Quite reliably I am able to glean significance from life’s darker shades. Just as night contrasts the day, every sentiment arrives in pairs to help us derive a greater purpose from their more embittered halves.
But of what purpose nightmares propose, I am still discovering. Nor can I speak to their elder siblings, those terrors which follow us from our dreams into waking reality, whenever we go venture deeper into the dark.
My memory is notoriously short and extends only to the nearest edges of childhood. As luck would have it, the most distinctive memory I can recall from my earliest days has is that of a nightmare. Specifically, the kind which watches our path from dreams and follows us through the door we use to enter reality.
The following tales are all true and told as plainly as I experienced them. Read at your own discretion.
The Sitting Imp
I was sleeping on my bunk bed. Something had awoke me. That night I had been sleeping with a dim night light. My room was always meticulously decorated, even as a young boy. I loved collecting objects and categorizing them by type. I believe, at this phase, that skeletons were my favorite. I had an entire desk full of various skeletal figurines, everything ranging from anatomically correct to absurdly conveyed. And below that desk with my display, sat a small, miniature chair.
Mind you, I never sat in it.
But that night, when I woke up, somebody was using it. Something.
A small, bald creature with thinning hair. I remember, distinctly, how the night light cast on the bald spot of his scalp. He was looking at something in his hands. Perhaps a piece from my collection.
I held my breath and laid back down. Long, I contemplated staying there, praying the little devil wouldn’t crawl up the ladder to torment me. In the meantime, I pondered if screaming would merely alert him that I knew of his existence. In the end …
I screamed for my mother, the kind of scream that brought her in thinking somebody had broken into my room.
Somebody had. It’s just that, by then, her stomping feet had scared him away.
By now I know that he was a harmless creature. In retrospect, he almost seems kind of … cute.
The Old Woman
By the earliest days of adolescence, sleep paralysis became one of the biggest themes in my life. I would become routinely anxious about falling asleep because I would suffer the most dreadful, fully-conscious paralysis, often arriving with a feeling of suffocation. After researching the phenomena, I decided that I needed to learn to breathe through it rather than fight it. The panic of waking up in a body one cannot control is what incites the panic, the ensuing agony is of not being able to breathe as deeply nor as quickly as one would like.
One remains, physically, asleep, and mentally—awake as ever.
So I would force myself to breathe calmly in that place, quite literally, between reality and dreams. Only, the problem with that is that it pulls one deeper away from reality, and allows one to see more into that which dwells in their dreams, their nightmares, their realms-in-between.
And there I would hear, see, feel, and smell all manner of things. That which breathed and danced and thrived just within the veil of our mortal world. There I would sense their hands along the walls, endure their fingers trailing down my spine. Whispers along my ears and stenches that do not belong in this world.
One night, I reminded myself to remain calm when I awoke to this state of paralysis.
It was then that there was a light scraping just outside my window. Like my childhood bed, my bedroom as an adolescent was in the second story of my house—off the ground. I realized, quite quickly, that something was climbing up the walls and reaching the edge of the roof. Perhaps a neighborhood cat, I thought.
Through my dim eyes looking through the ethereal fog of a dream realm stacked on top of our reality, I saw an old woman. Her pallor resembled newly rotting flesh just recently drained of blood, her eyes a slitted, focused black, and her hair a greasy, frazzled mess.
Just breathe, I reminded myself. Even as she was coming in through the window. I got the sense that she enjoyed how slowly she did this; she knew I was watching her, that I could do nothing as she came closer.
You see … I knew better than to suspect this was anything more than a nightmare. Yet, just as I started to get the urge to wake up, to force myself out of the vision, I was too far sunk into the state closer to sleeping. That’s the problem with remaining ‘calm’ during sleep paralysis. It pulls your mind deeper into that mismatched realm, making it harder to gain control of your body.
Which is why, as she let herself into my room, I did nothing.
With a slow deliberateness, she grabbed me by my ankle and began dragging me from the bed. My body hit the ground and was pulled across it. I tried to open my mouth to scream, but my vocal chords weren’t working.
Across the hall, the light outlined the doorframe of my parents’ bedroom. A far-distant gleam that seemed to say, ‘You could be safe, if only you could shout.'
The woman took me from my room. Let my body slump against the stone ground of the walkway, scraping me inch by painful inch, away from my home and into the night. It felt all too real. The light from the streetlamp was the same, muddied yellow color on the black asphalt as it always was. The chilled wind of a summer night.
That was when my father burst through the front door of our home, shouting and waving the woman away. She scampered off, this time with a terrifying speed.
When I woke up, my father and mother were standing over me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’d been crying in your sleep,” they said. “We heard you all the way from across the hall.”
So I had. And I still think, for all the distance she had managed to take me, that she carried off more than just my sense of safety that night. Rather, a piece of my being.
Odd, Miscellaneous Encounters in Childhood
Several years from then, frequent nightmares became a regular and expected occurrence. I did my best to stay away from horror films, stories, and other tales that would encourage my imagination, as I was aware that the majority of these experiences had happened without the help of any outside media already You see, my parents were Catholic, and although they were lenient with action and adventure films, horror was simply out of the question.
My grandmother’s house, however, had no remote with which to turn off its curious events. Both my grandparents and extended family complained about sleeping in that house. They awoke to the sound of footsteps along the stairs and halls, to decorative, Christmas animated figurines being turned on by motion sensors in the small hours of the night. There was loud clattering in the kitchen and singing as if somebody was cooking. And, once or twice, broken dishes. Even the most skeptical, agnostic members of our family refused to stay in the house should it ever be requested to watch over the cats, not after their first experiences.
I visited there several times a year. Once or twice, to spend the night. There was a popular theme park nearby that was an hour’s drive from my own home. One night at that house, I fell asleep with a hopeful anticipation for the following day’s excitement, and instead awoke to the most picturesque encounter of a ghost.
I turned away, fully awake, trembling for a few hours after seeing her. The grey gown from another era. The empty expression on her face. The way she drifted towards me.
Everybody laughed at me for the experience.
But I felt her. She had caressed my back; she was family, after all.
A few months later at home, getting ready for school, I saw something large, hairy, and obscured with six legs writhing on the wall of the living room. After telling my mother, she stayed home with me and we took the day off. I didn’t want to go anywhere alone, not even to school where there were other children.
Not after that.
The Meddling Girl
By the time I was nearing the end of high school, my sleep paralysis had continued but I grew somewhat inure to the visions in it. On a few occasions, I was able to successfully induce lucid dreams through it, which granted an empowering experience. But, as lucid dreamers know, it is not like riding a bike. Once you stop practicing lucid dreams, one must start over again. And, if there is one way to describe the experience, it is: exhaustive. So, I gave it up.
This was all fine and well. By then, I had long since renounced my faith and refused to believe in anything supernatural, thereby easing my worries in my frequent experiences with those who dwell under our beds.
Of course, disbelief didn’t make the nightmares go away.
So, later, when sleep paralysis returned, I was once again without any defenses.
This time, it was a young girl.
She was quiet. Pensive. She enjoyed staring at me, first, within arm’s reach of my bed and standing still. There was almost something romantic about it.
That was the first night, and that was all fine and well. At the end of this visitation, she leaned closer to me, smelling me. She seemed calm, curious, harmless.
The following night, I remembered her. That seemed to be the first mistake—inviting her back in. I hoped she would respect our boundaries. I’d already had a good many spectral roommates by then and my tenants know that I only tolerate them to a certain degree.
But, human nature seems to extend beyond the living. The second night, she took to whispering to me. It was an indecipherable language, as I was used to by then, but it seemed particularly harsh. Sharp. Staccato. Abrasive. Sharpened iron slithering in and out of the ear. While she spoke to me, she climbed on top of the bed, then over my body and sat there, brooding, while I reminded myself to breathe calmly.
She wasn’t respecting the space. This was becoming uncomfortable.
The third night, when I fell into the sleep paralysis, my heart was immediately hammering. She will be here, won’t she? I thought. She had come two nights in a row. More pernicious than most terrors I’d dealt with by then. At first I thought I was safe. When the paralysis arrived, the room felt empty.
Then I saw her.
Crouched on the ceiling, watching me from the corner, her head twisted horrifically from the way she had dug into the ceiling. I realized, then, that she had always been there on the previous nights. That was where she was when she wasn’t in view. I had simply caught her earlier on.
Then she descended on me, jerking my body from both the sleep and the paralysis.
When I came to my senses, I scrambled backwards. My leg and the lower half of my body had been pulled off the bed. I’d dealt with a good many nightmares by then, but not the sort that moved my body.
I sat up in my bed. Eyes wide and staring into the room. I couldn’t see her anymore, not the way I could in that place between states. Still, I was shaken.
Eventually I fell asleep from exhaustion—one so heavy that it hit like an anvil and before I could realize it—and I blinked to a late dawn. At breakfast, I told my parents about the three visitations, how they had occurred in succession. How she felt ‘different’ from normal nightmares.
My father, having been a monk for some years, suggested that, should it get worse, we could call a priest. Despite that being his first suggestion, I intuited that we would never go to those lengths. Rather, it was the extreme solution—he was demonstrating he was prepared to do what it took, and by mentioning it, my spirits would be eased.
That night, I disregarded the notion as I turned into bed. There would be no need for priests, I assured myself.
But after I had fallen asleep for the fourth time in those four days, she had returned as timely as the other evenings. This time, she had taken several minutes to enter. But when she came, there were no words, no preparation, just a swift, deliberate dragging of my legs from the bed. I thought, for a moment, that I had fallen into a regular, deep sleep from the nightmare, because I had missed the moment of me hitting the ground and being jerked to consciousness.
Instead I awoke …
Standing at the side of my parents’ bed. I came to with my head inclined downward, as if I had been watching my mother sleep. Only an hour and a half had passed since I’d turned in for the night. I looked at my hands.
No, I wasn’t dreaming anymore. Not at all. This was real. I had … walked to their bedroom, turned the knob, and entered. Stood there.
But for how long?
I felt like crying. This was some other kind of hideous. This was a terror that so wrenching I just stood there, unable to express any emotion.
I reached out my hand to awaken my mother, to tell her what’d happened. To tell her I needed somebody to hug me. My chest felt cold and I felt filthy, like something had crawled inside me.
Then I realized, slipping away, that nobody needed to know this happened. That I should not speak of it, not for many years. Well. Many years have passed.
Do you want to know what makes this story worse? I have never experienced somnambulism before. Not once.
And I haven’t since.
After moving out and situating myself in an independent life, I experienced sleep paralysis less. I had vivid, sometimes horrific, dreams, but they were the kind that ended with dawn and arrived with a merciful ignorance to one’s immediate surroundings.
It was when I began to move out of my first home away from home, when the ‘attacks’ began to happen again. This time, it was as if to make up for all the years that I’d missed since my more dramatic encounters.
For three months and a week after moving, I experienced some of the most consistent bouts of nightmares. Nearly every night, another hue and shade of horrible. It began to affect my daily life. My (already lacking) sleep was being taxed. The hours I spent alone throughout the day became tinted with a childlike paranoia that felt absolutely absurd. These were emotions I had only felt since my youngest years before turning even ten or eleven years old. Feeling them as an adult was simply … astounding to me.
The sleep paralysis returned, too.
And with it, one night, was a large creature, half-human and also perched in the corner of the room, hanging from the ceiling. When I looked at it, it seemed to sense that I had become aware of its presence. So it slipped off the ceiling, landed on the floor, and raced towards the bed.
I awoke, grasping at my face and shirt, pushing it away and gasping. When I looked at the bed and the floor of my room there was, of course, nothing.
The following day, however, my roommate and I were alone. The other two who were sharing the home with us for the lease were gone. We’ll call this gentleman Gabriel.
Downstairs, Gabriel was watching a movie. I’d since left my room and was upstairs, quietly arranging a sandwich when Gabriel came up the stairs, I suppose, to do something similar.
He looked at me with confusion upon entering the kitchen, a bit surprised, and goes, "Is James in your room?" (James, a tenant who slept in the bedroom across from mine.)
“No. Why would he? James isn't even home." I was almost annoyed by the nonsensical question. It didn't make sense. Gabriel should have known that James doesn't get back from work until 11 pm. Moreover, why would he be in my room?
“What?" Gabriel asked again.
“It's just us," I clarified. “There's nobody else home."
“Then who did I see in your room? I saw somebody walking around."
Even though I saw that question coming from a mile away once I realized what had happened, I hated hearing it. The genuine alarm. The bemusement. The fear in his eyes.
“You tell me. I've been up here,” I said.
I walked to the top of the stairs and looked for any silhouettes through the drape hanging over my door. Nothing, of course, except my spine started to celebrate yet another full-blooded rush of unease. Gabriel began to chuckle and shake his head, saying “No, no, no,” over and over again.
Once more, he asked me to make sure I had been up in the kitchen.
Of course I had.
It was only after a discussion with my fiancé that I began to realize the profundity of experiences like this I’ve collected over the years. The fact that there seems to be one or two extreme cases (at least) in each major stage of my life inspired me to catalogue them. I realized, especially with The Sitting Imp, that many would be damned to being forgotten should I not write them down. For brevity’s sake, I have left at least a dozen or so more.
So, for your entertainment and my documentation, here were just a few of the more significant experiences throughout my childhood, late youth, and early adulthood.
What do I make of it, nowadays? Do I believe in ghosts? I have no answer for that. Truly. I am not certain, even as an atheist. Do I believe that one can be haunted? Absolutely. By what, I suppose, remains to be perceived.
The archetype of a demon has always fascinated me. Often, demons are used for metaphors for mental illness and difficult memories or emotions that continue to haunt us. Finding a lack of explanation for the severity of my personal encounters with night terrors and nightmares, I stopped thinking of these ‘demons’ as ‘bad’. Whether or not they are truly otherworldly creatures or merely anomalies in my psychology, I see them as embodiments of this:
An imp coming to sit in my room. A presence to watch over my skeletons. An old crone dragging me away for one of her spells. A young girl feeling too playful, perhaps slightly murderous. A presence in a large, old house, the first home marking my adulthood.
All the same, this feeling of being ‘haunted’ is, in a way, a gift.
So why would I want to sever my ties to the fantastical and hope for normal, uninterrupted nights?
Life tries its damndest to be monotonous. I’ll take whatever flash of blood it gives me. Even if it smells like sulphur and whispers the most hideous of secrets into my ears. They are vivid, adrenaline-inducing, dripping with intensity and vigor. They are inspiration, merely masked in morbidity.
Here I raise a pen to the demons, the ghosts, the nightmares.
Ever are they welcome in my home.