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Sleep Paralysis: A Terrifying, Real-Life Phenomenon

Sleep ParalysisEpisodes of waking up feeling briefly paralyzed–while experiencing a dark, sensed presence–have come to be called “sleep paralysis” in medical language. David J. Hufford, professor at Penn State College of Medicine and the world’s leading expert on the phenomenon, describes in Opening Heaven’s Door his own unnerving, out-of-the-blue experience.

Hufford discovered it through his own out-of-the-blue experience in the 1960s. “I was a sophomore in college. I’d gone to bed early after my last final exam. I was very tired. Being sleep deprived makes this more likely. I woke up hearing the door of my apartment open, and I thought it’s probably somebody coming to see if I want to go for dinner. I heard footsteps coming across the room. And then I found I couldn’t move, and that was very frightening. Then I felt the bed press down as if somebody was climbing up on it; then I felt what felt like someone kneeling on my chest, and then I felt hands on my throat. I thought I was being killed. It was horrible. I had a feeling of revulsion and terror about this thing on my chest, not just because it was trying to kill me, but also because it seemed evil. I struggled to move, and when I did move it was gone. I leaped out of bed and nothing was there. That is a very typical sleep paralysis experience.”

Approximately 30 percent of the population has had a simple episode of waking up feeling briefly paralyzed, but encounters with the malignant sensed presence happen to 3 to 6 percent, according to the psychologist J. Allan Cheyne, of the University of Waterloo. It was initially assumed that episodes of sleep paralysis were colored by cultural expectation, that if you roused in this peculiar, halfway state between sleep and wakefulness and expected to be visited by a werewolf, a witch, or whatever your culture believed in, then you would be. However, people like Hufford, who had no prior knowledge of the phenomenon, can experience it out of the blue. Another such person is the novelist Barbara Gowdy.

“It began in my early twenties,” she told me. Gowdy is a beautiful woman: physically graceful, with rich brown eyes and a fierce intelligence. She questions everything, holds every object up to the light, and examines every facet. This experience was no exception. “It only happened when I took naps, and if I was lying on my back. The first time it happened, the room got very cold, and very dark. I could hear my husband in the kitchen [but] I was suddenly aware of a hideous, unspeakable evil in the room. And then I was aware that it was on my chest. It was so real, and concrete. And I couldn’t move or call out. Suddenly, as if waking up, it would be gone.”

Twelve or fifteen years later, it started again, also during a nap. “I had my eyes open. I hadn’t gone to sleep yet, and the temperature changed again, and the evil presence was back. It’s the complete opposite of bliss, or of the feeling you have with a newborn baby. This evil was deeply old. It wasn’t the evil of a brand-new psychopath. It was evil that had been in the world since time immemorial—a wise, experienced evil. It gave me access to an idea of evil that I hadn’t had before. It was dirty—and old—and sexual. [Experiencing] it was a fate worse than death.”

Gowdy went to research what was happening to her in the public library, although there was scarcely any information available. Until the late 1970s, the sensed presence in sleep paralysis was considered to be a rare side effect of narcolepsy. “I saw artists trying to capture the evilness, but no one could quite capture it. Until you’ve had the experience, you can’t know it.”

Desperate to avoid her tormentor, Gowdy stopped having naps. For years she managed to evade the ineffable terror. “But then it started happening again. This time, it whispered, low and growling, in my right ear: ‘I am the wolf.’”

Fed up with being terrorized, Gowdy abruptly and angrily surrendered.
“Well,” she replied, “do your worst.”

At this, “the hallucination popped and disappeared and never came back. That suggests to me that I actually took on my own subconscious and, by fearlessness, I beat it.” She also wonders whether it wasn’t a deeper, collective unconscious she was tapping, or as she put it, “the memory of pain, the memory of evil.”

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