Sleep Paralysis: Haunted By a Ghost or Just Bad REM Sleep?


Lately, my holistic-mystic studies have taken me deep into the world of the Tarot de Marseille. I've become a little obsessed with the phrase, "appreciation, not appropriation" in the last year; the wellness world walks the thin line between appreciation/appropriation, with its bountiful cacao ceremonies and ayahuasca retreats and smudging practices, often facilitated by Caucasian people in the United States, who haven't been explicitly trained to perform these seriously meaningful rituals by the people from which they came.

I'm not saying we can't participate in these rituals — I'm just saying, AWARENESS of appropriative tendencies is a nice thing. But that's another blog post.

Anyway, I wanted to go back into my lineage to discover what sort of magic might be imprinted on my own DNA. After all, epigenetics is a real thing, and if my ancestors could pass down traumatic experiences through their genetic codes, perhaps they could share their mystical knowledge with me, too. I'm Italian, so I spent a few weeks Googling things like, "Italian magic," "witches in Italy," "sacred Italian rituals," "burned at the stake in Ancient Rome." Shocker, I just got a lot of Catholicism-related fodder (curses!) and recipes for really good spaghetti sauce.

Thankfully, I eventually found Ancient Italian Tarot, and the Tarot de Marseille, which is the original form of Tarot and is so different than what we typically see today. It's so disparate from Rider-Waite or Toth tarot, in fact, that I felt I had to buy some serious books in order to truly study this shit — which is where I stumbled upon this beautiful idea that every single thing is meaningful.

While reading the Tarot de Marseille, we must believe that whatever happens during that reading is imbued with meaning. The way the cards are stacked in alignment with each other, if a card pops out of the deck, if someone calls you during the reading — it's all significant.

If we extrapolate this to our whole lives, it can feel a little exhausting. What does it mean that 11:11 pops up on the clock? Or that the necklace your ex bought you just broke? Or that you get horrible breakouts every time you have to visit your family? Oy, tiring, yes! But this way of thinking can also force us to spend a little more time examining our lives. And hell, sometimes trying to figure out this cosmic puzzle is FUN! Like, what does it all meaaaaaaaan?!

OK, so admittedly, I buried the lede here. Because this is a story about sleep paralysis, and whether it is really just a harmless (yet terrifying) physiological experience, or if it is actually a deeply spiritual phenomenon. What does it all mean?

I'm sure that trash TV shows like "Unexplained Mysteries," or "An American Haunting" were my first introductions to the experience of sleep paralysis. In case you missed those episodes of quality daytime television, sleep paralysis is a condition that occurs when a person cognitively "wakes" from sleep — that is, they can see, hear, think, smell — but their body doesn't wake up. The result is an episode of paralysis, during which the person afflicted cannot speak or move, despite how much they fight to wake their body up.

About 3% of the population experience sleep paralysis, usually alongside other symptoms like visual hallucinations of an entity or being, a smell or taste, or an out-of-body experience. In pop culture, the most recent depiction of someone with sleep paralysis was Nell Crane from the Netflix show, "The Haunting of Hill House." Charming!

Unlike Nell, I don't see the Break Neck Lady during these episodes. But I do get really, really scared. My heart pounds, sometimes I can't breathe, and other times I feel deeply that there is something in my room, lurking in the shadows. A few times I've even seen *something* — whether it's a half-dreaming hallucination or not is TBD. By the end, I'm drenched in anxiety sweat and usually hyperventilating. It's not that dope.

The Nightmare,  John Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare, John Henry Fuseli

In folklore, sleep paralysis has many explanations — most of which are supernatural:

In 1664 a Dutch physician published a case history of a woman with sleep paralysis. “'The devil lay upon her and held her down,” he wrote.

In Japan sleep paralysis is called “kanashibari.” The term is rooted in Buddhism; long ago it was believed that Buddhist monks could use magic to paralyze others.

In Newfoundland sleep paralysis has been called an attack of “Old Hag.” In China it has been labeled “ghost oppression.” A new study reports that in Mexico people may say that sleep paralysis feels like “a dead body climbed on top of me.”

Did you catch that? Ghosts, devils, curses. Niiice. There are also some that believe sleep paralysis and astral projection — that is, the spiritual body leaving the physical body and traveling independently through time and space — are connected.

There are also, of course, the scientific explanations. Stress, sleep issues, narcolepsy, and irregular sleeping patterns are just a few of the factors that could contribute to a disruption in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that could lead to paralysis. "In sleep paralysis, the body's transition to or from REM sleep is out of sync with the brain. The person's consciousness is awake, but their body remains in the paralyzed sleep state."

Uh, OK. That makes sense, but is almost as freaky as a ghost walking into your room and paralyzing your body while you sleep.

Either way, I'm left wondering what these episodes mean. I firmly believe that our bodies are constantly giving us signs and signals, and we're *very* good at ignoring them. But lately, a la Tarot de Marseille, I've taken to entertaining the idea that everything in life has meaning. Why? Welp, I'm a big subscriber to the concept that it's more fun to have fun. And it's more fun to me to believe that life has meaning than to believe that life is devoid of meaning ... even if it is. We get to choose our reality.

My last sleep paralysis episode happened on Sunday night. I went to bed, and woke up in the dark with my head turned to the side, door to the bedroom barely visible out of the corner of my eye. The air seemed thick in the room, and I swear I saw the light move as if someone was there. I went to move, but couldn't. All of the energy and effort inside me went toward wiggling my fingertips, an attempt to wake up the dog so maybe she could go after whatever was in our room. Panic flooded my veins, I couldn't breathe, I tried to scream to wake myself up but I couldn't. For the first time since these episodes started, I resigned myself to my fate — there was nothing I could do, other than accept what was happening to me and stop fighting.

The minute I did there was a beat, and then I felt the air whoosh back into the room. My fingers wiggled, and eventually, I could roll over onto my back. I remember thinking, "Wow, THAT was a heavy-handed lesson in surrendering," right before falling asleep. It was definitely something to reflect on the next morning: Where in life have I been deeply struggling? That, it seems, is where I can let go.

Also, might finally have banished my own personal devil/ghost, NBD. I don't know, I don't make the rules around here.

But in all seriousness, this is why I believe that alternative, complementary, holistic and mystic practices matter. Because everything that happens to us or for us is just a little clue to pique our interest and ask, "Why?" And when examined from various perspectives, like the scientific *and* the supernatural, it's more likely that we'll land on an answer.

You might turn to astrology, or a cognitive behavioral therapist, or Vedic meditation to dive deeper into the "Why" of your wondrous life. (May I suggest a radical combination of all three?) Or not. Maybe all you need to do is keep your eyes open for the signs all around you. That shit is free.