Science

Sleep Paralysis Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tall Grey Man

23 March 2015

What do vampires, alien abductions and chest-sitting monsters have in common?

Everyone’s heard stories about monsters in the night, ghastly ghouls that ensnare sleepers in a state of paralysis and torment them in their beds. A vampire in the doorway hypnotises vulnerable sleepers, leaving them immobilised and helpless as they are drained of their life essence. An alien abducts a slumbering victim, and experiments on them while the sleeper lies transfixed. A sleeper wakes to find a monster or demon sitting on their chest, pinning them to the bed and snarling in their face. There are also the stories of incubi and succubi, sexually charged encounters with demons that perform frantic sex acts on their victim.

All of these experiences can be explained by a single sleep disorder that affects around 8% of the general population. Interestingly, close to 30% of students report at least one episode of the disorder throughout their academic careers. The disorder in question is sleep paralysis, and it’s a disorder that I personally experience roughly once or twice a month, when I’m either severely sleep deprived or stressed. The disorder arises from a neurological fuck-up that enables a sleeper to become conscious during a stage of sleep where their muscles are paralysed. The paralysis normally occurs during the REM cycle, ensuring that a dreamer doesn’t begin to act out their dreams. You can think of sleep paralysis as something of an opposite to sleep walking, where a sleeper begins to dream before their body becomes paralysed, so that they move about while unconscious.

Episodes of sleep paralysis are almost always reported as being singularly frightening experiences. This is true even of people who regularly undergo episodes, which suggests that the fear is reflexive. Were it a conscious response to a threatening situation, it would be expected to fade with familiarity. My theory for this involves the brain being a bit of an egomaniac, unwilling to take blame for internal mistakes. Instead of the brain acknowledging a fuck-up that allowed for it to wake up into a paralysed body, it creates external antagonists to explain the paralysis. Taking place in a near-dream state exacerbates this blame shifting, resulting in extremely vivid hallucinations.

I have a recurring character in my own episodes. He’s the Tall Grey Man, a name that he gave himself in the first dream I ever had involving him. In the dream narrative, he was some sort of insidious invader, looking like a cross between your classic grey alien and Slenderman, all limbs and eyes and fingers. The initial dream followed the Tall Grey Man and his compatriots in a plot for world domination, and involved a lot of the classically nightmarish slow-motion running sequences.

At some point towards the dramatic climax of the dream, I woke up to find myself in bed, unable to move. I could hold my eyes open and move them around, but no more. The Tall Grey Man was in my room when I awoke, as real and as physically present as the towel hanging from my door. I’d never been more frightened than during that episode of sleep paralysis, when the Tall Grey Man began leaning over my bed and spreading his enormous, spidery fingers over my chest and neck. I could actually feel him constricting me, and there was nothing I could do to fight back. There is no other experience that comes close to that level of fear.

But I love it. I love being able to experience a part of consciousness that many people don’t, and I feel privileged to be able to share my experiences with other interested parties. I now have a sick fascination with altered states of consciousness that has grown out of my sleep disorder. I voraciously read as much as I can about night terrors, sleep paralysis, meditation, lucid dreaming, and drug-induced altered states. The power of the brain is incredible, and exploring its corners is exciting and frightening and deeply fulfilling. I now look forward to seeing the Tall Grey Man, though I’m never prepared for the fear he brings.