Sleep Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night

photo of a woman in bed experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations

Do strange images of geometric shapes, people or animals appear out of nowhere as you lie in bed at night? Perhaps you’ve heard voices or noises which can’t possibly be real?

If so, it could be that you’ve experienced what’s known as sleep hallucinations.

Despite leading to the occasional leap out of bed in sheer terror, they are usually harmless. And many people experience them at some point in their lives – including me.

My nocturnal flying geometric manifestations

As a child, multicolored geometric shapes would regularly swoop across my bedroom, just as I was drifting off to sleep. I remember simultaneously marveling at them and wishing them away so I could sleep in peace.

It doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but once in a while, I’m still prone to my mathematical manifestations.

Perhaps I should be grateful for my geeky hallucinations – especially compared to the disturbing experiences some people have.

What are sleep hallucinations?

Sleep hallucinations are imaginary experiences that happen during the transition between being awake and asleep, and can feel confusingly real.

They are also referred to as hypnagogic hallucinations if they occur while you’re falling asleep, or hypnopompic hallucinations if they happen while waking up.

The hallucinations are usually visual, such as seeing shapes or figures in the dark. But they can also involve your other senses.

The hallucinations can be vivid and frightening in some cases. If you see a giant creature in your room or hear a scary voice, it’s understandable that some people will jump out of bed and turn the light on to check what’s going on!

image explaining that hypagogic hallucinations occur while falling asleep and hypnopompic hallucinations while waking up

How many people have sleep hallucinations?

A commonly quoted statistic in medical articles comes from research conducted in 1996. The team interviewed 4972 people in the United Kingdom by telephone. They found that 37% had experienced hypnagogic hallucinations. And 12.5% had experienced hypnopompic hallucinations.

In 2000, another team of researchers surveyed 13,057 people and found that 38.7% had experienced hallucinations at some point during the day or night. 24.8% of the sample had experienced hallucinations at sleep onset, and 6.6% upon waking.

A sign of Narcolepsy

For some people, sleep hallucinations can be a sign of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder which involves sudden daytime episodes of:

  • Unexpectedly falling asleep
  • Sleep paralysis
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations

If you have these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice.

Symptoms

The main symptom is seeing or hearing things while falling asleep or waking up that aren’t real.

Researchers believe that the most common type of hallucination is visual. However, it’s possible to experience hallucinations that correspond to any of your senses:

  • Visual – such as geometric patterns, shapes or light flashing. Sometimes complex forms like animals or people.
  • Auditory – voices talking, phone or doorbell ringing, music, hissing, humming or whistling.
  • Olfactory – pleasant or unpleasant smells.
  • Tactile – insects crawling on the skin, rubbing, stroking, tapping or tickling sensations. Perhaps also feeling weightless, distortions in the body, flying.
image of a woman in bed with patterns and animal forms around her

Not the same as nightmares

Telling the difference between dreaming and hallucinating isn’t always obvious in the moment. But sleep hallucinations are not the same as nightmares.

When you wake up from a nightmare, you’ll know you were asleep (even if it takes a little while to come back to reality).

Sleep hallucinations, however, can feel like they are really happening. You know you’re awake, but you’re not convinced it’s merely your imagination playing tricks on you.

Coexisting with sleep paralysis

Sleep hallucinations sometimes happen during an episode of sleep paralysis.

During sleep paralysis, you might be unable to move your body in bed, which in itself is often frightening.

The hallucinations that accompany it can range from seeing a presence in the room to seeing and feeling a creature sitting on you.

Causes

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders manual suggests two causes related to brain function, though also states that more research is needed:

  • An intrusion of dream imagery onto wakefulness.
  • A lack of stimulus leading to the visual cortex in the brain creating images.

Health websites, such as healthline.com, suggest that sleep hallucinations can be caused by other conditions, such as:

  • Sleep disorders like narcolepsy or sleep paralysis
  • A medical condition or medication use
  • A mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse

Risk factors

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, they are more common in children and young adults. Women might experience them slightly more often than men.

Some factors are thought to increase the likelihood or severity of the hallucinations, including:

  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Mood disorders like bipolar disorder or depression
  • Insomnia
  • Epileptic seizures

Research shows that fragmented sleep is associated with more hallucinations

In 2021, a team of researchers published an interesting study of sleep hallucinations (you can read it in full on nature.com).

Based on an online survey of 10,299 people, they found that poor sleep is associated with the occurrence of hallucinations – a point already confirmed by previous studies.

However, they further showed that fragmented sleep, i.e. regular wakings, is related to hallucinations. And that fragmented sleep is also related to the content, frequency, duration, and associated distress.

Interestingly then, people who had better sleep had less negative and less disruptive hallucinations when they did have them.

So the more you have them, the worse they might be. It seems to me to be a good motivation to tackle any factors you know that make you wake up more often in the night.

Treatment

Do you need to see a doctor?

If you’re experiencing anxiety or losing sleep because of regular sleep hallucinations, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor or sleep specialist.

They would ask you about your hallucinations and look at your medical history and other factors like medication and lifestyle. They might decide that an overnight sleep study is needed to find out more.

They would also look at the possibility of another condition causing the episodes. And if they find one, give you the appropriate treatment.

Worried about your mental health?

If you suddenly start having hallucinations, it’s understandable that you might question your mental health. This is a point I’ve seen raised in the comments below many times, so you wouldn’t be alone in thinking something was ‘wrong’ with you.

It’s worth noting that if it only ever happens when you’re in bed trying to sleep, there’s a good chance it’s harmless sleep hallucinations. Perhaps it’s a sign you’re under a lot of stress lately, for example, but it might not be an indicator that something is wrong beyond that.

Having said that, if you have hallucinations during the day, or other symptoms that are making you feel anxious or confused about your mental health, then it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. And if you’re still not convinced the nighttime hallucinations are benign, talk to your doctor to get a professional opinion.

If this line of thinking feels relevant to you, there’s a good article on psychologytoday.com in which a clinical psychologist talks a patient having sleep problems rather than a schizophrenic illness.

What can you do to help reduce them?

Here are some ideas which might help keep the hallucinations at bay:

  • Get an adequate amount of sleep every night. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule and don’t allow yourself to become sleep deprived.
  • Avoid recreational drugs.
  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water.
  • Try to reduce your stress levels.
  • Try using a soft night light in the bedroom. This might help fill the space that your brain uses as a blank canvas.
  • If you tend to have auditory hallucinations, listening to music, radio or a podcast in bed might help.
  • If you find yourself focusing on visual hallucinations, try to re-focus your mind on something else. Breathing exercises or muscle relaxation can keep your brain occupied.
  • If it’s overwhelming, turn on a light and get up for a while, do an activity you find relaxing, and then try to sleep again after 10-15 minutes.
  • Several readers have said in the comments below that wearing a sleep mask helps them.

Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are a normal part of life for many people. Once you’ve ruled out any serious illness or disorder, you’re left to deal with the experience in two ways.

First, try to adapt your lifestyle to make sure you do everything possible to sleep well. Second, relax and try not to worry about things that go bump in the night.

Your thoughts

Do you ever experience hallucinations when falling asleep or waking up? What form do they take?

Feel free to describe your experience in the comments below and share any ideas you have about dealing with them.

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  1. What if the big black Webs hanging over low on the bed feels like demons then when I pray to make them leave, I see a different beautiful light glow that looks like angels protecting me from demons. I do not use drugs and drink, I do believe that when you are given a choice often to pick light or dark with God or the Hell (Devil ) but not until you die.

  2. Had a hypnopompic hallucination last night, woke up turn to see a horrible decaying woman standing next to my bed.
    Immediately turned my legs towards the figure and started kicking at it furiously which pushed all my bedding quilt onto the floor.
    The women / zombie thing disappeared after a good kicking, feeling shaken up, pulled the quilt back onto the bed and went back to sleep.

    Had other similar hallucinations mostly shadowy figures at the end of the bed but last night it was more real / more defined.

    Need to sleep at more regular times, been having erratic sleeping patterns for months, having a hard time getting to sleep, keep waking up then end up sleeping for too long.

  3. I didn’t start having sleep hallucinations until 2013. I am 37 years old now. It has been a regular occurrence since then. I have Hypnopompic hallucinations, always when I wake up. I have seen spiders crawling on the wall beside my bed, and my husband has woken up to me trying to smash them. I have seen water gushing from my window. In the beginning, I used to see human-type shapes lurking in corners or on the ceiling, but not so much anymore. For a brief period, I would see strange forms of writing all over my bedroom wall. There have been very few instances that it would be an audible hallucination, like a loud knocking on my door or window, or someone calling out my name. And only once I experienced an olfactory hallucination, I woke up and was overcome with what I can only describe as the smell of putrid, rotting meat. It only lasted for a few moments but remains clear in my memories. My most recent hallucination, which was this morning, was very strange to me. I was dreaming that I felt like I was being watched. I awoke suddenly and rolled over to look behind me and I saw a black hovering orb with a face that didn’t seem quite human. Then it vanished before my eyes, as they all do. I was actually pretty shaken up after that and could not go back to sleep. I have grown pretty used to this and so has my husband. Sometimes, I admit, it can be humorous the things I see and how I react to them, but other times it can be downright scary.

  4. My husband jumps up and turns on the light most nights. Says there’s a spider when there is not.
    It is SO disruptive to me to be woken up as I struggle to go back to sleep. I get angry now. Husband goes back to sleep right away.
    Need a solution. Any ideas?

    • Barb,
      I am having a similar problem but my boyfriend thinks I’m purposely moving/shaking the bed on purpose and gets mad at me when I tell him I’m not moving or when he wakes me up and I was dead asleep. Tonight, he just got up and stormed out of the room and I was wide awake watching tv perfectly still. At first I thought it was me but I have never had anyone tell me I do anything in my sleep, not even snore.
      I feel so lost and upset. I need answers though because I’m desperate. He’s got to be hallucinating because it’s only when we’re going to sleep. Has anyone taken anything or done anything to fix this?

  5. I most often will see a spider coming at me or crawling on me or my bed. I always flail and jump out of bed to turn the light on to look for it. The worst part is I have actually seen real spiders in my bed before so I can never really be sure if it was real or imagined. And it happens a couple of times a month. It’s unsettling.

    Though on a lighter note, the first time I remember having one of these hallucinations was in college. I dreamed that I went to bed with gum in my mouth and then my gum was gone. I woke up looking around for it, afraid it would get in my hair. Lol. I don’t even like chewing gum.

  6. My name is Navi. I frequently have hallucinations at night. I usually wake up in the middle of the night and I usually see a person hiding in my closet, or sometimes I feel someone is at my bedroom window like I just hear sounds. The scariest time was I saw a couple of hands coming out of my bedroom room. I always knew it was not real, I keep telling myself but my eyes does not want to believe it. So usually I wake up and turn on the light. After I see there is nothing then I can go back to sleep. I do not know what else I can do which will help. So if anyone can suggest something that would be great!

  7. I just leapt out of bed terrified because I thought that there was something vibrating, rolling up against my body from between the mattress and sheet. I even heard the sound of the vibration. It started mid-torso and went against my arm and shoulder. I cannot go back to sleep and found myself here. I could swear it was real. I only experienced something like this one other time less than a year ago. Hands came from beneath my sheet and grabbed on the my thighs holding them to the bed, I started to panic and try to move and more came to hold my legs down against me trying to move them. It got a little weirder from there, and then suddenly there was nothing.
    I’ve always been a vivid dreamer but have never experienced something as real as these. As far as my body is concerned I really felt and heard them.

  8. I am 77 years old and experienced what I thought was a supernatural phenomenon. I woke up from a deep sleep where I was dreaming and saw my 52 year old son with wet hair and no shirt on walking from a corner of my bedroom to the bathroom off of my bedroom.

    I watch him walk in front of me, until he disappeared into the bathroom.

    My first inclination is that he was telling me something, like he was leaving this world and saying goodbye. I didn’t reach out to call him as it was 5am in the morning.

    I have never had this vivid of an experience and was glad to read that others have had similar events, and that it has a name for it. Blessings to all. May you walk in peace and grace. Aloha nui, my amakua.

  9. Wow! It is now 8:30 pm. At about 6:00 pm I awoke from a nap to see a fairly large spider in my bed. I screamed, jumped from the bed, put a bed sheet over the spider, and attempted to kill the spider. As I lifted the sheets, NO Spider! This happens to me often, many twice a week, and as gone on for 20 years or more. Somehow I decided to look online to see if this is real or not! Boy, I was so very happy to find this article! So, sorry that so many people have the same problem. Why are spiders the same for so many people? I have been afraid of spiders my entire life. I cannot even look at pictures of them! I am 65 and have no sleep problems, but have taken medication for nerve back pain. At one point I awoke to see a large man in a black coat, turns away from me and disappears. I would wake up to see a wall that is full of straight water bubbles. When I touched the wall, the bubbles faded. Medication disconnected, no more people or bubbles. I still see the spiders, my greatest fear! Thank you for writing this article, as I believe that I can now help myself! I just don’t want to see a spider and tell myself it’s not real, and it is!!😭 Again Great Information!🌹Thank you!

    • Hi Brenda I literally experience the spider thing. I sleep for 10 mins or sleep then once I wake up I see a spider crawling very real on the ceiling. I then jump out my bed in shock and my sister is like “what?!??” I said there’s a spider, she goes to check and there’s nothing there. I hate it really.

  10. I have been having these types of sleep hallucinations for probably 10 years or so. My mother had them too until about age 30, so I am hoping and praying I’ll grow out of them too! I usually see spiders, squirrels, bats, or other large insects crawling across the corners of my bedroom walls or flying toward my head. If not that, I see people standing in my room or looking through my window. My husband usually wakes up when I start to panic and he assures me it is a dream and I go back to sleep.
    One time it turned into a full-on night terror when I imagined that our house had a gas leak and I SPRINTED out of bed and started screaming at my husband that we need to leave, our house is going to blow up, we’re going to die. I just kept repeating that I don’t want to die. I was panicking so much that I started to feel faint and nauseous and lay on the ground in the fetal position. My husband then finally convinced me I was dreaming and it wasn’t real. To this day that was probably the most afraid I have ever felt in my life. That kind of panic where you believe you are about to die is so frightening.

  11. I used to see spiders hanging above my head, on the wall or in my bed. I would fly out of bed at the speed of light to switch the light on. Before I went to bed I would have to make sure there was nothing in my way to trip on as I made the screaming panic to reach the light.
    One night the hallucination was a giant silvery-white spider hanging on a thread in front of me, but for some reason, I was calm and comforted by it. I will never forget that, it seemed for want of a better word wise. It made me think if this experience could possibly be dimensional beings, spiritual, or even your own higher self, I dunno. These days the hallucinations are floating spikey balls, scribbles, or geometric shapes. It is quite fascinating. I am an insomniac who experiences sleep paralysis and up until recently night terrors and nightmares. What a weirdo huh.

  12. My hallucinations happen when I awaken, usually during the night when I have to get up to use the bathroom. Usually shapes and patterns, musical notes, pages from a book… all very interesting but bothersome too. They accompany me to the bathroom and back to bed ( yes, I can see through them). Sometimes if I can’t fall back asleep right away they linger and I end up turning in the lights and getting a drink of water, pet the cats and they tend to disappear. I think certain drugs contribute to them so I’m in the process of figuring that out and I have a sleep study next month.

  13. My last sleep paralysis event was in 2006. I woke up feeling something pulling on my right ankle and leg. I could feel 2 hands trying to pull my leg down to the floor and it felt like I was going to go past the floor since I was on the second floor. Then I felt I had to wake up to stop this from going any further or end up disappearing. I was hearing a rushing noise again like before and I forced myself to wake up and it worked. My girlfriend lying next to me never woke up so I was on my own. When I was fully awake it was over but I could still feel the hand sensation on my right leg and ankle but I believed I saved myself from whatever was trying to pull me down to whatever was past the floor. It seems like it was the devil or something evil that was trying to take me away and not be able to come back. I hear a rushing noise or white noise when im dozing off and I trained myself to try to wake up to stop the rushing noise and paralysis. The sleep paralysis started after I came back from Vietnam in sept 1971. All those episodes I always felt a presence in the room. The last one was the first and only time I had to fight whatever was pulling me down off the bed. I can still feel it like it was last night. When I was about 5 years old my sister and I slept in the same bed. One night I woke up to feel something moving up o the bed between us. She never woke up during this event. Then I saw it creeping up between us. iIt looked like a lion laying down with lower tusks like an elephant but it was gliding not using its legs. It had big round wide open bulging eyes that scared me. I screamed and my mom told me to sit next to her bed on the floor. As she went back to sleep I turned around and saw this thing sliding across the floor and under her bed. I screamed again and she turned the light on and told me to check under the bed. It was gone as soon as the light was turned on. The last event in that house was when my dad was going to work at night I could see the bedroom door slowly closing. As soon as my dad closed the front door to go to work, the bedroom door slowly closed all the way. So I got scared and moved under the sheet. Then i could hear something moving around the bedroom with me and my other brothers sleeping in the same room I felt it jumping on me and scoot around the bed and room. It moved like a cat or more likely a small monkey. It was very lightweight and very fast. We never had any pets around so I knew it was something scary or different. I have always figured our house had to be haunted. Since we moved out from san Francisco to Santa Clara in 1962 all the stuff that happened disappeared and i have never had it happen again. The sleep paralysis has been with me since I came home from the war and through years of training, I have been able to control the on-set of the sleep paralysis before it takes over.

  14. Sometimes I see a person sitting on my dresser since it’s across from my bed and I can see it when laying on my side. It’s creepy and sometimes I hear breathing and my legs go numb. I cannot tell where they are. Usually, I would listen to music of some kind and it helps until my headphones start making me uncomfortable.

  15. I’m glad to find this article. I’ve always wondered why I hallucinate at night, but no one else I know does. They happen infrequently. Sometimes going months, perhaps even a year. They started when I was a teenager. I first saw a vacuum cleaner floating in the air. I still have them today. I see ribbons, unknown and limited detail faces, objects. They are not colorful. Mostly blueish, like a dull glow in the dark. They are quiet, flow, then fades. Every time, I say, this time it’s real. I’ve even reached my hand out to touch it if it’s close enough. I don’t notice any trend with things mentioned in this article. I’m a good sleeper and don’t see a trend with stress or alcohol. I’ve never done drugs. Not on meds. I’m 47 years old and still have them. The thing that got me googling this is because I moved into a new house and for some reason in this house they are colorful and look like laser light red dots forming a sorta large circle on my wall with some green laser light dots. I must be half asleep because I keep telling myself (when awake) to grab my phone and take a picture. But I never do. Nor am I scared. I just stare at it thinking how real it is until it fades away and I fall back to sleep.

  16. I’m scared. I’m hearing things and seeing things and woke up to something or someone talking or poking. Once it got to the point where I felt I was getting pinned down. I couldn’t move. pls someone help.

  17. Hi, I get these sometimes when I wake up. It is always people and in color. A few times I felt a tap on my shoulder but no one was there. It’s got to the point as I wake I will peep with one eye. My family think it’s funny and will ask if anyone was in the bedroom last night. Oh boy…

  18. I don’t know what to think or do. A few years ago this all started and it happens once in a while. I see either a black smokey ball mass floating to a black scribble floating mass to hearing voices and feeling things randomly. There have been a few times I woke up out of a dead sleep screaming and jumping out of the bed running and screaming in fear. This has been going on since 2019 off an on and my meds have not changed at all. Any ideas on what I should even do?

    • As a young child, I had the same night terror, seeing something like bat eyes circling around my bedroom ceiling. The details are hard to describe, but the vision is planted in my brain since childhood.
      I remember it was terrifying and I would always wake up screaming.
      I’m now 69, and over the years often see all kinds of shapes floating around in my bedroom. I’ve read these are fairly common so I’m not overly concerned.
      I woke up during the middle of the night last night seeing a very tall figure covered in black standing over me. I really got scared and reached out to sweep it away. It quickly floated out my bedroom door. I guess I can’t shake it because it didn’t just disappear suddenly.
      I don’t use drugs or alcohol.

  19. Last night I slept on the settee downstairs, I was awoken by what felt was my dog trying to jump up on the settee, but she wasn’t there, it was 2am in the morning. I then noticed a red circular light on the ceiling it was a dull type of light and making circular motions, as I watched it was fading until eventually it disappeared totally.

  20. Glad I found this article. I had another episode of hallucination last night, at least they don’t happen very often! I don’t know if I was falling asleep or waking up as it happened around 1:30 AM and was in bed since 11:30. Anyway, yes, spiders in my bed my friends, the best feeling right? Saw one black spider, like 2 inches big, sort of coming out from under my pillow or myself, and then the whole colony comes out crawling, more than a dozen freaking spiders crawling heading for the side of the bed, and man was it SO REAL… By then I’m leaning on my elbow, and my partner wakes up with a flashlight on (lol, light sleeper), I said “gimme that”, held that flashlight and look again on the mattress and on its side, the floor… nothing… Wasn’t so scared though. Just went back to sleep…

    I had this happen before, not sure it was always spiders, but always some freakin bugs that’s for sure…

  21. I have been having hallucinations on and off for about 2 years whilst trying to get to sleep, normally it is just shapes of figures in the room and sometimes hands coming towards my face. I often wake in the night to see a faint figure in the room next to my bed but as I blink and move it instantly disappears. Last night though I woke sharply to see a little girl in a green dress holding a small doll at the side of my bed, I jumped up and moved my covers and then according to my girlfriend, screamed. This is because as I moved the covers the girl was still there for a second or two before disappearing. I have never had such a vivid vision and it took me some time to fall back to sleep.

  22. When I was a child like 5 or 6 I used to see wonderful shapes they were all pink and they would morph into all different kinds of things. I can describe them like pink bubbles. I was in the dark but there was light from my door being open. I used to love it And it would fascinate me. It doesn’t happen anymore at all.

  23. I get hallucinations while waking up sometimes. My favorite one from a few years ago, I saw a spider pulling a rubber ducky that was stuck in its web up the wall by my bed. I sat up and reached out to save the ducky from the web and when my fingers touched the wall, I woke up fully and the spider, web, and rubber ducky all vanished. My worst one was after my first baby was born. I saw a dark shadow man by my bed. Instantly I knew something was wrong with my baby. I jumped out of bed and practically flew to her crib. She had somehow gotten her swaddling over her head. She was fine, but it scared me. I got a different kind of swaddler after that, that zipped, so she couldn’t get it over her head by accident. I haven’t had any hallucinations for a while… until recently. I woke up and heard what I thought was my cat hissing at my dog. Both animals were not even on the same floor as my bedroom, let alone not in my bedroom. Early this morning, at around 5:55 am I was startled awake by a creepy, dark voice yelling “Yessss!!” in satisfaction. It scared me for some reason, so I decided to just get up. So here I am, researching if these sudden noises are my sleep hallucinations coming back. I guess so. I also talk in my sleep, and according to my boyfriend, say some pretty weird stuff.