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Fuseli - The Nightmare

Taming the Night Mare

by Ryan Hurd

Most people experience isolated sleep paralysis [ISP] at least once in their lives. This peculiar conscious vision state occurs at the boundaries of sleep, when we feel aware and awake. Sudden feelings of paralysis in bed — can’t move, can’t scream — give way to a terrifying encounter with a shadowy figure in the bedroom. Sometimes the figure materializes — the Stranger — who may sit on the side of the bed or on your chest, and breath its putrid breath into your face as it glares with glowing red eyes. This phenomenon is known around the world by different names. The Hag Effect. Ghost oppression. Supernatural assault. The Succubus.

In the West, no term has survived of this physiological state (SP) and its attendant hypnagogic visions. On this point, medical anthropologist and sleep paralysis expert David Hufford said in an interview in the 2008 documentary Your Worst Nightmare, “We have erased knowledge of these experiences from the cultural repertoire while these experiences are continuing to happen. That’s dramatic. That’s a level of social control that’s very impressive.”

But these negative manifestations are only one side of the coin. When isolated sleep paralysis is encountered with courage and intention, other doors open. New kinds of mythological creatures emerge. Some can be benign, and even helpful. This excerpt from my ebook Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide explores these other kinds of meetings and journeys that are possible once the dreamer/visionary is ready to meet the SP encounter with open eyes and an open heart.

In Chapter 4 of the book, the ‘terrorizing Stranger’ is demystified as a visionary figure amplified by fear and distrust. However, this does not mean that is all it can be. When positive feelings of love, acceptance, and trust are focused upon these apparitions, they can transform into comforting presences that are literally the stuff of legend. At other times, the apparition may keep its original form, but become more communicative and less threatening when we become more accessible. Nature reflects the face turned towards it.

Rather than menacing black dogs, you may find your loved childhood pet. Instead of a creepy old hag, you may receive advice from a venerable wise woman. Succubi give way to pixies and aliens to angels. Let’s review some of the classic manifestations that occur when we swallow our fears.

Visitations of the Dead

Of all the non-threatening ISP encounters, seeing and talking with a deceased person is one of the most common. The figure may sit on the side of the bed and radiate warmth and love, or he or she may have some questions for you. The encounter can happen immediately after the person has passed away, or it could be years later. Furthermore, the ghost may manifest as someone you don’t know, a figure from an earlier age.

It’s important to realize that, psychologically-speaking, the dead do not emerge for the same “reasons.” Robert Moss, author of The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead, suggests that the spirits may have messages for dreamers, or the spirits may themselves be looking for information. Sometimes they may have messages to pass on. And of course, making contact with the dead can be cathartic if you have something to tell them that you never had the chance to say. There is a real opportunity for closure and forgiveness.

The following visitation story was first published in a Western Japanese newspaper and recently republished in Dreaming, the journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams:

One night in July 1961, Mr. Ishida, a chief mechanic, had a dream of a sailor while he was sleeping in a dormitory room at Tsuiki Air Force Base, Kitsuki County.Tsuiki Airforce Base, Fukuoka Prefecture, was a commando-type air force base during World War II. The sailor wore a uniform and said he had been killed by being caught in a spinning airplane propeller. While he was dreaming, Mr. Ishida felt a heavy weight in his breast and couldn’t move an inch, though he struggled to. Mr. Ishida examined the history of this air force base and learned that there had been such an accident in the past.

Whether or not you believe that this vision is “physically real,” there is no doubt that these experiences can be healing and restorative, if not for you personally, than perhaps in service to others, or your culture at large. For those wishing to investigate ghost hauntings and sacred sites through the lens of SP/HH, a high level of empathy is necessary to witness the vision without overlaying it with our own fear projections.


Historical accounts of angel visions sound suspiciously like sleep paralysis/hypnagogic (SP/HH) encounters, suggests consciousness researcher J.A. Cheyne. Some of these tales are hidden in our oldest and most trusted sources. In Genesis 32:24-32, for example, Jacob “wrestles a man until daybreak.” Finally, Jacob shows he is not afraid by asking to be blessed. The figure blesses him and Jacob later interprets the experience as a meeting with an angel of the Lord. Many people have described SP as “wrestling with ghosts,” and the fact that Jacob had this meeting until daybreak is a tempting signal that he was asleep when the encounter occurred.

Cheyne also notes that the Muslim prophet Muhammad had some visitations that resemble sleep paralysis visions. Religion scholar Karen Armstrong describes this famous account:

“Muhammad was torn from sleep and felt himself enveloped by a devastatingly divine presence … he said that an angel had appeared to him and given him a curt command: ‘Recite!’” When Muhammad refused, “the angel simply enveloped him in an overpowering embrace so that he felt as if all the breath was being squeezed from his body.” Finally, after three terrifying embraces, Muhammad relents and recites a new poem. This is the beginning of the Qur’an––also known as the Koran––which means “the Recitation.”

Eighteenth Century scientist and Christian mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg also wrote about angel visitations with whom he had lengthy philosophical conversations. The Nightmare by John FitzgeraldThese visitations came at night, in dreams and visions. While the connection of SP to Swedenborg is probable, as he writes of wrestling demons in his personal dream journal, he was undoubtedly a master of hypnagogia, as he wrote about how to induce vision states that “come in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness.”

As David Hufford reminds us, many people believe in spirits even after they learn about the physical correlates to these visions. This disconnect may have historical roots. After all, science as an enterprise has stayed out of the question of meaning and subjectivity ever since the Enlightenment, when the Church threatened death to scientists who committed heresy by opining on their turf. This is, no doubt, why even Rene Descartes kept his dream journal a lifelong secret. Rationally speaking, SP/HH is where mystics have visions, the religious encounter God, and where seekers of all kinds can communicate with uncanny sources of wisdom.

Dream researcher Robert Van De Castle uses the phrase “Internalized Self Helper” for these archetypal characters that clearly have something to teach us. Whether you believe divinity comes from within or from beyond, these otherworldly dream figures want to help, and SP/HH seems to be a way to communicate with them. Trust and listen carefully.

The Guided Journey

When the Stranger comes and you are not afraid, sometimes there is another opportunity: to go with the apparition on a guided dream journey. You may suddenly find yourself flying over a forest with this guardian figure or transported to a great castle where you meet a king or queen. Or you may descend into a cave beneath the earth of your present sleeping location and meet indigenous-looking peoples who are just as curious about you as you are about them. These encounters are unforgettable and can be life changing.

Here is an example of a guided journey I had several years ago. I was sleeping in the room of my fiancée’s grandmother, a woman whom I’d never met nor knew much about.

I wake up in the bedroom and feel a presence in the room. Then I feel the presence sit down on the bed next to me. I am frightened and then I remember that my fiancée’s grandmother died in this room. I relax, no longer threatened, but still a little nervous. I then see an older woman standing in front of me. She is clasping a ream of papers in front of her chest. She communicates to me that she’s been doing research and has been writing stories. She doesn’t speak this; it’s just an understanding. She seems excited. I say to her, “Show me,” and I instantly melt through the bed and am now flying through a vast misty space. I then see the earth is far below me, and I move through more layers of clouds. I’m flying but not in control—it’s like I’m being brought here. The mists clear and I see I am flying over a glowing red ocean of lava. Then more mists, and I fall through the sky for a long time. I stay open to the experience: I cannot see but I trust as best I can. Below me now is an ocean with blue rolling waves. I land in the ocean and tread water. The sea is active with big waves, and a storm is approaching…. I wake up.

I told the dream over breakfast the next day to my fiancée’s parents. Her mother got very quiet when I mentioned the ream of papers. After I finished, she told me that her mother was, in fact, a writer in her youth but had to give up her dream of being a writer to raise a family. She had often spoken of all the stories in her head that she had never written down. Maybe, this was just a coincidence. Then again, unusual coincidences, or synchronicities, like this seem to happen a lot around SP visitations.

Recommendations for Guided Journeys

In my own guided journey, when I said, “Show me,” the encounter quickly became a lucid dream journey. It was effortless on my part because that’s where the dream-vision wanted to go. That is the key to a successful journey: not forcing it but going with the flow.

I recommend a guided journey only if you truly trust the visitation figure. Trust first, but be discerning. Of course, this is a dream, and since you have the power to keep your fear at bay, you also always have the power to wake up when you want. All of the dream-waking techniques from Chapter 1 are at your disposal.

Stay emotionally grounded. In the dream above, I needed to “check in” with myself on several occasions and find my trust. This “inner knowledge” of confidence will keep you grounded no matter how high you fly above the earth and all the heavens.

Once you awaken, write down the account as soon as possible. In particular, try to recall the exact words that the guide said to you. Let the dream rest for a few days, and then, take a look at the account again. What was discovered? Where did the guide take you? What did you take away that you did not have before?

This article is a modified excerpt from Chapter 5 of ‘Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer’s Guide‘, by Ryan Hurd. For further information visit the Dream Studies website.

  1. I’ve had quite a few of these
    I’ve had quite a few of these and just find them to be a reflection of my own state, very similar to how I am normally, only heightened. My first few made me scared and were very similar to when I was a kid and would see people standing over my bed (often a Predator of Arnie fame) – no sleep paralysis required. Once i’d had a few and was able to laugh when I wake up like that and just enjoy it the feeling of oppression disappeared – like turning on your bedroom light as a kid and finding no monsters.

    I sleep very deeply, forgetting to breath in my sleep etc – inherited from my father from the sound of it. Apparently this makes sleep paralysis more likely as I already have sleeping issues.

    If you wake up and find you are without motor control do not panic. I guess you could call it another ‘state’ of consciousness. Typically larger muscles are more frozen than smaller ones (I guess evolution didn’t worry as much if you could move your fingers and toes while sleeping compared to moving your whole body and getting yourself killed sleepwalking with predators). Start by trying to move your fingers and toes and this should help get the rest of you going more quickly.

    If you see Predators around your bed don’t worry, they are not likely to be real.

    The first time I had one though it freaked me out so much that I never felt comfortable in that room again. It was a long time ago and I would be fine now, but back in my teens I couldn’t emotionally deal with it. The sensation of being sat on and pinned down, and of being breathed on really upset me. I ran out of the room in panic afterwards.

    Not wanting to sound completely rational about it when I can afford otherwise; I find the physiological explanations and their evidences for my sleep paralysis work fine without needing additional layering (and don’t feel culturally controlled in going on the internet and finding both paranormal and non-paranormal explanations). Some things are unexplained, some things have workable explanations. This doesn’t mean that in that semi awake/semi sleeping state some sort of psychic powers are not more accessible, you are after all quite meditative at that point. Or that in points of heightened distress you don’t get help, just that it would be silly to avoid the fact that this is one of those things that does have a working explanation that allows for reduced narrative – and for those of us that suffer from sleep paralysis a reduced narrative experience in the actual event; and hence, a less frightening one (well, compared to being told you really are under attack by demons anyway; and wouldn’t even saying that sort of thing is true without any evidence be an attempt at cultural manipulation through dissemination anyway?).

      1. 🙂
        Used to I suppose, but not


        Used to I suppose, but not now. I noticed I’m a little bigger than they are!

        I’m not saying I find them especially attractive though. There is something a little facehuggerish about them.

        1. Predator

          The reason I assumed you suffered from arachnophobia, it’s because of the insect-like nature of the character

          Either that or you really —REALLY— hate reggae music 😛

          I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis too. I wish I could learn to master my fear. And not just on those instances! I feel my fear has marked the path of my life in more ways I’m willing to acknowledge 🙁


          1. I guess in paranormal terms
            I guess in paranormal terms it is about closing your third eye.

            I was interested to hear that in Islam there are invisible winged beasts flying in the sky. Since the Koran is not taken to be metaphorical these winged beasts are taken as literal (or were in Saudi where I was working with Egyptian Muslims).

            Of course not believing in winged demons flying above you (and yep, they can attack you – I asked) is a great defence against fear of them.

            I really don’t have any big fears left over any more; haven’t since childhood. Non-belief might be stupid if winged demons are real, but if i’m attacked by them i’m just like ‘hmmm, its windy today’ or something. Difficult to tell who’s the crazy one hay!

          2. Interesting
            So, one could conclude that not believing in anything would ensure nothing would happen to you.

            But on the other hand, the downside is that NOTHING would happen to you 😉

          3. careful…
            Slow down, you are headed for solipsism. And that is real scary when you get there, all by yourself.

          4. Aha
            And that right there is the problem: one cannot shield oneself from the influences of the collective unconscious, because one does not live in a a vacuum.

          5. 😉 I don’t know if you can

            I don’t know if you can get away with saying that nothing would actually happen. Everything still happens.

            I can see positives in things that are conducive to good mental health or reduction in fear. So living in a world where you are told you are evil or sinful for being gay, or, for this conversation, that you are under attack by ghosts.

            I expect that many people in the world, gay people in Iran for example, simply get by by not believing they are evil for being that way. Just like many atheists who are told they are sinful or less human (as BBC Radio 4 told me this morning) deal with it by simply shrugging it off and not ‘believing’ in it. Though I guess blogging like this and other internet action could be seen as self help.

            Realistically I think it is possible to show that living in any type of ‘world’ with any type of working brain means that it is impossible to have no beliefs. Every human brain is jam packed with them. As such your point would be an impossibility.

            A program this morning was debating the relative merits of science vs religion, logos vs mythos. On the side of science was logos, and on the side of religion was mythos. Then it sort of spieled on as normal since it was a sunday Christan program. What it completely missed is that on the science side there is still a combination of mythos between the logos. Multiverses, hidden realities, dark matter, quantum consciousness are all mythos within the construct of the logos of science. The main thing that was going on was that the program wished to define mythos as specifically their type of mythos (specifically theistic christian mythos). So science contained no mythos or poetry and was purely logos, which is nonsense – there is a lot of mythos in the gaps.

            There is mythos that works within the blanks left by logos, and there is mythos that rides over logos attempting re-writes (sometimes forcibly) as it goes.

            Even if you didn’t believe in a single paranormal explanation it would still not be possible to say that you believed in ‘nothing’, to do so is only trying to say that there is a correct mythos and that it is your mythos.

            (of course i make a distinction between the mythos used to explain the paranormal and the unexplained phenomena itself – obviously the paranormal exists or we wouldn’t be talking about it, but it exists like weather once did – is it the gods fighting in the heavens, or is it atmospherics… etc)

          6. Vacuum
            And, like I responded to earthling, even if you don’t believe in things like UFOs and ghosts, that doesn’t protect you from ever experiencing them. The Universe might react to you indifference in some pretty violent ways.

            It might affect you in how you rationalize the event. And maybe that rationalization would be in accordance to your current belief system; or it would shatter your world view and force you to expand your horizons… or obliterate you.

          7. Exactly!
            I take much less


            I take much less issue with things like UFO’s. I did see something funny in the sky once, but the experience was not great enough to convince me of the standard alien hypothesis. If an alien gets out and whacks you with a stick…. It is all a matter of degree’s.

            Part of it is playing devils advocate I guess, but the important thing with UFO’s and aliens is that it breaks no rules. We could almost fly to other star systems if we wanted. Aside from the repercussions of perhaps being invaded from space, or being invaded right now, I don’t know why people get so het up about UFO’s other than just the fun of intellectual sparring. I guess we just have a drive for people to believe the same as we do.

            Something like Jesus being the son of God or humans being created or evolved are different investigations entirely.

    1. For the record
      For the record, I remember having what is currently referred to as ‘sleep paralysis’ as a child. I remember at least a couple of occasions when I experienced dark observing presences in the room, like a semitransparent cloaked figure, or several smaller figures, combined with the inability (or unwillingness?) to move. There were visual impressions – once I ‘saw’ a crouching figure silhouetted against my window.

      Quite commonly I would dream of trying to run away from something, but I could get no traction, a bit like being in a hamster wheel. Other times I would dream of going places in my bed or flying.

      None of this has happened for a long time, perhaps reflecting my more settled existence, but I occasionally find myself floating above the ground in dreams as a way to get around more efficiently. I am aware I’m doing this and seem to enjoy the level of control I have, to the extent that sometimes I find myself demonstrating my skills to other people, who are nevertheless indifferent!

  2. Dark Intrusions
    Excellent article, I also recommend Hurd’s book.

    Has anyone read Dark Intrusions by Louis Proud? He’s suffered sleep paralysis with all the trappings of supernatural encounters his entire life. I haven’t yet read it myself, the book is still in my to-read pile.

    About 12 years ago, I awoke on my side facing the wall, completely paralysed. I couldn’t even move my little finger. I could feel something pointy pushing into my lower back, in the spine. I wanted to turn and see what it was, it felt very real and I began to panic, but I remained frozen. Exerting all my willpower, I managed to crane my neck to look over my shoulder — to see a humanoid covered in a dark robe, its face obscured by the shadows of its cowl, holding a long metallic needle in gloved hands, piercing my back. I was sleeping on a futon, so the humanoid was either very short or kneeling. That’s the last thing I can remember from that encounter. I also remember waking up at another point during that night, the apartment flooded with bright light, a white light, and willowy beings with large heads and long arms flitting about the place, looking in rooms and in cupboards. Unlike the humanoid sticking the needle in my back, which felt very real and I was definitely awake for, I’m not sure if I dreamt this encounter. I also wasn’t scared or paralysed, and wanted to get up and join them (they looked like they were having fun), but I was too sleepy.

    I had sleep paralysis like this for several years, then nothing for a while (at least no episodes I can remember). I then had another spate over the last few years, but nothing recently. The episodes tend to come and go in definite phases, but rarely do I see any supernatural beings — I only encountered the needle poking dwarf once, and that episode was distinctly different to the vast majority of my sleep paralysis.

    1. launching pad for OOBE’s…

      I’ve had sleep paralysis for 15 plus years. I went on a fact finding expedition in my 20’s(back in the 90’s!) only to find that there are no official facts concerning this phenomena. I even went to see my dr. who said that there was nothing wrong with me physically and that I might want to see a shrink…I didn’t. Years later, the internet introduced me to forums of people who had the same ‘affliction’.

      Turns out the ‘occult’ interpretation fit me to a T. Robert Monroe called this state, mind awake/body asleep. You’re not really physically paralyzed even though it seems that you are…your body is simply still asleep while your mind has awakened. The weirdest part was that I could see around the room, as though my eyes were open. That’s the reason people think they are actually paralyzed.

      The occultists call this, “astral vision”. The ability to see with your eyes closed. Well, I’ll try not to ramble too much, but after a lot of research and practice, I found out that I can use this state to launch astral projections, or out of body experiences(whatever your preferred nomenclature).

      I’ve studied astral projection for years, purchased gobs of books, how-to guides, tapes(in the day), cd’s, downloaded mp3’s, tried binaural beats, yoga, you name it, and nothing so far has ever worked for me except Monroe’s tried and true ‘roll out method’ during sleep paralysis.

      Now, a word about the ‘others’ in sleep paralysis. Two things that are always the same for me EVERY SINGLE TIME I go into sleep paralysis and roll out into an AP is:

      1) I hear stuff going on that really isn’t there…voices, dogs barking, traffic going by(I live in the woods, there is no traffic), birds in the middle of the night, it’s a cacophony of weird auditory stuff that I have no idea where it comes from…sometimes the voices are personal, calling my name, or seemingly trying to communicate with me, but most typically it’s just background noise.

      2)I always, always, ALWAYS feel the ‘other’ in the room with me. There is an undeniable sense of someone else in the room with me. Sometimes I catch glimpses of it/he/she/whatever, but mostly I just feel that it/they are there.

      At first this ‘other’ scared me so bad that I thought a demon was in the room, or a ghost, or whatever other nightmarish ghoul I could scare myself with. In the beginning, I taught myself techniques on how to wake up as soon as I felt this ‘other’, but after I read a few testimonies on how to AP from a sleep paralysis state, I started practicing not being afraid.

      And now, years and many AP’s later, that ‘other’ still scares the be-jeebus out of me…right until the point where I shift over to the astral…then it’s gone. Every time. The sense of the ‘other’ leaves the instant I’ve gone astral, and the fear is immediately replaced with exhilaration…every time.


      1. Heightened hearing
        Thanks Dustin, that’s given me food for thought.

        1) I hear stuff going on that really isn’t there…[/quote]

        I’ve noticed this during my experiences too, although not so much noises that aren’t in my neighbourhood — it’s more that my sense of hearing is incredibly sharpened (usually it’s not too good, I suffer tinnitus and blocked sinus passages). It’s like those frosty cold nights, when you can hear sounds from a mile away as clearly as if the sources were right next to you.

        1. the astral soundtrack

          Brother man, that is really interesting…I’ve never considered(in all of my searching)that the sounds I was hearing may in fact be real transmissions from people near or far away and that maybe those sounds are really my in-the-moment-astrally-attuned-ears that have picked up on them…I’ve always brushed them off as being either hallucinatory or other worldly.

          …hmm…very good food for thought and experimentation…Thank you, sir!

          By the by…I’ve talked to my cat several times during AP’s, and it has always been an enlightening experience.

          One time, I found myself at the refrigerator. I realized that I was OOB, and started back to my bedroom. In the hallway, I saw my cat. I stopped and scratched her ears and asked her how she was doing. She looked up at me and said(through thought not actually spoken words), “I’m a little confused about the litter arrangements…am I supposed to go in the box or can go where it used to be?”

          We had just moved into a new apartment, and I had put the litter box in my daughters room…a week later I moved it to the bathroom, but I found her pooing and peeing in the same spot where the litter pan was temporarily in my daughter’s room…

          Incidentally, after I told her during an astral projection that the proper place was in the litter pan in the bathroom, she never soiled my daughters carpet again…coincidence?


          1. Astral cat
            By the by…I’ve talked to my cat several times during AP’s, and it has always been an enlightening experience.

            I notice with Neva that everytime I go to bed or I’m falling asleep watching tv or reading, she always races to sit near me or on top of me, purring loudly and watching me intently. I get the impression she’s been eagerly waiting for me to fall asleep and enjoys it. I’m always waking up mid-dream before dawn with Neva sitting on top of me either asleep or staring at me and purring. She’s often in my dreams as well, and shapeshifts regularly — lizards, polar bears — and I usually spend the rest of the dream trying to find her. An ex-housemate’s cat did the same thing. I wonder if there’s something about Delta brain waves that a cat can sense.

            It may explain the folklore of cats sitting on top of people while they sleep, especially children, and stealing their breath/soul.

  3. Meh
    The brain is a very powerful thing. Ya’ll know as much as I do(I hope), that when we look for some kind of inter-connectedness we usually find it, even when others see it as complete nonsense, our newly made connection is as strong as the collective unconscious’ masculine fatherly figure. Dream interpretations and ISP don’t seem to go well with each other in my opinion. ISP seems more susceptible to external influence than dreams, or what is on ones mind(at the time of the event)…shit, then we have fanatics.

    I’ve made my bedroom bend and twist at my own whim on many occasions, though my own power of thought while eyes wide open. I do not believe something divine is going on here, but others do. Seems natural to me…for us to dream, awake or asleep.

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