In the corner of the room is a presence, you don’t know who or what it is – you can’t even see it – but you know it’s there. And you know it’s malevolent.
You can’t pinpoint how you know this, but you do. It’s a certainty. A fact. Just like the certainty of imminent death that has infused into your veins, turning your blood to acid.
The dread squeezing your chest is joined by another sensation now, that of a dead weight pushing down against you, making it hard to breathe. A rotten smell hangs in the air, as if the corpse of something – an animal? a person? – has been dumped and left to decay on your torso. You try to shift your weight and realise with a cold terror that you can’t move your limbs.
Powerless and defenceless.
You try to scream, but your vocal chords are as dead as the rest of you.
The dread ratchets up in an instant, and you feel your heart may well explode. You feel it pumping harder and faster, acutely aware that all it is doing is hastening the delivery of the acid-blood through your veins.
A vague hope enters your mind – if you can feel your heart beating then surely you can move now? Surely that means you can’t be paralysed anymore?
You try moving from underneath the dead weight again. Nothing. You try tensing your hand, your finger, something small that might break the spell.
Your mind flashes to your own personal worst fears and suddenly, inexplicably, you know what the presence is in the corner of the room. It’s the embodiment of these fear, these phobias. On a rational level you know that makes no sense, how could that even exist, let alone somehow be manifested here, in your bedroom? Your private haven?
But, again, it’s a certainty. A fact.
Defeated now, the stench and inevitability of death pervading your every thought, your every pore, you close your eyes and await the inevitable…
Sound scary? It is. Trust me.
What I’ve described – with a little bit of artistic licence, admittedly – is something called sleep paralysis, which is exactly as horrible as it sounds. You wake up in the middle of the night, you can’t move, and – in most cases – you can sense two malevolent presences in the room, one in the corner, and one on your chest. Not that this always happens, sometimes you ‘only’ wake up completely paralysed and suffocated by dread, without any other presences in the room. Which isn’t good, obviously, but given the choices may well be preferable.
There’s been a lot of research into this, mainly because – and this is where it gets really weird – just about every culture in history has reported sleep paralysis as a phenomena, including the presence sitting on the chest. Some cultures call the presence on the chest ‘the old hag’, others have more dramatic names. In Fiji, for instance, the experience is known as kana tevoro (translated literally as being eaten by a demon), and in China the experience is known by a term which translates as “ghost pressing down on body”. Similarly, in Vietnam they call it by a term which translates as “held down by the shadow”, and sufferers in Nigeria go even further with this, describing the whole experience as “nocturnal warfare”.
In terms of my own experiences, sometimes it happens as written above, but most of the time it’s complete paralysis with an inability to breathe, usually immediately following a dream in which I’m drowning. I don’t usually experience presences in the room, but surely drowning, paralysis and suffocation is traumatic enough, without having something there watching too…? I mean, gimme a break here, Brain.
I actually used these experiences as the premise of my psychological thriller Sleep No More, which focuses on a young woman’s night-time disturbances which may or may not be supernatural. Based on this blog post, you either now really, really want to read the novel, or you really, really don’t…
In terms of explanations, the most common theory of sleep paralysis is that, quite simply, our brains paralyse us when we sleep so that we don’t act out our dreams but that sometimes this happens when it shouldn’t. That’s all well and good as an explanation – although slightly incomplete I have to say – but it definitely doesn’t mitigate the terror felt when it actually happens to you (which I hope it doesn’t).
Oh, I nearly forgot, this probably isn’t the best blog post to read if you’re in bed or about to go to sleep by the way.
Probably should’ve mentioned that first really.