On this page is a selection of primary research and creative experiments conducted as part of the Sleep Paralysis Project development. Recorded interviews, film experiments, sketches, interviews and accounts that were sent in to us by people who had heard about the project.
Experiment with EEG-style sound responsive graphics, created by Christian Schlaeffer & Carla MacKinnon.
Cycles per second brainwave visualisation test
beta (attentive wakefulness waves = 14-25 times per second.
alpha (quiet wakefulness) waves = 8-13 times per second.
theta and delta (deep sleep) waves = respectively 4-7 and less than 4 times per second.
Interview extracts (© The Sleep Paralysis Project)
“I used to get this when I was nine, ten, eleven. It was in the recession in the ’80s, and looking back I think it was to do with being aware of how my dad was feeling. It would be a recurring dream and – oh, I haven’t thought about this for ages – it would be a big black space. And there would be a big steamroller, and my dad would be in the line of the steamroller, and my mum would be holding me. And then it would turn from a steamroller into a tidal wave, and I’d realise I was in my bedroom. Then I would be aware of where I was, but thinking ‘I need to move out of the way because this tidal wave is coming through my door. I can hear it. It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. It would be coming through my door and I wanted to get up and move and I couldn’t.”
“I went upstairs for a nap. I was sleeping on my front. And I felt what seemed like footprints on my back. And I could just see out of the corner of my eye this spectral form of a cat, walking up and down my back. And it came close to my head, and I could hear the purring and smell the cat food on it’s breath. When I woke up I was still partially paralysed, I could hardly get out of bed. That was the first of many years of sleep paralysis and hypnogogic experiences I had over the years, going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Through my mid twenties got plagued with them every night, episode after episode after episode after episode. And most of them were pretty scary. The first thing that happened when I put my head on my pillow was that I’d be sleep paralysed, I wouldn’t be able to move, and these things would just come at me like ghosts or apparitions. After a while it just drove me bananas. You start becoming scared to go to sleep.”
“I’ve had people break into my house, while I’ve been sleep paralysed. I’ve heard the burglars breaking in and been aware of them breaking in, but not been able to do anything about it. On the worst occasion they actually damaged the house quite badly to get in, and ripped the phone out. And I could hear all this stuff going on but just couldn’t do anything about it. And at first I thought ‘it’s just another hallucination’ because sometimes I got those hallucinations: people breaking in, noises downstairs. And that sort of…meant that I wasn’t pushing myself to wake up. It just seemed like another day. And then I sort of came round, and I saw a man in my room. My body was still paralysed, I could just about lift my head up. He saw that I was awake and legged it. Fortunately I had just finished work and passed out on my bed still wearing my toolbelt. So I pulled out my large adjustable spanner and chased after him.”
“People say: ‘well can’t you just realise that it’s a dream?’ but it’s not as simple as that because there’s some part of your mind that just switches on the fear. And this unchecked fear just grips you. You sense that there’s a presence in the room with you. And the presence really is… evil, ancient – some ancient evil that wants to suck the life out of you or something, that you become aware of, and you can’t stop feeling absolutely terrified. Some of these hallucinations can talk. And you can feel them. And you can smell them. So they’e pretty convincing.”
“You’re aware of your surroundings. You can hear your flatmates walking around. You can sort of see that last thing you were looking at. You’re aware of your room. You’re aware of your head being on the pillow, and that you’re asleep. And you can sort of think. And that’s why it feels different from a dream.”
“I once had a series of hallucinations over a period of about a week. I’d just gone to bed and I’d get this child – this toddler walking round my bed. I could feel it walking across my back and hear it singing a nursery rhyme. And it would happen every night, the same thing. It used to sit down on my pillow and talk to me. And I’d try to answer, best as you can when your tongue is paralysed. And the last time I saw it it asked me something about myself that I didn’t want to tell it. Something deeply personal. And it just morphed – it changed into something demonic and evil and I had some kind of seizure, like electric shocks going through my body with greater and greater and greater intensity until it became unbearable. I got up and knocked on my flatmates door and told him about this experience. He passed me a copy of New Scientist which had an article about hypnogogic hallucination in.”
“The word I’d associate with the hypnogogic hallucinations is fear. An all-pervading fear without anything really to temper the fear. When you’re frightened sometimes you can make yourself less frightened by a sort of… litany of things that you might do. But in sleep paralysis you can’t do those things. You can’t think like that.”
“Even in the more prosaic sleep paralysis experience (which I get pretty much every day when I wake up) your mind is in an altered state of consciousness. If you’re thinking about something, you think about something in a completely different way than you would if you were awake. And sometimes you can solve problems, things that have been bemusing you for ages.”
“I’m used to it now. Without the hallucinations it’s quite nice, it’s quite pleasant. It is what it is. The only frustration is you can’t get out of bed. It’s not harmful. I’ve had it so many times now, it doesn’t bother me.”
I am falling asleep in the living room. My boyfriend is out late and I am feeling nervous. I am waiting for him to come home. As I fall asleep I get the intense sense of someone just outside the living room door. It might be my boyfriend. I try to call out to him, to be sure. But I can’t make any noise. I try to turn around, and I can’t. I try to open my eyes (even though I can, in a strange way, already see) but my eyelids are heavy and only little fragments appear. When I try to move my body it feels overwhelmed by a crushing and irresistible exhaustion as if I am drugged. But my mind is completely alert. This keeps happening, between four and six times. Each time is related to the last but does not hold a memory of it. Each has a terrifying internal logic.
I awake in bed, next to my boyfriend. It is very dark in the room. In the corner of the room there are two men. I cannot see them but I know that they are there, and what they look like. I can hear them talking. They are talking about murder. I cannot move. One of the men comes and stands directly above me. I know he is wearing a hat, although my eyes are closed. He spits, and his spit lands in the socket of my closed eye. I can feel the impact, the wetness, the trail of slime.
I am sleeping at my parent’s house, as an adult. It is daytime and I am sick. I awake in bed, unable to move. My eyes are closed but I know that one or both of my parents is standing over me. I have the impression of voices. My father leans over and kisses my forehead. It is a tender gesture but I feel trapped and panicked. It feels like being dead.
I awake in pitch darkness. I try to move and cannot. Not a finger or toe. Not a millimetre. I am completely sealed in. I realise what must have happened. I tidal wave must have come while I was on the beach. It must have picked up all the sand and washed it over me. And now here I am, buried in wet sand. There is no air to breathe. I feel the pressure of it all around me. I don’t know if I am five feet underground or fifty. I don’t know if people on the surface are trying to dig me out or not. I try to hold my breath and hope they are.
Often in these experiences I will manage to shout or move my arm, or even crawl a little way across the room. But usually when they end I discover that at best I managed a whimper, but usually not even that. The actions which felt so rooted in physicality were just an illusion.
Trying to break out of these experiences you hit a wall so solid, so real, it seems impossible to break through. When you try to break though most dream walls they are like thick rubbery forcefields of electrical static which seem like they will disintegrate your whole physical and mental self if you keep trying to push through them. But sometimes the ones when you try and get out of paralysis are more like concrete, and then eventually, when they want to, they turn to oil and turn sideways and you just slide easily through the gap and back into reality.
I wake up soon after falling asleep, because there is someone in the room with me. A small, wrinkled man. Sinister and ill-intentioned. I am lying on my side and he is standing on the other side of the bed, where I can’t see him. I try to turn around, but I can’t turn around. I am afraid. But then I remember what this is. Sleep paralysis. I have been reading about this. I have been reading about how some people can learn to enjoy this state. They can project their consciousness out of their body, feel like they are astrally projecting. I concentrate on trying to send my soul out of my feet and hover it in the air. It doesn’t work, but – starved of attention – the malevolent little man disappears and very soon the paralysis experience ends.
I am asleep in bed when I am woken my a cat jumping onto the bed. It must have jumped in through the window. I am on the third floor. The window is closed. I know it is a black cat although I cannot open my eyes to look. It is padding on the bed and it is not unpleasant, but it is unsettling, and when I try to sit up in bed to deal with the situation I cannot move. I cannot turn over. My whole body is lead. This time I know what is happening, I’ve been reading about sleep paralysis and how it manifests. I relax and as calmly as I can I examine the feelings in my body. Very soon it ends.
I am asleep. Slowly I become aware that I am having a dream that I am cycling. It is more like a daydream, but I have the sense of being upright on the bike, I cam almost feel my feet peddling, almost feel the breeze on my face. I can hear the noises of traffic around me. But I can also feel my body in bed, and my feet weakly moving under the covers in a peddling motion. It’s fun. I can hear my flatmate moving around the room. She’s preparing some food and talking about it. This goes on for some time. I half realise that my flatmate can’t be in the room – I haven’t lived with her for a year. At the same time she stops talking and I try to move and find that I can’t. There is pressure all over my body. I lie still and there is a swelling sensation in and around me. A stanza of strange music plays – half heard, half sensed. Then there is a loud noise, very real and very much in the room – a sound like the door slamming over and over again. Then I am awake and conscious but for a few seconds my whole body is completely numb and still unresponsive, like a limb that has gone dead after you’ve sat on it or your mouth after a dentist’s injection. Then it passes like a wave and I am back.
Joe Hardy’s interpretation of his auditory sleep paralysis hallucinations, created using guitar and pedal effects (© Joe Hardy)