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Perchance to Dream

by Guy McCardle

October 5, 2011

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Donate Imagine if you will, yours truly, a college senior at age 21 resting peacefully in my bed on an average weekday night. As usual, I’m exhausted and I begin to drift off to sleep in a matter of minutes. Tonight, however, won’t be an ordinary night. Tonight I’ll have a fright that will take several years to fully understand. Tonight I’ll experience awareness during sleep paralysis, or ASP.

The words “sleep paralysis” themselves don’t even begin to qualify how terrifying the situation was. I recall falling comfortably to sleep that night when I wanted to re-arrange my pillows or something. I couldn’t move. As I would sometimes do, I tried to say aloud to myself “that’s odd”. Nothing came out. By this time I realized what was happening and a slow panic began to take hold of my body. I tried my hardest to move my arms and legs but they refused to budge. I tried to yell out, to make any kind of noise at all…just silence. And then it happened, I felt my body start to rise off of the bed just like one of those magician’s assistants in a cheesy magic act.

Yes, this is a true story and what I am sharing is the best of my recollection. I had never felt such terror in my life. I was still able to move my eyes and was able to estimate that my body was at least four feet above the mattress. Even though I was alone in my apartment at the time, I felt a presence in the shadows. It is hard to describe, but it felt like pure evil was watching me. Then I felt myself begin to rotate slowly on my long axis like a pig on a spit. That bumped the experience up a notch. I had never been a very religious person, but I clearly recalled praying to God for the whole mess to stop. I closed my eyes and repeated the same prayer over and over. And that is my last memory of the entire ordeal.

Some years later a physician friend of mine informed me that I had experienced ASP. It is estimated that somewhere around 1 in 5 isolated sleep paralysis experiences are accompanied by dream-like hallucinations, almost always manifesting in negative or frightening forms, projected on the hallucinater's actual physical surroundings. Lucky me. People can see all sorts of ghosts, demons and devils. Sometimes it feels to them like the demon is holding them down or sitting on their chest.

Sleep Paralysis, also known as REM atonia, is completely normal. It keeps you from acting out your dreams during REM sleep. Sometimes, however, the paralysis outlasts sleep and can lead to ASP. Estimates vary, but it is said that 50% of people experience sleep paralysis sometime during their lifetime. If you are one of the unfortunate few, you will experience hallucinations during your time of ASP. Witches, demons, thieves, and rapists may occupy the room with you while you are paralyzed; sometimes they threaten or speak to you. Sometimes they may touch you in an extraordinarily life-like manner. I can’t stress enough how terrifying this can be, especially if it is happening to you for the first time and you have never heard of the phenomenon before.

ASP is probably as old as mankind and has been written about for centuries. In Swedish folklore, sleep paralysis is caused by a Mare, a supernatural creature related to the werewolf. The Mare is a condemned woman, who is cursed and her body is carried mysteriously during sleep and without her noticing. In this state, she visits villagers to sit on their rib cages while they are asleep; causing them to experience what we now call nightmares. Folk stories in Newfoundland, South Carolina and Georgia describe the figure of the Hag who leaves her physical body at night, and sits on the chest of her victim. The victim usually wakes with a feeling of terror, has difficulty breathing because of a perceived heavy invisible weight on his or her chest, and is unable to move i.e., experiences sleep paralysis. This nightmare experience is described as being "hag-ridden" in the Gullah lore. The "Old Hag" was a nightmare spirit in British and North American folklore.

In several countries with Islamic beliefs sleep paralysis is called “Karabasan”. According to their stories, a demon comes into one’s room and holds him down with enough force not to allow any movement. Some people who have experienced this even say they have heard the voice of Satan. In order to get rid of the demonic creature, one must pray to Allah with certain lines from the Quran. If one does not pray quickly enough, it is said that the creature will kill them by strangling.

As we have learned, before anyone knew any better, evil spirits and demons were thought to be the cause of the paralysis. Other theories have been proposed. In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge attributes the ghost he sees to "... an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato...". Today, some attribute the presence of shadow people and alien abduction to ASP. Knowing the real cause doesn’t seem to do much to lessen the terror.

Sweet dreams.

by Guy McCardle

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