Sleep Paralysis Demons and Other Creatures
In German, the phenomenon is known as alpdrucken. In pinyin (a dialect of Chinese), guǐ yā shēn. In Hungarian, boszorkany-nyomas. Sleep paralysis and the “visitors” that accompany sleep paralysis are so widespread that almost every culture has a word for it.
The names for these visitors often reflect what the people who speak that language think the visitors are. The Hungarian term, for example, literally means “witches’ pressure.” Pinyin is a little more straightforward, meaning “ghost pressing on the body.” Most recently, in the English-speaking community, these nighttime visitors are blamed for reports of alien abduction, demon possession, and home hauntings.
Sleep paralysis vs nightmare
For those who have never experienced this phenomenon, it is easy to brush it off as a waking nightmare. There are likely incidents that are reported as sleep paralysis demons, which may actually be supernatural experiences. It’s impossible to know which are which. Anyone who has experienced a visitation will tell you that it feels extremely real, confirmed by the knowledge that you are actually awake. A person experiencing sleep paralysis is actually awake—the mind is, the body is not.
Those who take a critical look around their room once the experience is over and they are fully awake and able to think rationally again, often find that what they thought was a figure was actually a coat hanging on the doorknob or a shadow created by a piece of furniture. I woke once to my little sister screaming bloody murder about a man in her room. She told me he was standing in between the two bookshelves on the opposite wall from her bed. What it was, actually, was a shadow, being cast by a combination of the bookshelves a lamp, and a vacuum cleaner my mother had left in the hallway outside of our room.
Our species has a very deeply engrained fear of the dark. It is an evolutionary one. When we were a species that lived in small communities, in caves, the dark was full of things that would kill and eat us. The same is not true of modern society, but the fear remains. So it is easy, with the bedroom light on, to rationalize and to say, “Yes, of course what I saw—what I imagined I saw was this or that—but in the moment, it feels real—too real.”
What are the most common manifestations of sleep paralysis demons? Here are a few that have been reported as early as the middle ages:
Incubi and succubae
This is one of the most common early explanations for sleep paralysis and the visions that accompany it. The incubus and the succubus are essentially demons that first try to have sex with and then attack a person while they are sleeping.
If you’ve read The Crucible or seen the movie, you might recall a scene in which men and women come forward to testify to the court that the accused witches came to them in the night and “rode” them (meaning pressed down on their chest). Like the incubus and succubus explanation, this has been a popular story, especially pre-industrialization, for many people who experienced sleep paralysis. It is even the origin of the word “nightmare.” A “mare” is an old Germanic word for hag.
Demons and malevolent spirits
It is easy to see why this would be an assumption many people, after feeling paralyzed in their beds and sensing and/or seeing a figure looming at their side or pressing on their chest, would make. They often say that the thing in their room feels evil. It feels like it is going to hurt them. When they actually do wake up, the thing is gone. Some people have experiences so vivid that they hear the figure talking to them. Some have even said that the demon will tell them things that are going to happen over the next few days.
This is a claim that has become much more widespread in modern times. Instead of the dark, looming figure, some report seeing a bright, white figure. It still feels scary, but the circumstances are slightly different. These are often associated with out-of-body experiences or the feeling of being lifted and removed from the bed, returning hours later, having lost that stretch of time.
Wildly differing sleep paralysis experiences
One of the things that makes it difficult to pin sleep paralysis down is the wildly different experiences people even in the same culture can have. While we may know that during our deepest levels of sleep, the deepest troughs of the REM cycle, the body switches off the motoneurons.
It does this so that as we are dreaming, we are not also trying to act out those dreams. We also know that in the dark, in a moment of terror, we are very good at exaggerating sight and sound, so good, in fact, that we can conjure up our own hallucinations. What types of hallucinations and experiences are most common?
Vision of a dark, murky figure
This is surprisingly common and has been reported throughout history, across all populated continents. No matter what it is attributed to (witches, demons, aliens, the brain’s own fears), there is no doubt that millions of people have seen something standing over their beds when they were in a state of sleep paralysis. In the lore of sleep paralysis, they are often just called “the visitor.”
Pressure on the chest
Like seeing a dark figure, feeling pressure on the chest and sometimes around the throat is extremely common. Science tells us that we feel this pressure because we are panicking and resisting the body, which is still technically sleeping, and therefore breathing very slowly. In the moment, however, it does not really feel that way.
Out of body
Some people report actually floating above the scene of the visitor leaning over or actually sitting on top of their paralyzed body. This is not as common as other experiences, but is still fairly widely reported.
Being yanked, pulled out of bed, or scratched
These more physical experiences are much rarer than the visions and pressure. Some will feel a hand close around their ankle and their leg be pulled. Some will actually feel that they are pulled out of the bed. Others will only feel like they are being scratched by something with claws or long fingernails.
Visions of a very detailed figure
Less common even than the sensation of being physically attacked is the vision of a very detailed, fully-formed person, standing near the bed, but some report both the paralysis and the apparition.
Knowing that the brain is generating these sensations provides little relief to those who experience them regularly. No one knows what you are afraid of better than yourself, and sleep paralysis demons (or however it manifests itself) are often a reflection of those deep-seated fears. Some people may actually have supernatural experiences. They may all be supernatural experiences. Or they may simply be the brain manifesting a communal fear across thousands of years, across thousands of miles. More on sleep paralysis here.