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The feature story below originally appeared on August 25, 2015, at the now-closed publication Van Winkle’s:
Meet the Biggest Fans of Our Worst Nightmares
Victims of sleep paralysis are aware of their surroundings, but unable to move or make a sound. They are commonly accosted by demons and often face their worst nightmares. It’s by all accounts terrifying — so why are these dreamers trying to stimulate the state?
The demon, black and smooth as a jackboot, towered over the foot of the bed. Terrified and confused, Christian pulled his gaze away from the hairless apparition. His eyes, Christian realized, were the only things under his control; otherwise, he couldn’t so much as twitch. Christian could sense creature ambling towards him, and tried to remember why it was here. He glanced back and, as the figure stared at him in silence, Christian’s fear turned into thrill.
He had, after all, brought this upon himself.
Summoning the demon wasn’t easy. Christian had darkened the room and laid perfectly still on his back, fighting every instinct to squirm or scratch. He focused on the air coming in and out of his nostrils, an audible incantation of sorts. Finally, after an hour, he found himself frozen, overcome by an all-encompassing tingling sensation. Paralyzed, the hallucinations began: Enter Mister Sandman.
How would Christian rate this spectral visitation? “I would definitely do it again.”
Of those who regularly suffer from sleep paralysis, more than 90 percent report having terrifying experiences. While the average sleeper would rather avoid horrors in the bedroom, a dedicated group of altered-state enthusiasts — sometimes known as oneironauts, or dream explorers — is actively seeking them out. They gather on message boards, how-to wikis and subreddits, helping one another experience their worst nightmares.
Frozen in the Dark
Sleep paralysis, though not directly harmful to a sleeper, is an uncomfortable mix of biological muscle loss spiked with auditory visual, and sometimes tactile, hallucinations. The prevailing emotion felt during such episodes is fear, according to what psychological research there is on the phenomenon. So-called “Shadow Men,” such as Christian’s visitor might be the fashionable incarnation of sleep paralysis — as seen in the creepy (and well-received) documentary The Nightmare by Rodney Ascher or the little-seen 2013 horror film The Shadow People — but the terror is ageless.
Before there were Shadow Men, it was evil witches, spectral cats, bloodsucking bats and suffocating apparitions that immobilized victims as they slept. It could also be argued that incubi and succubi — male and female demons that visit sleepers for forced sexual congress — are among humanity’s earliest interpretations of sleep paralysis, having been mentioned in Mesopotamia, circa 2400 B.C.
Accounts of sleep paralysis are also eerily similar across cultures. The ancient Germanic “old hag,” for example, resembles the Laotian phantom dab tsog, which resembles the Turkish spirit karabasan — all share a penchant for crushing chests and wringing necks. Henry Fuseli’s painting from 1781, also aptly named The Nightmare, is considered by some to be a depiction of the condition.
These legends may have sprung from half-formed memories of sleep paralysis episodes that are common to the human condition.
Many ancient folklores fade into memory, but sleep paralysis has a peculiar tenacity. In the 1930s, psychoanalyst Ernest Jones brought religion into the picture, attributing ancient sleep paralysis to the idea of not just specters but souls, entwining nightmares and holy ghosts together. In our more civilized era, nighttime hallucinations didn’t vanish — they simply upgraded along with technology, morphing into alien abductions and other paranormal activities.
Even in this modern age, sleep paralysis stubbornly resists analysis. “There’s still not a whole lot of data on how sleep paralysis happens,” said Brian Sharpless, Ph.D., a psychologist at Washington State University and the author of Sleep Paralysis: Historical, Psychological and Medical Perspectives. “But we have some ideas,” he added.
What we do know is this: As we enter the REM cycle of sleep and begin to dream, our brainstems paralyze our voluntary muscles with a flood of chemicals known as GABA neurotransmitters. This lack of movement prevents us from acting out our dreams, which “can be dangerous if there’s anybody else around,” says Sharpless.
In other words, being immobilized during sleep is a completely natural part of the act itself. But during episodes of sleep paralysis, there’s a glitch in the system: The chemicals from our brainstem keep us frozen, but we remain aware of our surroundings. As the brain struggles to reconcile the body’s immobility with its own continued activity, our imagination goes into overdrive.
As Sharpless explained, “You’re sitting there and thinking, ‘Why can’t I move?’ What you get next is a feeling of being watched, or there’s a presence in the room with you — kind of like you’re walking down a dark street, or you’re in the woods and you’re all alone and you feel like you’re being stalked. Our brains, needing to make sense of those things, default to evolutionary settings — the panicky spin cycle of prey — and begins assessing threats that aren’t there.
Should you be visited by late night horrors, remember that fear might not be the mind-killer, but it definitely makes everything worse. “All sleep paralysis is re-gaining consciousness during this REM stage of sleep,” says Daniel Denis, a psychology graduate student at the University of Sheffield. “Try to remember it is not harmful, and that sleep paralysis is something everybody experiences every night.”
Most of us happen to sleep through it. For sleep paralysis enthusiasts, the goal is to walk down these dark, frightening roads with their eyes open.
Embracing the Nightmare
Why would anyone willingly dive into this state, and risk encountering such grotesque and frightening elements?
Some dreamers simply enjoy scaring themselves; others consider recreational sleep paralysis a test of their mettle. Take, for instance, the Army recruit on Reddit who wanted to harden himself for the eventual horrors of combat:
I know that the first time I see combat I’m either going to shit myself and shut down, or shit myself and power though it… I want to start experimenting with controlling my fear and using it to motivate me. From what I’ve heard, SP [sleep paralysis] is one of the most psychologically terrifying experiences a kid from the suburbs can have.
So if being dream-stabbed by a hallucinated spirit is the closest thing I can get to facing an insurgent who wants nothing more than to kill me and everything I hold dear then yes, shoot me, but I’ll take two orders of SP with extra demon on the side.
Many people attempting sleep paralysis are aware of the hypothesis that it’s been historically mistaken for alien abduction, but there’s little sense they’re hoping recreational sleep paralysis is their next ticket to Alpha Centauri. What you might find next to sleep paralysis tips, however, are frank discussions of phenomena like astral projection and binaural beats, the less-than-verified idea that playing specific tones alters your consciousness by forcing your brainwaves to match the tonal frequency.
In fact, a 2008 Boston University study revealed that people who had isolated sleep paralysis were slightly more likely to report believing in supernatural events. Sharpless, for one, is trying to figure out the root of this relationship.
“Are you more likely to have sleep paralysis because you believe in these supernatural events, and thus you might organize your world in such a way?” he asked. “Or do you have these beliefs because you’ve had sleep paralysis and seen weird things, and now you’re more likely to believe that weird things exist?”
While Sharpless assumes it works both ways — the horse may pull the cart, but the cart may indeed pull horse, too — it’s still “a really interesting question.”
There may be family factors, too. In Christian’s case, the idea for self-petrification was inspired by a parent’s experiences (“She would tell my brother and me about her experiences and I became interested and curious.”) This is common among people trying to induce it, and there may be science to back it up: In a 2015 study of twins, University of Sheffield’s Denis found a “moderate genetic influence on sleep paralysis.”
But the most common refrain, among those who willingly take the plunge, is that sleep paralysis is a springboard into hyper-realistic dreaming experiences. “The methods for inducing [sleep paralysis] are also effective for lucid dreaming,” said Ryan Hurd, founder of the website DreamStudies.org, “so it is considered a stepping stone to lucidity.’
But as stepping stones go, isn’t this a big, slippery, scary one?
“It is too bad about the nocturnal pressing spirit that gets in the way,” Hurd added, laughing.
The risk, it seems, is worth the reward. “If you go into sleep paralysis (SP) and expect a beautiful experience of a lucid dream (LD) that you get to create, then if you have hallucinations, they are going to be good ones,” said Dominic Solesky, who has used sleep paralysis as a gateway to lucid dreamer frequently for the past two years. “I have had hallucinations of angels singing to me in SP, and that I was floating in heaven.”
Of course, there aren’t always serenading cherubs and billowing clouds; the mind is a dangerous place. “Sometimes I will try to do an LD from SP and I will begin having hallucinations that freak me out to the point where I just want to wake up instead,” says Solesky. “I have had hallucinations of demons breathing into my ear and a face stretching through the wall of my couch trying to bite me.”
It’s these latter experiences that give Washington State’s Brian Sharpless pause. “To be clear, I don’t recommend anybody trying to induce it. It boggles my mind that anybody would want to experience it — it’s terrifying,” he said.
Willing the Demons
Sleep paralysis research is fairly niche, and isolated SP (that is, sleep paralysis unrelated to disorders like narcolepsy) is even less fleshed out. There’s virtually no information on the number of people who have tried to self-induce.
In a 2011 review of 36,000 people, Sharpless and a colleague estimated that 28 percent of students and 32 percent of psychiatric patients experience sleep paralysis; these are groups likely to get poor, not enough or alcohol-disrupted sleep. In the general population, an estimated 7.6 percent will experience the immobilized state at some point.
But the concept of self-induction is foreign to many researchers, to say the least.
“I have never encountered a group that wanted to explore sleep paralysis,” said Jean Campbell, the chair of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. None of the neuroscientists or psychiatrists interviewed for this article were not familiar with the concept of people willingly attempting sleep paralysis. Campbell, for instance, mentioned she wasn’t even sure how it could be done.
Enter the internet. Per message boards and other forums, a typical guide to sleep paralysis might go something like this:
- Wake yourself up after about four hours of sleep and stay awake for 30 minutes.
- Once your REM cycle is properly thrown out of whack, lie on your back and stay very still.
- Soon, you should feel strong vibrations and waves across your body. (Solesky reports “deep buzzing or wavy noises as well, almost like dubstep bass.”)
- In this state, attempt a small motion, like trying to lift a finger or toe.
- If you can’t make the motion, you’re in an authentic state of sleep paralysis.
As rudimentary as it sounds, these steps have the potential to work. In 1992, using similar methods, a group of Japanese psychologists were the first scientists to isolate sleep paralysis in a lab. They induced half a dozen episodes in college students by interrupting their sleep over the course of one week. The goal was to achieve what’s a sleep-onset REM period, or SOREMP.
Writing at the time, Kazuhiko Fukuda, now a sociologist at Edogawa University in Chiba, said, “We have to elicit many SOREMP episodes to find sleep paralysis experiences among those episodes.” The success rate was not high. It worked just six times out of 64 total interruptions.
Even at home, inducing sleep paralysis is a haphazard affair. Christian, the oneironaut who met his shadow man, says he’s only been able to purposefully induce sleep paralysis twice. But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. While he doesn’t have any data on this, Sharpless says that, after interviews with several hundred people, he can say that a certain percentage “went into sleep paralysis as a result of trying to lucid dream.” Solesky says he has two techniques to get from sleep paralysis to lucid dreaming: either by “climbing out of his body,” or envisioning himself traveling through a dream as if in the third person.
The Dreamer’s Golden Fleece
Not everyone agrees that sleep paralysis is a worthwhile stairway to dreaming heaven. The staff of the popular lucid dreaming website DreamViews sounded an alarm in 2012, writing:
“[A] serious misunderstanding regarding Sleep Paralysis (SP) has become a huge stumbling block for new lucid dreamers… The main point we wish to make: Sleep paralysis is a rare condition which may occur to some people while attempting a WILD [“Wake Initiated Lucid Dream”] but is not a required part of the WILD experience. If you have SP, we want you to know that what you are experiencing need not be frightening. If you do not experience sleep paralysis SP on a regular basis then don’t worry about it. You can still learn to WILD with the best of them!”
Despite such warnings — and knowing that chance encounters with shadow men are likely — many continue to forge forward with self-induced sleep paralysis. They are willing to risk the nightmare’s hydra for a chance at the dream master’s golden fleece.
And anyway, for lucid dreamers of a certain stripe, such forays into the unknown are recounted like acts of bravery. As Dream Studies’ Ryan Hurd put it, “I’m going to face that which I’m unwilling to face — that’s where courage is.”
For most of us, it’s courage of a peculiar sort — the courage to push through nightmares, which are terrifying by their very definition, in a quest for the transcendent, spiritual and, even, as Hurd described it, orgiastic.
“If your curiosity is greater than your fear, chances are you’ll have a great experience,” he said. “It will take you someplace new.”
And what, to the dreamer, could be a better prize?
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Selected stories from The Dodo, Pharmacy Practice News and elsewhere
Project Queensway, Scienceline.org
Sweeping up after Sandy, Scienceline.org