It happened after midnight, a few weeks before my first year of university was to begin. I was wading through that narrow, hallucinatory valley between wakefulness and sleep when all of a sudden I felt my body drawn inexorably upwards, like some otherworldly force was slowly sucking me into the sky. Rendered powerless by the paralytic caress of sleep, I gave in to this strange sensation of levitation. My limbs were tingling with a weightlessness I had only ever before felt drifting in water — it was not entirely an unpleasant experience.
But just as I felt I had risen to some pinnacle, something seemed to snap. The same force that was pulling me upwards was now flooding into my body with a furious intensity. The whole universe felt like it was collapsing into a singularity inside me, turning my heart into a boulder that was plummeting to the ground. The gentle tingling that had just suspended me in the air had morphed into electric spasms, and I screamed, but no sound left my mouth.
And yet I did hear something. This demented trumpet-like blare blasting through my head, like a bomb siren warning me of some imminent danger only the inner depths of my mind could comprehend. This is what has haunted me the most.
Terror scythed me awake. The world was once again silent except a loud thumping in my chest. I scrambled out of bed and clawed at my body to confirm that I was not dreaming. Or dead. Did I just have a heart attack? Or was it a seizure? Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been just a nightmare. You do not physically feel a nightmare in your body, and the fear conjured up by a nightmare normally evaporates upon waking up. But the terror had stalked me into consciousness. Not even turning on the light assuaged this fear that something unspeakably evil was somewhere lurking in my bedroom with me. As I stared at my bed in disbelief, I could swear that my blood-red sheets were beckoning me.
You are tired. Come back to bed. Fall asleep. Sleep is what you need.
I tried to get back on my bed, but my body seized up with dread each time I lay down. Something in me was certain that I would never wake up if I fell asleep. It was waiting. It needed me to be asleep to strike again. Disorientated by fear and devoid of any rational explanation for what was happening, it pried open my mind to the horrifying realisation that the supernatural might be real.
Up until that point, I had been a resolute skeptic. I was not religious, spiritual or even superstitious. I was contemptuous of horoscopes, and thought that people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens were either lying, stupid or both. But on that summer night in 2017, I was convinced that some invisible, malevolent force was trying to kill me.
I resolved to stay awake for as long as I could, sitting on my bed instead of lying down to keep me alert. But terror soon gave way to sheer exhaustion, and I once again fell asleep. In the morning, I woke up unscathed, and went on with my life as if nothing had happened.
Visceral though it was, this supernatural experience did not fundamentally alter the way I viewed the world. The enormity of accepting what it represented was perhaps too much for me to deal with, so I chose to completely ignore it. But in moments of doubt, it would resurface in my mind, rattling the chains which kept it from overwhelming my perception of reality, demanding me to recognise its power. On rare occasions, I have recounted this story to my friends. One of them posited that a demon had tried to possess me. How absurd, I laughed to myself, that this was the most plausible explanation.
Over time, and perhaps aided by my regime of thought suppression, I began to wonder if it really happened at all. Some things seem bizarre in retrospect, like why I didn’t seek out my phone, or why I didn’t wake up my parents. As the memory of that night slowly faded, I wanted to think that it was just an especially powerful nightmare. But then I remember it couldn’t have been. Amid the chaos, I had enough clarity to grab a pen and write something down in a notebook to prove to myself that this was real.
You are terrified.
* * *
Before that night, I had experienced another strange phenomena connected with sleep. For as long as I can remember, I have sometimes woken up and found my body completely immobilised. When I asked my parents what was happening to me, they told me that it was caused by a ghost sitting on my chest. It was only in highschool when I found out that this “ghost” was actually a medical condition called sleep paralysis.
When I was younger, sleep paralysis would make me feel like I was about to suffocate to death. As I grew older, it became less like a near-death experience, and more like a simple annoyance I just had to put up with. I had become quite adept at breaking free from the paralysis using my mind, and knew how to stay calm while paralysed.
The interesting thing with sleep paralysis is that you are not actually fully awake when it happens. You are in a mixed state of consciousness between dreaming and reality, where your mind is highly prone to hallucination. I found this out through a rather sinister episode of paralysis. In the days before, I had discovered that some people report seeing menacing, shadowy figures in their room while paralysed. I had never experienced anything like that before. However, after finding out about the “shadow people”, they made a terrifying debut in my next bout of sleep paralysis. I had, in effect, conjured them up with my mind. It took me a few more years afterwards to realise that what I had actually experienced was lucid dreaming.
Nowadays, I am no longer afraid of sleep paralysis. In fact, I rather look forward to my next bout. That is because I have found it to be a gateway to lucid dreams. When I “wake up” and find myself unable to move, instead of fighting with it, I evoke a mental image in my mind of what I want to dream about and let it melt into the paralysis. And in an instant, I am “awake” in a dream, capable of doing anything I want.
* * *
Many people have reported having more vivid dreams during lockdown. I am no exception. The complete collapse of my sleep cycle has increased the frequency of my sleep paralysis. Scientifically, this makes perfect sense. Disrupting your sleep cycle fragments REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, which is the phase commonly associated with dreaming. During the REM phase, which occurs at the start and end of sleep, your body inhibits your motor neurons to prevent you from acting out your dreams. So in a sense, everyone has sleep paralysis. It’s just that most people aren’t conscious enough to truly experience it.
After a particularly realistic paralysis-induced dream, I began to wonder whether my “demonic possession” was actually a lucid dream gone wrong. Could it be that I had lost control of a lucid dream and, like a bad drug trip, became overwhelmed by dark thoughts which manifested themselves into an increasingly tactile nightmare? Could it be that being “awake” during it all blurred the boundary between dream and reality such that I couldn’t distinguish the two apart? That would explain why I felt so scared even after I woke up. But what about the demonic trumpets I heard? Where did they come from?
After doing some research, I found the truth to be even stranger.
There is a sleep condition by the name of exploding head syndrome. Sufferers claim to hear loud, terrifying noises in their head when falling asleep or waking up which feel like explosions. This auditory hallucination is often preceded by electric tingling which rises through the body before crescendoing inside your head as a cacophony of phantasmal sound. Some sufferers report feeling something snap inside their brain. Of course, all of this is imagined. But so powerful is this illusion that people develop a fear of falling back asleep. All of this perfectly aligns with what I experienced.
Scientists aren’t quite sure why this happens. Research suggests it has something to do with REM sleep, occurs more often in people who suffer from sleep paralysis, and that it’s often triggered by a disrupted sleep cycle. As it happens, I had just come back from Europe a week before it came into my life. So rather than the supernatural, it seems that it was really just the result of being incredibly jet-lagged. And thus, the “demon” was slayed.