Imagine waking up with a jolt, and suddenly, you realize that you are staring into the eye of a blood-curdling monster. The monster is staring towards you with bloodshot eyes full of vengeance. As you attempt to free yourself and run, you realize your whole body has locked in. Forget running; you can’t even move a finger as you are frantically trying to run away or defend yourself from the mythical monster and prepare yourself for your fate. If you can recollect such an incident or remember any of your friends or close ones retelling you about any such incidents, you may have encountered an incident of sleep paralysis. Or in other words – the shadow people phenomenon.
Instances of sleep paralysis and paranormal sightings of shadow people have been a dominant theme enshrined in various writings and research since the middle ages. This article aims to explore sleep paralysis and the phenomenon of shadow people. While exploring this phenomenon we will analyze the scientific, cultural and neuroscientific perspectives associated with these incidents.
What is Sleep Paralysis? What is the Shadow People Phenomenon?
Any instance of sleep paralysis is codified into a broad term known as parasomnia. Sleep paralysis consists of a pairing between wakefulness and sleep. Due to this mixture, the overall experience of sleep paralysis is highly troubling. If we analyze the patterns of sleep paralysis, we discover a typical pattern associated with such instances. The feeling of suffocation and various hallucinations is a common theme across all experiences of sleep paralysis.
During a bout of sleep paralysis, individuals experience atonia. Atonia is defined as a condition wherein individuals lose complete control of their muscles. Sleep paralysis can range as long as twenty minutes or as short as a few seconds. Therefore, an average episode of sleep paralysis lasts six minutes.
Instances of sleep paralysis consisting of a mixture of atonia and hallucinations has been the reason for various stories around sleep paralysis and shadow people. The time period of any sleep paralysis incident is usually before waking up or just after the body falls asleep.
Research around sleep paralysis shows that around 20% of people may experience a single instance of sleep paralysis at any point in their life. Although instances of sleep paralysis can start at any age, the primary symptoms of sleep paralysis are usually visible during adolescence or initial adulthood.
Types of Sleep Paralysis
Instances of sleep paralysis are of two categories
Isolated sleep paralysis:
Any instance of sleep paralysis which has no connection with any other kind of sleep disorder or narcolepsy is known as isolated sleep paralysis.
Recurrent sleep paralysis:
Various instances of sleep paralysis occurring in recurring episodes over some time are known as recurrent sleep paralysis. These instances are directly linked to narcolepsy.
Sleep paralysis consists of a range of feelings and sightings. However the following symptoms are commonly prevalent among incidences of sleep paralysis.
- Laborious breathing paired with exhaustion
- Excessive chest pressure
- A feeling of heavy panic or anxiety
- Sensations which feel liberating, outwardly or out of the body
The first four symptoms can be codified as typically physical in nature, while the fifth symptom, ie. Hallucinations can be considered as a mixture of physical and mental feelings. The feelings of Hallucinations can be divided into three categories.
The feeling of the presence of an intruder or stranger within your immediate perception or surroundings is known as intruder hallucination. This is a key aspect of any experience of the shadow people phenomenon.
Chest pressure Hallucinations:
The feeling of suffocation wherein individuals feel a weight on their chest or a feeling as if someone is strangulating the individual’s neck is known as chest pressure hallucinations. These hallucinations are usually paired with intruder hallucinations.
Vestibular Motor Hallucinations:
These cases involve feelings of liberation or bliss, which can also be worded as ‘out-of-body’ experiences.
Causes of Sleep Paralysis
No definitive cause for sleep paralysis has been yet found. However, a range of causes triggering sleep paralysis has been uncovered.
Cases of sleep paralysis are widespread among people suffering from any kind of sleep disorder. Usually, instances of isolated sleep paralysis are found in people suffering from sleep disorders.
People with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) symptoms, wherein individuals suffer from laborious breathing, usually suffer from sleep paralysis.
Mental health issues
Research indicates that sleep paralysis may be directly linked with certain mental health disorders. Individuals with PTSD or anxiety disorders also have sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is also common among addicts after they stop alcohol or drugs.
REM Atonia and Sleep Paralysis
Sleep isn’t a singular process. Instead, it consists of a culmination of various sleep stages. Sleep can be divided into two broad categories, ie. NREM and REM.
Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep is further divided into four categories. NREM sleep is centered around stages of deep sleep. REM sleep, on the other hand, is focused on sleep where dreaming occurs. The brain wave activity during this period is similar to the waking state of an individual.
REM sleep is directly associated with our dreaming state. During this period, ‘atonia’ kicks into our bodies. Due to Atonia, the muscles sans the eye muscles within our entire body completely lock, resulting in temporary paralysis. This Atonia prevents the body from intense physical actions which might occur due to any dynamic experience within the dream.
However, sometimes, during REM sleep, the brain wakes up abruptly. Due to the state of waking up being abrupt, sometimes the body doesn’t release itself from the Atonia. Thus the person wakes up, but the body is still in Atonia. This period is known as REM Atonia. Various instances of hallucinations or sleep paralysis are heavily grounded in REM Atonia.
Shadow People and Sleep Paralysis
While talking about Sleep paralysis, a definitive theme enshrined within all these experiences talks about the existence of a creature or ghost. Let’s define this otherworldly entity as shadow people.
What are Shadow People?
The shadow people phenomenon can be classified as the perception or sightings of any shadow of any living creature, cryptid or humanoid, which may be assumed by an individual as something supernatural – perhaps spirits or any other worldly entity depending on the individual’s personal beliefs.
History of the Shadow People Phenomenon
Shadow people have been a definitive part of historical writings all over the ages. During the age of the Renaissance, when orthodoxy was at the forefront, troubled sleep was considered to be the result of witches.
A close look at the semantics of the word ‘nightmare’ reveals that an attack by a magical horse called ‘mare’ is known as a nightmare. Middle-age history reveals bedtime traditions wherein people wear various types of beads, preventing attacks on any individual.
During the Salem Witch Trials, there were various testimonies of people having sightings of witches. The sighting of such witches is highly consistent with the symptoms of sleep paralysis.
Shadow People have been a dominant theme across various cultures. Although the visual graphics might differ, the base pattern remains the same.
‘Jinn’, also known as a genie, is an extraterrestrial creature supposed to kill its victim. Writings about Jinn and its terror are seen across various historical recordings in Egypt.
A giant creature or a witch, also known as Pandafeche, assaults its victim during sleep paralysis.
Locals believe that an instance of sleep paralysis results from black magic practice involving ‘tokoloshe’, also known as mythical dwarf-like creatures.
Influence of Culture on the Shadow People Phenomenon
As seen above, sightings of shadow people have been a common theme across various cultures. Psychological research around these sightings shows a definitive link between culture and the intensity of shadow people’s experiences.
Egyptians generally believed that the incidence of sleep paralysis was highly dangerous. They considered the average period of an experience to be much longer than an average experience. Another pattern that emerged was that attribution to supernatural forces induced greater fear among individuals.
Recurring patterns: Shadow People
Looking at the various shadow people’s sightings during sleep paralysis, we notice a definitive pattern behind the graphic details:
Any shadow people encounter is always paired with paralysis. Immobility is always the primary reason behind the intensification of the fear response.
- Dark Silhouette/Ominous presence
As the name suggests, Shadow people always occur in the form of dark reflection, which may be anthropomorphic, cryptid or some hybrid. However, they are always shadowy instead of having a precise figure and allude to an ominous presence.
Shadow people always bring about a feeling of fear, dread and harmful intentions in the hearts of the individual experiencing the phenomenon. The negativity induced by these figurines is a common theme among all sightings of shadow people.
Shadow People/Sleep Paralysis: Psychological View
Psychology has been deeply intrigued by shadow people, and various branches within psychology have undertaken diverse research and study of this shadow people phenomenon.
Freud and Sleep Paralysis
Sigmund Freud talked about the division of the brain into three parts such as conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. These three parts store our various desires, fears etc. While the conscious talks about general fears and fantasies, the unconscious mind stores a collection of repressed thoughts and desires.
Freud says that during sleep paralysis, emotions which might be repressed or conflicts that might be unresolved may come forward in the form of shadow people or hallucinations. Freud went forward and interpreted immobility to be utterly symbolic. The immobility represents a deep feeling of being trapped due to these internal fears and hidden desires.
The sightings of shadow people act as a portal to access these unresolved conflicts. These sightings help individuals face their fears, understand their internal fears, and accordingly manage them.
Evolution view of psychology and Sleep Paralysis
An evolutionary perspective links sleep paralysis to the innate survival mechanism internalized within our brain. To survive, it was always necessary for humans to detect and neutralize any threat within an individual’s environment.
Due to the brain working in a heightened state of alertness, sleep paralysis may have developed as a defensive mechanism to protect a human being from any potential dangers.
Shadow People: Neurological Analysis
The perception of shadow people is heavily grounded in neuroscience-based aspects. A fundamental neurological analysis of this instance reveals that activation of various regions in the brain results in the creation of various emotions grounded in fear. The induction of fear results in the creation of hallucinations concerning shadow people.
Definitive research on shadow people’s neurological aspect opens up new frontiers. A region within the brain known as the ‘temporoparietal junction’ stimulates the process of self-processing. The stimulation of these areas results in the culmination of various body-based multisensory information.
During the research, the area under research was subjected to electrical stimulation, which caused a disturbance of multisensory and sensorimotor information within the body. These disturbances induced the appearance of symptoms of schizophrenia within the patient. The patient never had any history of schizophrenia. The appearance of shadow creatures is a dominant symptom of schizophrenia.
Another explanation associated with the appearance of shadow people is that during sleep paralysis, an individual is vulnerable and alert, which results in a petrified state of being. Due to the brain’s exposure to heavy vulnerability, the individual may view various fear-inducing individuals. Thus, shadow people and the shadow people phenomenon.
Visual hallucinations can also be attributed to ‘pareidolia’, ie. A general brain tendency to view various familiar patterns within random stimuli.
Shadow People: Beyond Sleep Paralysis
Although sleep paralysis and shadow people seem to be heavily interconnected, the instance of shadow people is a recurring episode among various disorders.
Any individual exposed to a heightened state of arousal, such as walking down a dark alley during a pitch-dark night, might result in the perception of a shadowy figure.
Methamphetamine consumers report sightings of shadow people during high periods of sleep deprivation. Users of Methamphetamine described sightings of shadow people standing around themselves around the places such as adjacent chairs or standing between doorways. These sightings help us understand the fact that methamphetamine users could feel a very ominous presence of shadow people which is similar to instances centered around sleep paralysis.
Consumption of delirious substances such as benzydamine or datura has also shown results of sightings of shadow people. Individuals who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder report viewing various shadow people.
The Shadow People Phenomenon: The Bottomline
Sleep paralysis and the associated hallucinations – also known as shadow people phenomenon – have been a part of human history since immemorial. Although the past has been highly cruel to people associated with these sightings, the current history looks at this phenomenon with a highly scientific and research-based approach.
Scientists have been focused on unraveling the mysteries behind these sightings, which have grounds within psychology and neuroscience. But the advent of psychology has been very new in human history therefore the research around sleep paralysis is limited.