The Nightmare and the Old Hag – Sleep Paralysis: Demon or Disorder?

Published by

Paul Joseph

Paul is a public school teacher with a wonderful wife and some pets. He attends Redeemer Covenant Church in Arlington, OH and is not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. Paul is an awkward individual trying (and often failing) to remember the Gospel daily and live according to it. Soli Deo Gloria.

Suddenly, you are aware. Your brain is functioning on high alert, your heart panicked and racing – but you are still. It’s difficult to breathe. The position you’re in is uncomfortable so you try to move. Making a conscious effort with your mind, the realization sets in that your body is not following its commands. You cannot move, you cannot breathe. Entrapment and suffocation are all you can feel. In fear, you try to yell but no sound comes out, your lips remain unmoved, and in all of the panic you are reminded of Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Nevertheless, you keep at it, exerting all of your energy for a wimper.

With a gasp you are freed and jolt upright in bed.

This is my experience with sleep paralysis.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis (SP) is defined as “an experience of being temporarily unable to move or talk during the transitional periods between sleep and wakefulness: at sleep or upon awakening.”1 For me, the terrifying ordeal of sleep paralysis began when I was a young child around the age of ten. It has lessened in frequency as I’ve aged, dwindling to about two occurrences a year, but it still has effects on me, leading to one of my greatest fears (being buried alive) and it still manifests in my daily life with an intolerance for being unable to move.

As terrifying as these events are, others experience a great deal worse than I, seeing terrible images or hearing awful sounds in conjunction with paralyzation. For the sake of clarity, this article will refer to the physical phenomenon as sleep paralysis (or SP) while the specific manifestation of sleep paralysis that is accompanied by visual and/or auditory phenomenon will be referred to as a nightmare. Although today we oftentimes use the word “nightmare” to refer to a bad dream, the word has not always been exclusive to that definition. The approach of differentiation taken in this article is likewise taken by Owen Davis in his piece The Nightmare Experience, Sleep Paralysis and Witchcraft Accusations saying:

In the English language, one specific manifestation of the sleep paralysis experience was known as the nightmare, and in many European cultures its cause was attributed to witchcraft. This ‘nightmare’ experience can also be identified in other accounts where people claimed to have been nocturnally oppressed by such related supernatural beings as the Devil, animalistic fairies, and the spirits of the dead.2

Nightmare experiences consist of visual, auditory, and/or physical elements. It is common for sufferers of nightmares to see terrifying sights, such as shadow-people, ghosts, demons, witches, animals, and aliens. Indeed, these things have often been viewed as the culprits in these episodes. Terrifying sounds may accompany these sights, or exist on their own; yelling, knocking, scratching, buzzing, etc. Often times a heavy pressure is felt on the chest, as though someone or something is sitting on it, making it even more difficult to breathe. Some suffers even have sexual assault components in their episodes.

Beyond what we would consider to be our normal senses (like sight, touch, sound, etc.) many who experience nightmares also experience a felt presence. This is the sensation that another being is present in the room – and more often than not, that being is malevolent.

Furthermore, some sufferers even go through Out-of-Body-Experiences (sometimes willingly, sometimes not). An Out-of-Body-Experience (OBE) is defined as “a vivid feeling of being detached from one’s body, usually involving observing it and its environment nearby.”3 This gets into the realm of Lucid Dreaming and Astral Projection and, while these are not the focus of this article, they are related to the discussion of sleep paralysis and are important to consider as well.

Medical Explanations

From a medical standpoint, there have been various ideas about how sleep paralysis and nightmares are caused. In the 1500s, Reginald Scot said:

But in truth, this Incubus is a bodilie disease…although it extend unto the trouble of the mind: which of some is called the mare, opressing manie in their sleepe so sore, as they are not able to call for helpe, or stir themselves under the burthen of that heavie humor, which is ingendered of a thicke vapor proceeding from the cruditie and rawnesse in the stomach: which ascending up into the head oppreseth the braine, in so much as manie are much infeebled thereby, as being nightlie haunted therewith.4

Scot, like many before and after his time, considered nightmares to be the result of physical problems with the body. For Scot, sleep paralysis was caused by stomach issues. Vapors from the stomach would travel upwards which would affect the brain and cause paralysis and possibly even hallucinations associated with nightmares.

As we have begun to understand more of how the body works and as more research has been done on the topic, a different medical perspective is given. In A Clinician’s Guide to Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis Brian A. Sharpless gives a concise overview of the current scientific understanding of SP.

Sleep paralysis (SP) occurs when rapid eye movement (REM)-based atonia perseverates into wakefulness. Most individuals with SP also experience dream activity during the conscious paralysis that is vivid, multisensorial, and often negatively valenced. The combination of atonia and waking nightmares makes SP a very unpleasant experience for most people and the one that may not be easily understood. Patients may instead use other nonmedical explanations to make sense of it. Perhaps not surprisingly, SP has been thought to have a role in the genesis and/or maintenance of many supernatural beliefs (eg, nocturnal alien abductions and demonic attacks) in individuals with otherwise intact reality testing.5

From a modern medical understanding, SP occurs during the transition from REM sleep to being awake, or from wakefulness into sleep. The biological mechanisms in place to keep the body from moving during sleep (atonia) carry on longer or set in quicker than they are supposed to and the transition happens less smoothly than normal. The fear that takes place as a result of the paralysis, or fear that takes place separately being concurrent with a felt presence results in hallucinations or other sensory malfunctions.

The felt presence is explained by researchers by looking at the amygdala (a part of the brain that deals with emotions). In an article entitled Sleep Paralysis a Medical Condition with a Diverse Cultural Interpretation, we read a bit more about this.

In SP, the intruder (sense of a stranger in the room accompanied by fear), the increased awareness for a sense of threat or danger is due to the brainstem activation of the amygdala…The lateral amygdala sends impulses to the rest of the basolateral complexes. This is preceded by the activation of the amygdala through projections from the thalamus, anterior cingulate, and structures in the pons. This gives the individual the idea that an intruder is in the room.6

In other words, the amygdala is activated and sends messages of fear to the part of the brain that receives sensory information (basolateral complex), resulting in a sense of another’s presence.

Supernatural Explanations

From a supernatural perspective, many explanations have been given throughout history. These include (but are not limited to) ghosts, demons, witches, and even aliens. It is not within the scope of this article to evaluate every supernatural claim here, though many are important to consider. The focus of this article will be on the explanations of witches and demons, however, it is worth noting that discussions of alien abduction nearly always begin with sleep paralysis and that many sufferers of SP believe to have been visited by deceased relatives.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

In European history, the explanations of demons and witches are the most common supernatural explanations, and episodes of SP were often referred to as being witch-ridden or hag-ridden (hag refers to a malevolent spiritual entity). The term “nightmare” even refers to a spirit (mare/mara) that was associated with sleep paralysis and/or bad dreams7 (as can be seen in the Fuseli painting to the right).

We’ve found a witch, may we burn her?

One of the primary explanations for the nightmare phenomenon throughout history is witches. Episodes of nightmares were attributed to the workings of witches through various means. Sometimes the witch would curse someone, other times they would come in themselves (often times in the form of an animal – typically a cat). This unfortunately resulted in sufferers of sleep paralysis using their episodes to argue the guilt of an accused witch in court. On this, Davis says:

The nightmare was not just a symptom, like other bodily conditions associated with witchcraft, but through its hallucinatory content was also a potent confirmation of witch’s power and a vivid proof of guilt in some cases.8

One dreadful example of this is the Salem Witch Trials. In a deposition against Susannah Martin, an experience of Robert Downer is recounted.

but at night as he layin [sic] his bed in his own house alone there came at his window the likeness of a cat and by and by come up to his bed took fast hold of his throat and lay hard upon him a considerable while, and was like to throttle him… He strove what he could and said avoid thou she devil in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost and then it let him go and slumped down upon the floor and went out at window again.9

In this accusation, it is said that Susannah Martin, in the form of a cat, went into Robert Downer’s room in the night time, and “lay hard upon him” after grabbing his throat. Animals (especially cats) and other beings are a common visualization in nightmare occurrences. Martin was publicly executed on July 19, 1692 for witchcraft.10

While it is not the belief of this author that nightmare experiences are a result of witches shape-shifting into cats, some witch involvement cannot be thrown out wholesale as the possibility of sent spirits remains. In his book Sleep Paralysis: What it is and How to Stop it, Chris White accurately points this out.

One of the most basic rituals in all branches of serious occultism is the sending of spirits on people. Some branches of occultists interpret what they are doing in these rituals as simply putting a “curse” on someone. In reality, whether they understand what they are doing or not, they are essentially summoning a demon and sending it on someone to cause various types of problems. We have seen this happen occasionally, especially with Christian missionaries who visit a place which local “witch doctors” consider their territory. The witch doctors then do certain rituals which can send demonic attack on the missionaries which can cause sleep paralysis.111

Evil Spirits

Another explanation for the phenomenon includes demons. Various categories of demons have been associated with nightmares throughout the ages, for example the mare (from which we get the word “nightmare”), incubus, succubus, hag, and Lilith. Many of these give their own flavor of affects within a nightmare episode. For example, the incubus and succubus are known for their sexual components in nightmare episodes while the liliths are known for being a seductress and killer of men as well as affecting pregnant women and killing their children in the womb.12

Of all the supernatural options, the idea of demonic presences behind these acts ought to make the most sense to us. Evil spirits exist, and they seek to harm humans. Certainly they hate Christians most, but they are not particularly picky about who they hurt. We are told that the devil roams seeking to devour (1 Peter 5:8) and passages of Scripture seem to indicate that Christians are more protected against the wiles of the devil than others (1 John 5:18).


Weighing the Options

In trying to figure out if SP is one thing or the other, we create a false dichotomy.

Humans have a tendency to want to figure things out exactly. We want to know precisely what is going on. We want to know if this is a pure spiritual attack or simply a medical and biological phenomenon. Is it this or is it that? Unfortunately for us, things regarding the spiritual world are often not so easy to discern and for the time being we are not made privy to the many happenings of that world. With that said, in trying to figure out if this is one thing or the other, we create a false dichotomy.

It is likely that on its own, SP, and possibly many instances of nightmares are purely medical. In all my years of going through SP, not once have I ever felt demonically oppressed. Furthermore, experiments have been done showing that chemicals can be manipulated in order to induce SP. Scientists at the University of Toronto were successfully able to chemically induce SP in lab mice and monitor their brain activity.13 In addition, scientists are also able to replicate phenomenon like hallucinations and OBEs through the use of certain chemicals.14

At the same time, there is a very real (and even likely) possibility that nightmare occurrences may be induced, or at the very least, exacerbated by demonic entities seeking to bring us fear and harm. Initial medical causation does not negate an overlap of demonic oppression.

With the coming of Jesus, we see many things that could be easily attributed to medical conditions as he goes about his ministry casting out demons. We have very clear examples of demonic possession resulting in symptoms of epilepsy and muteness. Certainly we would not say that demons cause all (or even most) instances of seizures. However, we have Biblical precedent to say that they can and have been involved in epileptic activity. We ought not hold the idea that medical issues and demonic activity are mutually exclusive. Often times they go hand in hand, whether the medical issue be the result of demonic oppression or demonic entities simply taking advantage of and exacerbating a pre-existing medical condition.

Why Consider a Supernatural Explanation?

When looking at all of these things, we must ask ourselves: if we have a medical understanding of sleep paralysis and nightmares, why should we even consider a supernatural alternative? Sure, medical explanations do not negate supernatural ones, but why give the supernatural ones any credence when these things have led to superstition resulting in the death of innocent people (like Ms. Martin)?

When you read about the scientific theories regarding sleep paralysis, they sound plausible and it often seems like they have it all figured out...But in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin, while we understand significantly more than we ever have from a medical standpoint, there are still many unanswered questions. We still are unaware why people get sleep paralysis, why a malfunction in the transition between REM and wakefulness exists, and how to stop it. Much to the frustration of sufferers of SP, the common advice given by medical professionals is to eat better or try to be less stressed, advice that few find relief from.

Beyond this, there are certain common elements in SP and nightmare episodes that do not seem to be properly addressed by the medical explanation. The first of these would be Out-of-Body-Experiences (OBEs). Many sufferers of SP experience OBEs unwillingly. However, there are a great many people who use their SP in order to facilitate an OBE and have success in astral projection. To this end, many people even try techniques to induce SP. Again, this article is not focused on the dangerous practice of astral projection, however, the relationship between astral projection and SP cannot be ignored.

Another aspect that is not wholly explained are the sexual elements that many face. Nightmares involving this element are described using language of rape. We see this clearly in the most common demonic figure, the incubus. Certainly, the idea of being frightened because of paralysis and sensing something else in the room because of a felt presence in this state lends itself to the idea of hallucinating things in the shadows, but there is no reason why sufferers should experience sexual assault hallucinations and sensations.

As an example, here is a testimony of the sexual element experienced by one nightmare victim:

I have had sleep paralysis as a teenager and young adult. It was an every night occurrence most of my teen years, but I never told anyone...In my sleep paralysis state I encountered many entities, but I will call them demons, because I was actually told by one entity that it was a demon. I was not raised in church and my family was not religious...

Growing up, I mainly dealt with one demon. It was not violent but very sexual in nature. It groped me while I was paralyzed. I can remember small details like when it got on the bed, the bed would sink down, I could feel it moving close, and it normally moved up from the back...and touched me inappropriately.15

Further in his testimony, this person recounts that during a phone conversation with his mother as an adult, he discovered that she had recently begun going through the exact same experience, without knowing prior that it was something her son had gone through.

Beyond this, the initial cause of the felt presence that many victims of nightmares experience is still problematic. Despite the explanation of the amygdala activation, questions remain as to what causes that activation. Certainly if someone is afraid it will activate fear centers, this is true whether one takes a medical or supernatural view. But would this activation from a mere temporary paralysis cause such bizarre hallucinations and sensations? In his book Sleep Paralysis: What it is and How to Stop it, Chris White says:

When you read about the scientific theories regarding sleep paralysis, they sound plausible and it often seems like they have it all figured out...But in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

Using neuroimaging techniques, scientists were able to determine that the amygdala was active during sleep paralysis...The elephant in the room is the simple question: wouldn't a person's threat activation system and amygdala be activated because they really were afraid of something? And since sleep paralysis is such a fearful thing, it makes perfect sense that scientists notice brain activity in the fear centers of the brain. There is no way for these studies to determine which comes first - the feeling of an evil presence in the room or the activation of the amygdala. Yet making such a distinction is crucial to this theory - for the scientific theory to work, they need fear to cause the felt presence, not a fear as a result of the felt presence.16

White continues, pointing out that oftentimes people are awoken by the sounds or feelings, rather than awakening to immobility and then hearing, feeling, or seeing things.

The idea that fear creates hallucinations during sleep paralysis is challenged significantly by people who report being awoken by a sound or feeling. In other words, some victims had no fear until they were awakened by a feeling or sound. A person might describe being slapped in the face, which wakes them, or hearing a menacing whisper in their ear. Therefore, the model of fear being the cause of the hallucination is not applicable in those cases, because the experiencers were woken by the hallucination.17

The last reason that I will leave with is the overwhelming number of experiences where a person has called on the name of Christ and been freed from their experience - some to never experience them again. These things have even led to the conversion of some.

One such person is Connie Yom, a young woman who was featured on the Netflix dramatic documentary The Nightmare, which goes through the stories of several individuals and their experiences with sleep paralysis. Connie has discussed her experience several times on many different platforms.

In her recounting of events, Yom mentions her history of nightmares through childhood and into adulthood. Though sparse, she experienced nightmares several times, undergoing visualizations, sounds, felt presences, pressure, and OBEs. During these times she was not a Christian, describing herself as being in rebellion and abhorring religion. Despite this, remembering hearing about Christ, she called out his name for protection during an episode. This led to her eventual conversion and she has yet to suffer sleep paralysis since becoming a Christian.18,19

Though my experience with SP has been unaccompanied by nightmare elements, people I know personally have been afflicted with these things. Below is an example from someone who, though a Christian, for a time fell into unrepentant sin and suffered through a period of oppression via nightmare experiences.

The first time it happened I was wide awake, laying in my bed, thinking I should get up and get ready for school... In a moment, the bright morning sunshine dimmed in the whole room. A presence entered the room, and then the bed weighted down. I felt pressure on my chest, as if I was being held down. As a believer, I knew it was demonic. I proceeded to speak "In the name of Jesus, be gone..." etc. etc. By the time my mouth was saying "name of" my tongue and lips were locked down. I could barely get the sound "Je---" before I was silenced. I tried with all my might to say the name of Jesus, but I was not allowed to. I tried 6 or 7 times and the whole ordeal lasted about 60 seconds, then the demon left the room, the bed raised, and the light re-entered the room.

When the demon left, it felt like waking up from a dream. But there is absolutely no question in my mind that I was wide awake before hand. I was not sleepy and I was not dosing off. I was wide awake thinking about my day ahead, making plans. It's this that leads me to believe that if someone is being oppressed by an unclean spirit, sleep is simply the cover or the veil. In these circumstances, the root of the issue isn't a sleep disorder so much as an issue with needing deliverance.

I experienced SP for the next seven years and all of the subsequent experiences happened in the middle of the night during sleep. Other than actually being asleep, the subsequent experiences were similar: dark presence, being held down on my bed, unable to speak. Sometimes I would see dark figures in the room. But that first experience, without a shadow of a doubt, I was wide awake.20

This person took to serious repentance after a time of serious personal and marital hardships, lack of fellowship with the church, and continued unrepentant sin. Almost as soon as they did so, their SP ceased and has not returned in over ten years.

You will not fear the terror of the night

Regardless of whether or not demons are involved in nightmare experiences, as in all things, we must remember that God is sovereign over all. He is our sustainer and protector and we should call on him in our time of need. By God's sovereignty, people have come to know the Lord through having these experiences and calling out to him.

If the nightmare is a purely medical problem, then we as Christians ought to seek the Lord. Likewise, if there is a an element of the demonic, then we as Christians ought to seek the Lord. Whether awake, asleep, or somewhere in between, he is our protector, our peace, and our rest.

He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

-Psalm 91:4-6

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
    You have given me relief when I was in distress.
    Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

-Psalm 4:1;8

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.

-1 John 5:18

  1. Solomonova, Elizaveta. "Sleep Paralysis: phenomenology, neurology and treatment." The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming. Quebec: University of Montreal, 2018. Web. Accessed September 1, 2018. pp. 1.
  2. Davis, Owen. "The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis and witchcraft accusations." Folklore, Vol. 144 No. 2, 2003. Web. Accessed September 1, 2018. pp. 1.
  3. Collins, William. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition. William Collins Sons & Co. Web. Accessed March 30, 2019.
  4. Scot, Reginald. The Discoverie of witchcraft. 1584. London: Elliot Stock, 1886. pp. 68. Accessed March 31, 2019.
  5. Sharpless, Brian A. "A Clinician's Guide to Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis." Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Vol. 12. 2016. Web. Accessed March 27, 2019.
  6. Olunu, Esther; Kimo, Ruth; et al. "Sleep Paralysis, a Medical Condition with a Diverse Cultural Interpretaion." Educational Forum. Vol. 8, Issue 3. 2018. Medknow Publications. Web. Accessed March 30, 2019.
  7. Davis, Owen. "The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis and witchcraft accusations." Folklore. Vol. 144 No. 2, 2003. Web. Accessed September 1, 2018. pp. 4-5.
  8. Davis, Owen. "The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis and witchcraft accusations." Folklore. Vol. 144 No. 2, 2003. Web. Accessed September 1, 2018. pp. 2.
  9. Bridleman, Timothy J. "All Our Branches: Information About George Martin." 1692. Web. 2001. Accessed March 1, 2019.
  10. "SWP No. 092: Susannah Martin Executed July 19, 1692." 1692. Web. Accessed March 1, 2019.
  11. White, Chris. Sleep Paralysis: What it is and How to Stop it. Ebook. Ducktown: CWM Publishing, 2014. pp. 51.
  12. Van Der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; Van Der Horst, Pieter W. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids; Cambridge: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1999. pp. 236;520. Web. Accessed September 1, 2018.
  13. Brooks, Patricia L and Peever, John H. "Identification of the Transmitter and Receptor Mechanisms Responsible for REM Sleep Paralysis." The Journal of Neuroscience, July 18, 2012. Web. Accessed March 20, 2019.
  14. Jalal, Baland. "The neuropharmacology of sleep paralysis hallucinations: serotonin 2A activation and a novel therapeutic drug." Psychopharmacology, Vol 235 Issue 11. Springer Berlin Heidelberg: 2018. Web. Accessed March 20, 2019.
  15. White, Chris. Sleep Paralysis: What it is and How to Stop it. Ebook. Ducktown: CWM Publishing, 2014. pp. 86-87.
  16. White, Chris. Sleep Paralysis: What it is and How to Stop it. Ebook. Ducktown: CWM Publishing, 2014. pp. 10.
  17. White, Chris. Sleep Paralysis: What it is and How to Stop it. Ebook. Ducktown: CWM Publishing, 2014. pp. 11.
  18. Yom, Connie K. Sleep Paralysis, Spiritual Warfare and My Story. 2011. Web. Accessed September 1, 2019.
  19. The Nightmare. Ascher, Rodney. Zipper Bros Films, 2015.
  20. Anonymous. "SP Experience." Received by Paul Joseph, March 31, 2019. First hand interview by Paul Joseph.

Published by

Paul Joseph

Paul is a public school teacher with a wonderful wife and some pets. He attends Redeemer Covenant Church in Arlington, OH and is not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. Paul is an awkward individual trying (and often failing) to remember the Gospel daily and live according to it. Soli Deo Gloria.

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