Not infrequently in my work at Trapper Creek Job Corps I have students come to me and tell me of their dreams and ghost sightings. One of the more common scenarios involves a description something like this:
“I wake up in the night and I’m sure there’s some kind of ghost or creepy guy standing at the end of my bed. It totally freaks me out. And I feel frozen . . . it’s like I can’t even move. Sometimes I pray to myself and eventually when I can move again the ghost or the person is gone.”
Recently I had a student ask me if I’d heard about the ghosts in the dorms. I said, “Yes, but tell me about what you’re experiencing.” He described the usual scene with a creepy “ghost” at the end of the bed. He asked if I believed in ghosts and I said my typical, “I’m open to the possibility, but I don’t exactly believe in ghosts” and then asked if he was interested in hearing about an alternative explanation. He said “Sure” and so I pulled out the DSM and read and discussed with him a few parts from the section on Narcolepsy where it describes the sleep paralysis phenomenon pretty well. He was interested, but I didn’t push it (I tend to avoid trying to talk people out of their supernatural beliefs). He left more relaxed at having an alternative explanation for his experience.
One reason I like to share the science side of these experiences with students is because I recall having similar experiences back in college. Maybe it was related to sleep deprivation (like Kramer on Seinfeld, I had become enamored with the idea that I could survive on 20 minute cat naps). The problem was I became a little pseudo-narcoleptic and began having sleep paralysis experiences fairly often. What seems to happen in these situations is that consciousness returns while the body is still in the remnants of REM sleep. Of course, I interpreted my experiences as signs that I had become especially psychically attuned or that I was having spiritual visitations. It wasn’t until a few decades later (while reading the DSM) that I disappointingly discovered my amazing psychic and spiritual visitations were a product of sleep deprivation.
I haven’t had any sleep paralysis experiences for a very long time. The funny thing is I sort of miss them. I’m not exactly sure how I twisted an experience of feeling paralyzed with a creepy presence in the room into a positive experience . . . but then I am sort of a radical optimist.