Amber Romberg awoke to the sound of her door gently creaking open like it used to when her parents would come and check on her as a child. She listens to the fan whirring above her bed. It’s winter, but the white noise nurses her to sleep every night, so she keeps it on. At first, everything seems normal, but when Amber tries to reach for the glass on her bedside table, she can’t. She tries to sit up, but it’s as though she has been bound to her bed, like a patient in a psychiatric ward. Suddenly, an immense pressure begins pressing down on her body, as though a tonne of cement has been poured over her. She’s utterly helpless beneath its weight. Then she sees it. Out of the corner of her eye, a tall, dark figure, lurking in the corner near her bedroom door. She can’t make out its face, or its body, but she can feel its malignant presence in the room with her.
The faceless shadow moves towards her, the floorboards groaning beneath its weight. Amber cries for help, but nothing comes out. She can feel her heart palpitating with terror. But still, she remains helpless. The creature is now looming over her. It’s so close that she can smell its offensive odour. It’s how she’d imagine a rotting corpse might smell. It begins whispering something, but Amber can’t make out what it’s saying. Then, the whispering turns into an unbearable wailing that makes Amber’s blood run cold. She tries to block her ears, but her arms remain bound. The dark mass is now levitating above her. If it had a face, it would be just centimetres away from hers. She begins to sink into her mattress, as though she is being pulled into the depths of the Underworld. The shadow has almost wholly engulfed her now. She can feel ice-cold hands clawing at her back, dragging her deeper and deeper into the abyss. Then, all of a sudden, the figure dissipates into thin air. The hands withdraw, the cement is lifted from her chest, and her limbs are released from their bounds.Amber sits up, gasping for air. The room is empty, and the house is silent except for the gentle whirring of the fan above her bed.
Amber sits across from me at a park bench on the outskirts of Adelaide’s CBD. A second-year uni student, Amber is studying a bachelor of psychology at Flinders University. She’s wearing an oversized bomber jacket, tight-fitting denim jeans and a pair of shiny black Doc Martens. It’s autumn now, almost a year since the incident. The sun is shining, but there is a chill in the air, which only becomes more pronounced as Amber tells me her story.
When Amber told her mum what had happened, they both passed it off as a very vivid, very terrifying nightmare. But the lingering sense of being in the “presence of pure evil” left her too afraid to sleep at night. So as any millennial would, she took to the web to find some answers. Within an hour of frantic Googling, Amber had stumbled across a plethora of articles, chat forums and YouTube videos that confirmed to her that she was not going crazy, and she was certainly notbeing possessed by a demon. She had, in fact, suffered an episode of sleep paralysis (SP).
Once termed the ‘Nightmare’ (then spelt Nightmaere) the first clinical description of SP was published in the journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1664 by a Dutch physician. Nowadays, we use the term to describe a bad dream, but in its original context, it referred to a nocturnal visit from a sex-crazed demon, known as a succubus or incubus. Indeed, long before any sort of medical explanation was articulated, descriptions of the phenomenon were prevalent in global folklore. While these descriptions all contain the same fundamental elements, the etiological interpretations of the phenomenon have been determined based on various cultural and religious beliefs.
In the western world, SP was most commonly attributed to witchcraft and demonic possession. In Newfoundland, the Old Hag, a supernatural creature that would come and sit on sleepers’ chests at night, was responsible for the phenomenon. Meanwhile, in Europe and the United States, records from witch trials dating as far back as the 1600s contain testimonies of people claiming to have been held down by witches in the middle of the night. One testimony, recorded in 1747, describes a European woman professing that her husband had been lying stiff in bed with his eyes open, barely breathing, when he suddenly cried: “My Lord Jesus help me! Oh! Fiery witches took me to Maramaros, and they put six hundred-weight of salt on me.”
In other countries, SP has its source in the spiritual world. In St Lucia, the phenomenon was associated with creatures known as Kokma, which are the malevolent spirits of unbaptised babies that would crawl on top of people while they slept. In Egypt, SP was an attack by a powerful genie (Jinn), and in Japan, the phrase Kanashibari has been used to describe the ‘Nightmare’. The term literally translates to ‘metal-binding’, but in Japanese vernacular, it refers to any state of immobility.
Despite being a matter of discussion for many centuries, the disorder has only properly been categorised in the past fifty years. According to Psychiatrist Dr Richard Weeks, SP is “best known as part of the tetrad of narcolepsy, which is characterised by excessive sleepiness, ‘sleep attacks’ and sudden loss of muscle control. However, it can also occur as an isolated phenomenon, which is called isolated sleep paralysis (ISP).” In its simplest terms, it is a temporary disconnect between the body and mind either just before falling asleep or just before waking up. “It occurs when rapid eye movement (REM) and partial wakefulness co-occur,” Dr Weeks tells me via email.
REM is the fifth and final stage of our sleep cycle, and it is during this phase that we are most likely to dream. To prevent us from acting out those dreams, the brain sends signals to the nervous system to paralyse our muscles. This puts us in a state of atonia, where our muscles have almost no strength, making us temporarily immobile. Richard explains that when we experience SP, it is because “our muscles have not yet received important information from the brain to let them move freely.” This is why people tend to feel as though they can’t breathe properly or that there is immense pressure on their chest because while their involuntary respiratory movements remain fully functional, their voluntary breathing is restricted. Amber describes the sensation as “waking up dead.”
When I asked Dr Weeks why people experienced vivid and often terrifying hallucinations during SP, he confessed that the science was inconclusive but that there are some possible explanations for it. In a second email, he explained that because we are most likely to dream during REM, waking up during this stage of the sleep cycle can result in vivid multisensory hallucinations. “It’s tantamount to dreaming with one’s eyes open,” he tells me.
He went on to explain that a possible reason for such frightening hallucinations is because of the hyperactive state of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain strongly associated with emotion and fear- processing, throughout REM. “During sleep paralysis, your amygdala is actively responding to a sense of fear despite there being no obvious threat. To resolve this paradox, the brain creates sinister hallucinations.”
However, while as many as 40% of the general population may experience ISP once in their lifetime, only 20% will encounter visual hallucinations. Individuals who are more likely to suffer from hallucinations are those that have narcolepsy.
Karl Hoschke is a big burly 24-year-old with a lax demeanour and a charming smile constantly spread across his face. He was diagnosed with narcolepsy in early 2015. “The first time I had sleep paralysis was quite scary as I didn’t know how to escape this false reality as I couldn’t move. Luckily, my girlfriend was sleeping next to me, so I started frantically tapping her with my hand because I was somehow able to move that part of my body,” he tells me. “It was only when she gently began shaking me that I came out of the paralysis. Now the code for ‘help me’ is when I frantically tap her to wake me up. If I have no one to wake me up, then I simply have to be patient until it goes away.”
While Karl didn’t experience any hallucinations during his first episode of SP, he says that since then he has encountered a panoply of supernatural entities, from a disfigured dead girl prowling around his room, to a hung man dangling limply next to his bed. “I’ve seen so much shit,” Karl sighs. “I remember one night all of the clothes on my bedroom floor had turned into bloodied cadavers, and another time my fan transformed into a red-eyed crow with blades for wings. Once I even awoke to the sensation of electrical charges pulsating through my body.”
While Karl’s stories were enough to give me nightmares, he admits that he’s not too phased by it. “It’s certainly unpleasant and scary at times, but I just tell myself that it’s not real and that eventually, I’ll wake up.”
For Amber, however, “knowing that it will end is no comfort at all. Every second is Hell.” While Miss Romberg hasn’t had a second run-in with the shadow monster, she reveals that she has had several more episodes since the first incident. “Thankfully I haven’t had any more visual hallucinations, but I still get an overwhelming sense that there is something sinister in the room with me, a sort of presence I guess. It’s really quite disturbing.” When I ask Amber if she believes there is a reason for her episodes, she tells me that she thinks it might be related to stress and a lack of sleep. “When I first got it, I was extremely stressed because we had some family stuff going on, plus the pressure of uni and work on top of that. I was so pent-up with anxiety that I was barely sleeping.”
According to Dr Weeks, general stress and lack of sleep can certainly lead to an episode of SP. “Any sort of sleep deprivation, altered sleeping patterns, stress, and even sleeping on your back are all things that can bring out the condition,” he tells me. “Other disorders such as bipolar, PTSD, depression and anxiety can also trigger sleep paralysis in an individual.” Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to treat the disorder. However, Richard does recommend maintaining a regular sleep schedule, reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption, meditation and getting adequate sleep.
For Karl, SP is simply part of his condition. At the end of our interview, he tells me that he wants to learn how to embrace it and turn it into a joyful experience. “I’ve heard that people can turn an episode into lucid dreaming and instead of suffering from terrible hallucinations, they’re able to astral project themselves and do all sorts of crazy things.”
Meanwhile, for Amber, the experience has made her more interested in the human mind. “If anything good has come out of this, it’s that it has motivated me to use my psychology degree to educate others about the disorder,” she exclaims. For now, though, Amber hopes she will never experience another episode again. “I’ve started meditating before bed, and I aim to get at least six hours of sleep a night.” After thanking her for her time, Amber and I part ways. As I walk towards my car a sudden feeling of dread washes over me, I can’t help but wonder if the faceless shadow creature will be paying me a visit later on tonight.