The nightmare of sleep paralysis demons, witches and ghouls

Imagine drifting through your dreams when slowly, you begin to become aware of your surroundings.

You realise you’re in bed awake and turn to move, except, you can’t move a muscle.

If that’s not frightening enough you being to sense there’s something or someone in the room with you – a shadowy figure starts to loom over your body, but you’re powerless to do anything.

It sounds like the familiar plot of a horror movie. But sadly, these experiences are all too real for people who suffer from sleep paralysis.

A 2011 study estimates that 8% of people will experience the condition in some way during their life: but with so many instances being written off as some other cause, the true number could be much higher.

What is sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak which happens when waking up, or falling asleep. A type of parasomnia, it can last anywhere between a few seconds to several minutes and usually happens when the person is supine (lying on their back). Sleep paralysis often occurs in patients suffering from narcolepsy.

Although it doesn’t cause any physical harm, the sensation of being unable to move can be very frightening and cause considerable anxiety. Many people experience additional symptoms which add to their trauma. These include:

  • sensing an intruder in the room – footsteps, voices, shadows etc
  • a weight or pressure on the chest
  • floating, levitation or out-of-body-experience
  • sensation of being choked, strangled or sexually assaulted

These hallucinations are most likely anxiety related, however, their frightening nature has led to a number of myths and legends being spawned throughout history.


035: Sleep paralysis explained – Professor Chris French

Identifying sleep paralysis

There are three key factors in a sleep paralysis episode which must all be present to make a diagnosis, according to the Sleep Paralysis Project:

  • The patient has an awareness that they are awake
  • The patient is aware of their surrounding environment
  • The patient is completely unable to move (muscle atonia)

These are the key features of a classic sleep paralysis episode. In reality, every sleeping person is experiencing sleep paralysis during their phasic REM phase – otherwise we would all be acting out our dreams!

The body shuts off and is able to rest, even though the mind continues working. In a sleep paralysis disorder, the atonia phase is accompanied by this unusual alertness and awareness – which can be extremely unnerving for the person affected, even if there are no other symptoms accompanying the episode.

What causes sleep paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is associated with REM (rapid eye movement), the phase of sleep where we do most of our dreaming. During this time, the brain shuts down all non-vital muscle groups in the body, most likely to stop us acting out our dreams.

Sleep paralysis occurs when there’s a mistransmission of neural signals, and the brain fails to reactivate the muscles, rendering the patient conscious, but completely paralyzed. It is an anomalous REM state and a sign that your body is not moving smoothly through the stages of sleep.

The exact causes of sleep paralysis are unknown, but genetics are likely to play a big part. Apart from your genes however there are a number of other risk factors that can increase the chance of occurrence. These include:

  • lack of sleep
  • irregular sleep schedule
  • existing psychiatric condition ie bipolar disorder
  • drug or alcohol abuse
Sleep paralysis is a surprisingly common phenomenon, with up to 40% of the population having at least one incidence in their lifetime. Although it can affect men and women of any age, it usually first appears during the teenage years.
Age of sleep paralysis occurence
Image: University of Waterloo

The ‘paranormal’ symptoms of sleep paralysis

The 2015 documentary ‘The Nightmare’ focused on sufferers of sleep paralysis disorders, and the terrifying experiences they have when they go to bed. It highlights how complex the condition can be, and how it blurs the lines between sleep, dreams, mental health – and even the paranormal.

In many cases, there will be additional symptoms which accompany the episode of waking sleep paralysis. These can vary in severity, and might appear as standalone feelings or in combination with others. They include:

  • Pressure on the chest and difficulty breathing
  • Feeling the presence of someone or something in the room
  • An overwhelming feeling of terror, fear or sadness
  • Hallucinatory visions, smells, sounds and feelings

How these symptoms manifest varies from sufferer to sufferer. Some may find the feelings to be vague and almost indescribable, while others experience terrifying events in grim detail. Either way, the feeling of complete immobility and total awareness will be present.

Sleep paralysis through the ages

Over the centuries, many people have sought explanations for this mysterious condition often attributing it to an “evil” presence. Various cultural interpretations have been handed down through the ages, from the evil incubus, to demons and alien abductions.  From Ancient Greece to Shakespeare there are countless mentions of phenomena that are now understood to be references to sleep paralysis.

One of the most common is ‘Old Hag Syndrome’ a folklore myth where the sleeper awakes to find an old hag, or witch sitting, or riding on their chest, rendering them immobile. Similar legends exist in virtually every culture around the world, suggesting that sleep paralysis is not an uncommon phenomenon.

It is now thought that many previous reported incidences of demonic possession, ghostly encounters and other horrifying visions are actually the result of aware sleep paralysis episodes.

There are many historical references to the disorder’s existence which date back to the 10th Century AD, such as the famous ‘night hag’ syndrome. It’s such a common occurrence that the phenomena has permeated the world of art and culture, as seen in Henry Fuseli’s famous painting ‘The Nightmare’

Sleep Paralysis Demon Infographic
Info graphic via:

However, there is still no real understanding of the causes of sleep paralysis, making it a misunderstood and often undiagnosed condition. It is easy to see how a sufferer could mistake the incidents for some form of supernatural activity.

Often the visual hallucinations experienced represent common manifestations of scary figures – such as ghosts, demons, monsters and the dead (or even the undead).

What does sleep paralysis feel like?

The most common reported feeling with these sleep paralysis incidents is that of a presence in the room – a demon or similar being. Second is the feeling of being crushed, followed by the belief that an intruder had entered their home. Below are some comments from users of Reddit, describing their own sleep paralysis events:

“I saw a shadow-man walking around my room, disappearing behind my open door.”

“A little girl in the corner of my room staring at me. Then, without notice, she shrieks and runs up and starts choking me.”

“Even if I can’t see anything, there is an overwhelming presence in the room and it is always evil. I can’t move. I’m stuck.”

“Something banging and scraping on my bedroom door. I keep it locked at night because I have had ones where it opens by itself.”

Sleep paralysis treatment

There is currently no standard treatment available for sleep paralysis. There are, however, a few methods you can try to minimize the chances of an episode.

Improving sleep habits

Most people require six to eight hours of sleep each night so this should be your starting point. Another way to improve your chances of better sleep is by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Other ways to practice good sleep hygiene include:

  • creating a relaxing sleep environment
  • cutting down on alcohol, smoking and other stimulants
  • eating a healthy diet, at regular meal times
  • keeping a regular exercise routine
  • adequate exposure to natural light
  • avoiding TV, video games and computers before bed

Adjusting sleeping habits is one step that can make a difference to some sufferers: change the room temperature, get a better sleeping routine and try to stay hydrated at night.

While the experiences of demons and spooky ghosts in the room feel realistic to the person, remember that all of these feelings can be explained through science. The feeling of suffocating, for instance, is explained by the fact that when you fall asleep your breathing becomes automated.

As you wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, you try to override this automation and start breathing on your own, which creates the suffocating feeling. Patients feeling overwhelmed by the symptoms might want to consider a therapy process, such as counselling or hypnotherapy, to help them cope.


If your sleep paralysis is more troublesome, your doctor may suggest a clinical treatment. Certain antidepressant medications have been shown to reduce the incidences of paralysis episodes, although it must be stressed that they do not work on every patient.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TA) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) -usually used to treat depression – are thought to have an effect on sleep paralysis by altering the amount and depth of REM sleep, preventing temporary paralysis on waking up/falling asleep. However, you should be aware of the potential side effects before considering a course of medication.


18 thoughts on “The nightmare of sleep paralysis demons, witches and ghouls”

  1. Last night I woke up with terrible back pain and couldn’t go back to sleep for a while. I eventually did fall asleep on my stomach and then I felt like I was half asleep and half awake. I felt a ton of pressure on my back and my whole body began to tingle. It sounded like my alarm kept going off but I couldn’t move my arm to turn it off. The pressure on my back became more intense and then I moved my head to the left and saw a dark presence and I tried to yell “get off!” several times but I didn’t have a voice. Shortly after I woke up gasping for air. What in the world would have caused this? Was it just a bad dream? It all felt incredibly real, scary.

  2. Hi Shannon, of all the comments I’ve read yours has to be the one that I am able to relate to the most. I get the tingling too, every person I have read about or talked to doesn’t, nor do they hear the alarms (i also hear a combination of T.V. static and almost human screaming). I will tell you that we experience these when we are awake and conscious,therefore they are real, but what interests me about your experience is that you were able to turn your head, from what you said your position was face down meaning you had to move more than a twitch, which is the only movement I am capable of (in my right index, middle, or ring finger I cant exactly remember but I think it was my index) making when I am in sleep paralysis. I do have a few tips for our sleep demons: 1. under no circumstances do you leave your bed right after an episode (it/they could be malicious) , 2. do not think about them once the sun goes down (this is pretty much a spiritual invitation), 3. sleep with relaxing sounds playing (this blocks out the screaming and sometimes tricks our subconscious that we are hearing our mother’s pulse from inside the womb). Best of luck.

  3. Hello, i have it since childhood i used to have nightmares but then it stop until i grew up.. I’m now 23 and i started getting those really bad nightmares again. I can’t sleep properly i wake up each 2 hrs through the night, sometime i want to shout or speak but i can’t i want to move but i can’t. my mom started sleeping in my room too. She says i talk in my sleep but she can’t understand what i’m saying . sometimes i don’t remember.. but i know i hear sounds, i see shadows..and my hearts beats a lot in those moments.. i always wake up with a bad headache and painful neck.. I’m always sleepy but i cannot sleep well…

  4. When I was just a kid I already have weird dreams, some of them are good and some of there are bad. But I can if that dream is normal or not. When I was a kid I always dream about a tall white lady with a long hair. I see her every single dream of mine but i cant really see her face its just blurred. And I really dont know if shes good or bad, she’s just staring at me watching me in my dream. Then she’s gone for a couple of year. But shes back when i was in high school and i figure out that she’s good cause when i had a nightmare one night, there was a village of ASWANG’s(filipino monster/creature)and I was accidentally in there looking for company. And i figure out that its a village of demons and they hunt me and i runaway. I really want to wake because Im too tired but i cant and In the end of the road i saw the white lady but still i cant see her face and then the demons found me. The white lady hold my hand and i woke up. That is the last time i dream about her.

  5. I also want to share my experience. I really want to know if Am I the one who dream about it? Or are they real? Im Jr and Im 23 now. I dream about a two groups in a room who is arguing. Each group had a leader. Both groups are lead by girls/woman. They are arguing about DREAMS (i think they are the masters/guardians of dream). The other one group is good and the other one is bad. But i know saw in there too that the group of making good dreams is out numbered, because the leader of bad dreams is convincing the members of it to join her, and i woke up. One night I was in that room again and i figure out that there was no members left on the group of good dreams. I saw them most of my dreams. They are chasing me In my dreams. They cant get help in there cause they are powerful. The can hypnotize the people in there and control them. You cant runaway from them how fast you run from them. I had tiring and sleepless nights because of them. And Im starting to believe that they are real and they are really exists. The guardians of dreams.

  6. I’ve had multiple different situation when it comes to my sleep paralysis but the last two have been by far the worst, I honestly believe I was trying to be possessed by a demon. It was legitimately a fight between something an I all night. I was a a Satanist at the time and that plus the Ouija board drawn in blood that we can’t paint over in the upstairs crawl space of my mom’s apartment (I was staying there at the time of the first demonic sleep paralysis) That night made me run to God and burn my satanic Bible and fear sleep all together…

  7. I just had one of these episodes, I’m currently 18 and haven’t had one since I was 12, it’s always the same, I know I’m awake but I can’t move, I always see these glowing yellow eyes, usually in my door way or my closest or the corner of my room. But this time it was right in front of me, inches from my face, I could feel its breath on my face, feel it run its claws on my arm, I came to once it grabbed the side of my head and pushed me into my pillow, as if it was trying to hurt me, it was truly terrifying, the worst one I had yet… has anyone else experienced this man? I’m afraid it’ll get worse and worse

  8. Ok so look this is what happened. I fall asleep on my stomach and never ever had sleep paralysis before, well last night i did. I woke up i couldn’t move and felt an evil female presence putting a ton of pressure on my back i tried to move and yell to get off of me (i have anxiety btw) so i was having a panic attack. As i was struggling i was able to twitch my toe and was able to move my body again I’d only been asleep for 10 minutes and was scared shitless. The girl looked All black with long pointy fingers.

  9. Well if is a dream is ok and if is paralisis you can move but if they move somenthing like blanket and move your body half way isnt sleep paralisis is somenthing diferent and you stand up and see the blanket isnt where you have before this is supernatural

  10. this actually happened last night and i am still terrified but i sleep with my door closed and i work up to find it open so when i tried to get up to close it i just couldn’t. i was looking around my room and starting to panic when i saw something humanoid crawling out of my closet towards me. i tried to scream but no sound came out so i just shut my eyes tight hoping it would go away but then i felt a presence on my chest. i opened my eyes only to find the creature sitting on my chest. it’s back claws were digging into my thighs and its front claws around my neck. i could see its face, it didn’t seem to have any eyes, just large black holes and its mouth was in a terrifying grin with really sharp teeth and it was really pale and bony. i felt like it was trying to choke me, but eventually it disappeared. i am only 14 and have never had anything like this before but i do know that i wasn’t sleeping because i never actually woke up after it happened

  11. I’ve had this multiple times now, fall asleep and have 3 tall black demons stare at me I turn around and they scream my name but in a demonic evil voice I run for my life but go no where. Last encounter I had in this nightmare with them they attacked me and woke up and all three would be standing in front of my bed..I couldn’t blink or move. When I would scream it’s like everything was muted. I haven’t had these nightmares for a year and half now. But early this morning around 4:36 a.m. it happened again. I’m afraid they will try to hurt me again..I got very bad anxiety and depression and asthma, so I literally had a anxiety attack trying to come back to reality. I need advice on what to do. Last time this happened it lasted everyday for 6 months straight.

  12. Hey my name is Coleen I’m 15 and I have the feeling that something evil is following me around like I was trying to sleep and when I fall asleep I felt like something was watching me (my body was asleep my mind was awake) i heard footsteps running to my bed then I felt it was sitting next to me and the scariest this was it tried to touch me on my back I had this a lot of times and I even had a time that it wisperd into my ear but I couldn’t understand the language

  13. I’ve had sleep paralysis for a while and i have experienced some of the scariest moments in my life while stuck I’ve been grabbed on my ribs and wrist. The first time i ever had it i seen a Tall Man in all Black come out of the corner of my room he like floated or walked towards me and sticked his hand out towards my head He also had a Hat sometimes i think i got cursed that night. Another moment was when i slept on my stomach and heard a old lady but a lady talk in a weird language it sounded like she was talking to someone else in the room. To this day i still have sleep paralysis :/

  14. Idk if I’m the only one but while in paralysis I’ve been picked up almost like i was floating or something was pulling me up. In my recent and past episodes of paralysis I’ve gotten my blanket pulled off me I tried fighting back but that never helps. In some episodes I’ve been pulled off my bed… i got a feeling it’ll happen tonight or soon

  15. These past few nights I’ve been waking up feeling like I’m being watched and just late in the middle of the night on Monday I woke up with a bunch of pressure on my chest and I didn’t know what to do. I could feel the presence of someone else but I couldn’t even yell for help either. I don’t know what happened afterwards but I woke up gasping for breath and it felt like I couldn’t even catch it either. But that fact that really scares me is I could feel someone watching me still. I don’t know if it was something like a nightmare or just my imagination. It was just super scary though, and I’m only a witch in training so I don’t know anything about this yet.

  16. Hello, my experience is unusual. I got it between the ages of 3 and 11, which seemed like long time while I was having it. This age is unusual to have it and it stopped before the time most people start getting it. And for some reason I NEVER get it anymore, or if I sense it might be about to start I automatically snap awake with no problem. So I don’t know why I seem either “immune” to it now, or can so easily escape its “grip.” Also, when I got it as a kid I was a happy kid with a regular sleep schedule, got plenty of sleep, never had dinner too close to bedtime. All the things which are suggested in order to avoid sleep paralysis. Contrast that with since where I’ve had much less sleep, more erratic sleep schedule, often eat late at night, and I have plenty of stress. And yet, I’ve had zero sleep paralysis. So my experience seems the opposite of normal, regarding when I got it and what I do or don’t do to get it or avoid it.

    Other than that, my experiences were unique in that unlike almost everyone else, I was never able to open my eyes. That was part of my epic struggle to wake up which including trying to move, breathe, speak or just snap myself out of it. It was like they were glued shut or very heavy. So in my case I was spared seeing any demons, though I still FELT their evil presence, or weight, on me, even if it just felt like an invisible powerful force. I guess I was able to have this experience without my eyes open because it ALWAYS happened when a nightmare was brewing; I never had SP that wasn’t in conjunction with a nightmare or vice versa. It seemed I would become lucid during the nightmare when I realized I was asleep and rather than run from or battle the danger in the dream the best option would be to just wake up, where I found I couldn’t!

    Other than that my experiences seemed pretty garden variety. I experienced all the major symptoms other than seeing anything or feeling I was floating. It usually began with a loud sinister buzzing sound which got more intense during the episode, accompanied by feeling vibrations run through my body almost like being electrocuted. Occasionally a voice. I couldn’t move a muscle, speak or even breath, feeling myself sink into the bed being pressed down by an irresistible weight, crushing me and suffocating me. This ultimate sense of dread, evil and terror that was far worse than anything else I’ve ever experienced. I actually thought my body was dead or dying, ceasing to function except for my thoughts and that only by desperate power of will that I might somehow pull myself out of this abyss, these clutches that had me in their grip. The sense of utter helplessness and sheer panic is indescribable.

    Ultimately I “conquered” it by developing a series of strategies to either avoid it or escape it once it started. Or maybe I just outgrew it and I just like to think I had something to do with it. But first was NEVER to sleep on my back. Not because it would prevent it, but if I was on my stomach the experience was some milder, less terrifying and seemed easier to awaken from, or at least shorter in duration. Next was to try to wake up AS SOON AS I sensed it starting – that usually meant when I first started hearing the buzzing and wanted to get out of Dodge, but this seemed to have the effect of making it WORSE, the moment it sucked me in deeper, making me think “not again!” and that “next time” I would somehow have to be smarter and faster. My final technique was to pause amid the hell of the experience and summon all of my strength into one “broadband” burst of energy that was a combination of screaming, moving, opening my eyes and willing myself awake, which seemed to work. Also, NEVER close your eyes too soon after waking up from it, a mistake I made once after possibly my most terrifying episode and I was immediately sucked back into the SP vortex again.

    So does anyone else share my sort of experience or have any explanation of why it was the way I experienced, or how I got it so young and since then have been free of it?

  17. I used to have it years and years ago and it stopped until recently. The first time that was more recently I remember trying to yell my brothers name for some reason but no sound was coming out of my mouth and was laying on my side trying to turn over but had a feeling something was keeping pressure on me and stopping me from doing that and then remember seeing a tall black figure standing over me. I fell asleep with my tv on and kind of remember while having this episode my tv had some weird white noise but when I fully woke up and snapped out of it it was back to normal. The episode I just had yesterday I remember trying to yell for help and couldn’t and saw another black figure but it was more pixelated this time. I also couldn’t move again and remember being thrown in the corner of my room but when I woke up I was in my bed

  18. I’ve only experienced sleep paralysis 3 times now but this morning was the scariest I’ve had the first two time I’ve had it haven’t seen anything but I was in the middle of it in a position on my back where I could see my closet and door I opened my eyes and seen a massive fussy black mass standing in front of the closet I closed my eyes again thinking it’s not real this will be over soon but as soon as I closed my eyes I heard loud footstep waking around the bed and when I opened my eyes again to see what was happening a massive black bulky shadow figure was standing over the top of me staring at me couldn’t see any facial features was just a really dark figure I started to get really scared and all I could do was start to breath heavier and heavier until the figure turned around opened the door and walked out must of fell asleep after that because next thing I knew my alarm for work went off and my door was closed just like I left it when I went to bed

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