It started with the reindeer. You’re three, maybe four years old, and it peers down your bed through the mosquito netting, bright eyed, with shiny, sharp teeth. You scream for mama and can’t. And forever and after, you discover watching “The Jungle Book” gives you nightmares, and so does “Bambi.”
Then there were the witches. They ride broomsticks, giving chase through a warren of hallways, whipping into a fluorescent-lit bathroom to cackle and bang outside a locked wooden stall. You’re 23 years old and you open your eyes and you’re lying on a couch and you hear them, still cackling and banging, outside the windows of the room where your director sits editing and the television is playing. Bang and cackle. Crash and babble. And you try to move, to say look out, they’re outside, and when you finally make a sound, when the scream comes out a croak, you pull yourself off the couch and to the floor, pleading that the curtains be covered because they’re here, they’re coming, keep them away please. And because the director is a friend who believes in aliens and spaceships and the awesome powers of the Tazmanian devil, he will hold your hand, pat your head, and drag a blanket over the window while you take over the editing with your back turned away.
Sometimes the boy comes, creeping up the stairs to stand at your bedroom doorway, head cocked, hands spread against the walls, eyes staring and hollow, skin as blue as the inside of a swimming pool at dusk. And even when you move, even when the paralysis is gone and you are reduced to a muttering fool, for a minute, maybe two, you are well aware the blue-skinned boy is there, still staring, right behind you, and he has teeth and nails Papa Smurf will never have. And you close your eyes and go back to sleep and in five minutes, in 20, you wake up, and the boy with the teeth is crouched an inch away from your face.
I write this at three in the morning, and because I am all of 26 years old and by all intents and purposes an adult—with a TIN number and checkbook and biases against the proper government officials—it is necessary to explain that to be aware of a nightmare does not kill the terror. The mind is awake, the body is asleep, and the dreams continue with your eyes wide open. It lasts seconds, and every second is invested with the sort of relentless fear that accompanies small children left alone in the dark. The scientists and psychologists call it sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that most people have experienced at least once in their lives, waking up unable to move or speak while doors open, windows bang, and light bulbs grin at gremlins erupting out of desk drawers.
It was in 1876 when psychologist Weir Mitchell first identified sleep paralysis. He called it night palsy. “The subject awakes to consciousness of his environment but is incapable of moving a muscle; lying to all appearances still asleep. He is really engaged in a struggle for movement fraught with acute mental distress; could he but manage to stir, the spell would vanish instantly.”
A Guardian article by psychology professor Chris French explains sleep paralysis. During REM sleep, he says, the deepest stages of sleep, “the muscles of the body are paralyzed, presumably to prevent the dreamer from acting out the dream. During sleep paralysis episodes, however, something goes awry with the normal process and the individual becomes aware of the fact that he cannot move.” In a minority of cases, “this curious mix of normal wakeful consciousness and dream consciousness can result in bizarre and often terrifying hallucinations.”
I am a crime reporter, and part of the job is walking down kill zones and counting the flies on the bodies of the sprawling dead. I am also a girl who will run shrieking when one of my more creative staff members changes my computer wallpaper to an Internet grab of a ghost in black. I have always believed that watching shadows bleed over my bed was a function of an overactive imagination, but sleep paralysis is not a particularly new or rare phenomenon. One in 20 people in French’s studies reports “a strong sense of a presence, difficulty in breathing due to pressure on the chest, intense fear, and a wide range of hallucinations.”
Japan calls it kanashibar, or nocturnal spirit attack. China calls it “ghost oppression.” In Mexico, they explain it as the souls of unbaptized children crawling over sleeping bodies. In Newfoundland, it is “the old hag,” a name culled from the image of an old woman sitting on a sleeper’s chest, bony hands around the sleeper’s neck. It is as much part of literature and mythology as it is part of science. A New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof says that although it was once thought to be very rare, recent studies suggest that it may strike at least 40 percent or 50 percent of all people at least once. Many scholars go so far as to point to sleep paralysis as the cause of the growing number of reports of alien abduction. “People will draw on the most plausible account in their repertoire to explain their experience,’’ says Al Cheyne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and adds that in a survey involving more than 2,000 people experiencing sleep paralysis, hundreds described experiences similar to alien abduction.
Studies are careful to say there is no harm in the phenomenon beyond the momentary terror, and suggest both heredity and irregular sleep patterns as the cause. The presence can be visual, auditory, tactile. I know of people who have them, an odd set, a lawyer turned musician who sees swelling shadows, a music video director who fights off creatures from National Geographic, and one of my staff members, a boy who sees the devil on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other and is not sure which one frightens him most.
I write this at three in the morning, in the most practical and reasoned way possible, because I am a rational adult who is well aware there are reasons behind hallucinations and bigger monsters on the congressional floor. I will write this and rewrite this, because I am intelligent enough to know that to stop writing would be an idiot thing, because there is a boy with blue hands and painted feet sitting on my bed, waiting for me to turn around.
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