called them alien abductors. Regardless, the experience is persistent and real—so real, in fact, that science has a name for it: “Sleep paralysis.”
Doctors have been studying this phenomenon for years, but like sleep itself, there’s a lot that they don’t understand. They have figured out how sleep paralysis works. See, when the brain goes into a deep, dreaming sleep, your body shuts down completely. It performs a hard restart, and to do that, it needs to turn off the parts that control your limbs while it cycles the senses through whatever gobbledygook it uses to recharge and reset your mind. The origins and function of said gobbledygook is a mystery, but for it to work, our minds need to be powered down. Sometimes, though, something misfires. When that happens, you have no control of your limbs, and the sounds of dreams are still drifting through your head. Whatever it is that causes you to see dreams when your eyes are closed makes you see patches of blackness drifting around when they’re open. And you know that something is nearby. But most of all, and most consistently, is the fear. Whether you’re frightened because of the presence or your fear creates the presence is unknown. All that’s known is you’re scared.
Let me make one thing clear: all of these studies can tell us how sleep paralysis works, but not why. Maybe there are dark spirits preying on us, and the dark shapes and vague terror is the only way we can understand what it is we’re experiencing. Or maybe it’s just neurons misfiring. We’ll figure it out some day.
If this sounds kind of scary, keep in mind that when it happens to you, as I learned from personal experience recently, it’s even scarier.
Easter Sunday night, my cat Newcastle tried to jump onto a drying rack and failed spectacularly. I checked to see if he was hurt, but he wasn’t. He blamed me for the disaster and stayed mad at me for a long time, so when I crawled into bed, he wasn’t interested in purring and kneading my throat like he does every time I lie down. My wife was working a night shift, so he was my only bedtime company, and I was being shunned. Newcastle fell asleep at my feet, and I fell asleep shortly after him. This was around eleven thirty.
One of the psychiatric medications I take leaves me feeling lightheaded, which is why I take it before bed. The side effect is that this translates in my dreams to floating or flying, and as you can imagine, it’s a bit of a hoot. In fact, I look forward to these dreams. That night, I was fluttering around near the ceiling of a very large room that was bare, except for the chairs that normally sit like thrones in my living room. In the furthest corner of this room was a treasure or something silly like that, and so I tried to float over to pick it up. I couldn’t make it past the chairs, though, and so I had to land. The chair on the left—the one in which my wife usually sits—began to swivel toward me.
I don’t know why or how I knew this, but as it turned dramatically, I wasn’t expecting my wife to be sitting there. What I did know was that it was going to be something awful. My imagination began to speculate on what to expect when I could see the occupant: would it be a hideous half-animal monster in my wife’s clothes? Would it be a demonic alien in my wife’s clothes? Would it be a rotting zombie that looked like my wife? Either way, I made sure that when it come into view, I was looking at something else.
Mercifully, I woke up just then, and that’s when I discovered I wasn’t breathing. Naturally, I tried to do so, but I just couldn’t. It was if my throat had swelled up, like when a drink goes down the wrong pipe, and you cough it out, but you just can’t inhale. In this case, I couldn’t even exhale. My ears rang, and I tried to sit up, but no matter how hard I fought, something seemed to be restraining me. Finally, after who knows how long, I gasped in some air. A few moments later, I could move again.
This, as I found out the next day, is textbook Sleep Paralysis. There were some differences for me, though. As I mentioned earlier, the sufferer in most accounts of sleep paralysis is overwhelmed by panic, dread, and the feeling that something bad is there.
In my case, there was panic, but no dread, and certainly no presence. Sure, I was rattled by the experience, but who wouldn’t be? I figured I had just slept wrong, so I sat up, adjusted my pillows, and laid back down.
Another thing that is fairly consistent in these accounts is that these attacks only happen once. This, too, did not apply to me.
A few minutes after I lay back down, my ears started to ring; my head began to feel heavy, as if someone was pushing it down; and once again, I stopped breathing. This time, there was fear, as to be expected, but since I’d already gone through this, I was prepared. I told myself to relax, and in doing so, my throat would loosen up and everything would be back to normal. Only it didn’t go back to normal. In fact, relaxing only seemed to make it last longer.
By this point, it was a little after midnight. I lay back down again, more annoyed than anything. How was I supposed to sleep if this kept happening? I deduced that this kept happening to me because I was lying on my back. I started to roll over, but found I couldn’t. Something held me down, My ears rang, and this time, my room went dark. I don’t mean dark as in that nighttime blue-gray that settles over everything. I mean dark as in pitch black that settled gently over everything like a blanket, or like a bottle of ink tipped over and slowly spilling. As the light left the room, so did the air in my lungs.
I regained control over my body, and the darkness lifted—as gently as it had descended. The ringing died down, and I could now hear my other cat, Magik, outside the room, yowling. I called out to him, because I believed intuitively that a cat beside me would keep me safe. But Magik wouldn’t dare enter.
And again the room went dark, my limbs and head were pinned down, and I couldn’t breathe. Once free, I sat up and tried to talk Newcastle into moving up the bed with me, but he wouldn’t budge. He didn’t even wake up to give me a dirty look. Finally, after one more case of suffocating and being restrained, I stood up to go to the bathroom and hopefully shake off whatever it was that was causing this, which, I might note, I was still positive had to do with me sleeping the wrong way. No presence here.
But when I returned to bed after checking the black lump at the foot to make sure it really was Newcastle, I laid down to the room going dark and my body failing and the a new thought: what if it wasn’t me who was causing all of this? I still didn’t feel a presence in the room per se, but I did start to wonder. I rolled over, facing away from the window, because obviously the thing that I didn’t think was there came in through that window. I hoped that resting on my side would put an end to this and let me get back to sleep.
Then the dread settled in. Somehow, I knew this wasn’t the end of it. And sure enough, my ears began to ring, and I couldn’t move. By now, I’d begun to wonder if it wasn’t the ringing itself that was pinning me down and taking away the light, despite the fact that this made no sense. And to make matters even more confusing, I could breath just fine. Maybe I had finally found an angle that didn’t close off my throat.
“Or maybe,” my brain told me, “he just can’t reach your mouth from this angle.”
While I couldn’t hear or see or feel a presence in the room, it being there was the only logical conclusion I could draw from this. Prior to the most recent incident, my going theory was that my choking was responsible for the darkness and the ringing. Now I wondered if it was the other way around. This thought scared me more than anything that had happened so far.
“Please,” I whispered to whatever it was that I was now certain waited just out of sight. “Please stop.”
It didn’t. In fact, the next attack lasted longer. The ringing got louder, the darkness that folded over me was thicker, and the pressure was stronger.
“Please,” I begged again.
And it happened again, with even more force.
That’s when I decided to get out of bed. Any place had to be safer than this. But when I tried to roll over, to my surprise, I couldn’t move at all. My ears weren’t ringing, the room was the proper shade of cobalt, and nothing seemed be holding me down, but I just couldn’t move.
To understand how this felt, make a fist with your ring finger extended, and place it, palm-down, on a table or armrest. Now try to move your ring finger. No matter how much willpower you put into it, won’t go anywhere. That’s how I was. I could breathe just fine, but that was about as far as I got. And then suddenly, for no good reason, I was free. It was now about a quarter after one.
I bolted from the room and moved over to our uncomfortable couch. After I made myself somewhat comfortable, Magik came over and curled up on my chest. I cannot explain to you how safe I felt with him there. It’s like hiding from the monsters under your blanket when you’re a child; i.e. nothing was getting through that blanket. And no monster would come near me with Magik here.
Around forty-five minutes later, Magik was gone, and I heard the ringing again, but it was muted. Likewise, the room was no darker, and the restraints on my body could be shaken off like they couldn’t before. However, my stomach now felt sour. Bile crept up my throat like I had eaten a full-sized bag of Doritos and a box of donuts before I lay down. But after a dose of Alka-Seltzer and a quick trip to the bathroom, the fear—all of it—had fled.
When I got back to bed, Newcastle had forgiven me. He gave me a cursory purring and throat-kneading before he dozed off beside my head. I quickly joined him. When I woke up, I had nearly forgotten the whole thing.
A small part of me, though, is glad I went through this. As I’ve mentioned earlier, science has studied this for years, and I’ve been frightening myself by reading about it since I was a small boy. Knowing what we do, however, does not remotely begin to describe the sheer horror of it.