Sleep Demons – A Closer Look
Maybe it’s happened to you. It’s the middle of the night. You wake up but your body is frozen. You can’t move and there is a dark, menacing figure sitting on your chest. It’s called the sleep demon and it has been terrifying people for centuries, but is it real?
Last night I had my first encounter with the sleep paralysis demon. I had previously seen artwork and read accounts dating back a hundred years or more about this phenomenon that affects approximately 10% of the population. There are some variations to the experiences, but I was always intrigued by the similarities between the different accounts and depictions.
What is a Sleep Paralysis Demon?
People have reported that they were woken up in the middle of the night, sometimes near the morning, but couldn’t move their body. They felt fully awake. They could see their bedrooms, but they couldn’t move their arms and legs.
There is a terrifying feeling of lurkers or dark forces nearby. Most people recall waking up and staring up at a small demon squatting on their chest. Sometimes, it’s an old hag, a man in a hat, a werewolf, a goblin, a troll, or even an alien.
So, imagine being fully awake and still dreaming at the same time.
What Do Neuroscientists Say About Sleep Paralysis?
Prior to my own experience with sleep demons, I gave little credence to these accounts. I assumed that these were hypnagogic phenomenon. In fact, sleep experts explain that when a person’s REM sleep is disturbed, there is an imbalance in their physiological responses.
Your brain prevents you from moving your body during REM sleep so that you can’t act out on your dreams. It’s like a safety feature for nightmares. Neurologists explain sleep paralysis as a blip on the REM radar that produces hallucinogenic imagery, feelings of panic brought on by our fight or flight response, and the lingering effects of REM stasis.
Your brain and your body are out of sync. There is a signal failure happening inside of you when you experience sleep paralysis. When you fall asleep, your nervous system signals your muscles to relax and eventually you enter REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement.
This is the phase of sleep when you experience dreams. Scientists believe that REM sleep is crucial to your body’s ability to regenerate cells and compartmentalize the sensory data that your nervous system intakes throughout a normal day.
You might have noticed that when you are experiencing a particularly vivid dream, your body jerks around a bit. Well, your nervous system has temporarily paralyzed your body’s movements. It is a natural part of REM sleep. When the sleep cycle is over, your nervous system signals that you can start moving again.
When your sleep is disturbed or there is a miscue in this intricately coordinated sequence, your brain wakes up without giving the signal for your body to end paralysis. The feeling of paralysis doesn’t bother us in REM sleep, but if you are conscious and you’re unable to move, then your limbic system triggers a panic response.
Your heart starts to speed up and you get scared. There is an in-between period of mental grogginess as you come out of the dream state, so this feeling of panic is often accompanied by hallucinations. You might see a demon. You might hear voices or strange noises. You might feel that there are evil forces in the room with you. You might experience all of the above.
Sleep paralysis can happen frequently for some people who suffer from PTSD, insomnia, or narcolepsy. Sometimes, people experience sleep paralysis when they are under elevated stress or have problems with their prescription medication. Scientists have so many questions about sleep paralysis still to this day.
Historical and Cultural Reference for Sleep Demons
This neuroscience explanation makes the experience seem as benign as getting the wrong order at a coffee shop, but in reality, sleep paralysis and the accompanying hallucinations can be very unsettling. I can confirm from my recent experiences that my sleep demon hallucination was one of the most realistic visual hallucinations that I have ever experienced.
How could you explain this phenomenon hundreds of years ago?
Sleep paralysis and the sleep demon were the origins of the term “nightmare”. Now, we use the term nightmare to just mean any bad dream, but historically the term was used to describe the sleep paralysis demon.
From Mesopotamia to ancient Rome there have been tales of the sleep demon. It was called the Incubus and the Succubus when in female guise. The name literally means “to sit on you”. People believed that the little sleep demon Incubus was responsible for your terrifying dreams at night.
The Norse word mara was a person who rides you for their own wicked pleasure. That term begot night-mare. There’s the English myth of the Old Hag and African legends of demons who steal your soul. Grey-eyed aliens are a more modern interpretation of this entity – a dark, ominous presence that controls you in the night while you sleep.
So, our cultural lexicon is pre-loaded with a deep sub-conscious programming about sleep paralysis and sleep demons. Basically, we have theses stories built into our collective consciousness and during the hallucinatory period of sleep paralysis, a sleep demon of our own choosing can be automatically selected.
My Personal Sleep Demon
Even I must admit that the sleep demon that I saw was oddly familiar. I couldn’t see its face or features clearly. It was a black, shadowy figure outlined by long, bristly hair. I was paralyzed and couldn’t move. I felt like I was under attack by an intruder but was powerless to stop them.
In that split second of terror, I realized that this might be related to the dream world and that I didn’t necessarily need to move my physical body to affect the sleep demon. So, I mentally reached outward and choked the sleep demon with imaginary hands. It quickly disappeared and I was able to regain control of my body shortly thereafter.
What to Do About Sleep Paralysis
There have been some drastic treatments for sleep demons over the course of history. Afterall, this experience was viewed through a spiritual context in most cases, so the treatment was often just as bizarre as the problem.
During the 600s, a Byzantine physician named Paulus Aegineta prescribed bloodletting, shaving the head of the patient and scarring their throat. Prayers, exorcisms, and magical spells were often prescribed, as well.
Luckily, if you experience sleep paralysis today, nobody will ask you to shave your head. It is best to track your sleep patterns over a certain period of time. How often do you wake in the middle of the night? Do you experience vivid dreams? Or have you been experiencing trouble falling asleep?
These are all indicators that your sleep patterns are abnormal, and you might want to consider consulting a doctor. You can also try to improve your sleep on your own. It’s relatively simple. Try to avoid caffeine after 7 PM. Don’t use your mobile or any screens before bedtime. You can also use a weighted blanket to prevent you from waking up so much in the middle of the night. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep and monitor what you’re experiencing in the night.
Are Sleep Demons Spiritual Messengers?
Then, there is the spiritual explanation for sleep paralysis demons. Your sub-conscious mind is trying to tell you something. Are there messages that you’re receiving from the sleep demon? That is up to your own interpretation.
There is a scientific explanation, but an encounter with a sleep demon might be a signal that your creativity is being stifled. Afterall, your body is immobile and during those tense moments, your imagination is running wild.
You’re having a powerful and frightening hallucination. Even if you don’t believe in a spiritual interpretation of the sleep demon, there is something to be learned from how you handle such an ordeal. So, it is up to you to analyze how your sleep paralysis experience made you feel.
It is obvious that sleep demons have a purpose and place in our cultural and historical identity. It’s just like ghosts and werewolves. These things are real largely because we make them real. I am a logical person but my own sleep demon sure did feel real.
I haven’t stopped thinking about it and I’m sure that other people who experience sleep paralysis demons have similar lingering feelings and thoughts. Luckily, I did manage to get back to sleep that night. So, little harm was done. All that I can say is that if you wake up and there’s a little demon sitting on your chest…force punch ‘em in the throat and think about it later.