Sleep paralysis versus paranormal experiences

The image below was shared on Facebook by one of my friends recently. While this one is perhaps more goofy than scary (because the eyes ruin it), it did bring back a memory for me, a memory of one of my worst, though brief, childhood nightmares.


I don’t remember how old I was, but I’m guessing around ten or eleven… I woke up in the middle of the night to see a strange man standing right beside my bed, staring and pointing at me menacingly. He was looking down at me, very much like the image above. (Except he didn’t look like Donald Sutherland, and his eyes didn’t do the random roaming thing like some child’s puzzle where you have to shake the little balls into the holes. Yeah, whoever did that animation really fucked it up with those eyes. Invasion of the googley-eyed body snatchers wouldn’t have been a great title, you know.) I was terrified, laying there and holding my breath. After a few seconds of silent suspense, he appeared to fall forwards, towards me. I braced myself for the impact, afraid and confused as to what this could mean, but just before his finger should have touched my face, followed by his weight landing on my trembling childish frame, I realized that he was two-dimensional, no longer three – like a cardboard cutout. And he disappeared.

I was unable to move for the entire time, and only learned the explanation for this as an adult: Sleep paralysis – a strange state where one wakes from deep sleep and is mentally awake but unable to move or make a sound. In this state, stuck between being asleep and awake, one is prone to powerful and terrifying hallucinations; that is hallucinations seen by a conscious mind, with the body physically frozen and unable to react.

I had a number of those experiences as a child, which led to a belief in the supernatural. My mother and her sister, who were raised by their extremely superstitious grandmother, were both only too happy to tell me scary stories about ghosts – sometimes in religious settings to go along with my upbringing, to reinforce my feeling that these visions were real as well as provide me with a ready-made explanation, and were always especially keen themselves to believe my stories and accept them at face value. Thus my visions evolved in their meaning. My experience as a one-year-old was simply a monster, to which I assigned a very undemonlike name of “Hugga Pugga”… but as I grew older I’d assign the premade meanings that I’d been conditioned to believe.

It makes sense that some others who experienced the same sort of things, would grow up to accept them as real. Those experiences are very real because they happen when you’re awake, and they can be quite terrifying at the time. This is the reason that I am so sceptical when I read about others’ paranormal experiences. They often do happen in the middle of the night, and often bare more than a passing resemblance for such waking nightmares that can be explained by sleep paralysis. Not sleep paralysis alone perhaps, but this when combined with false memory of such experiences years later (introduced either by suggestion or simply by remembering and retelling old memories, and memories of memories, which can change them in the process), could explain many such experiences that are often accepted as real. Add to that confirmation bias – when people want to believe that their experiences were real, they might choose to ignore or “forget” the aspects of those experiences that might indicate that they were not quite real.

In my case, although I believed in the supernatural for many years, there was always one aspect of those experiences that I couldn’t quite ignore, an aspect that nagged at me and led me to question all such experiences: There was always something surreal about them. As in the case I mentioned at the beginning of this post, where the man changed from 3D to 2D, the experiences always included a sign that they were hallucinations rather than physical things I really saw. Another common theme was that things would move in slow motion, prolonging the sense of horror, or that either myself or something I saw would levitate. As I grew older, the themes involved in my hallucinations became more complex, and were influenced by whatever I’d been exposed to in pop culture. (i.e. movies. Age restrictions meant little to my father. He assumed that teaching me the difference between fiction and reality would mean that I wouldn’t be afraid. It probably didn’t help that I mostly kept my nightmares to myself, except for the cool ones.)

When relaying the experiences to my mother or aunt, even as a child, I’d downplay the surreal details, or leave them out completely. Maybe on some level I always knew they were not real. But perhaps not everybody does, or the need to believe and to have existing beliefs reinforced can be more pressing than the need to question those beliefs and think critically about them. This is pure opinion, but I even wonder about those of us who realize that such things were not real… Just because one realizes that a particular supernatural experience was a dream (or sleep paralysis, or a lucid dream in the case of an “out of body” experience), does not mean that one doesn’t incorporate the sequence of events, the overall tone and atmosphere of the experience, into one’s belief baggage. Then we carry it with us, using it to skew our perception of other experiences later, thereby imposing meaning and a subconsciously held narrative of our life, on the meaningless. Of course, those events also help reinforce others’ views of the supernatural. For example, my mother still believes in all that. No doubt my childhood memories and retelling of those childhood memories through the years helped reinforce her beliefs, and it doesn’t matter that I later rejected the supernatural explanation for those memories. (To be honest, I could always spin them into great ghost stories though… In my youth, more than one girl was frightened into the comfort of my arms by my tales of terror. A fascination with the supernatural and horror is incomplete if one doesn’t have a go at being the teller/writer of horror.)

In a nutshell, this is why I don’t believe in stories of ghost encounters, or alien abductions. They all seem too similar to sleep paralysis simply to accept at face value, especially when there is some sort of controversial hypnotherapist, psychic or medium involved, someone happy to encourage their patient/client/mark to believe in the impossible, all while taking their money.

Of course my intention here is not to “debunk” all paranormal experiences… Sleep paralysis only accounts for some such experiences, those that happen when the people who experience them awake suddenly in the middle of the night. But they do account for a large number of paranormal experiences, don’t they?

To keep things interesting, next time I’ll write about a paranormal/supernatural experience for which I do not have an explanation. (And could not find a rational explanation online, due to being unable to find anyone who had a similar experience.) Spoiler alert: I won’t be concluding that ghosts and demons are real. I don’t know what I will conclude because I haven’t written it yet, but what I can say is, there are times when I’m happy to say “I don’t know”. Fabricating a magical explanation for something not understood is something I’ll leave to the gullible and credulous believers. (God/spooks of the gaps.)

The difference between myself and a believer however, is that I don’t impose magical meaning on that which I do not understand. Sure, I had one or two experiences for which I have no rational explanation… That doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. That also doesn’t mean that ghosts and demons, God and Jesus – or whatever superstitious nonsense I was taught to believe, has any basis in reality. It seems very convenient to find ways of confirming what you were taught to believe, in that a Christian might see Mary while someone who was taught some other religion, might see something completely different. Confirming what you would like to believe is convenient, yes, but not correct.


About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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