Origin of my Nightmare

Over the course of my life I’ve had numerous recurring dreams.  There’s the one about my teeth falling out, and the one about flying over a bridge in a car and sinking into the water below. There’s the one I’m scared to talk about…  I’m always in bed and a formless shape is above me holding me flat against my mattress rendering me totally unable to move.  Sometimes it makes sounds but most of the time there is no sound only the feeling that I’m in the presence of pure evil.

When I was younger and this happened, I would do what my mother told me to do and grab a bible to place under my pillow.  The only problem was that our house had no reasonable sized bibles that could fit comfortable under a pillow. It made for an awkward sleeping situation.  My mother admitted to me that she’d experienced something similar and that it was a demon trying to enter my mind.  She said that becoming closer to God angers them and they try to scare us into turning away.  Now that I’m in my thirties I have the ability to reflect on such sage advice with a healthy dose of “WTF?”  Why would anyone say that to their child?  I’m surprised I was ever able to sleep again after being informed that Satan was trying to take over my body!

I  recently returned to this topic because I’m thinking of using the basic premise in an entry for a short story contest I’m entering for Writers Digest. A quick internet search provided me with very rational answer.  Not so spectacular for my short story, but good for my sanity.  There is an actual scientific explanation for what happened and it proved that there was no evil spirit following me around my entire life waiting for me to go to sleep at night.  Not that I’d actually thought that was a possibility…

I came across an author called Ryan Hurd who has made a career out of understanding and controlling something called “isolated sleep paralysis.”   It is something he claims has plagued him for years and he was only able to control through dream study. He explains that during REM sleep your brain shuts off all motor function so your body can’t act out the dream your brain is experiencing.  This paralysis phenomena is called “atonia.”

Okay so that part made perfect sense to me, but what comes next is the somewhat scary part. Occasionally the brain can be a little sluggish with waking up the muscles causing a person to be awake yet unable to move for a short period of time.  In this strange place between sleep and awake Hurd goes on to say that hallucinations are often experienced. The dreamer will feel fully awake paralyzed and also sense an evil presence is in the room with them, ie witch demon, etc.The dreamer might experience a feeling of being held down or suffocated as well. This is so common it has even been given the name “witch-riding” or “hag.”  I once tried to describe these dreams to some close female friends at work who referred to it as “hags.”  I had never heard anyone else use that term until reading this article by Hurd.

Henri Fuseli's

Henri Fuseli’s “Nightmare” circa 1781

Apparently this phenomena has been going on for centuries and is in fact the origin of the word “nightmare,” which literally means “a crushing sensation at night.” I feel better now that I realize how many others have had this experience and that it is a well document feeling that people have experienced for hundreds of years. I wonder what my mom would say to that? I bet she’d still advise me to sleep with the light on and keep a bible nearby.

Hurd, R. (2010). Sleep Paralysis Treatment-Stop Feelings of Being Held Down at Night.  Web article.  Retrieved from http://dreamstudies.org.


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