You awake in the middle of the night but your body is paralyzed. Your mind is racing full speed but everything feels stuck: you can’t move your fingers; your eyes are wide open. You try to scream but your lips remain frozen. Limp with fear, it becomes hard to breathe. There’s nothing you can do but stare out in horror, filled with dread. Soon it passes but an eerie sensation lingers. You’ve been locked in sleep paralysis!
Up to 50% of the population has experienced sleep paralysis when falling asleep or waking up. Those who have will tell you it’s a jolting experience. Scientifically, sleep paralysis is due to a disturbance in REM sleep. During REM sleep, the nervous system releases chemicals to make the body relax. It is due to these chemicals that people do not act out their dreams physically. When the body does not receive the message to wake up at the same time the mind does, a person can become mentally aware while their body is still in REM sleep. When this occurs, they experience the sensation of being paralyzed while asleep. The limbic system becomes activated and triggers extreme emotional reactions of panic and fear. Other common sensations reported by people in sleep paralysis are feeling a presence in the room, hallucinating sounds, and having an out of body experience. The sensation only lasts a brief time but the shock to one’s system often leaves them feeling scared in the dark.
Throughout history sleep paralysis has haunted people in the night. In fact, the word night-mare originates from a description of sleep paralysis. In Old English “marae” meant incubus, or female evil spirit. A night-mare was when this demonic spirit laid upon sleepers and suffocated them. There have been numerous ancient explanations of sleep paralysis. Although the cultures vary in time and place, almost all feature supernatural demons that come to kill and induce bad dreams. It makes one wonder if there may be a metaphysical cause underlying the experience of sleep paralysis. At the very least, the idea spirit possession during sleep seems to be a common archetypal fear that spans worldwide.
The phenomenon was of both theological and medical concern in Ancient Greece. Nightmares were seen as Gods or demigods. Themison of Laodica called sleep paralysis the Throttler or Chocker, which gave personification to the experience. Also in the 2nd century AD, the famous physician Galen named the experience “ephialtes,” which meant “jumping on you”, to describe sleep paralysis. Greeks would use the term Pan ephialtes, in regard to the great horned God of wood and flocks, because it was believed he was having sex with the dreamer during the sleep paralysis. When it occurred, it was a fortuitous sign of abundance future income.
In the Roman parts of Alexandria during the 7th century, Byzantine physician Paulus Aegineta first wrote about the concept of sleep paralysis. As both an avid surgeon and encyclopedia writer, he was keen detailing his medical observations and produced seven influential books (one of which is cited as the origins of plastic surgery). In regard to sleep paralysis, Paulus believe it could be cured through “bleeding, drastic purgatives and friction the extremities.” If this did not work, cupping the throat, restricting diet and shaving the patient’s head would be effective treatment.
As Christianity began to dominate the Western world during the Dark Ages, the fertility blessings associated with sleep paralysis were cast aside under the restrictive sexual climate. Sleep paralysis was attributed to evil demons, incubus and succubus that would harass their victims at night to have sex with them. Incubus, which in Latin means “to lie upon,” was the male version of this demon that tried to have sexual relationships with women. Succubus, meaning “to lie under” in Latin, was the female demon who attempts to for men into sexual intercourse at night. The common cure for sleep paralysis became exorcism because of its supernatural origin.
Ancient Middle East & Islam
Both pre-Islamic and Islamic culture have cited jinn, or supernatural creatures similar to spirits and demons, as the cause of sleep paralysis. The word Jinn translates to “to hide” or “to conceal”. Jinn are known to cause disease, mental illness, and nightmares. Sleep paralysis was commonly known as “jinn affliction” and was thought to be the result of possession by a jinn.
In Southern Nigeria, the cause of sleep paralysis was attributed to Ogun Oru, which translates to nocturnal warfare. When it occurs, it was believed culturally to be demonic infiltration during the dream state. It was believed this could escalate to a feud between the person’s earthly spouse and spiritual spouse that wanted to have sexual liberties with the person. To get rid of the demonic presence, elaborate rituals were performed to remove the evil essence from one’s dream state.
The Chinese have believed since ancient times that the soul is vulnerable to spirits during sleep. Between 403-221 B.C. the first book about sleep and dreams emerged in China called Zhou Li/Chun Guan. The book describes how the government had imperial officers that acted as dream interpreters. It was their duty to classify dreams into 6 different types. The text does not mention sleep paralysis directly, but historians have noted the description of dream type “E-meng” (dreams of surprise) closely resembles the concept of sleep paralysis.
Between 30-124 A.D., the first recorded Chinese character for the word “ghost oppression” appeared in Shuo Wen Chieh Tzu, which was the earliest Chinese dictionary. There has been historical debate about whether it referred more to a possession during the night that caused nightmares or being oppressed by a ghost at night and paralyzed. Most experts lean towards the latter meaning. Ghost oppression attacks continues to be described as similar to sleep paralysis to this day.
To Modern Times
From ancient to modern times, sleep paralysis has remained a gateway to the mysteries of the other side. Currently, many alien conspiracy theorist attribute the cause of sleep paralysis to abduction. While modern science can explain the events biologically, the experience still opens people to the mysterious realms of the gap in-between waking and dream states. We are left wondering, are there unseen forces that tinker with us while we are fast asleep?