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Sleep Paralysis: Demon or Dysfunction?

What is sleep paralysis? This terrifying sleep dysfunction has long been attributed to supernatural intervention. but the truth may be much simpler.

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You are lying in your bed, covers pulled around you, in the dead of night. There is barely enough light to make out the features of your room: your legs under the covers, the bed itself, your furniture, and the bedroom door. As you lazily gaze around the room, you notice that this door is open.
Then, you realize that you can not move.

This spurs a bit of panic, but it does not compare to the level of alarm created by your next discovery. There is a figure standing just inside your bedroom’s doorway. You can not make out much about it, except that it is the dark, shadowy outline of a man. As you struggle to move, it inches nearer and nearer to your paralyzed body. Finally, it reaches you. Your chest feels tight, and an overwhelming pressure envelops you. Then, you wake.
This is a generalized example of a phenomenon experienced by 7.6% of the general population and 28.3% of students (1); this fascinating and terrifying abnormality in brain and nervous system function is dubbed “sleep paralysis.” The term implies that it takes place as the individual is asleep, and that there is complete paralysis of the body, both of which are fallacious statements. First, sleep paralysis occurs in the time before a person slips into, and after they emerge from, REM sleep. Secondly, many find that they can eventually move their extremities with focus and a calm demeanor.

In an article analyzing this occurrence’s implications on the psychology of those affected, Richard J. McNally and Susan A. Clancy define sleep paralysis as a “manifestation of discordance between the cognitive/perceptual and motor aspects of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.” (2)

In REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the stage of rest in which dreaming occurs, we enter a state of temporary muscle paralysis. This keeps our limbs still and body systems relaxed, so as to attain maximum physical, mental, and emotional benefits from our required hours of rest. When it transpires correctly and without incident, this quality of human rest does not have negative effects upon us.

However, for sufferers of the aforementioned condition, paralysis can continue into the minutes after waking, accompanied by defining characteristics such as “sensed presence, felt pressure, floating sensations, auditory and visual hallucinations, and fear,” according to an article relating hypnagogic (before falling asleep) and hypnopompic (after waking from sleep) experiences (3).

Common visual hallucinations include: ‘shadow people’ (often seen as black outlines,) an old woman, and animals (most often cats) who draw nearer to the individual in the period of paralysis.The hallucinations may also speak to or otherwise interact with the individual.

These elements combine into an unnerving experience that has spawned numerous cultural and supernatural explanations for the strange phenomenon over centuries, one of these being the Italian Pandafeche. In a study by Baland Jalal, Andrea Romanelli, and Devon E. Hinton in Italy, they found that 38% of participants (Italian sleep paralysis sufferers) believed the Pandafeche was responsible for their dysfunction (or at least present at the time of their affliction.) Despite differing opinions as to what exactly the creature was (which varied from a witch, dwarf, cat, and spirit) it was always a malevolent embodiment.

Despite this and other beliefs about sleep paralysis, it truly is just a medical condition. The terrifying nature and strange symptoms may distinguish it, but there are methods to escape the episodes. Some of these include moving small extremities and muscles, as well as deep breathing (5).

An interesting, if slightly dramatized, compilation of sleep paralysis experiences can be found in the film documentary The Nightmare (2015). It delves more into cultural and individual explanations of the phenomenon, as well as the hallucinatory experiences of those affected.

Sleep paralysis currently has no one, definitive cure. However, regular sleep habits and routines, as well as melatonin/sleep supplements and psychological care are all effective treatments.

  1. Sharpless, Brian A, and Jacques P Barber. “Lifetime Prevalence Rates of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, Oct. 2005, pp. 311–315.
  2. Mcnally, Richard J., and Susan A. Clancy. “Sleep Paralysis, Sexual Abuse, and Space Alien Abduction.” Transcultural Psychiatry, vol. 42, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2005, pp. 113–122., doi:10.1177/1363461505050715.
  3. Sharpless, Brian A, and Jacques P Barber. “Lifetime Prevalence Rates of Sleep Paralysis: A Systematic Review.” Sleep Medicine Reviews, Oct. 2005, pp. 311–315.
  4. Jalal, Baland, et al. “Cultural Explanations of Sleep Paralysis in Italy: The Pandafeche Attack and Associated Supernatural Beliefs.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, vol. 39, no. 4, Dec. 2015, pp. 651–664., doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-015-9442-y.
  5. Ascher, Rodney, director. The Nightmare. Gravitas Ventures, 2015. Netflix.


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