• Often accompanied by vivid hallucinations of the supernatural variety, it leaves the sufferer trapped in a purgatory between sleep and wakefulness. (The India Today Group/Getty Images)
For centuries the world over, people have claimed to have seen ghosts at night and encountered the Supernatural during their sleep. But is there a medical reason for these 'hallucinations'? Ruby Hamad discovers the clinical truth behind sleep paralysis.
By
Ruby Hamad

12 Oct 2016 - 1:55 PM  UPDATED 13 Oct 2016 - 4:23 PM

“I bought this mansion in Georgia … this was a really, really spooky place…one time, I woke up, and…I was being mounted by a ghost.” 

With these words, singer Bobby Brown recently became the latest celebrity to claim he’s had sex with a ghost. “I wasn't high at all, “ he insisted, anticipating questions over his substance abuse. “I was not tripping.” 

Brown joins the likes of Kesha, who wrote a song about her “sexy encounters with the supernatural,” and Lucy Lui, who, way back in 1999, told US Weekly that she was taking a nap on her couch, “when some sort of spirit came down…and made love to me. It was sheer bliss. I felt everything. I climaxed. And then he floated away.”

Fame-induced delusions or publicity stunts they may well be. Or there could be another, less fanciful explanation.

Whenever I read about these celebrity dalliances with the dead, I immediately think of sleep paralysis, a sleep disorder characterised by the inability to move and the sensation of being physically held down. Often accompanied by vivid hallucinations of the supernatural variety, it leaves the sufferer trapped in a purgatory between sleep and wakefulness, unable to discern nightmare from reality.

As frightening as it sounds, however, the medical explanation is rather more boring than its mythology and symptoms would suggest. 

The Kaboose: a common experience

The myth of a nocturnal demon stalking us in our sleep dates back to at least medieval times. Known in Arab folklore as the Kaboose (‘pressure’), it is depicted in The Nightmare, by Enlightenment-era painter John Henry Fuseli, crouching menacingly on the chest of its immobile victim.

This sensation that something is pressing hard on the chest is perhaps the aspect of sleep paralysis that causes the most panic in sufferers. As frightening as it sounds, however, the medical explanation is rather more boring than its mythology and symptoms would suggest.

“The usual cause is sleep deprivation,” says Dr Dev Banerjee, a sleep specialist at the Woolcock Institute in Sydney’s Glebe.

“When you sleep after being deprived the night before, you go into REM sleep really quickly. In REM sleep, your body is intrinsically relaxed and floppy, it’s a mechanism to stop you acting out your dreams and falling out of bed…and so you become aware of this loss of muscle tone and this leads to the perception of paralysis.

Sleep and wakefulness, says Banerjee, are not distinct entities.“There’s always a bit of overlap,” he explains. “You’re drifting in and out of sleep, and because REM sleep is accompanied by dreaming and imagery, that’s where the hallucinations come from.

"Your dreams feel very real and that’s why we start to think we’re hallucinating.”

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According to Professor David Hillman, chair of the Sleep Health Foundation, 20 per cent of people will experience sleep paralysis at once in their lifetime.

While most people will only ever have one or two episodes, for some, the unpleasantness can stalk them their entire lives.

Christine Donayre, now in her 40s, has been suffering from sleep paralysis since her teens.

“A typical experience is going to sleep and then being [suddenly] woken up and I’m unsure if I’m actually awake or not,” she recounts. “I [feel] like I’m being held down and I can’t move my arms and I’m not breathing, and that goes to panic straight away.

“It’s a terrifying feeling, like you are conscious but you aren’t in charge of your body.”

Christine says that in times of stress the episodes become more frequent and more terrifying. However, says Professor Hillman, while stress can certainly be an aggravating factor, it is not a cause, “Anything that makes sleep more disruptive increases your chance of experiencing this,” he says.

But what about all that ghostly sex?

 

The incubus and succubus

I’m 24 and lying in my then-boyfriend’s bedroom in suburban Connecticut, USA. Without warning, I am overwhelmed by the sensation of a presence entering through the open window. I try to lift my head but my body is inexplicably heavy. Then I become aware of the sensation of someone standing at the foot of the bed; they lift up the sheets and glide in underneath.

I know I am not asleep because I can hear my boyfriend watching TV in the other room. I call out to him but no sound materialises. I try to throw off the sheets but I am paralysed. And still this thing, this presence, is under the covers with me. Then, as suddenly as I went in, I snap out of it, more terrified than I’ve ever been in my life.

This is why I am inclined to believe the celebrity claims when they insist they were not dreaming. Ordinarily, the instant we wake up we are already far removed from the dream world – we know it wasn’t real. When it comes to sleep paralysis, however, the awareness maintained throughout the experience makes it far more difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

“When we dream in our sleep we obviously have vivid imagery and sexual fantasies,” cautions Banerjee, when I ask if sleep paralysis could be behind all these sexy supernatural encounters. “People can dream all sorts of weird things but it doesn’t have to be sleep paralysis. And there’s a lot of weird dreams people have because of drug taking or medications.”

This is undoubtedly true, however, as someone who suffered sleep paralysis on and off for more than a decade, I have a long list of wild hallucinations, including being violently choked, feeling someone breathing in my ear, and being watched by a malevolent figure standing in the corner of my bedroom.More than once, I also imagined a human-like presence was trying to, well, get in to my pyjamas. I felt pressure not only on my chest, but I also felt it all over my body, as if someone were laying on top me pressing me deep into the mattress.

People can dream all sorts of weird things but it doesn’t have to be sleep paralysis. And there’s a lot of weird dreams people have because of drug taking or medications.

While at the time I thought I just may be losing my mind, like the Kaboose, this sensation is common enough to have a name – incubus – and it speaks to a shared human experience beyond drugs and dreams.

The oldest reference to the incubus, a male demon in human form that seduces women in their sleep, is in the Sumerian King List, an ancient manuscript from Mesopotamia dating back to 2,400 BC. The hero Gilgamesh was said to have been born to a human mother and incubus father. Jewish, Christian, and Arab mythology are also littered with references to these demons who use sex to drain the strength from their victims; repeated intercourse with an incubus or his female counterpart, the succubus, was believed to be deadly.

 

Sonia's story

Now in her late 40s, Sonia* vividly recalls her first encounter with sleep paralysis, almost 20 years ago. “I had come home from work, had dinner and was feeling very tired so I took a quick nap on the couch with my back turned to the room. Suddenly, I started to feel this weird sensation of awareness, of a body in the doorway, just standing there watching me.

“Then I sensed them walking towards me. I tried to turn and couldn’t, and I remember thinking, ‘Why can’t I look back?’ That’s when I started to become really afraid. But I could not turn.”

Sonia’s experience has the classic hallmarks; falling asleep quickly, paralysis, hallucinations, and, perhaps most terrifying of all, awareness of the real world around her.

Sonia had several more similar episodes over the years, eventually learning that the key to avoiding panic was not to fight it.

That’s when the experiences took a decidedly different turn. “I remember one time, when I felt the presence enter, I said to myself, ‘Just be nice to it.’ I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh welcome, you’re here!’ And then...,” she stops and laughs shyly.

“Then I started to feel a sensation all over as if it was caressing me all over my body. I started to feel like,” her voice drops, “like we were actually having sex – not like there was anything physically inside me but I was just very aware that it was a sex act. And I remember responding…”

“Responding how?” I ask.

“Well…I came.”

It didn’t end there. “Twice, after I woke up the orgasm was still going. Even after I woke up and was no longer immobilised, I knew it was over but the physical orgasm kept going.”

She laughs. “I don’t even experience that when I am sleeping with a real man.”

 

The power of the human mind

That night in Connecticut more than 15 years ago was my first ever experience of sleep paralysis. This was years before it became a regular part of my life and well over a decade before I knew it had a name. All that time, I carried it with me, not believing in ghosts but also knowing what I had experienced was no ordinary dream.

It is natural for sufferers to keep their experiences to themselves for fear of being labelled “crazy,” but, says Hillman, it is vital that they know, “This is not a psychological illness, it is not schizophrenia. It is physical.”

There is no model for who is likely to experience it, although there is a strong link between sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder where sufferers fall into irresistible bouts of sleep and can enter REM sleep within a few minutes. In the course of writing this story, I was diagnosed with hypersomnia – excessive daytime sleepiness – also linked to sleep paralysis.

One, there is an explanation. Two, no matter how frightening the experience is, it is also benign.

Genetics can also play a role; your chances of getting narcolepsy jump from one-in-2000 to one-in-20 if a parent had it. However, stresses Hillman, “there is no guarantee you will get sleep paralysis just because your parents did”.

Sleep paralysis is a common human experience that cuts across time and place. For millennia, humans from all cultures have woken in fright, paralysed, sensing and witnessing things they cannot explain. Through the power of human imagination, they have meshed these unspeakable occurrences with our common folklore, myths, and art.

Hillman likens Sonia’s ability to transform horror into ecstasy to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – mentally changing the negative to the positive, “To embrace it, rather than be fearful can be literally perverse, in that it leads to the opposite of what we expect.”

The most important thing for sufferers, Hillman continues, is reassurance. “There are four things they need to understand,” he says. “One, there is an explanation. Two, no matter how frightening the experience is, it is also benign. Three, they are not alone. And four, it’s not all those things you thought it was.”

 

*Sonia is not the interviewee's real name.

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