The Dream Detective Blog: Sleep Paralysis & Sleep Paralysis Attacks

October 18, 2017 1 Comment

The Dream Detective Blog: Sleep Paralysis & Sleep Paralysis Attacks


By Mimi Pettibone


During R.E.M. sleep, an interesting thing happens: the body becomes physically paralyzed. Most of the time we are not consciously aware of it, because we are asleep and in the dream state. But occasionally a person will wake up and become aware of the fact that they cannot move, and that’s when fear and panic set in. The eyes can still be moved, but the body cannot. The experience usually lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but that time can feel like a terrifying eternity.

It is believed that sleep paralysis is a protective mechanism so that we don’t physically act out our dreams, which prevents us from harming ourselves or others. While most of the time the transition between sleeping and waking goes smoothly, it is estimated that anywhere from 20-30% of the world’s population will at some time experience a ‘glitch in the system’, a.k.a. the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

The causes are generally unknown.  For some people it may be triggered by factors such as increased stress, lack of sleep, a changing sleep schedule, substance abuse, sudden changes in lifestyle, or use of certain medications.  For others, it can be associated with narcolepsy, or night time leg cramps. For most people there is no determining explanation.

While scary, it is only temporary, and for the majority of people it may happen once or twice in a lifetime and is nothing to worry about. If the issue is ongoing, seek help from a sleep specialist or read the books mentioned at the end of this article for further resources.


While many people may experience sleep paralysis as described above, others report an additional occurrence that happens while in this paralyzed state: the sensation of being visited by some kind of entity. Coined ‘Paralysis Attacks’ by David Hufford, Professor of Behavioral Science at Penn State University, it is described by those who experience it as a visitation by an negative presence.  Hufford has done extensive research, and has been able to identify over 30 common elements to these attacks. The prevailing common denominators are:

  • Waking up and realizing one can’t move
  • Hearing footsteps
  • The sense of a figure entering the room
  • The figure is often described as dark, not human, intent to harm, some sort of presence but not sure what. Sometimes appears like a shadowy figure, or even what we associate with a Halloween witch
  • An incredible sense of fear
  • A feeling of weight or pressure upon the chest (sometimes other areas of the body, most commonly the chest)
  • A sense that if the person just laid there, they would die
  • Feels very real, different than a normal dream or nightmare

The Fuseli painting ‘The Nightmare’ is believed to be a depiction of a sleep paralysis attack, and accounts of this phenomenon are documented in art and literature as far back as we have historical records. In fact, Professor Hufford has not found a culture anywhere throughout history that does not have a tradition describing it. Known by different names around the world: ‘The Old Hag’, ‘Popabawa’, ‘Demon’, ‘Witch’, or just a dark figure or shadow, the description of the experience is the same.

People in the state of sleep paralysis are able to accurately describe their environment and usually feel like they are awake when it happens. Outsiders have speculated that maybe they are really asleep and just dreaming. However, brain wave recordings taken during attacks show elements of both wakefulness and REM sleep happening at the same time.

It would be easy enough to attribute the whole sensation to a bad dream or nightmare, but that doesn’t explain why so many people - including many who have never heard of this phenomenon - report such similarities in their accounts. While there are variations in individual reports, the similarities cannot be ignored. In fact, the descriptions bear uncanny similarity to alien visitation reports, and Hufford believes these are actually cases of sleep paralysis attacks.

Science as of yet does not have a sufficient explanation for this baffling phenomenon, which does not reduce the suffering of those who experience this terrifying occurrence. For more information and resources, check out Hufford’s book: ‘The Terror That Comes In The Night’, or Ryan Hurd’s ‘Sleep Paraylsis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night‘. Ryan himself has experienced sleep paralysis and provides some excellent resources and practical techniques for managing it.

Mimi Pettibone is a professional dream worker and creator of the Enchanted Art Oracle Cards. She offers private consultations at East West Bookshop and by phone including dream interpretation, tarot and oracle readings, and personal growth work focused on relationships, communication, and authentic life path. Her background includes humanistic and social psychology, relationships, linguistics, spirituality, and consciousness. Mimi is also a monthly dream columnist for the New Spirit Journal Online

For more info on Mimi, or to book a consultation: 

1 Response

Jared hardy
Jared hardy

February 14, 2018

Hello my name is Jared I’m 29 years old I live in Everett Washington. I’ve been suffering from sleep paralysis since the age 13. It is 4:53 a.m. at 4:06 a.m. under a video cam in the front room I had the worst paralysis of my entire life. The moment I was able to come too I broke down but couldn’t come up with a tear mostly gasping. I have mixed reviews on sleep paralysis and what it’s caused from and rather is it something spiritual or something that the body just does. Now for the first time I have proof physical evidence that not all paralysis are a figment of my imagination do to my body falling asleep and my mind staying awake. The footage feed at 4:06 shows on the night vision cam several glowing Wings and Things no longer than 6 in Long flying around in a circle and then headed directly towards my face. The moment it hits my face in the video you see my body push back. It lasted four minutes. I felt as if three fingers were pushed in to my skull and my arm started to become very warm almost wet feeling. Now this is what scares me. All and I mean all of my previous sleep paralysis I couldn’t feel anything this when I felt my whole body but I couldn’t move it. During this sleep paralysis I was able to barely move my mouth and I made a gurgle scream very low help me help me help me help me help me for 4 minutes. The strange thing about this pyrolysis is wall my eyes were open and I’m scared trying to scream for help I have vision I had a dream how is that possible I dreamed I was sitting at court. I felt the scuffy wool suit I felt the eyes of the courtroom on me I was able to smell the courtroom. How is this possible how did I enter a dream like state while being in a paralysis. I am not crazy by no means I’m very level-headed I have two beautiful children and a beautiful wife. I’m a Christian and I honestly believe that this was the closest thing to seeing what it demonic possession was like. Please please could someone give me some kind of answer on what the heck just happens to me. No one at my church even cares to talk to me about anything like this. My doctor who should know about sleep paralysis has nothing to tell me about this. I’m lost and I’m almost 30 years old standing in the bathroom talking into my phone because I don’t want to go back to bed. Oh my last thing my younger and older brother both get sleep promises too what are the chances of three siblings all having sleep paralysis.

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