ILLUSTRATIONS BY J. PENRY
Hypnagogia: It’s the phenomenon of experiencing very real and quite often terrifying dreamlike sensations while falling asleep or waking up. The horrible thing about this is that it goes hand in hand with sleep paralysis, meaning you are trapped and unable to move while having the worst time of your life. Also horrible is that you think you’re awake while the scary stuff is happening to you. In fact, Wes Craven based the whole idea of A Nightmare on Elm Street on it.
Sufferers of hypnagogia, or “the wide-awake nightmare,” often complain of having dark figures standing over them, of visitations by aliens, or of feeling somebody pushing down on their chest while they lie paralyzed, unable to wake up until they finally force out a terrified scream that sounds like “Wuh wuh WUH WUH WAAAAAAGHHOOOOOFFF!!!”
We spoke to seven regular hypnagogia sufferers and this is what they told us. We’re praying that this condition is not contagious, the way nightmares sometimes are, because if it is, we—not to mention our roommates and loved ones—are all now totally fucked.
About five years ago I was drinking heavily and doing about two grams of cocaine a night. My substance-abuse problems really took off at about the same time my aunt and my grandmother passed away in front of my eyes in close proximity.
Early one morning I got home from partying all night, drinking whiskey, and doing cocaine. I’d passed out in all my clothes on my bed (again) and was woken at 8 AM by the light coming through the crack in the curtains in my room. I remember not being able to move and hearing a voice outside my bedroom door asking me if I wanted a cup of tea. To my horror, it was my dead grandmother’s voice, and at that moment of realization, my nose was filled with the smell of her house, a mixture of Mr. Sheen polish and boiled cabbage. Things got worse when my door handle started going up and down and Grandma started barging into the door, making it rattle against the frame. I was totally paralyzed. It was like the end scene of Suspiria, when Suzy Bannion’s dead best friend walks through the door in the head witch’s bedroom. It was like a portal of the dead was opening into my room and it was really fucking scary. I remember breathing about three breaths a second and feeling extremely cold. Then, to top it all off, an invisible hand started to scrawl the word “PIG” in blood on my bedroom wall.
This set me off and I let out a bloodcurdling scream. I woke trembling and covered in sweat. I hope the neighbors didn’t hear it. After that I resolved to put the blow aside for at least three days.
I’ve always been fascinated by the topic of sleep paralysis. The last time it happened I was awake in my bed but totally unable to move. I saw a guy with his face painted. He looked kind of like a Native American with a headdress. I was paralyzed in my bed and he was standing over me. The more I looked at him, the more the red paint on his face appeared to be turning into blood. It was pretty scary.
When I finally forced myself to wake up I saw that my nose was bleeding.
Two years ago this girl from my hometown died of cancer. I wasn’t around for the funeral, but apparently it was incredibly disturbing—her mother broke down as the girl’s coffin was lowered into the grave, her father was literally tearing his clothes in grief, and her two older brothers were in hysterics.
Hearing about it, I began to feel incredibly guilty about not going to the funeral, not calling the girl in her final days, not having done anything to help the family. For days I would replay what I imagined the funeral to be like, until one afternoon I guess I became emotionally and physically exhausted. It was around 4 PM, and suddenly, replaying the funeral once again, I had to lie down. I began to think of the funeral again, but for some reason it was much, much more real, and the scene that played out was somehow above me, as if I were in the bottom of the grave. Above, I could see my mother going berserk as she looked down at me and I could hear the distinct wail of my father as he broke down in grief. “This is fucking ridiculous, I’m not dead, that girl is,” I thought, but my incredulity at the situation quickly turned to panic, since I couldn’t remove myself from the grave. I kept on trying to get their attention, but they were too busy freaking out to notice me. I tried to alert them for what seemed like hours but it was totally useless, and finally I began to cry out of frustration. When I felt a tear on my cheek I suddenly snapped out of it and was back in my room.
I TRIED TO EAT MY GIRLFRIEND
I suffer from sleep terrors. It’s a more physical version of nightmares where you act out what you are dreaming. Apparently it’s caused by anxiety. There have been cases of people committing stabbings and murders in their sleep. It gets pretty extreme.
Personally I have always suffered from horrible nightmares. When I was little I used to wake up in odd places around the house, shaking, with my heart beating out of my chest. Once I pulled a stack of shelves off my wall in my sleep. I woke up with a TV and a stereo system on top of me. Another time I woke up screaming next to my open window. I’ve gotten wiser, though. Now before I go to sleep I make sure all windows are locked and there are no scissors or sharp objects around.
The worst experience I ever had happened about a year ago. I was asleep next to my girlfriend and I was dreaming that something was attacking me. When I woke up I had her hand in my mouth and blood all over my face. I had bitten her in my sleep and taken a huge chunk out of her hand. It was so horrible. It’s weird, but in my dream I thought I was saving her.
I PEED ON MY GRAN’S HEAD
I went back to my hometown and stayed at my grandmother’s house for a couple of days. One night I went to a local bar with some old friends and got really drunk. Somehow I staggered back to my gran’s house and went to bed.
In the morning, all bleary-eyed, I got up and started eating breakfast. As I was doing this I noticed my grandma dragging her wet mattress out to the balcony to dry. She was silently fuming and refused to talk to me. Finally, after an hour of me asking her what was wrong, she started crying and asked me, “Are you proud of yourself?”
I had no idea what she was talking about. She proceeded to tell me that I had gotten up in the middle of the night, stumbled into her bedroom, unzipped, and started pissing on her bed while she was sleeping in it. With my pee raining down on her, she shouted at me to stop, but I screamed back at her, telling her to fuck off, and then toddled off to bed.
In my freshman year of college I shared a room with a small, muscled Indian kid named Jay. The day we moved in he hung a massive framed poster of a football player’s backside covered in mud, with the words: “Winners Never Quit, Quitters Never Win: NEVER QUIT.”
We were both weirded out by each other, but whereas his discomfort with me was based primarily on my cleanliness and taste in music, I was genuinely convinced that he was going to kill me. It was totally arbitrary and stupid, but as the weeks progressed I started attending an “everyday self-defense course” and sleeping with a knife underneath my pillow.
The height of my paranoia was nicely realized one morning when I woke up to find myself paralyzed. I was lying flat on my back staring up at the ceiling and could move nothing but my neck side to side. My roommate was standing over me with this sick little smile on his face, and immediately I was engulfed by a white, urgent terror. He floated closer and closer to me at a painstakingly slow pace. All I wanted to do was get to the knife under my pillow, but as much as I strained I couldn’t even lift a finger. I tried to scream for help but the only sound that came out was a low gurgle, and he just kept on moving closer.
Finally our faces were so close that I couldn’t focus on his eyes anymore, but with a sudden burst of adrenaline I snapped out of my paralysis, and that was when I woke up to find myself covered in sweat, holding a knife, and screaming my roommate’s name.
After that, my taste in Wagner became less of an issue and my “undiagnosed but undeniably psychotic behavior,” as he called it in his formal complaint to the housing board, came to the fore. He moved out one week later.
SONIC HEART ATTACK
The last episode of sleep paralysis I had was one of the scariest moments in my life. I remember I had gone to bed really late and was woken up by a high-pitched screaming noise followed by a pain in my chest. All I could hear was an unbearable sharp screaming sound like the one when you’ve stood too close to the amps without earplugs at a concert. I was paralyzed and surrounded by darkness except for this kind of bright energy field that sucked all the force out of me. I felt weaker and weaker, and I tried to scream but no sound came out. I couldn’t move. I was terrified, and the more frightened I got, the weaker I felt and the less I could move.
Since I’d been through it before I knew that freaking out would only make things worse, so I tried to calm down. I was completely conscious and I didn’t allow it to scare me, I stayed calm. With a huge effort I managed to crawl out of my bed. There was a resistance forcing me back and I tried to scream, but there was still nothing. I tried to get to the door handle, but I couldn’t reach it. I gathered my last strength and went for it again. I opened the door and the whole thing just stopped.
I awoke in my bed. My head felt heavy, my arm was asleep, and I was gasping for air. The following day I was still weak with a strange sensation in my chest. I think that the scariest thing about sleep paralysis is that you have NO idea what’s happening to you, you have no point of reference for what you’re going through. It’s like a supernatural experience.