You awaken to find your bedroom quiet, dark, and still. Panic grips you when you realize that you cannot move. It feels as if someone has dropped a fifty pound dumbbell on your chest. Worst of all there is a feeling of being watched, that something is out there to get you. There’s a harsh buzzing sound, like static or feedback from a microphone.
Your gaze tracks across the once familiar terrain of your bedroom, as much of it as you can see without moving your head at any rate. The angles are all wrong, and leering shapes seem to lurk in every shadow and fragment of moonlight.
All at once, you see it! A huge, black figure, looming over you – maybe it’s standing at the foot of your bed, or maybe it’s hovering on the ceiling above. Either way, it is a thing of malice and dark intent. Its hand reaches towards you, skeletal and dappled with moonbeams, coming closer…closer…
…until you jerk awake.
The panic fades. The world once again looks as it should, and the terrible shape is gone. Congratulations. You’ve just experienced sleep paralysis, also known as a waking dream.
Every night when you go to bed, you go through four distinct phases of sleep, followed by a fifth phase called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is the phase where dreaming occurs. During the dream stage, the body releases chemicals that paralyze the body (except for the eyes) so that you won’t get up and start acting out the contents of your dream. Every now and then though, something goes out of whack in the system and part of your mind will awaken during REM sleep. You will see the contents of your dreams not played out in your mind, but rather in your bedroom.
What I described in the opening was a fairly typical incidence of sleep paralysis. Different cultures seem to experience slightly different phenomena – the Old Hag of northern Europe, incubi or succubi, ghosts, demons, aliens – but in general the physical symptoms are the same from culture to culture. The symptoms of panic are associated with the inability to move and obviously with seeing the bizarre imagery of dreams in what seems to be the waking world. I’m not entirely clear on why the waking dreams are generally unpleasant events associated with beings of malice, but it is interesting to note that the night tormentors exclusively shape human forms. I suppose in a way that shows you what people truly fear, doesn’t it?
Oh and I should point out that everyone of us will have a waking dream at some point in our lives. Point of fact, I’ve already had at least one that I remember. I was asleep on the couch that day, with my face towards the back cushion. I remember waking up and not being able to move. All I could do was stare at the cushion and feel something staring at my back. I knew, deep down in that primal place that humans share in common with our reptile cousins, that something deadly dangerous was in that room with me. And that I did not want to roll over and get a look at it!
Still, it was an interesting feeling. I was completely helpless during – paralyzed, at the whim of whatever my subconscious projected. It was almost a humbling experience, in an odd way.
Look at it this way: we spend our lives in an illusion of power. Money, our cars, our homes, our jobs, our authority – all of the trappings of human civilization make us forget sometimes that Death can be mere moments away for any of us. In our sterile, routine world we forget that sometimes the Universe has different plans, that the world in reality is a much harsher, more awesome place than the mundane fragments of it we exist in. I think maybe the waking dream gives us a glimpse – a little taste – of the raw world that lies just beyond the safe bubble of modern life.
But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong, and maybe this is just one of those odd things in life that seems to arise for no reason at all, and disappear as suddenly.
I don’t know the answer. But I do know this: people have been having waking dreams for ages, and they always will. It’s a fact of life.
So when your time comes – and it will – try to enjoy it. It’s a rare experience after all, and it might be a bit enlightening as well.
How about you? Have you ever had a waking dream? Or an experience that you think might have been one?