What is sleep paralysis? The ‘demon’ man and his friends - We speak to sufferers of the terrifying phenomenon

Graham Falk speaks to sufferers of the terrifying phenomenon known as sleep paralysis, the disorder which can leave sufferers seeing nightmarish demonic figures in their bedroom.

It is often said that a good night’s sleep can be the fix for many of life’s stresses – but what if your bedroom is filled nightly by demonic looking creatures that render you unable to move as they circle your bed and whisper threats into your ear?

For many, this is the reality of their nightmarish bedtime routine, with around 30 per cent of the UK population experiencing sleep paralysis at least once.

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The phenomenon is a petrifying sleep disorder that renders the individual temporarily paralysed while conscious, with a sensation of not being able to move or speak despite trying to. Reported side effects of the condition even left one sleep paralysis victim feeling like they were involved in a battle with notorious horror film villain Freddy Krueger.

Who is the mystery demonic figures sleep paralysis sufferers see?Who is the mystery demonic figures sleep paralysis sufferers see?
Who is the mystery demonic figures sleep paralysis sufferers see?

Sometimes referred to as ‘old hag syndrome’, due to the frequency of patients seeing visions of evil looking apparitions during sleep paralysis episodes, the traumatising experience has been linked to ‘witchcraft’ and the devil in previous centuries.

There is even believed to be a link between sleep paralysis and the 1616 case of Scottish ‘witch’ Elspeth Reoch, a Caithness woman who was executed after admitting to having had several rendezvous with the ‘Devil’, even allegedly claiming she had sexual intercourse with a man dressed in black who visited her bedside on three nights in succession. Although not confirmed, experts now theorise it was possible she could have suffered from a form of sleep paralysis.

More recently it’s been tied to other sleep disorders, such as insomnia and narcolepsy, whilst it also has link to post-traumatic stress disorder. However, it is still not 100% clear why sleep paralysis can happen.

Powerful feeling of dread

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“You wake up, your eyes are open, but you can’t move and there is just a really powerful feeling of dread, like something terrible is about to happen to you. It goes on forever, when in reality, it is probably only 20 or 30 seconds.” Andrew, 32, from Edinburgh told us.

One sufferer, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “The first time it happened was terrible. I thought I was dying. I tried to shout out, to scream, but I got this heavy pressure that pushed down on me and the more I pushed against it, the worse the feeling became.”

However, for many sufferers those sensations are just the beginning, with a number of sleep paralysis cases recalling visits from red-eyed, ‘Slenderman-like’ lifeforms or evil entities that have been known to growl at the frozen individual as they march around the bedroom.

When asking about the tales of the ‘demon character’ during this waking nightmare, Andrew gives a nods of recognition.

The demon

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"I can get hallucinations and I see – what many refer to as – the demon. I have had occasions where that same figure actually burst through the roof. It’s like the monster from Harry Potter – it seems to turn into, and take the shape of, everything that you fear.”

"Me and my sister both get it. She will get a smell when it’s happening – like the scent of fire. She has also heard a voice that screamed at her to get out repeatedly.”

And after speaking to numerous victims of sleep paralysis, it soon became apparent that Andrew’s night time visitor is not a rare occurrence, either.

"It’s a faceless person who I struggle against. They push me down and if I struggled against them they’d get closer into me and make my experience with them worse. I’ve not seen Nightmare on Elm Street, but I know of the scene where Johnny Depp’s character is sucked through the bed and the feeling of being sunk through the bed is just like that” one Scottish man, who didn’t want to be named, told us as he described his experience.

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While Stewart McIntyre from Stirling told us: “I would always feel a presence behind me, I could feel it slowly rising behind my back. I would be desperately trying to scream but, although I could hear myself screaming, I wasn’t making a sound.”

‘Many questions’

The haunting tales led Samantha Lee Treasure, an expert in medical anthropology, to conduct extensive research into the condition and compile a study into the Russian and UK populations on the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.

"The demon/shadow man is common in out-of-body experiences which are closely linked to sleep paralysis” she said.

"So many questions came out of my study. There seem to be cultural differences but whether these are related to the health system, sleep habits, or other things, we're not sure yet. The hallucinations people see can be different as well.”

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"There is a stigma against talking about it. Sometimes it discourages people from talking with their doctor about it when it’s frequent or intense. It can happen to healthy people but can also be linked to medical conditions. It's important to talk about for social/psychological reasons, to feel accepted and not have people think you're exaggerating.”

If you are experiencing sleep paralysis, or have been experiencing things similar to those mentioned in the above article, you can visit the NHS website for further help and advice.

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