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November 2016 Demons, silent screaming and multiple attackers – researchers explore the nightmare that is sleep paralysis
The School of Psychology at NUI Galway has completed the first phase of a study on the number of people affected by sleep paralysis and unusual sleep experiences. Over 1,100 people in Ireland have shared their experiences, with participants relating the often scary sensations they have experienced while in the awake-like state.
Sleep paralysis can happen when we are falling asleep or waking up and is often viewed as a distressing experience. Participants reported sensing there was someone else in the room, or seeing intruders with no face, or demons, or being unable to scream.
Approximately 80% reported at least one experience of sleep paralysis. Life-time number of episodes were 1-3 episodes (18%), 4-10 episodes (19%), 11-20 episodes (15%) and greater than 20 episodes (27%).
In line with previous studies, just under 30% reported experiencing life-time mental health diagnoses, and a sixth of the sample were currently experiencing mental health difficulties.
“The main features of sleep paralysis are, the inability to move, a perception that there is someone or something in their room, that the person is being touched or being sat on or strangled. Hearing noises or voices or an intruder’s breathing are also commonly reported by sleep paralysis experiences,” explains Dr Jonathan Egan, from the School of Psychology at NUI Galway.
This study was interested in looking at how people’s emotions and lifestyles relate to their sleep. It was also interested in understanding how and why people experience sleep difficulties like sleep paralysis.
Half the sample reported experiencing the sleep paralysis episode whilst lying on their backs, while only 5% reported it on their stomach. For 45%, they reported position did not make a difference. Half of the sample reported that they thought there was something wrong with their physical well-being or that they were losing their mind or going insane. Only 10% thought that an alien or magical entity caused their experience.
The researchers were also interested in the relationship between sleep hygiene and general psychological wellbeing. “CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) approach is recommended to address sleep paralysis, however, should it also be associated with daytime collapses or sleepiness people should go to their GPs to rule out narcolepsy. The CBT approach addresses sleep hygiene and ways of breathing to relax the person’s body and ways of looking at catastrophic thinking during an episode,” added Dr Egan.
The principal investigator on the project was Michelle Tomas, a trainee clinical psychologist on the Doctor of Clinical Psychology training programme at the University, under the supervision of the Deputy Director of the programme, Dr Egan.
Varieties of phenomenon
Participants in the study, reported a few varieties of phenomenon, including different types of the intruder presence, as these extracts show:
The Sensed Presence: “I woke up on my back (I don’t usually sleep on my back) in the early hours, and felt trapped in my body. I couldn't move at all. I slowly became aware of someone (something?) else in the room, possibly more than one. There was a dark figure with no visible features. It did not move, but was standing in the corner of the room and was very sinister and frightening. I have read a few articles about sleep paralysis so was aware of what it was, and that it wasn’t real, and would pass, which was calming. I tried to focus on my breath and wait it out. I still couldn't move. Eventually I succeeded in moving and woke up properly. The light in the room was totally different from in the sleep paralysis state, like it was a totally different time of night.”
The Intruder with No Face: “I experience sleep paralysis all the time. My most vivid experience is one I experience quite frequently. I wake laying on my left side and I am unable to move or make sound. I am aware of a rustling sound towards the foot of my bed and I am able to strain my eyes to look toward the sound. I see a small man standing there flicking through a newspaper - this is the rustling sound. When I say he is ‘small’, he is shorter than normal (about 5ft) but is completely proportional as though he has just been slightly shrunken down. When I look towards him, he becomes aware of my presence, closes his paper, and turns towards me. It is then that I realise he has no face, just a black void. Without actually seeing him move, he is suddenly right next to me. He is bent ninety degrees from the waist, and his empty black face is right up in my face and it is then that I begin violently trying to wiggle my fingers and toes to ‘break’ the paralysis. This is usually effective after a little moment, and I wake up fully to my empty bedroom.”
The Demon Who Jumps On Victims: “I hadn’t even fallen asleep (usually I fall asleep before sleep paralysis) and I heard scratching sounds on the wall behind me, I wanted to turn over and look in the direction of the noise but I couldn’t move. I heard the noise on the ceiling and then it came closer until I could see it. Big. Black. Somewhat insect like, but also humanoid. It was upside down, it’s hands and feet attached to the ceiling. It stopped when it realised I could see it. It was looking at me with its red eyes, it smiled and I could see very many small pointed teeth. Until it jumped down on top of me, scratching with its talons. Somehow I ended up falling off the bed but awoke in the bed and the thing was gone.”
Shadow-man: “I have felt that there is someone entering the room and coming towards my bed, this has always felt like a bad person who wants to hurt me. The person has no face and is always dressed in black with a hood. They seem to float and not walk. Sometimes it’s male and sometimes female. The figure will push me into my bed and I can feel pressure on my chest.”
The Old Woman or Hag: “There was an old woman in the top right corner of my room. She just stared at me for what seemed like ages. She made her way to me in bed and sat on my chest. I could feel her sitting on my chest and looking at me. I tried very hard to move, to no avail. I was breathing very very loudly trying to wake up. Eventually I did wake up and colour came back to everything and the woman disappeared. I was very shaken by this experience. I am aware it was not supernatural or anything like that but a figment of my imagination due to REM.”
The Child: “The first time I felt I was awake and there was a little boy about 7 years old standing at the foot of my bed. I felt panic but I couldn't wake up. I was starting to scream but no noise came out of my mouth. I eventually awoke after what seemed like 1-2 minutes. The second time I was lying in bed and there was a little girl lying beside me in bed with a white and red dress on. She seemed to also be about 7 years old. She was stroking my hair but again I was paralysed and I couldn’t wake myself up.”
Multiple attackers: “I remember something waking me. I looked down at the end of my bed to see a tall figure looming over me, bending over me with the room. And four other figures to its sides. I then could feel some invisible creature kneeling on my chest choking me. It felt as if there were others holding down my limbs. I tried to scream but nothing would come out. I could nearly feel my voice scraping through my throat. I struggled unable to move for a while and eventually (after what felt like hours) shot up to a sitting position and was able to whimper out a small cry.”
Lying Behind a Person Sleeping On Their Side: “I was lying on my side and I was completely unable to move. I could feel a man lying in the bed. He was behind me, 'spooning' me, he had his arm wrapped around me. For some reason I knew he was a heavy man in his 40's with a bald head. I felt terrified. I was trying to move my head to look over my shoulder to see if he was real but I couldn't move a muscle. My breath was rapid and panicked. This went on for what felt like 10- 30 minutes. I was focusing on trying to move any muscle and I could feel my eyes scanning the blackness. I don’t remember how it ended. I think I managed to wake up or open my eyes for real.”
When Sleeping Somewhere New: “I was asleep alone in a rented house on a family holiday. It was my first experience of sleep paralysis- I woke up in the middle of the night but could not move and tried to scream out for help but I could not scream. I was terrified. I believed I saw a figure of a dark witch above me and I felt as though I was being pushed into the bed. It felt as if it lasted for half an hour but I am sure it didn't really. When I finally managed to move I was so scared I couldn’t sleep in the room by myself that night!”
Movement: “It became more levitation/being pulled from the bed, and the feeling of being pulled down into something ‘evil’ - I would feel as if I should try to maintain positive thoughts and a focus on my bed to prevent me being pulled into ‘evil’. In the last year, I’ve experienced all of these.”
Unable to Scream: “Woke up early in the morning the bedroom was bright my eyes were open but I could not move or speak saw a moving dark shadow in the corner of the bedroom tried to scream and move but couldn’t then It felt like something was sitting on my chest and it was getting harder and harder to breath and I kept trying to scream and move but couldn't and then I finally woke up after what felt like ages.”