The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Sleep Paralysis:
A Personal Odyssey Into an Apparently Paranormal Experience

Skeptics are familiar with different sleep anomalies that help explain the various psychological experiences that people have that are often attributed to supernatural, paranormal, or even extraterrestrial causes. Hypnagogic (just after falling asleep) and hypnopompic (just before waking up) hallucinations, for example, occur in the fuzzy borderlands between wakefulness and sleep, when our conscious brain slips into unconsciousness as we fall asleep or transition into wakefulness. Reality and fantasy blur and people report seeing and hearing things that are not actually there, such as speckles, lines, geometric patterns, representational images, and voices and sounds. Lucid dreams are stronger still, and consist of dreams in which the sleeping person is aware that they are asleep and dreaming, but can participate in and alter the dream itself. Sleep paralysis is a type of lucid dream in which the dreamer is generally not aware they are dreaming but rather they perceive themselves to be awake and in their bed. They also feel paralyzed, have difficulty breathing, feel pressure on the chest and often sense the presence of a being in the room with them. Additionally, they sometimes feel themselves floating, flying, falling, or leaving their body, with an emotional component that includes an element of terror, but sometimes also excitement, exhilaration, rapture, or sexual arousal.

I have had many such experiences myself, and now that I am a skeptic I can look back upon them with some reflective hindsight and provide here a first-hand account of what it is like to have a lucid dream under sleep paralysis. First, by way of background, I am a 44-year old white female, a first generation American raised by a working-class single, German immigrant mother. I was raised Mormon, although today I consider myself an open minded, highly inquisitive, skeptical, critically thinking agnostic who is pro-science.

I stopped believing in Mormonism (if I ever really did believe) sometime in my early teens. In my early 20s I got involved in political activism (hardcore lefty), fueled by youthful passion and idealism and intent on changing the world. During that time until my very early 30s I tended to believe in conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and all sorts of woo, including alien abductions. Yet I also had a deep skeptical streak and a fairly well developed inquisitiveness that made me question … everything and seek deeper understanding.

Since my early teens through my mid 30s, I have experienced numerous episodes of sleep paralysis (full blown occurrences with all the bells and whistles and terror). I will recount several of them here. When I was in a sleep paralysis state, I did not feel at all as if I were dreaming so I will use language that depicts what I was actually experiencing at the time. Today, I accept the scientific explanation of this sleep disorder, but it is easier for me to write about it just as I was experiencing it.

Early Teens, Genesis

My earliest memory of sleep paralysis was being in my cousin Brigitte’s bedroom at night when I was between 13 and 15 years old. I was in her giant waterbed with her, late at night, lights out, just starting to fall asleep. It was summer vacation and I was visiting her and the rest of my cousins in San Pedro, California, which was a very welcome escape from Kearns, Utah. Just as I was beginning to drift off to sleep I was jolted awake by a sensation coming over me that I perceived as both a physical sensation and a very loud sound in my ears. It was a deafening rushing sound similar to the roar of ocean waves, and it filled my head and my ears. But it was also a feeling, like a vibration or tingly, electric energy. The sound was somewhat rhythmic and pulsating…and very loud. However—and this was the spooky part—I could still hear the soft sound of Brigitte breathing quietly next to me, yet at the same time I heard/felt an incredibly loud rushing/roaring sound that filled my head and ears and body. It was simultaneously a physical sensation and a loud sound.

This happened many times throughout my teens (I eventually dubbed this particular experience “The Waves”) and was the beginning of what would become much more intense episodes. I vaguely remember the paralysis part, along with fear, and I recall that I would always try very hard to move just one little finger because I knew once I moved a finger, or any part of my body (I usually focused on a pinky finger for some reason) that it would “break the spell” and I would come out of the state into normal waking consciousness. Mostly though, what I remember about these early teenage episodes was the deafening, pulsating sound and the tingly, electric feeling of “The Waves” while at the same time still being able to hear what was happening in the room. It was very disconcerting.

Ages 18–22, Sex

In my late teens and early 20s the episodes morphed into classic full-blown sleep paralysis. There were several episodes in an apartment in Northridge, California that I shared with my then boyfriend. The episodes would tend to happen during daylight hours when I was lying down on my back to take an afternoon nap. For example, one happened when I was alone in our apartment. It was bright out, with sunshine streaming in the windows. I was drifting off to sleep when the episode began:

I wake up with a start, feel that I’m paralyzed, feel this sort of tingly vibrating energy coursing through my body. I feel like I’m sort of…sinking…or falling backwards…like down into a giant bowl of warm tingly oatmeal. Rhythmic sensations of vibrations/ electricity all over my skin and throughout my entire body. This comes also with a sound, a roar, a rush. The sound stays. I feel fear. I try to move, but can’t. It’s hard to breathe, it’s hard to lift my chest, or to fill my lungs with air. I can open my eyes just a slit so I can see everything in my room, and notice a huge bulking figure in the doorway coming toward me. It is a dark silhouette of something that kind of looks like a giant broad-shouldered ape. It is a monster or a demon of some sort. I can’t see a face—just an out line filled in with total darkness against the bright white light of my room and the doorway. It is totally aware of me and wants to do me harm. It is coming toward me and I am paralyzed and totally terrified. Struggling for breath, I panic and strain hard, directing all of my energy to try to move just one little finger…and finally, I do. I move a finger and the spell is broken. I “wake up” all the way. I feel groggy and drugged and hot. I am alone in my bedroom.

The episodes continued along these lines, but some had an additional element: Sex! Just like people in the Middle Ages reported being sexually harassed in their beds by demons, or people today who claim to have been sexually molested by aliens, my sleep paralysis experiences have been both terrifying and sexual in nature. For example:

Same apartment, in the same bed, during the day so it’s light in the room, I wake up into the usual state of feeling paralyzed and tingling all over, with the sound, vibrations, fear, and difficulty breathing. My eyes are open just a slit and I can see my room. I look around (I can move my eyeballs only, nothing else) and I look at the large painting that my boyfriend has hung on the wall opposite the bed. The painting depicts two women in a subtly sexual situation. One woman is clearly the master of the other woman. The master woman is sitting in a large wicker chair with her hand around the thigh of her slave girl who is standing obediently next to her. There is some kind of fancy car in the background, and a large Bengal tiger with a collar and leash. I’m very familiar with this painting as it’s been in our bedroom for the last year or two. But when I look at it now, in my sleep paralysis state, I immediately notice that the two women are gone! Everything else in the painting is still there, exactly as normal, but now the wicker chair is empty and I can see the rest of the Bengal tiger’s body that was normally hidden by the slave girl’s body. What the…?! The moment I notice the women are not in the painting, I feel them by the side of my bed, I hear them whispering and giggling, and I feel their hands on my body, touching me sexually. I hear the master lady whispering instructions to the giggling slave girl who obeys and touches me…everywhere. I can’t see them totally because I can’t move my head. I can only sort of make something out in my peripheral vision. It’s more that I feel them and hear them next to me. I also very distinctly feel their hands on my body, touching me intimately. I am still filled with fear because I can’t move and it’s hard to breathe, but it’s also arousing and I don’t sense any evil from them the way I sense from the giant dark demon monster that sometimes lurks in my doorway. I sense that these women mean me no harm, but they know I am helpless and they are taking advantage of me. It is arousing. This does not feel anything like a dream. I can see my room, I can feel my body, I can hear cars passing by outside, I can feel the bed underneath me…and I can feel cool, soft female hands touching me all over.

A similarly arousing experience happened again during an afternoon nap:

It is daylight, I am alone in the house and again, while there is fear, there is also intense sexual arousal. The entity in the room this time is, well…it’s performing oral sex on me and it’s doing a pretty damn good job. It’s somewhat but not completely human. Kind of looks like a female (I can only see its face/head), but clearly it’s not completely human. It’s definitely kind of scary and threatening and demonic, but the sensation of it between my legs is totally real and feels good. I feel wide awake, yet paralyzed, I can see the room and I can see this dark strange face between my legs and I can feel everything that it’s doing to me. Despite my arousal, I still struggle to break the paralysis and finally do by moving a finger. I “wake up” in a state of intense sexual arousal.

Ages 22–24, Aliens

Around the age of 22 I entered the political activist stage of my life. I was very involved with organizing rallies and protests and I was exposed to all kinds of eccentric people with a wide variety of beliefs and conspiracy theories. I read all of Whitley Strieber’s books in his Communion series, about alien abductions, which resonated with my experiences. After that, my sleep paralysis episodes took on a little bit of an “alien” theme, but never any full-blown alien abduction scenarios such as those described by Strieber. I recall one that happened during a road trip with my sister:

I’m half asleep (during the day so it’s light out) in the front passenger seat of the car. The seat is reclined a bit, and we are parked at a gas station. My sister is outside getting gas, and I’m suddenly in the sleep paralysis state (at this point in my life, I’m calling it “The Trance Thingy”) and I have all the regular symptoms (paralysis, fear, difficulty breathing, tingly vibrations and the pulsating, rushing sound). But I also sense very strongly that something is hovering just inches above the car. It is pulsing and vibrating and I am sure that it’s some sort of alien craft that has been following us and only comes into my awareness when I’m in this state. I feel very strongly that it wants me and is trying to get to me. The experience is short lived as I “wake up” when my sister gets back into the car.

During this time I was a little hippy/activist girl driving around the country with my sister following the Grateful Dead. It was the summer of 1990 and we did this for a couple of months before settling back into normal lives with jobs and schedules. During this period I had numerous intense and unrelenting sleep paralysis episodes. We slept in hotel rooms, on couches, in tents, or in our car. And every night I was bombarded with intense episodes, so much so that I couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep because I was fighting with it all night long. Of course, I told my sister all about it and we both believed that it was something paranormal and evil trying to harm me. Both she and my brother have experienced sleep paralysis a few times in their lives, but nothing compared to the frequency and intensity of my experiences.

During this period, surrounded by tripping hippies and passionately believing conspiracy theorists of all shades, I almost completely believed that something paranormal was happening as I had no other explanation.

Ages 24–26, Out-of-Body

Sometime after my return from the road trip, I went on a camping trip in the desert by myself. One afternoon I was dozing on my lounge chair in the shade. It was very hot and I found myself slipping into the sleep paralysis state, totally awake and aware and in my body, on the lounge chair, in the desert:

I feel and hear the familiar rhythmic buzzing and energy vibration, like I’m sinking into a giant bowl of hot tingly oatmeal. I feel the fear as well and I immediately try to move. I try hard to sit up. Why can’t I sit up? I can see the shade tarp above me, I can see the bright daylight of my desert surroundings, the horizon, the rocks, my tent out of the corner of my eye. I am awake!! I strain so hard to sit up, and suddenly…I sit up. Or, wait. What the…?

Here I must introduce the term “phantom body” because it is necessary to describe the feeling of what is happening to me.

My physical body is still lying down, in the paralyzed vibrating state. It is my “phantom body” that is sitting up out of my physical body! My phantom legs are still inside my physical legs. But from the torso up, I am sitting up out of my body. The sensation is totally real. It is not a dream. I am awake. I get very excited when I realize that I am partially out of my body. I want to get all the way out to see what it feels like. So I begin to sort of twist and shake (keep in mind, my physical body is not moving, and I am aware of and have the sensation of my physical body still lying paralyzed on the lounge chair). I twist and shake to try to pry myself (my “phantom” self) out of my body. It gets intense and weird. I find that I don’t have complete control over my phantom body—only partial control. So when I begin the twisting and shaking it sort of gets out of control and suddenly I am twisting/shaking so hard and fast it would be impossible for my real body to shake that fast. And everything gets…weird and intense. I see lights, hear sounds and feel intense, fast movements. The sensations are visual, auditory and tactile all at once. I’m moving so fast and the colors of everything are smearing and zigzagging, like bright bursts of colorful lightning, and the sounds are all smearing together…sounds/colors/sensations blend together with extreme speed and intensity…it’s so loud and intense that I pass out. Or something. The next thing I know, I’m back in my body, no longer in the sleep paralysis state. I sit up for real this time and see a coyote, just a few yards in front of me, stock-still and staring at me.

Somewhere around this time, I began to realize that I always survived these sleep paralysis experiences, so I decided to play with them, observe them, and experiment with them a little. I focused on my breath. I willed myself to relax into the experience. I used “positive affirmations” and visualizations, such as imagining my own power and strength, or picturing some sort of benevolent protector entity. Basically, I tried to use my conscious mind to relax and let myself sink into the sensations and focus on my breathing. To some extent, it worked. The fear was always sort of there, sometimes stronger than other times, but I began to feel more in control of what was happening. The hallucinations (visual, tactile and auditory) continued, but I was able to relax more and try to just “go with it.” I even got used to the malevolent presence to the point where it lost some of its power over me. Occasionally I perceived it as a smallish old gnomelike creature that positioned itself just out of view on my left side, just out of my field of vision. He would try to reach for me and attempt to frighten me. I couldn’t get rid of him completely, but I was able to use my mind and will to imagine other things. For example, I pictured myself rolling over with mighty strength and power to face this entity. With my “phantom body” I roared at him, my mouth huge and powerful and filled with sharp teeth. I growled powerfully at him to leave me alone. It worked to some extent—the entity would shrink into an impotent little gnome creature but he would still needle and poke me and try to scare me. But I was mostly able to ignore him enough to begin to enjoy my experiences.

Mid-20s, God

After gaining some control over my sleep paralysis experiences I was able to use them in two ways: mystically and sexually. At this period of my life I tended to believe in all the new-agey woo-woo stuff—energies, god, spirits, other planes of existence, etc. One episode occurred during an afternoon nap in which I employed all my little mental exercises to try to get past the fear and let myself just go with it to see what would happen.

The sun is shining through a window and a shaft of sunlight beams down on top of my head. It vibrates and tingles and pours through my entire body. It feels like a living sentient energy is emanating from the sunlight. I try to relax and in my mind I direct this question to it: “Are you God?” The reaction is instantaneous! The tingly energy vibration emanating from the shaft of light on my head turns all the way up! My entire body and senses are flooded with an almost unbearable sensation of vibration, energy, buzzing, light, heat. It feels so good that it almost hurts. It’s as if my entire body/being is flooded with the most intense cosmic orgasm imaginable. I can’t take it. I say (in my mind) “Okay! Okay! Please stop, turn it down! I can’t take it! You’re hurting me!” and it responds by turning down a little…and a little more…and a little more…until I am suddenly no longer in that state. I am, as always after these episodes, groggy, hot and thirsty, like I’ve been put through the wringer.

A sexual experience featuring “out of body” sensations began with another mid-afternoon nap on the couch:

I want to stay calm but terror grips me immediately. I try hard to move my arms so that I can break free of it, and suddenly both of my arms lift up and I think “I’m free! I broke the paralysis and I’m all the way awake now!” But then I notice that my physical arms are still down by my sides on the couch. I’m still in the paralyzed state with all the buzzing and vibration and my evil little gnome companion on my left trying to scare me. I growl at him and then ignore him. I focus on my “phantom arms,” which I can only vaguely see with my eyes: They look sort of like zigzagging streaks of light. However, the physical sensation of them is 100% real—they feel just like my real arms! The first thing that occurs to me to do is to touch myself. Sexually. And so I do. And it feels awesome. It totally feels real. I unbutton my pants (my “phantom pants,” of course!) and I put my hand in my underwear (my “phantom underwear,” of course!) and I can feel everything! My “hands” can feel the sensation of touching myself, and my body feels my “hands” touching myself.

Basically, I had figured out how to use the experience for “phantom masturbation” and it was pretty damn fun. I had some episodes during this time where I tried to will a “phantom lover” into having sex with me, but it only partially worked. Mostly, I was able to just touch myself with my “phantom” hands. And when nothing else more interesting was happening during an SP episode, this is what I would resort to.

I Discover Aware Sleep Paralysis or (ASP)

One day while I was living in Olympia, Washington in my late 20s and early 30s I ran across one of those little do-it-yourself xeroxed indy “zines” that were popular in the 90s. I still have it. It’s called My Butt, issue #2, 1995. What caught my eye was an article called “The Dark Things.” Written anonymously, it was by someone who described a sleep paralysis experience similar to mine, in which they perceived dark evil beings who pinned down and paralyzed them until they were able to move a finger to break the spell. When I read this article I was stunned. It went into a lot of detail that I immediately recognized as very similar to my experiences. I saved the zine because I wanted to try to find the author and talk to him or her. One day my friend Matt came to visit and he saw the little zine on my coffee table and said that he knew the people who published it. I told him about the article and my weird “trance thingy” experience, which he explained to me was a sleep disorder called “Aware Sleep Paralysis” or ASP. Matt was versed on the sleep disorder because he worked with a group trying to help Paul Ingram, a deputy sheriff in Olympia, WA who was accused by his children of committing satanic sexual abuse on them. Matt believed that ASP might help explain what Ingram’s children believed they experienced.

Matt loaned me a book called The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions by David J. Hufford, which is filled with several first-hand accounts of sleep paralysis experiences provided by the participants in Hufford’s 20-year study. Suddenly, I was no longer alone! Reading account after account in Hufford’s book that so closely mirrored my experiences was utterly relieving. I contacted Hufford, who was very kind and supportive and told me about a support group for ASP sufferers. I participated in that group for awhile in the late 1990s. They were not so much concerned about whether or not the experience was paranormal; rather, we shared ideas and techniques on how to transform the experience from negative to positive. There were many people there who completely believed that what they were experiencing was entirely paranormal. Many of them had “out of body” experiences. They described leaving their bodies entirely and having strange adventures. I wanted to experience that too! I’d already partially left my body, but I wanted to get out all the way! At this point, I didn’t know whether or not this was actually really happening in some paranormal way, or if it could all be explained as some sort of neurological process of my brain. But I really didn’t care. I just wanted to enjoy the experience and see what I could do with it.

During this period of my life, even though they still frightened me, I eagerly anticipated my sleep paralysis episodes because I was feeling more in control. In fact, I often tried to induce them on purpose, sometimes succeeding. One time while dozing on the couch, I fell into the state and tried to leave my body:

The moment I think the words “leave my body” I find my “phantom” self out of my body, upsidedown, with only my “head” still in my head and my feet pointing up to the ceiling. The sensation is completely real. It does not feel like a dream. I am aware that I’m in my living room and I can still feel my physical body lying on the couch. I can also feel my “phantom body” and it feels upside-down, stuck in my physical body at the head only. I begin shaking my phantom body, my “phantom head” shaking fast inside my physical head, trying to break away to have an Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) but it gets out of control, as in the desert experience, with all the lights and colors and sounds blurring together into one intense and overwhelming sensation. And I can’t really control the shaking which, once set in motion, is faster than any real human body could move. It becomes so intense that I seem to pass out and come to in my body.

At this point in my life, even though I had by now experienced countless episodes and knew that it was some sort of sleep disorder (though I hadn’t ruled out “astral planes” or some other paranormal stuff), and even though I’d found techniques to hold the terror at bay, and I’d found ways of “playing with it” to actually enjoy the experience…sometimes the SP would sneak up on me when I wasn’t expecting it, a super strong intense episode that would leave me in a puddle of pure terror. It was at these times, when I was least expecting it and least prepared, that I could not control the utter terror. Once for example, around 4 in the morning, my then husband had just kissed me goodbye and left for the airport. I heard him shut the front door and heard the taxi drive off into the night:

Suddenly, I am jolted awake by the sound of the front door opening. I hear my husband talking with someone who is standing on the front porch. I assume it’s the taxi driver. I assume my husband has come back to get something that he’s forgotten. I’m excited that I get to kiss him goodbye one more time, so I try to move and sit up and call out to him. That is when I realize I am paralyzed and in a full-blown SP episode. My eyes are open, I can see the dim light of the computer from the living room. I get panicky, the terror sets in hard, I can’t breathe and I feel that someone is in the house. I feel that I must break out of this state so I can be safe. I shake my phantom body really hard back and forth inside my physical body, but I can’t break the paralysis! So I focus on a finger of my right hand and will it to move. It moves! I’m free, but only for a moment. I find that I’ve fallen right back into the SP state. This time, I hear my husband in the bathroom (remember, he’s long gone in reality!), I hear the toilet seat bang up, urine splishing in the toilet bowl, his voice again saying something. I am totally paralyzed. The terror is unbearable. I feel like someone posing as my husband is in the house and that I am in mortal danger.

I Discover Science

At some point in my early 30s I started taking college classes and this is when I discovered science! I learned how to search for peer reviewed scientific articles in the Ebsco and ProQuest databases, and so I scanned for anything I could find on sleep paralysis. I read everything available on the subject. Just as I was gaining an understanding of the physiological and neurological processes that took place during SP, the episodes began to diminish. From my early to late 30s they occurred with less and less frequency and intensity. Weirdly, I started to miss them! And now, in my mid-40s, they are totally gone. I don’t get them anymore at all and I wish that I did. The terror was worth the thrill of the experience! I no longer believe that anything paranormal was happening. I know that these experiences were all produced by my brain, but that doesn’t make any of it less terrifying…or exciting.

If you or someone you know experiences sleep paralysis, remember that the hallucinations, no matter how convincing they seem to be, are not really happening outside of your mind. Focus on breathing and relaxing. Try using some of my tricks to imagine yourself strong and powerful and fierce. Face the evil entities and threaten them, make them shrink into powerless tiny things, or even try summoning some sort of benevolent protector entities if this helps (I’ve found this is good advice for people who believe in the supernatural: If the demons/aliens are real to them, then so should angels or some kind of powerful benevolent entity be). Also, try lifting a “phantom arm” out of your body or try rolling out of your body or leaving it entirely if you can! Remember that you are safe, you can breathe, and that it’s all just a lucid dream which you can gain some control of and have some fun with! Someday it may leave you as it left me, and you may miss it as much as I do now. Don’t waste it. If you’ve got it, enjoy it! END

Here’s a list of a few Facebook pages where people share their SP experiences:

For those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint


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