Sleep Paralysis Stories: Demons Or Hallucinations?

image of a classical painting representing sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis stories typically involve unusual and frightening experiences. Perhaps you have one or two of these disturbing tales of your own to tell.

If not, I’ll first share one of mine to give you an understanding of what it can be like.

Then we’ll take a closer look at whether sleep paralysis demons or ghosts really exist. Or if science can provide a logical and comforting explanation.

My sleep paralysis experience

Imagine the following scenario: it’s been a long day, you go to bed later than usual and fall asleep quickly through sheer exhaustion.

But instead of waking up peacefully in the morning, you half wake in the middle of the night. And in the darkness of your bedroom, it slowly dawns on you that you can’t move your body…and that someone, or something, is watching you.

A weight pushing on your chest

You feel a weight on your chest, pressing you down and preventing you from sitting up. And not only is your whole body paralyzed, but you can’t so much as move your lips to call out for help.

You’re not sure who or what is pushing on your chest. Even though you seem to be able to move your eyes just a little, it’s too dark to see anyway. Regardless, you just feel that there’s a presence there. Something strange. Something frightening.

This happened to me last year and was a very unsettling experience. Fortunately, there was no demon, ghost or burglar in my bedroom.

After a minute’s panic, the feeling passed. And I was then able to stumble to the bathroom to make sure my face wasn’t decorated with demonic symbols. It was a classic case of sleep paralysis.

What is sleep paralysis?

Recurrent isolated sleep paralysis is classified as a parasomnia, which is a group of sleep disorders involving unwanted behaviors that accompany sleep.

The main symptom is being awake and unable to move your body. It might also be accompanied by hallucinations or dreams/nightmares whilst still awake.

It typically lasts from a few seconds to a few minutes before movement is regained. And although it may feel like it at the time, it’s not believed by medical organizations to be harmful.

What causes it?

The exact reason for why it happens to some people and only on some nights isn’t known. However, scientists do have a theory about what goes on during sleep paralysis.

During the night, you cycle through different sleep stages. When you enter the REM stage of sleep, your brain stops your muscles from moving – known as REM atonia. One explanation for this atonia is that it prevents injury from acting out your dreams in bed.

During sleep paralysis, the atonia starts, or continues, while you’re awake. And during this time, you might also experience what’s known as sleep hallucinations, or dreams while you’re awake.

So your body and brain are temporarily out of sync while transitioning between sleep stages, potentially creating a frightening experience.

As Dr. Michael J. Breus neatly explains:

Sleep scientists believe that sleep paralysis may occur when the transitions in and out of REM sleep and other sleep stages don’t go smoothly.

How many people experience sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis stories like mine are surprisingly common. In 2011, researchers aggregated 35 sleep paralysis studies to find out how many people had experienced it at least once in the past year, finding:

  • 7.6% of the general population
  • 28.3% of students
  • 31.9% of psychiatric patients

And according to the handbook of sleep disorders, it will happen at least once in a lifetime of 40% to 50% of normal subjects, but is “far less common as a chronic complaint”.

Who is more at risk of having sleep paralysis?

Scientists might not know the precise reason only some people have sleep paralysis yet, but there are a growing number of risk factors becoming apparent.

For example, researchers who analyzed 42 studies found several risk factors and associated conditions:

  • Sleep problems, changing sleep patterns and shift work.
  • Sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia and nocturnal leg cramps.
  • Stress.
  • Some psychiatric groups, particularly those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and panic disorders.
  • Substance and medication use.
  • Physical illness.
  • Personality and anomalous beliefs.

Is there a genetic component to sleep paralysis?

In 2015, British researchers published a study of 862 twins and siblings aged between 22 and 32. They did find some evidence of a genetic role, but only a small one:

In this sample of young adults, sleep paralysis was moderately heritable

Interestingly, they also found other independent risk factors, including:

  • Disrupted sleep cycles
  • General sleep quality
  • Anxiety symptoms
  • Exposure to threatening events

Polls – readers’ experience of sleep paralysis

I polled readers of this article for a year to find out what kind of sleep paralysis episodes they had.

Note that it’s likely that many people who search online about it will have had the more frightening episodes, skewing the results.

But they still provide a fascinating insight into what people experience and how they cope.

Poll 1

In poll 1, the most common episode was thinking there was a demon or other being in the room.

chart showing the results of my poll about the type of sleep paralysis experiences people have

Poll 2

Poll 2 shows that many readers find sleep paralysis terrifying. Again, those who search online for it are likely to have found it particularly disturbing.

chart of poll results for how scared people are during sleep paralysis

Poll 3

Poll 3 shows that many readers first experienced sleep paralysis during adolescence.

chart with poll results about the age people first have sleep paralysis

Poll 4

Poll 4 shows that most readers don’t experience sleep paralysis on a regular basis. 

chart showing poll results about how often people have sleep paralysis

Poll 5

Poll 5 shows some of the ways readers deal with episodes. You’ll find more coping mechanisms below.

chart showing the results of the poll about techniques for stopping sleep paralysis

The not so scientific explanations for sleep paralysis

image of a woman floating above the bed

Since first writing this article several years ago, there has been an extraordinary number of comments. And the comments show that not everyone accepts the scientific explanation.

Interestingly, some people struggle to accept it even though they consider themselves to be scientifically minded generally. I think these cases highlight just how realistic the experience of sleep paralysis can be; how it can linger in your memory and makes you question what happened for a long time afterward.

The possibility of demons, ghosts, spiritual beings, and aliens all crop up from time to time in the comments too. And while many people accept their experiences as hallucinations or dreams, some people choose to believe another explanation – that those entities are real.

Despite these beliefs, there’s one clear theme: nothing bad ever actually happens, other than being frightened and perhaps losing some sleep after an episode.

Around the world

Cultural beliefs also appear to play a role in how sleep paralysis is perceived by some people.

In Fiji, for example, the demon is sometimes seen as a deceased relative coming back to discuss an important or unfinished matter.

In Chinese folklore, it’s also seen as a ghost rather than a demon or intruder.

Some people in Iran and Pakistan interpret it as demons or spirits taking over your body. This could be due to black magic performed by an enemy.

The common theme is that the entity is usually something to be feared. I’m yet to find a culture which believes it’s a friendly creature!

Sleep paralysis treatment

When to see a doctor

Fortunately, most people don’t experience sleep paralysis very often, and no treatment is usually required.

However, if the following apply to you, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor:

  • It happens regularly.
  • You’re anxious about sleep paralysis and going to sleep.
  • You don’t get enough sleep.
  • You feel very sleepy during the day, sometimes fall asleep suddenly or lose control of your muscles.

What medical treatment is available?

If you see a doctor, they might take the following action:

  • Refer you to a sleep specialist to assess if you have another sleep disorder, like narcolepsy.
  • Treat any underlying psychiatric condition.
  • Discuss any medication or substance use that might be a factor.
  • Explain the biological processes involved in sleep paralysis to reassure you.
  • Talk to you about developing good sleep habits. This is thought to help reduce the frequency of sleep paralysis.

Readers’ techniques for coping with sleep paralysis

Over the years, many readers have described how they cope with sleep paralysis, and I’ve created a list of the most frequent ideas below.

The first seven in the list are also suggested by sleep experts. The rest are a mix of personal opinions. Please bear in mind that none are guaranteed to work:

  • Don’t let yourself become too sleep-deprived.
  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Try to reduce stress and anxiety in your life.
  • Try to vigorously flutter your eyelids or move your eyes, as this tends to be an area of the body that’s less affected by the paralysis.
  • Focus on wiggling just one finger or a toe.
  • Don’t take recreational drugs or drink alcohol in the evening.
  • Don’t sleep on your back.
  • Stay calm.
  • Tell yourself that you’re in control. You can order the experience to stop.
  • If you feel a weight on your chest, imagine there’s something friendly causing it.
  • Film yourself sleeping so you can see there was nothing in the room.
  • Don’t think about what it could be. Your imagination will probably make up something scary in the darkness.
  • Organize your bedroom in a way that makes you feel safe and secure.
  • Don’t hang dressing gowns, coats, or hats in places that make them look like figures in the dark.
  • Sleep with a night light, music, or radio on.
  • Remind yourself that nothing bad will happen.
  • Imagine your body rolling from side to side in your mind and count each roll. Focus on this and try to grow the capacity for movement from there.
  • Count numbers to focus your mind on something else.
  • Don’t sleep with a high pillow.
  • Keep your eyes shut and try to clear your mind.
  • Squeeze your eyes tightly shut if you can control the muscles.
  • Keep well hydrated – drink water before going to bed.
  • Talk about it to family or friends – they may have experienced it too.
  • If you have it once, get out of bed for a while to reset the brain.
  • Many people say prayer helps. Some also say that calling on their religious beliefs and commanding what they see to leave helps them.
  • Check if any sleeping pills or herbal remedies you’re taking are causing it.
  • Use sleep paralysis to lucid dream by relaxing and going with the experience instead of fighting it.
  • Once the episode has passed, tell yourself that you overcame it, are not afraid and will always overcome it.

How I recently stopped an episode of sleep paralysis

I successfully used two of the above techniques to stop a recent episode of sleep paralysis.

I woke to find myself in a strange position with my arms crossed on top of my body. And I could literally feel strong hands pinning my wrists to my chest.

I have to admit I was immediately petrified. The whole event was blurry, and I think I was having some dream overlap, but can’t remember exactly what now.

Stay calm and wiggle a finger

Two things sprung to mind after a moment of panic: stay calm and try to wiggle a finger.

The calmness I only managed with moderate success. But I did manage to focus my efforts on moving a finger. It felt quite odd – like my fingers were wiggling in different directions!

Eventually, I felt my arms loosen as well, and soon afterward I was able to shake the whole sensation away as I regained full control.

I then spent a few minutes doing some breathing exercises to ground myself and calm down, and then fell asleep again.

I think just knowing about the finger wiggling technique was enough for me to remember it when the sleep paralysis occurred.

Share your story of sleep paralysis

Have you had sleep paralysis? What happened, and do you have any suggestions to help others deal with it?

Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

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  1. I’ve gotten sleep paralysis on a somewhat regular basis for almost 20 years. Sometimes I won’t have it for 3 or 4 months, then I’ll suddenly get it once and it snowballs from there and I’ll get it regularly for a week, a month, 3 months sometimes. When I start getting it really badly, some nights I’ll get it like 10 times. I eventually have to just get up, as my body WILL NOT fall asleep without slipping into the “in-between”.

    For me, it’s terrifying and I panic every time, but not because I think it’s greatly spiritual or demonic. It’s because I feel like my heart is beating out of my chest and when I’m having it, I can’t help but think I’m going to keep falling deeper and deeper into the episode and eventually slip into a coma. In my normal, waking state, I know this won’t happen… but when I’m in it, rational thinking is out the window. That being said, I have had greatly demonic episodes, where I see and hear horrible things. I had one about 3 months ago that still gives me chills and is very vivid in my head:

    The Episode:
    I was having a dream that I was at my grandparents’ house that they had back when I was a fairly young child. I walked to the back of the house, where the garage door was (in real life, it was in the front, but you know dreams…) I walked into the garage and saw a bald man standing on the small, elevated landing by the door into the house. For some reason, as soon as I saw him, I knew I was dreaming and started vivid dreaming. Instead of going out and having fun like I normally would in a vivid dream, I made my way through the longer than real life garage and walked up the few steps to the landing to confront the bald stranger who was in my grandparent’s garage. He was staring at me and smiling the whole time. That is, until I asked him who he was… His smile that he had been sporting up until this point, immediately dropped and he instantly looked angry and said: “I’m your subconscious. I’m here to tell you that you have cancer and you are going to burn in hell.”
    The second he finished that sentence, I slipped out of the vivid dream and right into sleep paralysis.
    I was sleeping on my side and facing the side table and wall, with my feet pointing to the door of my bedroom. My heart was racing, as always and I could hear the pounding in my ears. I heard something big and loud barreling down our hallway, running right for our bedroom and right as it got to where I figured our door was(I couldn’t see the door from my angle), I saw a shadow cast on the wall from it. As soon as the shadow moved, suddenly a fast, rhythmic drum beating started (picture hearing a tribal drum beat, beating about 3-4 beats per second) and with every beat of the drum, a different demonic face with white eyes appeared right in front of me on my bedside table. I closed my eyes as I panicked, but with my eyes closed, I could still see the lingering outline of their faces for a few seconds( like when you accidentally look at the sun and still see it in different color when you close your eyes)

    This was probably the worst episode I’ve had, as far as demonic and scary ones. I’ve had others, but this one stood out to me.

    I’ve trained myself to be able to call my wife for help in a very raspy, strained voice, as the vocal chords are paralyzed as well. But it’s usually enough to wake her up after about 10 seconds and she knows to grab my shoulder and push or pull me to snap me out of it.

    The times I can almost guarantee that I’ll get it is a mid day nap, and especially if I nap on the couch. So I don’t know what tends to cause it… how soft the couch is? Because I sink in more? Because I sleep really deeply when I nap?

    So what do you think? Is it just a physical disorder paired with a crazy imagination? Or something else… If anyone has any ideas, I’m open to them. I’d give anything to be able to get rid of them.

  2. I had an incident while sleeping at night. It was an old house that I had rented. During the night I was awoken by a feeling that something was pressing down on my whole body. It was a sprung mattress and I felt the pressure getting stronger because the springs started popping I couldn’t speak but on my exhalations, I tried to call my girlfriend’s name but she didn’t wake up. It was getting frightening as the pressure increased. I decide to call out to my Papa who had died many years ago for help and after a few moments, the pressure released slowly and went away. I knew that I was conscious because I could hear the springs popping, but I wasn’t afraid as I knew my spirit grandfather would help me. I do believe in Ghosts and I believe that you can call on dead family to come to your aid, but few people do that and I don’t know why, because if you have a spirit who is causing you grief, fear and actually moving things then who better to call than family. They are not effectless against spirits and demons. It didn’t happen again, but I am sensitive to ghosts and when my brother died in my family’s garage, he stayed around the house spiritually for a while. Things like lights would be on in the morning, things going missing and not just small light things either. One night when were we watching TV, all of a sudden our dogs both looked up at the top of the stairs, for at least a minute and a half. They would not move and then just went back to sleep. When I was having a bath, I was playing music on a tape and suddenly the music started laying speedily. Freaked out, I turned it off. Then I started playing again and it was fine, but then it happened again. I shouted out for him to stop it and he did, but it wrecked my bathtime. Tape decks don’t play fast on battery power and that deck hasn’t done it since or ever again. Not all ghosts are benign though, but if you stay strong and show no fear they will retreat. I think they get stronger the more fear you show.

  3. It’s been reoccurring for the past two nights. I stayed up pretty late Saturday night, so late that when I realized it was 3 AM I got scared because of the fantasy videos I would watch about 3 AM as a kid. When I grew up and realized that 3 AM is truly the witch’s hour, I couldn’t bare staying up that late unless I was with somebody. This Saturday when I checked the clock and realized it was nearing 3 AM, I panicked, and quickly sat up, ready to rush in out the bathroom, before I put my headphones back in to play some music to distract myself, I heard faint crying coming from the corner of my room, where my lamp was, I got a little stiff in my position. I was pretty aware of the paranormal, and I grew around them and or with them when I was younger. Hearing voices, seeing shadows, feelings presences wasn’t new to me, but it still scared me. I quietly inched for my phone, turning the flashlight on, and then keeping my hand over my bed, I reached for the lamp light, so I wouldn’t bother this “spirit” this alone took around 1-3 minutes. I then quietly jumped off my bed, to avoid getting snatched if it was even underneath my bed, but it still didn’t like me because it made a hissing sound. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, my red protection string hanging on my bedpost had fallen. That scared me even more. Harming me and touching my protection is off limits, and almost all the spirits I know, know that about me. I knew whatever this was, was new, and I knew I had never welcomed it in the room, or even my house. Last night was way worse, I lay on call with my friend, joking around, and then he eventually drifted off to sleep, only waking once to mute himself, I twisted around and scrolled through various apps because I wasn’t tried, I eventually felt the presence on me, watching me, I was facing the wall where my lamp was, and I started thinking the worse. I don’t know how long I was in that fetal position with my phone in my hands, but I remember waking up at 6 am, to my phone charging, and my friend calling me because the connection to the call had died and he knew I would almost always forget to put my alarms on. I guess I was so tired and unbothered by the “spirit” I probably fell asleep. I don’t know what it is, but it’s definitely not something I have a connection with. And I don’t want a connection with it at all.

    • Be strong, show no fear and tell it to leave in a strong voice, but don’t shout at it. The 3am + time is when shadows and ghosts are strongest as it is the darkest period. You can make it stop if you show confidence.

  4. I was about ten years old and I was sleeping on my right side. I opened my eyes and right in front of me on the side of my bed was this horrible face. The bottom eyelids were pulled down, his lips were pulled back to expose his yellow teeth and gums with a snarl. His head and face were almost skeletal. The top of his head was bald and he had a little hair on his head above his ears. It looked like the face of a demon. I immediately pulled the covers over my head and stayed that way till the morning. About three weeks past and my younger sister mentioned to me that she was afraid to sleep in the bedroom. I asked her why and she said she saw a face at the foot of the bed. When I asked her to describe the face she described the same exact face that I saw right down to the pulled down bottom eyelids. I saw this face only once, but my sister saw it on two occasions. I am now 69 years old and I will never forget that demonic face. To this day I still talk about it with my sister.

  5. I’ve had it many times and it mostly doesn’t alarm me now. This one was the creepiest, but I stayed cool.
    I woke up alone on my left side, facing the edge of my queen size bed. I couldn’t move. The room was dark.
    I can tell if I’m in SP by either waving my hand in front of my face (can feel it moving, but cannot see it) or by pinching myself (and not feeling it.) I moved my hand. Nothing to see. Well okay then.
    Then I realized there was a presence behind me. Something right there. On the bed. Lying alongside me at my back.
    I could see her in my mind’s eye or I just knew… It was an old woman, a skeletal thing with black hollowed out eyes, and dried out withered up skin covering long bony fingers. She was lying behind me, and she was going to come closer.
    So I did what any sane person would do. I sighed, gave in to whatever it was going to do to me… and reached my right arm up over my pillow, to the top of my head. I reached out to her.
    She reached back. And we held hands. I could feel her bony fingers.
    She didn’t hurt me. I either drifted back off or woke out of it.
    Though the others were super cool, it was one of the creepiest ones I’ve had.

    • You did the right thing, Joanne. Many ghosts are trapped in our plane of existence and many don’t know they are dead. next time just say politely that they don’t belong here and that there are family and friends waiting on the other side, waiting to greet them. There are malevolent spirits out there too, and are best ignored. There is a thing called EVP, electric voice phenomenon, where voices can be heard in the background on tape recordings. There are a small percentage of those that are threatening in nature, so expect the good and the bad in ghosts too.

  6. I don’t know how to go about telling my experiences with sleep paralysis because the first time it happened I was terrified. It was just me and my daughter at home and at the time we lived in a two-story house and we were upstairs. She was in one room and I was in my bedroom. I happened to fall asleep finding myself wide awake screaming and crying but she couldn’t hear me. I could hear myself screaming and crying I looked over and happened to see a black figure with wings fly out my window in the bedroom. I was trying my best to move and couldn’t I was soon able to make it to where I got my arm on a hairbrush on my bed and I ended up throwing it against the wall to get my daughter’s attention. When she came in my room I was then able to sit up and gain movement back I then explained what happened and begged her not to leave me alone. This has happened to me quite often since the first time it took place. It stopped for the longest time which was right after we moved out of that house. But now they are back and seem to be a lot worse then the first time. I find myself begging for my fiance to hold me tight and not let go and not to leave me in our bedroom alone. It has me terrified at this time to even go to sleep nights after it has taken place because I’m scared to even go to sleep and feeling like something or someone is after me to harm me.

  7. I was dreaming that demons were chasing me and passing through me, trying to like, take hold of me, it was like we were in a battle. When I woke up I could feel a force like wind holding me to the bed, I tried to fight it but I couldn’t move, it felt like my body was shaking but I had no control, then it stopped. It was very weird and felt pretty damn real. I’m going back tonight to kick that demon’s ass.

  8. I awoke in the middle of the night and felt and saw a demon-like presence on me pinning me down. I couldn’t talk or move. My significant other was asleep next to me so I tried to signal her to Help! The only thing I could muster at first was mumble-type talk! I was kinda mumbling her name and saying ‘Help Me’. After a few moments I was able to free up my leg well half of it anyway. I tried to wake my partner by kinda kicking her! Not hard but in a way to say help. The first couple of times I kicked her to wake her she kinda just looked over a little bit and was like ‘WHAT!’ I couldn’t communicate so she would lay right back down and go back to sleep. So I nudged her again. This happened 3 or 4 times. Then the most terrifying thing happened. She (my partner) sat up and got in my face but she actually appeared demonic. Looked and sounded different. So she was in my face and in a demonic voice was like ‘Whaaaatt!’ I finally was able to break it and I sat up in disbelief and went out to the living room and fell asleep there. This house has been in her family for over 40 years. Her aunt actually past away in the house come to find out. She actually past away in this room. Her aunt was kinda into some witchy voodoo stuff too from stories I’ve heard. I’ve even heard stories about her aunt having a ouji Board hanging on the wall in this room. Very Freaky experience!!

    • Almost exactly the same thing that happened to me, but it was pitch black in my bedroom and I knew it was an entity because my bed springs were popping with the downward pressure. I called out to my grandfather who had passed and he helped me fight this thing off. Never happened again though.

  9. Just twice in my lifetime, my episodes occurred in a motel room as a truck driver. Woke up unable to move, hooded spectres all the way around the bed. I could not move or speak although I could hear what I can only explain as whispers. I tried to communicate with thoughts to no avail. Some months later I stopped at the same motel, same exact scenario, hooded specters whispering, couldn’t move or speak. This time I felt like they or something was touching me all over my body. Woke up and was shocked to find I was in the same room as months before. For over 30 years following the events, I would hear the whispers in the night during deep sleep. One night sleeping with a girlfriend she woke me up exclaiming that she woke up and felt something was happening to me, and felt something left my body. I never heard the whispers again. JR