By Matthew Wendler
It is the middle of the night and you have just woken up. The dark outline of your bedroom can be made out as your eyes finish adjusting. Though you try to sit up, it becomes apparent that you are unable to move. Panic and confusion fill your thoughts as you struggle to raise your limbs, but it’s no use. The only thing you can move is your eyes. In the darkness, someone is heard whispering to you. You examine the room and notice a shape that fills you with dread. A tall, dark figure leers at you from the edge of your bed; a perfect silhouette in the moonlight. It starts moving closer to you and you suddenly find it hard to breathe. The words of its whisper become audible; “I’m here to kill you.”
This unsettling phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis. During REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, dreams occur and the brain shuts down the body to presumably keep it from acting them out. When someone suffers from sleep paralysis, the brain is conscious and awake, but the body is still in REM sleep. A person will be aware of their surroundings, but won’t be able to voluntarily move. Throughout these episodes, muscle tightness may occur, causing a choking pressure on the person’s chest.
People who suffer from sleep paralysis often report having to hear strange sounds such as static, whispers, and growling. Some experience nightmarish visual hallucinations, as though their dreams have merged with the real world. Throughout the middle ages, these symptoms were attributed to the workings of black magic and demonic forces.
The presence of shadow people has often been linked to sleep paralysis. These entities are described as the dark humanoid silhouettes, generally without distinguishable characteristics; a living shadow. Many have reported seeing such entities in their peripheral vision while awake, but the figures would disappear before they could get a good look. During sleep paralysis, the full body apparition of a shadow person may become visible. Most witnesses claim the figures would just stare down at them, as though they were observing the individual. The sound of a voice may be heard as well, but it’s not always clear as to what’s said. While many people believe they are just hallucinations, there are some who attribute these figures to the paranormal. They are often perceived as demonic entities that feed off negative emotions such as fear.
A large number of people have strangely claimed to have seen a similar shadowy figure during sleep paralysis. It is described as being a tall, dark man wearing a brimmed hat and a trench coat. The entity has been named as the Hat Man and while some perceive him to be pure evil, others see the figure as a warning or a bad omen.
Another common anomaly reported is that of an old hag. People have described the figure as a withered, elderly woman with witch-like features. The hag will either stare directly at her victims or crawl on the bed and attempt to choke them to death. She is often said to smile during these encounters and give out a cackling laugh.
A variety of folklore from different cultures is believed to have been inspired by sleep paralysis. Much of these tales describe different variations of an entity known as the Mare, to which the name is believed to be the origin of the word “nightmare.” It is said that the Mare rides upon people’s chest as they sleep and afflict them with either night terrors or death.
In Nordic and Scandinavian folklore, this entity is known as the Mara and has a possible origin from a piece of literature written by Snorri Sturluson called “Ynglinga Saga.” In the story, the abandoned wife of a king bribes a witch to conjure a spirit that would murder her husband. The entity visits the king as he sleeps and treads upon him. She crushes his legs and presses down on his head until death.
In Germanic folklore, a demonic creature known as the Alp is described to sit on the chest of mainly sleeping women. It controls their dreams and creates nightmares, feeding off a person’s fear until it’s crushing weight awakens them.
A similar creature is depicted in a 1781 oil canvas painting titled “The Nightmare.” It was painted by a man named Johann Heinrich Fussli and shows a sleeping woman lying on her back with a short demonic entity sitting on her chest. A horse with white eyes peeking out from behind a curtain is also featured in the painting, to which “mare” is another word for an adult female horse.
The majority of tales that describe a creature or entity afflicting a person in their sleep are mythological. People are more likely to attribute the shapes seen during sleep paralysis as disturbing hallucinations and nothing more. Despite the rationality of this explanation, there are some things about it that seem off. Why are there claims of shadowy figures appearing outside of sleep paralysis? Why have so many people reported seeing the same entity wearing a brimmed hat? Hallucinations may be an effect of sleep paralysis, but the world is full of unanswered questions and strange anomalies that can’t be explained. Perhaps at times, there is a separate force involved.