Part of the Darkness is Darker Than the Rest
By Tobias Wayland; images by Emily Wayland
I am awake. I was asleep a moment ago, but I’m definitely awake now, although I’m not certain I’m supposed to be. I know I can move, since I am able to rotate my head to the left; but I don’t think it’s a good idea to move too much, because I’m floating a couple of feet above my bed.
My bedroom is dark, but not completely so. The ambient light of the suburbs allows me to see the outline of its contents. My weight bench is there, and so is my dresser, and in front of them, part of the darkness is darker than the rest. This part is roughly man-shaped, and right next to me.
I am not afraid. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. I’m not certain that the man-shaped darkness knows that, since he reaches out his left hand and places it comfortingly on my chest. I can still feel it today, every time I think about what happened.
He places his hand on my chest, and I’m slowly lowered back down to my bed. I don’t remember the initial levitation--assuming that it most likely happened while I slept--I only recall being lowered back down. It is as though I’m being returned from somewhere, laid gently back in my bed, and my sudden wakefulness has interrupted the process in its final stage.
After I am once again lying on my bed, it finally occurs to me that I’m on top of my comforter. I never sleep on top of my comforter. I certainly hadn’t fallen asleep that way. The shadow-man, having returned me to my repose, is gone--vanishing suddenly as I reach the bed. I lie there supinely while reflecting briefly on the oddity of the encounter, and return to sleep. It may seem strange that I was able to fall back asleep at all, let alone so quickly, but at this point in my life, I was so used to these kinds of events that I had learned to shrug them off. I wasn’t hurt, and there didn’t seem to be any important message. In fact, were I to hazard a guess, I don’t think the intention was for me to be awake for any of it.
Over a decade later, the memory is still fresh in my mind. I can’t explain it. My head fills with the static of cognitive dissonance whenever I try. I was witness to the laughably, shamefully impossible. To my mind, a shadowy figure presided over me levitating above my bed. That’s what I remember. Taken by itself, outside of any context, it doesn’t make sense. There must be more to this story.
Nighttime visitations are not unique to my experience. They’ve been with us for as long as we’ve had words to tell stories of them. We’re a species under nocturnal siege by old hags, faeries, succubi, ghosts, extraterrestrials, and a thousand other—even stranger—creatures. They all seem to have one thing in common: they love accosting us when we’re at our most vulnerable. Some would explain away these experiences as a trick of the mind. Our brains, once trusted allies, turned against us to exploit our deepest fears. Sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations--as popularized by the current materialist scientific paradigm--are common explanations for instances of late night harassment. In researching my experience I’ve pored over countless (well, I lost count, anyway) articles about the materialist explanation. Sleep paralysis is what happens when we are awake, but shouldn’t be. The associated hallucinations occur either while falling asleep (hypnagogic), or upon waking up (hypnopompic). During an episode of hypnopompic sleep paralysis one awakens without the ability to move, but with conscious perception of one’s surroundings. Often the person experiencing the event is aware of a presence in the room, and is in a state of terror. I’m unsure if the terror is a function of the sleep paralysis, or a perfectly reasonable response to the situation.
The paralysis, at least, is explainable. While asleep, it is necessary for our bodies to prevent themselves from acting out all manner of dangerous activities in which we might be participating during REM sleep. It is for this reason that our brains secrete a neurotransmitter called glycine, which paralyses our muscles while we sleep. Thus, if one were to wake up before the REM cycle is complete one would find one’s muscles still firmly in the grip of this normally helpful chemical.
The hallucinations attributable to sleep paralysis are a bit more complicated. They are eerily similar from person to person, and yet are often interpreted in vastly different ways. One man’s old hag is another man’s succubus. For now, I think it’s best that I concentrate on what they most often have in common. There is a feeling of a presence in the room, even before the person experiencing it can see what it is that’s about to terrify them. Once the creature comes into sight, the unfortunate victim--still paralyzed--is then subjected to any one of a variety of unsettling tactile sensations; the one reported most regularly is that of being sat upon, but other people have described being grabbed or even held down. The victim might try and scream, but no sound comes out. Once they are able to make the tiniest movement the spell is broken, and things appear to return to normal. Understandably afraid, it is perfectly normal for someone to stay awake for hours afterward, afraid that the event might be repeated. All in all, a genuinely unsettling experience. Unfortunately, sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations aren’t the umbrella explanations that the prevailing scientific paradigm wishes they were. They certainly don’t explain what happened to me, and in that, I am not alone.
An acquaintance of mine, Jessica*, came to me recently with an interesting experience. As an aside, this is actually a pretty common occurrence when people discover you investigate such things--everybody has a story they’re just waiting to feel comfortable enough to share. So, Jessica is awakened one night by a sharp pain in her knee--the one closest to the edge of the bed. She’s had several knee surgeries, but this is unusual. This isn’t the achiness of a sore knee. As she is roused from slumber a strange vision comes into focus: the figure of a four-foot-tall white, glowing orb. Although Jessica was immediately frightened, she somehow sensed that the orb had good intentions. Through some inexplicable communication, she understood that this being was fixing the cartilage in her knee. A short time after this realization, the enigmatic entity morphed into what she described as a “cat-like” creature and she fell back asleep very quickly, in a manner she describes as “like when you’re being put under for surgery.” The being was still present as she sank into unconsciousness. The next morning she remembered the events vividly, and says she felt a “bit nauseous and dizzy.” Her knee, however, felt great.
Jessica didn’t experience sleep paralysis, and neither did I. We weren’t hallucinating, and neither of us is making this up. First and foremost, we weren’t paralyzed. There was movement involved for us both, but we also decided not to move anymore than was absolutely necessary to observe our situation.
Nor do either of our experiences have any of the trademarks of sleep paralysis-induced hypnopompic hallucinations. They were too prolonged, and lacked the sudden disappearance triggered by movement that is present in an incidence of hypnopompic sleep paralysis. Not to mention that in both cases, we eventually went calmly back to sleep--although not necessarily of her own free will in Jessica's case.
And, of course, there is the distinct lack of terror. That, combined with the paucity of paralysis in both experiences, rules out sleep paralysis and its associated hallucinations as the cause of the events. Once sleep paralysis is discarded as an explanation, one must admit that both events lack any other trigger for a supposed hallucination. As to the veracity of our claims, well, I believe us. I know I’m not lying, and when interviewing Jessica, I was completely convinced of her sincerity.
Without the popular medical explanation, I am left to wonder what happened. I can’t help but focus on the casual nature of the events; in both instances it seemed like we weren’t meant to be awake. It is as though a process--which exists independently outside of us--was accidentally interrupted. I can’t help but imagine what it would have been like had I watched from outside my body. Perhaps I would have seen myself levitated off of the bed and taken away, or merely witnessed my prone body used as an unwitting magician’s assistant to be floated in the air for a hidden audience.
Regardless of whatever weird use might have been found for my unconscious form, the experiential evidence points to an external cause for the phenomenon. That being the case, I must examine who might be responsible, because this phenomenon acts with far too much direction and purpose to be a what. Some people tell stories of fairies that come and harass people in the night, or steal their children from their beds--perhaps I was the victim of the fair folk. There are even people whose nighttime visitations are blamed on restless spirits, who come to molest them while they slumber--maybe it was a ghost. Since at least the twentieth century, the talk is that it’s extraterrestrials who appear in one’s room to perform their Space Age experiments. I guess it could have been aliens. Or, maybe, there’s something that we call fairies or ghosts or extraterrestrials, but is something else entirely. Maybe there’s something with which humanity has been interacting for a very long time that has, at different times, gone by many different names. And, perhaps, this thing or things is unknown; or, far more unsettlingly, perhaps it is unknowable.
*I’ve changed the name of my acquaintance to protect her identity