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Could Many Ghost Sightings be Attributed to Sleep Paralysis?

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Could Many Ghost Sightings be Attributed to Sleep Paralysis?
You wake in your bed to find yourself unable to move and you realize you’re not alone. There’s a tall, shadowy adult looming over you, a fanged demon sat on the end of your bed, or a small child reaching out to hold your hand.

You may even feel a pressure on your chest, as if the apparition is leaning on you, restricting your airways, leaving you struggling to breathe and move.

This is sleep paralysis, a relatively unknown sleep disorder that affects anywhere between three and sixty percent of the world population (1).

At TSW, we’ve previously looked at whether paranormal experiences may be in the mind (2). Sleep paralysis is potentially another example of this.

The Mythology

Because this disturbing sleep disorder occurs all over the world, different mythologies have been attached to the attacks. In Europe, the incubus or succubus is often blamed, whereas in Brazil it is the work of a pink dolphin-type seducer (1).

In Egyptian culture, sleep paralysis is considered the work of the Jinn, a creature made of smokeless fire from Islamic mythology. The Jinn is actually blamed for a number of mental and neurological disorders including epilepsy, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia (3).

Indeed, the experiences of seeing ghosts during sleep paralysis may be affected by cultural beliefs. In 2013, Baland Jalal, University of San Diego, California, and Devon Hinton, Harvard Medical School, completed a study of sleepers from Egypt, a deeply religious country, and Denmark, an atheist country (4).

They found that the Egyptians experienced sleep paralysis with the horrors of apparitions more frequently than the Danish. Jalal and Hinton claimed that this was because the Danish understood that sleep paralysis was a minor malfunction of the brain, whereas the Egyptians were more likely to think it was connected to the supernatural.

The fear that the Egyptian participants felt during sleep paralysis is thought to contribute to the length, regularity and severity of the episodes.


The Science

Researchers believe that this paralysis happens during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep (5). Our muscles naturally freeze to stop us from acting out our dreams but a few may wake during this time. It is these people that will see or feel often menacing figures in their room or holding them down.

Researchers argue that this is because the brain becomes almost confused by the paralysis. In the confusion, it may project the person’s image onto a hallucination of a figure in an attempt to figure out why they can’t move. Although this doesn’t explain why some grown male sufferers witness children skipping around their bed. It is more likely, in this case, to be wisps of dreams left over from the sleep brought into reality as the body struggles between being conscious and asleep.

So sleep paralysis may just be the conscious mind fighting for control over the sleeping body. Once awake, with the muscles still frozen, the mind begins to seek control over the breathing. But, because the body is still in sleep mode, and therefore in a sleep breathing pattern, this results in a battle, and the feeling of being suffocated.


No Proven Explanation

The brain is a complex and little understood organ, so there is every possibility of sleep paralysis being an affliction of the mind and body. Luckily for those who believe in ghosts, this theory is difficult to prove as only a small number of people experience and witness intruders during sleep paralysis. While there are a number of theories to explain the horrors of sleep paralysis, nothing has yet been proven.

It is unlikely that the science of sleep paralysis explains many ghost sightings, considering that most ghost experiences happen when the witness is fully awake and in various locations. Rather, sleep paralysis makes up only a small percentage of supernatural experiences.

So what’s the best way to overcome a sleep paralysis attack? Stay calm and tell yourself that there is nothing scary in your room with you. Pay attention to how you are lying rather than any ominous presence and, with some practice, the fear you feel during the attacks will subside.

Unless you’re one particular gentleman who took part in sleep paralysis research carried out by filmmaker Carla MacKinnon. As he experienced the disorder on a regular basis, he knew something was different one night when he woke, unable to move, and saw a presence in his bedroom. The figure of a real intruder (1).

References & Image Credits:
(1) Live Science
(2) TSW: Paranormal Incidents Really Just in our Heads
(3) Live Science
(4) NIH
(5) Live Science
(6) En Bouton via Compfight cc
(7) Dead Air via Compfight cc

Originally published on

  • Mitchell Dudeck

    Jenny. For more information on sleep paralysis, look up hypnogogic hallucinations and hypnopompic hallucinations.

  • I wanted to read this

    I can’t read this article as one half of the page is white, the other a grey half of the background with grey text….,,,,

  • Use a desktop/laptop PC. We can’t switch the site over to mobile format because Google doesn’t allow ads on mobile platform, and it would kill our site. So for now, it’s desktop version only. Sorry.

  • Bob James

    Two quick points…… first of all I’m writing this and reading the articles on my mobile android phone I get the two tone white-grey screen aswell which isn’t impossible to live with but using Chrome as my browser instead of the built in version it has a reading mode option which clears the problem straight away.

    Secondly,I’ve experienced several sleep paralysis episodes over the years. The first time I’d no idea what was happening to me at all. I fell asleep on the couch and woke up an hour or so later but completely paralysed, unable to move even my eyelids, fingers or toes, anything. My initial reaction was panic and fear, making things worse was the fact I. could hear the TV in the background and my father and. girlfiend chatting away normally utterly oblivious that I was awake and on the verge of a full blown ‘inner’ panic attack.

    The fear created from a very real situation, I had no idea what was wrong with me or how to get out of it but I knew from the beginning it was no dream, my real fear was I’d be locked inside maybe forever.Probably due to having no control over my breathing I didn’t actually have a panic attack and was able to slow my mind and think about it. I thought if I could concentrate all my will on moving anything no matter how small then I could maybe attract their attention somehow so I focused on moving a finger which now I realise was my body starting to naturally wake up but at the time I believed it was the act of concentration that started that first movement.

    Once I made it move my whole body came back to life and I woke up fully to my intense relief. I. stood up and walked out the back door into the garden striding around verifying my body was working fully. Once I felt a more relaxed I didn’t say a word hoping if I forgot about it wouldn’t happen again but I was nervous before going to sleep at first but I soon put it behind me.

    There were another two or three occasions over the next 5 years which again weren’t pleasant but at least I had the knowledge whatever it was it wasn’t permanent or apparently dangerous.After the last time,nearly 20 years ago it’s not occurred again.which in some ways is a pity as I learnt what it actually was some years after the last episode.If.I’d had known what was actually happening I could have tried to get a much better sense. of particular sensations and feelings in the light of the facts.

    I found the suggestions raised by Eygptian-Danish experiences fascinating.As I hadn’t the faintest idea what was happening or any frame of reference to colour my experiences it seems like if there was a paranormal or supernatural element to sleep paralysis then it I should have felt it.

    On every occasion I categorically state that I never felt or sensed anyone or anything else in the room or my local surroundings beyond the people who had been with me when I fell asleep. In fact, I hadn’t the faintest inkling of anything other than something medical or physiological causing it and although I hadn’t a clue what was behind it seemed to me like a physical ‘glitch’ at the root of it.The only thing that did concern me was maybe it was a symptom of something nasty like a brain tumour perhaps but I was in my early 20s, physically fit amd well and it happened so infrequently I was able to forget it quickly.

    The first time beyond the complete inability to move or feel anything at all I could hear everything around me as clearly as if I was just laying with my eyes shut. The subsequent times were almost exactly the same except for ‘hearing’ a sound exactly like interference – static that you would hear on a TV that wasn’t tuned into any station but ‘snow’. It was deafening or so it seemed and I definitely feel like it was incredibly high volume sound as if I had powerful andloud earphones cranking static in each ear. As my body came back to life the static subsided andnwas gone once my eyes opened.

    Personally speaking although I had some mild interest in ghosts as a kid I’d no belief in spirits, ghosts, demons or aliens.I’d never heard of succubus or incubus legends, night terrors or sleep paralysis either.In itself it doesn’t suggest anything in particular but maybe if I had some previous knowledge of these type of legends or a strong spiritual belief system and the entire experience had a significant spiritual dimension then perhaps that could suggest a correlation.

    As it is all I say is no previous knowledge of sleep paralysis, no religion or spiritual beliefs, no spirits or presences encountered nothing,nothing,resulting in nothing but the most interesting outcome of all would have been no prior knowledge, no belief system yet full on encounters with a spiritual menagerie which would be suggestive that the spiritual dimension most likely came from the mind of the one having the SP episode.

  • Jenny

    Thanks Mitchell!

  • Jenny

    Thanks Mitchell. This is a huge topic so I’ve just covered the basics but it is really interesting.

  • Jenny

    Thanks for the comment Bob. That must have been terrifying to experience.
    Since this was published I’ve spoken to a few people who have also experience sleep paralysis similar to you. It does seem that those who don’t have any preconceptions or supernatural or spiritual beliefs don’t see any hallucinations.
    Although the static sound you described is very interesting – the body and mind are strange things!

  • Bob James

    Yeah,it absolutely feels like static or interference you’d get when you tune deliberately out of a radio station and into white noise…….what we used to call ‘snow’ when it was a TV that was receiving static white noise.I won’t be cheeky and ask you if you remember the big wood effect /silver grey plastic 24-26 inch tube TVs of the 70s and 80s but if you know the ones I mean imagine switching one on,cranking the volume right up,pulling the aerial from the back,turning the dial to between channels and putting your ears to the loudspeaker…..even then it’s not getting the real effect because the sound is all encompassing and in your ears/head not coming in your ears……the best i can liken it too is mental,neurological intense white noise that may well be the electrical pathways in the brain being shorted or overloaded I’m not sure.

    As for the supernatural side of things what you say may well be true….i thank my genuine luck that I felt no ‘presences or beings’ in the room with me when it happened cos that would have been too much to handle but I have felt such things,quite powerful a sense of something other and not human that was toying or baiting me,trying to overpower me with it’s attempts to appear menacing and evil rather than actually being evil but again my skeptical mind kept rebelling and I’d put it down to imagination until physical occurrences began happening regularly and when with other people so they could neither be dismissed or explained to my satisfaction for that matter 🙂

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