sleep paralysis syndrome

When I was four or five I woke one night in my big girl bed in my bedroom at the end of the hall in my funky old house in Venice, California. I looked to the end of my bed and there stood a tall man in a fedora wearing a trench coat. If that wasn’t frightening enough, he was composed of the darkest, densest shadow I have ever seen. He absorbed all light, including the pale street lighting filtering in from the large bedroom window behind him. I could see no features, just that intense darkness, but got the distinct feeling he was regarding me, hands in coat pockets, as if I were some lower form of life—an insect, a nothing. An overwhelming feeling of malevolence came off him, directed at me. I started screaming but he didn’t disappear, so I jumped from my big girl bed and ran screaming down the hall through the living room to be met by my mother at her bedroom door.

It took me a long time before I could tell her what I’d seen. I received the usual assurances that it was not real, just a nightmare, but I knew it wasn’t, insisted it wasn’t. Finally, my mother urged me back towards my bedroom, but I was so panicked I wouldn’t go until she reassured me that she’d sleep with me. When we returned to my bed the evil man was gone, of course. Eventually, I got back to sleep, sheltered in my mother’s arms.

My mother slept with me in my bed every night after until I was eight or nine. You may say to yourself, “That’s even weirder than the shadow, man,” and you’d be right. What I couldn’t know back then was that my mother had been looking for a rescue as surely as I had. All I knew at the time was that it was comforting to have her there protecting me from the monsters. I’m spilling the tea here, but everyone involved except me is dead so they’re beyond caring, and I spill it with intent. It explains much of the turmoil of my formative years.

Eventually, my father built a small one room bungalow in the backyard, moved in a bed, a TV, and other furniture, and began sleeping there. Once he did, my mother moved back into the bedroom they once shared. I slept with a nightlight for several more years after Mom left. My terror of darkness lasted well into my teens.

All during the time Mom and I shared the room my parents engaged in horrible fights. My father was an alcoholic, not physically abusive to either my mother or myself, but verbally nasty—an accuser of terrible crimes with no proof except his own paranoia and deeply wounded spirit. Dad was near retirement age when I was born, and Mom was much younger. I was thrown in the middle. Mom would lay next to me at night, making fun of him behind his back, turning me from a Daddy’s Girl to an I Hate Dad Girl. (This was terribly wrong of her but child me knew no better and went along.) As my attitude towards him changed, Dad turned his verbal vitriol on me. Things really ramped up when I hit puberty. I didn’t have any more malignant presences in my bedroom because I was living with one. I was in survival mode and nothing paranormal could ever compete. Dad had never provided a stable income, so Mom finally got a job with the phone company. Dad’s aggrieved male pride added fuel to the fire. He never worked another day in his life, drawing social security and not sharing any with us. My mother was for all intents a single working mom.

I’ve often wondered if that malignance in my bedroom was some kind of harbinger. Kids aren’t stupid and I was probably picking up on the strains in my parents’ marriage on a subconscious level even though before that night they’d made some attempt to shield me. But it was an old house with thin walls and small, very small.

An interesting thing to note is that although as far as I know my father never wore a trench coat, he did wear fedoras until the day he died. I’m not a big fan of the theory of retrocausality but I allow as it could be a factor. (I understand Eric Wargo makes a good case for it.)

I also learned something about five or six years ago that creeped me out as much or more than that initial sighting of Mr. Fedora. Shadow men are a commonly reported phenomenon. I knew that much, but what I didn’t know until recently is that shadow men wearing trench coats and fedoras are also a commonly reported thing. It’s also reported that he often appears to people in turmoil. (There are also shadow women, but males seem to predominate.)

So what did I see? I have (gratefully) spent most of my life free of nightmares. There was a notable period in my thirties when that was not the case but that’s a weird story for another time. I am personally familiar with sleep paralysis syndrome but I don’t think this was that. Firstly, I sat up in bed at the sight of him and had no sense of being frozen as often happens with sleep paralysis, and the whole time I was screaming he remained where he was. I don’t know what happened to him when I got out of bed because I turned my back and ran. Whatever, whoever I saw seemed very solid and very real.

Projection from the future to the past? An embodiment of the tension in the household created by my subconscious? A malignant leak through from some other dimension? I can’t possibly say.

Oh, and yes, time can heal some things. Time—and later therapy—helped me deal with the trauma of those times. I was able with a lot of work to forgive and accept and even reclaim some of the love I had for my father, so I guess that’s something of an ambivalent happy ending. He was dead by the time that happened. It’s much easier to forgive a dead person than a living one. And I don’t think everything can be forgiven by everyone—or should be. I won’t suggest for a minute that people are required to forgive but for me I just grew weary of carrying all that forward through time. I had to let it go to save myself, a different kind of survival mode. I’ve felt much lighter since I let it go. The shadows have eased up considerably.


I have posted elsewhere about the sleep paralysis I experienced while living in an apartment in Venice, California. That was only one of the strange things that went on there, and my ex-roommates and I have often wondered what lay at the base of it all. One of our theories was that a ghost followed my friend, L., home from her mother’s house.

It all started when L’s grandmother Helen died. L’s parents, Jean and Vaughn, went back to Ohio to settle Helen’s estate. They spent a couple of weeks clearing out the house. The night before they returned home, they slept in Helen’s bed. Jean heard the closet door—which she’d firmly closed—squeak open. She said she’d never heard that door squeak before and it scared the hot holy hell out of her. She didn’t get out of bed to investigate because Vaughn was sound asleep and she didn’t want to disturb him, but she didn’t get much sleep after that, either.

As soon as it was daylight, she got out of bed and went to the closet. Looking inside, she noticed that part of the closet wall showed a gap that hadn’t been there before. When she peeked inside the crack, she saw it was a secret compartment with something inside. She pulled the compartment open and found some old letters and, more importantly, the picture of a little girl about ten or eleven. On the back of the picture was written “Velma” with birth and death dates. This girl turned out to be Vaughn’s older sister who had died at about the age shown in the photo and before Vaughn had been born. Helen was so distraught by her daughter’s passing that she wouldn’t let anyone talk about her and for years Vaughn hadn’t even known she’d existed. Jean and Vaughn were glad to find this picture. She said, “I guess Velma didn’t want to get left behind or Helen didn’t want us to forget her.”

So they took the picture back to California, framed it, and put it on a shelf in one of the bookcases they had in a small library alcove in their house. One day when Jean returned home and walked past the alcove, a bird was suddenly there, fluttering frantically about in panic. With great difficulty, Jean directed it across the room and out the sliding glass door. The alcove did have windows, but they weren’t open, and thin louvers even when they were, so it was a great mystery how the bird got in that out of the way alcove, of all places. Then one night they were sitting in the living room, about ten feet from the alcove, and Jean mentioned the bird incident. They heard an enormous thump on the floor and hurried into the library. A heavy book which had been shelved above Velma’s picture had somehow worked it’s way out of the bookcase and landed five or six feet away. The title of that book: The Myths and Superstitions of Great Britain.

There were other incidents regarding books in that alcove, but the coup de grace for L. was the day she visited her parents’ house to feed the cat. L. started thinking about Helen, and all of a sudden the room filled with the scent of Helen’s perfume. She fed the cat and got out the hell out of there real fast.

Eventually, Jean—who had felt closer to Helen than her own mother—got concerned that Helen (or maybe Velma) was earthbound. She hadn’t ever felt afraid of the presence in the house, but she didn’t want anyone to be stuck here. She said to the general cosmos inside her home, “I want you to know, Helen, that we’ll never forget you and we’ll never forget Velma. And it’s okay if you want to move on to wherever you need to go.” There really weren’t any more incidents after that.

But then L. started having weird things happen at her own apartment, and shortly after that we moved in together to yet another apartment. Weird things started happening there: keys or books or knick knacks went missing and wound up in odd places, strange noises and disembodied footsteps, a number of prankish things. We decided it might be Velma who had followed L. from place to place, for no other reason than that the things happening seemed childish in nature. I remember opening a cabinet door wide with the door flush against the wall. I dropped a plastic bottle on the floor, bent to pick it up, and when I raised up, the door had been moved to where my rising head smacked it hard. I yelled, “Velma! That really hurt! It’s not funny!” The pranks stopped after that.

But other, darker weirdness continued.

There was that sleep paralysis syndrome thing. It lasted through my tenancy in that apartment. I had one more incident within weeks after I moved—a farewell performance—and have never been troubled by it since, thank the gods.

None of us rested completely easy in that apartment. We all had troubled dreams and woke in terror. Heard things. Felt things. Saw things out the corners of our eyes and when first waking from sleep. Maybe there was something there.

Or maybe it was the power lines that ran directly over the roof of the apartment giving us EMF hallucinations. Maybe it was mold hidden in the walls poisoning the air we breathed and affecting our minds. Maybe it was psychic contagion—my roommates picking up on my nightmares and having their own—or an atmosphere of shared ghost stories seeping into the unconscious. All possible rational explanations.

But rational explanations are rarely as satisfying as the idea of Something There. That’s the thing about folklore and folktales. They satisfy some deep craving in human beings because they have a depth and resonance that science rarely achieves. After all, they come to us from the deep and dark archetypal chambers of the heart. All science has going for it is the sunlit mind of reason and sanity.

Warning: I’ve been asked by a friend to post an advisory that you might not want to read this just before bedtime.



A murky borderland exists between folklore, the weird, active imagination, and illness. Many people encounter it when they’re most vulnerable: while sleeping. Or more precisely, when they are just falling asleep or just waking. They feel completely awake and conscious, roused from their drowsiness by some sense of presence and menace. Everything has the crisp edge of consciousness, a hyper-real sense of awareness. Strange occurrences are frequent in this borderland, with scary hags and demons, or aliens, or shadow people populating the bedroom and radiating hostility. At times the monsters are more exotic. Other times, it’s just a feeling of being frozen, unable even to cry out, as something sinister hovers over the bed. As WebMD puts it:

Almost every culture throughout history has had stories of shadowy evil creatures that terrify helpless humans at night. People have long sought explanations for this mysterious sleep-time paralysis and the accompanying feelings of terror.

Science has labeled this phenomena “sleep paralysis syndrome,” and I can attest to the terror of it. Many years ago I went through a phase that lasted over a year. Some people have only one or two incidents in their lifetime, some go through a specific period like I did, others are tormented by it for years, perhaps most of their life.

My roommates and I were living in a “haunted” apartment and we all had odd experiences there, but I was the first to enter the strange borderland and suffered the most intense effects. I’ve often wondered since if I started a psychic contagion, influencing them into weird dreams and the hearing of odd sounds: people in the front room moving furniture around or walking across the hardwood floors of our duplex…even when we knew the people upstairs were out of town and couldn’t be the source of the noise. Sometimes we heard the front door open and close with a solid thunk, but when we rushed into the living room, it was bolted tight, the furniture was where it had been when we went to bed, no one else was in the apartment.

I would often wake up sensing a dark cloud hovering over my bed, something evil reaching tentacles out for me while I lay frozen, panicking. I knew that if I could just get myself to move, just reach out to turn on the light, the menace would disappear, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t even blink, only send up fervent prayers for movement and light. Then, all of a sudden like a bubble bursting, I could move, lunged for the light, shot out of bed, panting with terror.

I can’t emphasize enough how real all of this felt.

A few times I caught a glimpse of a figure I’ve labeled (long after the fact, when I feel safer) the “shadow wench.” She was a shapely woman dressed in a black body stocking that went completely over face and head, every speck of “flesh” covered, giving her a Mummenschanz appearance (only without the comic masks). I could see no eyes, and she was the blackest black I’ve ever seen—no light escaping her, all light absorbed into her. She used to sit in a chair beside my bed. Except there was no chair beside my bed. Unlike the amorphous hovering cloud, I got no sinister sense from her. More like a deep puzzlement and curiosity about me, perhaps a slight sense of alien judgment, as if she examined a specimen. As soon as I moved and turned on the light, she disappeared like all the other phenomena.

Eventually, we moved out of that apartment and went our separate ways. My roommates experienced no more weird things, and I had only one more incidence of sleep paralysis in my new place. Many months later, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The doctor said it had probably been responsible for the emotional rollercoaster I’d been on for the previous couple of years—sweeping swings of emotion that came out of nowhere and bore no relation to the events of my life. Oh, and had I been having odd dreams?

To say the least.

Once the cancerous gland was removed and I was on a stable dose of thyroid hormone, all of that disappeared. I have been cancer-free for many years, and thankfully, sleep paralysis free. The thing is, I never felt sleep paralysis syndrome an adequate explanation for all incursions of the weird in the dark of night. Perhaps the majority of these experiences can be attributed to it, especially where beds or comfy chairs are involved, but sometimes weird invasions occur when they can be corroborated by others. People aren’t always in bed. Sometimes they are in their cars, or reading a book, or sitting around a campfire when the strangeness comes creeping in and about them.

And why did my experiences, and those of my roommates, stop as soon as we left that apartment? Why didn’t they continue in the months before I received treatment for my thyroid cancer? I had very intense, weird dreams after that, but only that one incident at the new place of waking up with something creepy in the room. One last farewell appearance before the carny of odd went permanently on the road. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation, but I do wonder, and always will. Certainly, I have not stopped having uncanny experiences, but my sleep remains untroubled. Thank the gods.