What It’s Like to Have Severe Sleep Paralysis

Photo: SOA

It didn’t happen every night, but every now and then, Blake Smith, a 45-year-old writer and programmer from Kennesaw, Georgia, would jolt awake, believing he was under attack. Just what exactly was attacking him was something of a mystery, as it was invisible — a ghost, maybe. Whatever it was, he could feel that it meant him harm.

What was really happening, he now knows, was that he was experiencing sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that occurs either upon falling asleep or awakening and is thought to be a mix-up of normal REM sleep. On the one hand, people who experience it are, in some sense, conscious and aware — they can see that they’re in their bedroom, for example. But some part of their body still thinks they’re asleep — in particular, their muscles are essentially paralyzed, something that happens in REM sleep. It’s thought to be an evolutionary mechanism that prevents people from acting out their dreams.

But in sleep paralysis, this normal function turns terrifying. The experience is often accompanied by some kind of hallucination, usually something scary; people report feeling as if they’re being pinned down by a huge weight on their chest. Washington State University psychologist Brian Sharpless recently published a book on sleep paralysis, in which he argues that the phenomenon may offer up a naturalistic explanation for some terrifying nighttime phenomena found in folklore all over the world — like stories of incubus or succubus attacks. In Zanzibar it’s the popobawa; in Japan it’s called kanashibari; in China it’s known as ghost oppression. “Even though every culture puts its own stamp on it, the core experiences are similar,” Sharpless said. “It’s paralysis — except for the eyes — and conscious awareness during it.” And for most people, it’s incredibly frightening.

It’s not clear exactly how many people experience sleep paralysis, but in one 2011 paper, Sharpless reviewed 35 studies, yielding a combined sample size of more than 36,000 people, and found that about 8 percent of the population has experienced sleep paralysis at least once. “It’s fairly common, but very few people talk about it, and certainly not to their doctors. ’Doc, you know, I felt like there was a demonic dwarf sitting on my chest.’ They’re embarrassed by it — they think they’re going crazy,” Sharpless said.

Smith’s own experience of sleep paralysis was one of the major things that nudged him from being a “believer to casual doubter to formal doubter”; he’s now a co-host of the Skeptic magazine podcast ”MonsterTalk.”

Recently Smith spoke with Science of Us about his own real-life monstrous experience with sleep paralysis.

It seems like everyone who suffers from sleep paralysis experiences it a little differently. What was it like for you?
For me it was this strange sensation of having something crawl on top of me, like it was holding me down, and I couldn’t move or get away from it. The first time I experienced it I was in the United States Navy, serving on shore in the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain. It was a really nice setup — we had our own apartments out in town. So I was alone in this really nice apartment.

And one night I had gone to bed and woke to the sensation of someone crawling into my bed, on top of me. I felt like someone was in my room, and on top of me, in some sort of attack. I struggled against this sensation — I threw the covers off as soon as I could move, I jumped out of bed, turned on the lights, and there’s what looked like a human-shaped lump on the bed. And I was in the best shape of my life, and so, physically, I was ready to have a fight. So I pull the cover off, ready to attack this intruder — and there was nothing under that cover. And so I didn’t know what to make of that.

That sounds terrifying. What did you do next?
I was really nervous and upset and confused, and my heart was racing. And I thought, as a military person, I felt like I was attacked, so I thought, I’ll call the base and at least let somebody’s who’s on watch know what happened. So I call, and they say, “So did somebody break into your house? Do we need to send a patrol car?” And I say, “Well, no, but it was there — or it felt like somebody was there.” But I know I’m in a locked room and that there’s nowhere they could’ve gone. But it really felt like somebody was attacking me! So they ask, “Well, what do you want us to do, put in the logs that you were attacked by a ghost?” And I’m like, “Well, no, I guess not.” So I had to just go back to sleep.

The thing is — and I didn’t really discover this until Brian [Sharpless]’s book came out — but one of the things that can trigger it is an erratic sleep schedule. And we were on a 24-on, 48-off work schedule. So it was probably during that time that I was just constantly changing my sleep schedule.

During the sleep-paralysis episode, you could get up and move — I thought people are typically, uh, paralyzed?
It was more like I felt like I was fighting back, but what I was really struggling against — and I didn’t know this at the time — but it was against my own body’s inability to move. So it felt like I was struggling with someone on top of me, but really what I was doing was struggling to wake up. There was nobody there. But psychologically — or that’s not even the right word, but from a mental or motor perspective, you’re trying to make yourself move and it feels like you’re struggling against something. I’d imagine, if someone else was watching me, it would look like you’re just not moving. But inside I was trying to fight.

So what did you make of this experience? You called to report it, but what did you tell yourself had just happened?
I didn’t know, but it felt like I was being attacked by some invisible entity, so I just assumed it was some kind of ghost. I had never read specifically about sleep paralysis, and everything I read that sounded like my experience [was] pointing toward the supernatural — that it was a haunting or a demonic attack.

It’s interesting — I’d always been interested in these sorts of fringe things that happen in the human condition, call them paranormal, if you will. My background is very religious and deeply faithful, but I’d always read about this stuff, even from the first grade. And growing up I hung out in graveyards — I wasn’t a goth, I didn’t dress that way, but I sort of had this affinity for the macabre and I liked reading horror novels, that kind of thing. But I had never seen anything that suggested there was anything to ghosts other than people telling stories. People said things could happen, and I got the creeps from listening to those stories. But I never really thought there was anything to them until this happened.

I really had no other explanation for it, except for a ghost or some kind of entity. Because I was experiencing real physical sensations — I mean, even though I couldn’t prove it to anyone else, I knew it was happening to me. Whereas my personal view now in life is that I’m a really scientific, skeptically minded person. But at that time I didn’t know how else to explain it.

How often did the sleep paralysis happen?
Intermittently from 1992 to 1996. It was always the same kind of thing. And it traveled with me — like I was personally being haunted. I once flew to Philadelphia, and it happened to me in a hotel. That was a funny incident.

I’d love to hear about that.
So what happened was I was sort of in a rundown motel in Philadelphia, waiting for a connecting flight. I woke up in the middle of the night and I had this experience again. And I’m still just trying to figure out what’s happening because, at this point, I have no idea. So I’m in my pajamas, and I leave the room and go to the motel clerk — it was one of those deals where there’s like a bulletproof piece of glass and they’ve got a little thing where you could pass stuff back and forth.

And I ask, “Was anybody ever murdered in my room?” And he says, “Do I need to call the police?” And I say, “No, no, I just had a really weird ghostly experience, and I just needed to know — I thought maybe somebody had died in my room and that’s what’s going on.” And he’s looking at me and asks me again, “Do I need to call the police?” And I say, “No, no, you don’t need to call the police. I’m just going to go back to my room and be terrified, it’s fine.”

Now I think it’s funny, but at the time I really was terrified.

How did you deal with that fear, on that night and others?
From the first time it happened up until after I  found out about sleep paralysis, I still had a hard time sleeping with the lights off. Because if you intermittently find yourself being attacked by something invisible, you want to see what’s happening. I think at some level I thought that maybe I could catch it. Now I’ve got you!

But I also did some really strange things. Because I thought it might’ve been a ghost, I went back to all the reading I had done on the paranormal. I got a dog because I had heard that dogs could help ward off evil spirits. What they really do is bark at invisible things, which, to be fair, was pretty close. At one, when I was back in the States, my roommate — once I explained to him what was going on — he felt like he needed to do a ceremonial smudging.

Wait, what’s that?
Oh, it’s a Pagan thing where you basically light sage and think positive thoughts, and that’s supposed to get rid of bad spirits. I mean, I don’t want to disparage anybody’s beliefs, but it’s a variety of ceremonial approaches to any sort of bad juju, or whatever you want to call it.

I also contacted my local Catholic priest, asking him if he would come do a cleansing on the house, but he politely declined. He advised me that I could pray for the cleansing of my own house. But I felt like the ghost or spirit or whatever it was was centered on me and not the house, because it seemed to travel wherever I went.

But I did try prayer, too — traditional Protestant, Christian prayers, asking for protection. I just wanted it to go away. It’s funny — it’s been a long time now since I uttered a prayer at all. And I do wonder sometimes if that’s not necessarily a good thing. Even if there’s nobody actually answering the prayer, it does put you in a state of mindfulness and focus. I think there’s probably — and I’m sure I’m disappointing many people in saying this — but I do think there’s a benefit to prayer, whether or not it gets magically answered.

My worldview now has become much more — I don’t know what the right word is. I believe that there are probably good explanations for most things, explanations that are scientifically sound and repeatable. I sort of eschew magical thinking now whenever I run into it.

But back when the sleep paralysis was first happening, you were pretty religious still?
Oh yeah. Believe me, when invisible things attack you, seeking out the help of your invisible helper is one of the first things you try. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

So how did you move from someone who believed in ghosts and the paranormal to someone who “eschews magical thinking”?
Well, over time, as I kept digging into more and more of the sort of phenomena that I was interested in — if you look at the literature that surrounds, say, UFOs or ghosts or monsters, each one of them starts with someone making a claim about what happened to them. So I tried to start digging in more: What specifically happened? What do we know from firsthand accounts? How much of this has maybe gotten changed in the retelling versus what we know are cold, hard facts?

And over time it just turned out that there were pretty rational explanations for most of the really weird things out there. I mean, in no way can you make safe, blanket statements about most paranormal phenomena. But in the case of sleep paralysis, it does seem to explain a portion of many ghostly attacks and, to some extent, UFO abduction.

So when did you hear about sleep paralysis, and connect that with this thing that had been happening to you? And was that a big part of your transformation to becoming a more skeptical person?
It had a big impact, for sure. It was the first time I realized that there’s a lot of frightening phenomena, things that people legitimately experience but that may have much more rational explanations. And that was comforting to me. When I heard the scientific explanation for it — I don’t remember what show it was on, one of those shows about urban legends. But I remember specifically it was [science writer and Skeptic magazine founder] Michael Shermer, he was a guest on the show, and he was talking about sleep paralysis. And when he explained it it was like someone said, “Hey, you’re allergic to tomatoes. That’s why you keep having purple spots on your skin.” It was like, Oh! Wow! So that’s it! It was this scientific and completely rational explanation for what had been a terrifying recurring mental experience for me.

So after you found out about sleep paralysis — that it’s this real thing with a real name — did it change your experience of it?
Well, no, because by that time — around 1996 or 1997 — it had stopped happening. The thing that [Sharpless] suggested is [that] probably the trigger is having irregular sleep patterns, and I was out of the Navy by that point and I didn’t work nights very much. I’ve pretty much had the same sleep schedule ever since. So, yeah, I haven’t had it again.

But I am still, to this day, very appreciative of Michael Shermer, of him taking the time to do that sort of scientific outreach. I guess that’s why I do my own podcast, in a way. I feel like people are scared by a lot of strange things. And if there is a good explanation for it, there’s a good chance a lot of people haven’t heard it, and it’s good to get that out there.

It was a really transformative experience. Though it still took me a while to go back to sleeping with the lights out.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

What It’s Like to Have Severe Sleep Paralysis