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Figures in the Dark or a Trick of the Mind?

Avery Wall

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Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night and been unable to move? Along with this sudden paralysis, there is a sense of something leering at you in the pitch darkness of your room—a mysterious, foreboding figure or a pair of crimson eyes glaring at you out the corner of your eye. Fear and panic takes over, the urge to get up and run away in the opposite direction nearly chokes you, and your body refuses to move. Surely, it’s a figment of your imagination and your body not being able to move is just part of a terrible nightmare.

Wrong.

What you have just experienced is called sleep paralysis. There are different variations of what someone undergoing sleep paralysis may experience, but for the most part, it is when the body is caught between wakefulness and sleep. Researchers of sleep paralysis have discovered that irregular sleep cycle may be a cause of the phenomenon. Other factors of sleep paralysis such are:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Sleep schedule that changes
  • Mental conditions such as stress or bipolar disorder
  • Sleeping on the back
  • Other sleep problems such as narcolepsy or nighttime leg cramps
  • Use of certain medications, such as those for ADHD
  • Substance abuse

There are also two different ways sleep paralysis can occur: hypnagogic, or predormital sleep paralysis, and hypnopompic, or postdormital sleep paralysis. Hypnagogic is when the body relaxes as a person falls asleep, but he/she wakes up in the middle of this process and is unable to move or speak. Hypnopompic, also causes people to be unable to move or speak, takes place during the REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) phases of sleep. Sleep paralysis occurs when someone becomes aware while the body is still in the REM stage of the sleep cycle in which their muscles are relaxed.

Sleep paralysis—no matter what science says about it—is a very scary experience and has happened over the course of many centuries. Religious figures have called sleep paralysis as the result of an evil presence from the likes of demons stealing a person’s life force or spirit. Mysterious and invisible beings during ancient times or the works of alien abductions in some cases. There have also been people claiming an old hag, an evil witch-like being, who sits on their chest and cuts off their air so it can suck the energy from them.

No matter the case, science claims that none of these “evil” presences or alien abductions are really happening to us while we’re caught in sleep paralysis. However, what you experience in that moment may as well be real because not being able to move or even scream is terrifying in of itself. Seeing something in the dark leaning over you or watching you while you lie motionless is a nightmare that comes to life.

There is no cure for sleep paralysis other than destressing before going to bed, ensuring you get plenty of sleep, and your sleeping schedule remains constant. It is important to talk to your doctor if sleep paralysis continues to occur and is preventing you from getting enough sleep at night.

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