One night in 2008 I awoke in the middle of the night to a strange sound. I was still groggy, and as I blinked my eyes to try to get them to focus in the darkness of the room, the sound became louder. All at once I was inexplicably certain that the sound was that of massive, feathered wings beating—not as if they were in flight, but just as if they were flapping for the effect of their sound, since they were clearly flapping in the same place: at the foot of my bed.
I had a passing thought that I must be dreaming, except that I knew I wasn’t. At the alarm of realizing there was a massive winged creature in my room, I became very much awake. I also became paralyzed with fear. And not just in a figurative sense—I literally could not move. I felt weighed down in my bed. I can’t remember now if I was on my back or my stomach, but I know that I was unable to sit up and face the creature in my room. Neither could I yell out to any of my roommates (I remember that at least one of them was present in the house that night).
So I lied there, listening, waiting. I could not only hear the creature in my room, but I could sense its presence, almost unwillingly. Like it was making me aware of it. Like it wanted me to feel it there, hovering over my feet, threatening and powerful. It dawned on me that this wasn’t an animal, so my metaphysics of course immediately suggested to me that it was demonic. It was some kind of malevolent spirit, and it was here to do something to me. I’m a little embarrassed to say that—since I kept trying to move and couldn’t—my next emotion was resignation. I lied there, feeling like an object of this creature’s peculiar lust for domination or whatever it was there for, and I prepared myself for whatever was going to happen. I know that I had a million thoughts going through my head, but they all moved under a thick cloud of confusion. I just remember praying: “Lord have mercy. God help me.”
As I waited for the thing to do something to me, or else for God to intervene and save me, the sound of wings and the sense of the specter faded away. I felt alone again—neither in danger from the spirit nor particularly comforted by God. Just, alone. It was so confusing. I was now lying in bed and able to move again. But I hadn’t woken up as from a dream—I had merely been released from that strange shadow of terror with its undeniably real sensations. I know I heard those wings. I know I felt something there over my feet. But then strangely, suddenly, I didn’t hear or feel anything. I didn’t get up from my bed, but instead let sleep take me again, too tired and confused to do anything else.
Over the next few days, I told a handful of close, like-minded friends what happened. I articulated questions I had about the experience to them: Was it a demon? Did it mean something? Was it trying to scare me for some particular reason? Why me? Why now? The best and most comforting counsel I got for all my questions was, “If it was demonic, you should expect confusion. While angels may bring messages and clarity, the demonic only deliver confusion and darkness.” I reasoned that my efforts to plant a new church at the time were as likely a reason as any to invite preventative efforts from the Devil and Co., and I was contented—even strengthened—in the thought that this episode may have been a scare tactic or threat because of my work.
Several years passed before I first heard the term sleep paralysis. This is a diagnostic term for a widely reported but little understood phenomenon of being on the edge of sleep, but fully aware of one’s surroundings and unable to move. The experience often involves the feeling of weight on one’s chest and limbs. Because those afflicted are awake but completely paralyzed, they have a sense of fear, dread, and often panic. And more likely than not, subjects report hearing strange sounds and seeing or sensing ominous figures or creatures in their room.
I immediately realized that my experience fit this general description of sleep paralysis. I researched it further. It turns out that cultures all over the world have in their various experiences stories which also fit the general description of sleep paralysis, with each culture’s set of stories solidified into a distinct folklore: the Mesopotamian “Incubus” and “Succubus,” Newfoundland’s “Old Hag,” being phi um (ghost covered) in Thailand, or the malevolent female horse ghost of Europe and Scandinavia that would pin down the victim and trample on their chest—what in German was called the “nachtmahr” (night-mare).
Though “nightmare” in English is now used to describe a scary dream, the older stories of the nachtmahr described a waking affliction—being trampled upon while fully conscious. The distinction is important. It’s the experience of being conscious that makes the other accompanying features so remarkable. Karen Emslie, writing in The Atlantic, notes:
“The accounts stretch back to antiquity, with remarkable consistency. Descriptions of sleep paralysis world-over share a sense of an intruder or presence in the room; painful feelings of being crushed, dragged, or touched; and visual, tactile, and aural hallucinations that range from laughing devils and demonic dogs to black shadowy figures and sex-crazed witches.”
The similarities between my experience and the generalized group of experiences now known as sleep paralysis were undeniable. I felt comforted by the fact that I could now classify my experience. I wasn’t alone, or special—or crazy. But I was still without a solid explanation for this phenomenon.
The anecdotal evidence for sleep paralysis has been confirmed in clinical observations, so medical professionals can now confidently diagnose the condition (it can be a recurring experience for some people and so can be studied clinically). But no one has yet discovered the pathological mechanism that causes it. The best guess is that somehow the regulator in the brain that shuts down motor functions while we sleep incorrectly remains on as a person wakes up. The sensation of being conscious but unable to move then triggers the person’s fight-or-flight response and they become distressed, feeling fearful and panicked. Brain waves of people in this state can resemble REM sleep—the time when vivid dreams happen—which, though not exactly explaining it, at least jives with the vivid hallucinations the sufferers experience.
But what about the content of the hallucinations themselves? There are such incredible archetypal similarities across times and cultures: the “intruder” who is seen or felt in the room, often as a shadow person or humanoid creature; and the “incubus” who subdues and/or attacks the person, usually by climbing on top of them and pressing on their chest, sometimes sexually violating them. The nearly universal interpretation of this experience from the sufferers has been that it’s a visitation from a malevolent preternatural spirit (and trust me, my experience was damned convincing of this). But more recently, and almost exclusively in the United States, a new interpretation for the same basic set of experiences has cropped up: alien abduction. In cultures with beliefs in spirits, sleep paralysis may be interpreted spiritually, but among sci-fi-informed secularists, alien abduction may be the interpretation. Psychology professor Chris French suggests:
“It seems likely that the core experience has itself played a role in the development of belief systems relating to the spirit world in many cultures and that those very belief systems, once elaborated upon, are then capable of influencing the hallucinatory content of sleep paralysis episodes in subsequent generations.”
Thus my belief system, elaborated upon and deeply ingrained in me, could have suggested the form of my hallucination as a winged devil.
Though none of what I researched has been proven in any rigorously scientific way, the plausibility of all these theories suggesting an entirely naturalistic causation for what I experienced did seem very compelling to me. I accepted this as the most probable explanation and went on with my life.
Several years again passed until my attention was brought back to the subject of sleep paralysis by a recent episode of a podcast I listen to. On this episode of No Dumb Questions, two separate accounts of nocturnal experiences are given by two different people who hadn’t heard each other’s stories and who, until years after their experiences, hadn’t heard of sleep paralysis (just like me). One of the people on the episode—a biologist by training—interpreted her experience as a demonic encounter. The other person—currently a pastor—has remained agnostic about the nature of his experience, though he indicated a natural explanation was the most probable. This gave me occasion to revisit my own experience and to think afresh about the whole subject.
Sleep paralysis, and hallucinations in general, challenge our understanding of the nature of reality and how we can know it. We have two tools we use to understand reality: our perception and our reason. When our reason tells us to distrust certain data from our perception, we call that hallucination. But our reason needs, well, a reason to distrust perception data. Until this contemporary age of habitually looking for material, mechanical causalities, people haven’t really had a reason to distrust what their senses showed them during these nighttime episodes. They were presented with sense data and applied their reason (very reasonably) to interpret what they had experienced based upon the understanding of reality that they had. Those collective experiences would then go on to further shape the understanding of reality subsequently held by their cultures.
It needs to be emphatically stated that these older interpretations weren’t stupid or superstitious. They were made with equal rationality based on their own set of assumptions as those the modern researchers make based on their set of assumptions. Homo sapiens haven’t gotten smarter in the last several thousand years; we’ve only gained new assumptions. Sometimes people assume that progress in the realm of mathematics and technology/medicine is evidence of an increase in human intelligence, but this is a false conclusion. Technological advancement is only evidence of increasing knowledge, amassed over generations. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and they on the shoulders of those who came before them, but they were all just as intelligent as we are. They only had fewer raw data to work with.
The recent revelation that what we now call “sleep paralysis” is a widely experienced phenomenon with features which, though particularized in individuals and cultural stories, can be generalized and described in a diagnostic way is new data that previous generations didn’t have. The fact that this phenomenon can now be studied in the context of other things we’ve learned about brain waves and chemicals, related sleep disorders and psychoses, means that what once seemed like a singularly exceptional experience may actually be much more related to mundane processes of physicality and biology.
It’s these considerations—not a metaphysical assumption that reality must be wholly materialistic—that satisfy my reason for thinking my experience most likely had natural causes. And if it is true that my apparent brush with a demon was actually a hallucination, what that precisely does not do is to disprove the existence of demons. It’s actually small minded people, not rational people, who jump to conclusions and rush to “prove” a negative.
Given the amount of ancient stories and even contemporary first-hand accounts of encounters with spirits and demons, a rational person would acknowledge that it must be more than just the episodes fitting the description of sleep paralysis that informed the various mythologies and folklores of different cultures. Even granting the explanation that the mythologies themselves provided the content of the sleep paralysis hallucinations, and then discounting every story remotely resembling sleep paralysis, the mythologies would still survive on those stories not matching the sleep paralysis description. There are simply too many accounts of the preternatural to disprove by the narrow parameters of this one experience. I hope to explore more of those in a future post.
In summary, my experience—utterly terrifying and utterly real—I nevertheless believe, rationally based on a preponderance of evidence, to have been a hallucination with natural causes fitting the general description of a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. This conclusion in no way changes my Christian metaphysical beliefs, which I also rationally maintain based on a preponderance of historical evidence, personal experience, and philosophical reasoning. But I hope I never have that experience again, and I hope you don’t either.