By: J. J. Cheesman
I have suffered from sleep paralysis for a good portion of my life. To my recollection, it began when I was twelve years old. In my room, I was lying down on my bed, and my door slowly creaked open. I tried to crane my neck, to look and see who was coming through my door, but I found myself unable to move. In horror, I watched as a tall figure crept into my room just out of my line of sight. It glided about, keeping its form mostly in shadow. I could see its misshapen head and gaunt shoulders, but I could not make out any details. As it moved effortlessly around my bed I realized the shadows that shrouded its form were unnatural, and seemed to follow him wherever he went, keeping his visage mostly hidden. It hissed and croaked, and I could do nothing but silently pray for a miracle until, all at once, it vanished, and I was able to move again. Once I regained control over my body, I screamed until my parents rushed into see what was wrong. That was my first experience with it.
I was so scared that I didn’t tell my parents exactly what had happened and just said it was a bad nightmare, I was afraid of what they might say. It was only after a few repeating days of falling asleep in class and screaming in the night that I had to admit what was going on. I was taken to my primary physician, and he referred me to a sleep specialist named Dr. Mueller, who diagnosed me with ‘Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis.’ For those of you who don’t know what sleep paralysis is, here’s a quick run-down. During REM sleep, your eyes move back and forth rapidly as you dream. While in REM sleep, your muscles are locked down and unable to move to prevent you from acting out your dreams, which is a good thing. I’m sure you’re already imagining a crazy recent dream you’ve had or heard about that would be absolutely bonkers, not to mention dangerous, to be acted out.
Sleep paralysis occurs when you awaken before REM sleep is finished. While your body is unable to move, you are completely conscious. Then, the scariest part happens. You start to experience audio and visual hallucinations. Being unable to move while awake sends you into a state of panic and fear, and that fear is manifested into frightening images and sounds aided by your brain’s activity under REM sleep.
Often, sleep paralysis will occur in your teen years, and then continue into your twenties and often your thirties. Though it is rare, individuals can experience sleep paralysis at any age. I was one of those unlucky cases. My parents did everything they could to help me cope with it. They made sure I had a nightlight on at all times, they would make periodic checks on me until very late at night, and they would always assure me if I needed anything they were right down the hall. My parents were handling the situation the best they could, and they meant well, but no matter what they did the tall figure still came.
Every night I would go to sleep, and when I awoke unable to move, it would be there. Sometimes it would creep into the room, not having arrived yet. Sometimes it would be somewhere out of sight in the corner of the room or in my open closet, and I could only hear its guttural croaks. But on the worst nights, I would open my eyes, and it would be staring straight back at me as with its back on the ceiling. On those nights, I still couldn’t make out its face, it was hidden by those unnatural shadows that were cast all around it and it never ventured into the glow of my night light, but its eyes were clear. They stared me down, striking the fear of the devil in me, burning a bright orange. It was as if there were fires in those eyes.
Every morning I awoke seemingly more exhausted than when I fell asleep, and I was so on edge that I was jumping at every little noise. I was prescribed pills that were supposed to help prevent me from waking up while in REM sleep, and although they did make the waking nightmares less frequent, it was still an issue I would have every other day. My parents felt terrible that there was little they could do to help what was happening to me, and they said very little to me about my lackluster performance in school.
One day my mom came home with a cassette tape. She told me that Dr. Mueller had recommended it, and had ordered it weeks before. The first twenty minutes of the tape was nothing but blank audio. After that, a calm soothing woman’s voice would say “You are Asleep”, over and over on a loop. The idea was that it was supposed to keep me calm if I happened to awaken during REM sleep, reducing my level of panic and in turn, making my hallucinations less threatening. So, that night, mom and dad set up a cassette player by my bedside and when my mom tucked me in, she said.
“Love you,” and turned on the cassette before she left the room. I listened to the whirring of the gears in the tape spin slowly, and already I felt somehow more relaxed. I fell asleep long before I heard any voice. Like nearly every other night that week, I awoke sometime in the very early hours of the morning unable to move. My eyes darted this way and that, searching all corners of the room and scanning the ceiling for my towering late-night intruder. I spotted it.
Its form was hovering just beyond the door frame, just outside of the threshold to my bedroom and I could just make out the shadows whipping around it. It hissed a croaked, but it made no move to enter. I began to panic, but then I heard it.
“You are asleep.” A woman’s soft voice sang out in a melodic tone out in the dark. The creature of shadow croaked, and it seemed to retreat further out into the hallway.
“You are asleep.” The relaxing voice came again, and I could feel my heart rate slow. The creature pulled out of my line of sight as it fully receded into the darkness of the hall, and I could no longer hear it make any sound. A few moments passed in silence, and the voice rang out one last time,
“You are asleep,” then I became once again, unconscious.
The next morning, I awoke refreshed and earlier than I’d had in a long time, and I burst into my parent’s room to tell them the good news. It was such a tremendous relief to all of us. The tape had worked, and my nightmare was finally over. Or so I had hoped. The next night however, I wasn’t so sure.
Before I fell asleep I laid in bed wondering if it was a fluke. Maybe the tape worked as a one-time deal, and now that my mind was familiar with it, I would see the tall intruder again. Twenty minutes later, my eyes were heavy, and I vaguely remember hearing the words, ‘You are asleep’ before losing consciousness. When I woke up… it was morning. To my astonishment, I had slept the entire night without incident. I was elated, and so were my parents.
Night after night I slept like a baby while that tape played. My grades became far improved, my energy was at an all-time high, and I wasn’t the skittish mess that the waking nightmare had turned me into. Dr. Mueller, though elated himself, was a little surprised.
“We don’t usually have this kind of response with using the audio recordings as treatment with cases as severe as yours, but if it is working for you I definitely want you to keep using it!” He said,
“But just to be safe, I’m going to keep you on your prescription. I don’t want anything to halt your improvement.”
When we left the doctor’s office, my dad was complaining, saying,
“Of course he is going to continue the pills, they have to get our money somehow.”
My mom gave him a stern look, but he just smiled and that was the last he said about it, and truthfully I think he was just making light of the situation for his own sake. I know it wasn’t easy for either of them.
So, life went on like normal for a long time. Eventually I graduated high school, and moved out into my own place. I have, since I was younger, upgraded a bit. I found the same audio file from the cassette online and downloaded it to my phone. I am able to play it on loop through my speaker on blue-tooth. Sometimes when my phone needs to charge I break out the old cassette player, but I never once slept without playing that calm and relaxing voice in my bedroom. I’ve thought about it once or twice before, keeping the audio off and seeing if I experienced paralysis once again, excluding the recording from my bedtime routine would mean I could actually have a normal relationship with a girl. I never got the courage to do it and see what would happen though. As it turned out, I didn’t have to.
Last night, I came home from an unusually exhausting 12-hour shift at work, sanding down car parts on a product line, glamorous I know. I stumbled into my home, kicking my boots off at the door and made my way into the bedroom. My fatigue was so great that all I could do was check to make sure the blue light on my speaker was on, before I opened up the audio file on my phone and hit play. I then immediately collapsed onto the bed, work clothes and all, and fell instantly to sleep.
I woke up to the sound of an absolute and indescribable silence. My eyes flitted open and darted around the room, searching all around as I listened. Nothing but silence.
I was basked in the very soft glow of the light coming from my living room lamp, but all corners of the bedroom were dark. Then a sound cut through the quiet. A low guttural croak, coming from the part of the ceiling above my bed. My heart rate began to increase, and I stared up into the darkness. There was a shape there in the black, one that wasn’t immediately prevalent to my eyes, but as I concentrated on the space I recognized the tall shape of my old nightmare. As if in answer to my terrifying realization, it opened its eyes, wide and piercing with their glowing orange color, and stared with them straight into my own. My pulse became a rapid thud with in my chest, and my breath became shallow as the creature lowered itself through seemingly sheer willpower and stopped just above where the light from the living room would not touch it. It held my gaze in its own, and I felt my own eyes grow wide. The thing then let out a series of rhythmic croaks, low and breathy. It took a few moments of hearing the sounds it was making before I knew it for what it was.
I tried to scream, but of course, I could not. I prayed and begged to hear the calm soothing voice wash over me and say those three words I longed to hear, but it never came. Confusion and fear filled my head, drowning out all rational thinking. How was this possible? What was going on? Why wasn’t the audio playing?
Slowly, fearfully, I turned my head. My neck craned and I looked at my phone which lay next to me on the bed, and my stomach lurched. The screen was dim, but illuminated, notifying me that my battery was critically low and it had switched to power-saving mode. I cursed myself for not plugging it in before I fell asleep, and I heard that awful laugh once more. Craning my neck back into position to look again at my intruder, I realized my breathing had become labored. The thing had come just a little closer now, so close it could reach out and touch me.
‘He isn’t real,’ I thought, ‘Just calm down, he isn’t real.’ No matter how I tried, I could not calm myself, and my head begin to pound. The orange glow of the eyes seemed to grow more intense, and they were burning into my brain. My skull felt as if it were on fire, and I saw for the first time the creature produce what could be called an extremity from its shadowy form. It took the shape of a hand, and began to glide towards my face. At this moment, the pain became so intense, that I blacked out.
I awoke sometime in the late morning with the worst headache I’ve ever experienced. Looking to my clock on the nightstand confirmed that I only had thirty minutes to get to work, and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Cradling my head in one hand I reached for my phone and to my dismay it wouldn’t turn on. That’s when I remembered the details of what happened last night and groaned. I plugged my phone into its charger and gave it a couple minutes to get some juice while I searched for aspirin in the kitchen. When I made my way back to the bedroom, I called into work. Once off the phone, I decided to call Doctor Mueller’s office to let him know what had happened. As far as I could recall, no sleep paralysis episode ever caused me to have a headache, so I figured it was best to follow up with him.
When I reached his office, his assistant answered the phone. I explained to her what happened, every bit of the story, and she listened intently as I heard her scribble down notes. When I was finished, she said,
“Okay, I’ll be sure to run this by the Doctor, but, I should mention something that puzzles me.”
I waited for her to continue as I rolled over and stared absent-mindedly into the darkness of my open closet door.
“You say that you turned your head to look at your phone, meaning the muscles in your neck were functional.”
The pounding in my head was loud, but I was trying hard to focus on what she was saying.
“If you could move your muscles, you could not have been in REM sleep, meaning you weren’t experiencing an episode. It is very peculiar, but as I said I’ll run it by Doctor Mueller.”
My breath caught in my chest, and I hardly heard a word she spoke after that.
I realized that as I was staring into my closet, something with orange eyes was staring back.