I remember when I was a child I would hear someone say my name in the middle of the night. I would wake up to darkness in my bedroom, but then would feel a sense of dread and that I was being watched from the shadows. I couldn’t move my body but my eyes bolted around the room looking for the source of the voice whispering my name. When I could finally move, all I could hear was the sound of frogs singing in our pond that was beneath my window, but no voices. I could still feel eyes on me, though.
As a kid I knew about the boogeyman, but as an adult, I learned that what I experienced was sleep paralysis, the state between awake and sleep that causes your body to be stiff while you are fully conscious. I also learned that the voice whispering my name may have been a shadow person. My interest was piqued and I did some research about people’s encounters, some of them saying that they had experiences in childhood, too.
These entities can appear as three-dimensional shadows that have the form of a human but carry with them a sense of overwhelming fear. Some have no shape at all and come to people as gelatinous blobs hovering over beds with a sinister light swirling inside them.
Shadow people have since become the subject of urban legends and horror movies. Perhaps the most well known urban legend of a shadow person is that of the Hat Man whose silhouette looks similar to Freddy Krueger. A Nightmare on Elm Street was inspired by an LA Times article about Asian Death Syndrome in the late 1980s, but Wes Craven has stated that his monster was inspired by a childhood event of his own. One night when he was seven years-old, he was falling asleep when he heard shuffling outside his bedroom window. When he got out of bed and looked, he saw a dark figure in a fedora shuffling along the sidewalk. The figure looked at him and little Wes was so frightened that he couldn’t breathe.
I have to wonder if that figure on the sidewalk was Craven’s own experience with the Hat Man that later spawned into a horror movie icon.
But it isn’t just sightings of shadows that people experience. There are sleep demons that can come to you, too, and they bring with them visual and auditory hallucinations. The sounds that occur can be buzzing noises, whispers, even screams. Some of these demons have glowing red eyes, gaping maws, and grotesque features. People have experienced the sensation that something heavy is sitting on their chest and they have trouble breathing (also known as Incubus…no, not the band).
There are plenty of memes now about sleep paralysis demons, but they are very real. I know they are because I have one. In fact, I think he’s been lurking in the shadows since I was a child.
It was in my early twenties that I saw what he looked like for the first time. My now ex-husband was fast asleep and I woke up not being able to move. My breath was shallow and I had a sudden sense of dread as I looked around.
Then I heard someone whisper my name.
I looked at the foot of our bed and there stood an old man. He was skeletal and pale, and he was wearing yellowish underpants with a waistband that was rotted and glued to his sallow skin. He stared at me with empty black eyes and stepped over to my corner of the bed. He pressed his bony shoulders against the wall and crept toward me, sneaking up on me but knew I was watching him, as if we were playing a game.
As he sidled along the wall, he kept staring at me. I tried to scream but I couldn’t open my mouth. I tried to hum loudly and move my arm to wake up my husband, but I couldn’t move.
Then, as if he could sense my fear, he put a bony finger to his lips and said in gurgling croak, “Don’t wake up…“
I snapped out of it and tumbled out of bed and hit the wall where the old man had been. I didn’t scream then either; I was still too horrified. My husband woke up and asked what was wrong and I told him. Of course he wrote it off as a nightmare, but I could have sworn some sick old man had broken into our apartment.
I saw the old man again after living on my own after my divorce. He didn’t creep up to me like the last time. He instead stood at the end of my bed, watching me as I glared back at him. Even though I was frightened, I felt somewhat euphoric, a phenomenon that comes with sleep paralysis called vestibular-motor hallucinations. I can only describe it as the feeling you get when a big hit of THC kicks in and you feel like you’re floating (at least that’s what I felt with this one gummy I had. Measure your edibles, kids).
The old man didn’t speak this time and just as soon as my heartbeat slowed down, he grabbed my left ankle and the feeling of his stiff, skeletal fingers shocked me awake. That feeling stayed with me for hours, as if he held onto me as I bolted out of the dream world. He came back multiple times throughout my twenties and early thirties, when I would go to bed stressed and mentally exhausted. He would stand at the end of my bed and stare at me, sometimes squeezing my toes or telling me not to wake up in that croaked voice of his.
I haven’t seen him in years. I am much older and not as stressed as I used to be. I meditate more now and I can only assume that’s helping me keep him at bay.
But sometimes I feel that familiar sense of dread he brings. As I watch a movie in my dark living room. As I read a book by a single lamplight. As I sit on my bed, my eyes closed as I listen to a guided meditation on my noise-cancelling ear buds.
That feeling comes and goes, but I know the old man still waits in the shadows. And I’m sure I’ll see him again.
But not tonight…right?
Leave a Reply