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Aliens, Shadow Men & Demons: The Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis

  • Maureen Elsberry

The Nightmare of Sleep Paralysis

Imagine waking up suddenly and becoming overwhelmed with a feeling of dread. You know someone else in the room with you that shouldn’t be there. Perhaps you can hear them, but most likely it’s just the heavy air of their presence lingering in the room. That’s when you see it in the corner . . . A black shadow is menacingly looking in your direction. You cannot speak or move as the shadow man approaches and leans over the bed . . . This terrifying scenario is not uncommon, and for many people it’s an ongoing saga of fear and torture that they’ve dealt with for years, for others, it may have happened only once.

According to Wikipedia, “Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which a person, either falling asleep or awakening, temporarily experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by complete muscle atonia (muscle weakness). It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations (such as an intruder in the room) to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body). “

Now, a new documentary by Rodney Ascher (Room 237), The Nightmare, explores the stories of eight unfortunate souls suffering from chronic sleep paralysis. It describes itself as:

“A documentary-horror film exploring the phenomenon of 'Sleep Paralysis' through the eyes of eight very different people. These people often find themselves trapped between the sleeping and waking worlds, totally unable to move but aware of their surroundings while being subject to frequently disturbing sights and sounds. A strange element to these visions is that despite the fact that they know nothing of one another, many see similar ghostly 'shadow men.' This is one of many reasons many people insist this is more than just a sleep disorder. This documentary digs deep into not only the particulars of these eight people's uncanny experiences, but it also explores their search to understand what they've gone through and how it's changed their lives.”

Ascher relies heavily on parlor tricks and dramatizations in an attempt to convey a real-life horror movie, and while it may have it’s moments, it quickly deflates and becomes a redundant scare tactic. The cool thing about his film is noticing that this condition can happen at any time, to anyone, and countless people are similarly encountering some pretty evil stuff. 

The Shadow Man:

A shadow man or men are probably one of the most widely reported monsters during an episode of sleep paralysis. It is most often reported alone, but sometimes there are several of them in the room. It’s basically pure evil prancing about your bedroom waiting to see if you piss yourself. Some people report interaction with the figure, whether it speaks to them or touches the individual in bed.

One man described his encounter with the shadow man, “It’s an icy cold, dark, evil. Something is in the room, and it’s watching me, and that’s the scary part. It’s making you feel afraid, and it wants you to feel afraid.”

The reenactment of the shadow men in the documentary was the least bit menacing, however. All I could focus on was that the actors were wearing those weird store-bought black spandex body suits and were lurking in people’s bedrooms like straight up creepers. But that’s terrifying on its own accord.

Alien abduction or sleep paralysis:

Aliens are probably the highest debated encounter that occurs not only during a paralysis experience but in the bedroom itself. Many skeptics allege that all alien encounters can be attributed to hallucinations during sleep paralysis. I certainly agree that it is a very likely explanation for some reported cases, but it is in no way a blanket explanation.

The documentary follows one man who details his experiences that began as a baby and continued through adulthood. He explains, “I thought I was being abducted by aliens, for a long time, for years and years and years. I would close my eyes and think ‘not tonight, not tonight, not tonight’ like I had some psychic bond with my alien abductors. Like I could communicate with them telepathically.” He goes on to describe them as static television figures with big eyes and long fingers. He repeatedly references Whitley Strieber’s book Communion, which went on to become a feature film starring Christopher Walken, and drew an immediate parallel to what he was experiencing.

Demonic Entities and the Night Hag:

NightmaresAnother widely reported creature that has been documented throughout history, all over the world, are demonic entities. Some, including one woman in the film, believe the only escape from these night time tormentors is a religion. The demonic presence is often reported as being extremely hostile and constantly speaking to the person, threatening their death in a murderous villain voice.

Perhaps the most recognized of these is the night hag. Creatures that would sit on your chest, putting pressure that restricted breathing. These squat little night ghouls are often reported with claws and aim to harm the sleeper. This is believed to be the inspiration behind the famous 1781 painting by Henry Fuseli entitled ‘The Nightmare.’ Night hags should also be associated with the last thing you’d ever want to wake up to.

Weirdos or weird circumstances?

Sleep paralysis is estimated to happen to over 50% of the population at least once in their lives. The individuals that Ascher chose to share their stories come from varied backgrounds and some bordered on the slightly wackier side. Here are some of the gems that these folks, which we’ll refer to as victims for our purposes, experienced or stated during the film:

  • Sleep paralysis is like an STD; you transmit it to those around you. (Um, no).
  • A demonic entity crawled up under the sheets and had sex with one victim.
  • An old man told a victim that he was disgusting for masturbating all over his Mother’s sheets.
  • An old Italian woman would be singing, but she had the voice of a baby.
  • A tapping presence at the window was trying to steal a woman’s soul.
  • Television static aliens abducted a victim as a baby.

So why do these asinine and crazy bouts of sleep paralysis happen to people? This is one place the documentary chose not to explore, and I think was a poor decision on their part. Experience linked with a little edge from a scientific or medical angle would strengthen the films message and add some much-needed substance.

A scientific look into our weird brains:

Sleep paralysis occurs during one of two sleep cycles. When your body has difficulty transitioning into REM sleep, it’s referred to as hypnagogic sleep paralysis, and when it occurs while your body is trying to wake up, it’s hypnopompic. Scientists aren’t quite sure why the body and the mind have difficulty properly transitioning sometimes. The confusion leads to a moment when your brain wakes up, but your body remains paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams.

So what makes some people more likely to experience this waking nightmare? Some speculate that sleep deprivation, or poor quality of sleep may be to blame, while others think that an inherited gene, stress, and prescription drugs may play a role. According to a study published on the US National Library of Medicine's website, researchers from Penn State found that the condition was most likely to affect students, and psychiatric patients. 

This condition is sometimes confused with lucid dreaming, but it's a totally different ballgame.  These two dementedly absurd disorders of our sleep are functionally opposed. Lucid dreamers are asleep and able to control their actions or experiences in the dream, whereas, sleep paralysis is a short-lived virtual prison that occurs when your mind is awake. The experience typically lasts a few seconds to several minutes, or for some unlucky folks, over an hour.

The final word:

Sleep paralysis is a complex mystery with a ton of paranormal connotations which we still don’t quite understand.The condition is fascinating, but the film was not. It weakly dances around the subject and is, quite honestly, repetitive. Because the lack of substantiated background on the condition, we’re left with an hour and thirty minutes of same stories told eight different times. Well, except for the dude who gets yelled at for masturbating on his mom’s sheets, he was on his own on that one. If you want to watch a semi-boring documentary on an interesting condition, The Nightmare is available to view on Amazon Instant Video and other streaming sites.

It’s easy to describe to people the insanity of what it’s like to experience sleep paralysis, but it’s almost impossible to convey the severity of what happens to your state of mind. If you’ve never been through an episode, consider yourself lucky that the devil has decided to skip your doorstep. Have you suffered through sleep paralysis? Let us know in the comments below and share your freakiest encounter!