True Life: I Had a Sleep Paralysis Demon. Here’s What It Felt Like

sleep paralysis demon: woman struggling to sleep
Paula Boudes/PureWow

Maybe you’ve seen the meme: “This is my sleep paralysis demon: [insert photo].” The viral idea builds on a very real condition in which a person is conscious but unable to move. In some cases, people experiencing sleep paralysis have frightening and even recurring visions. Known as sleep paralysis demons, these terrors don’t haunt nightmares, but reality. Unfortunately for me, I had my very own sleep paralysis demon. The only problem (well, besides the bone-chilling looming presence in my bedroom)? I had no idea what it was until seven years later (but more on that later).

I was a 20-year-old sophomore living in mandatory on-campus housing the year I came face-to-face with my sleep paralysis demon. After a long day of classes covering dense readings I didn’t fully comprehend (or finish for that matter), my anxiety from the workload and tight deadline was snowballing like the tension in a Stephen King novel. But, like any good horror story, bad decisions were made. There was a FIJI house party calling my name (my unhealthy coping mechanism), and FOMO to this particular college student took priority over chronic sleep deprivation.

And although I was exhausted and overwhelmed with all my looming assignments, I figured a 30-minute nap would do that trick before the pregame—short enough to give me time to catch up on some of my work but long enough to give my brain a much-need zhuzhing. The large sectional sofa in our living room seemed like a safe spot. My own bed was a dangerous option where’d I’d get too comfortable and sleep too long. Plus, our apartment’s heavy and creaky front door would easily wake me as soon as my roommates returned home. And so, I let my mind drift off.

I came to slowly, blinking at the ceiling. My sight was clouded but I could tell the sun had set; the blue glow from the emergency campus phones had taken its place. I heard a faint buzz coming from our bulbed “EAT” sign in the kitchen, followed by the shuffling of feet, which I registered as my roommate’s. A giant decorative pillow lay on my chest, blocking my face from her view. The weight of its stuffed polyester grew heavy, and suddenly, I felt the urge to shake it off before it crushed me. After a few groggy and dazed seconds, it began to register that I wasn’t getting up. My limbs were lead and my mouth was glued shut—and who was that black, ominous figure in the corner of the room?

There weren’t red eyes, sharp teeth or other characteristic monster features. Instead, the onyx shadow looming in my periphery lacked any physicality and human attributes, and this absence of things overwhelmed me with the most intense fear I’d ever known up until that point. But no matter how hard I tried to scream for my roommate to shake me or will myself to sit the hell up, nothing happened. I focused my vision on the ceiling, as if the longer I stared, the more my body would do as I wanted it to. I think the experience lasted no more than one minute, but that one minute felt like one hour. And like waking from a dream or nightmare, I transitioned out of the paralyzed state with a groggy and perplexed lack of understanding about it all.

sleep paralysis demon affects rem cycle
Dasha Burobina/PureWow

Scared and embarrassed, I never told anyone about what happened until seven years later when it dawned on me during a conversation where I first heard the term “sleep paralysis demon.” The realization sent a shiver down my spine. I had to understand more. So I reached out to Dr. Rebecca Robbins, ŌURA’s resident sleep expert and a Harvard Medical School renowned sleep researcher. From our conversation, I learned that my college horror story was in fact a sleep paralysis event, aka when “a sleeper wakes from slumber but cannot move,” during the REM cycle of sleep. As for that ominous shadow, Dr. Robbins says that hallucination often accompanies sleep paralysis, “some of which can be quite disturbing and take the form of scary figures, such as demons or monsters.” In short: a living nightmare.

From the bloodshot all-nighters to my inebriated weekends, I was a walking ad for the typical, rundown student. And after chatting with Dr. Robbins, it became clear that this lifestyle made me more susceptible to experiencing a sleep paralysis hallucination. With no healthy way to surmount it all—tests, research, readings, essays, time management, social life, sleep and so on—what other way for my subconscious to cope than to personify my stress into one big shadowy blob and scare the bejesus out of me? Its message: Get your shit together.

And get it together I did. A few things in my control that I’ve put into practice over the years: cut back on alcohol, read before bed and exercise daily. Lucky for me, I haven’t seen my sleep paralysis demon since then, but if we meet again one forsaken slumber, I’ll make a point to tell him I did manage to bag that double major in the end.

Until then, sweet dreams.

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Associate Fashion Commerce Editor

Stephanie is a natural savant in the fashion, beauty, and dating & relationships beats. She graduated with a bachelor of arts at the University of San Diego, where she majored...