By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 04/01/2013 11:29 AM EDT on LiveScience
When filmmaker Carla MacKinnon started waking up several times a week unable to move, with the sense that a disturbing presence was in the room with her, she didn't call up her local ghost hunter. She got researching.
Now, that research is becoming a short film and multiplatform art project exploring the strange and spooky phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The film, supported by the Wellcome Trust and set to screen at the Royal College of Arts in London, will debut in May.
Sleep paralysis happens when people become conscious while their muscles remain in the ultra-relaxed state that prevents them from acting out their dreams. The experience can be quite terrifying, with many people hallucinating a malevolent presence nearby, or even an attacker suffocating them. Surveys put the number of sleep paralysis sufferers between about 5 percent and 60 percent of the population.
"I was getting quite a lot of sleep paralysis over the summer, quite frequently, and I became quite interested in what was happening, what medically or scientifically, it was all about," MacKinnon said. [Top 10 Spooky Sleep Disorders]
Her questions led her to talk with psychologists and scientists, as well as to people who experience the phenomenon. Myths and legends about sleep paralysis persist all over the globe, from the incubus and succubus (male and female demons, respectively) of European tales to a pink dolphin-turned-nighttime seducer in Brazil. Some of the stories MacKinnon uncovered reveal why these myths are so chilling.
One man told her about his frequent sleep paralysis episodes, during which he'd experience extremely realistic hallucinations of a young child, skipping around the bed and singing nursery rhymes. Sometimes, the child would sit on his pillow and talk to him. One night, the tot asked the man a personal question. When he refused to answer, the child transformed into a "horrendous demon," MacKinnon said.
For another man, who had the sleep disorder narcolepsy (which can make sleep paralysis more common), his dream world clashed with the real world in a horrifying way. His sleep paralysis episodes typically included hallucinations that someone else was in his house or his room — he'd hear voices or banging around. One night, he awoke in a paralyzed state and saw a figure in his room as usual. [See MacKinnon's Artistic Images of Sleep Paralysis]
"He suddenly realizes something is different," MacKinnon said. "He suddenly realizes that he is in sleep paralysis, and his eyes are open, but the person who is in the room is in his room in real life."
The figure was no dream demon, but an actual burglar.
Myths and science of sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis experiences are almost certainly behind the myths of the incubus and succubus, demons thought have sex with unsuspecting humans in their sleep. In many cases, MacKinnon said, the science of sleep paralysis explains these myths. The feeling of suffocating or someone pushing down on the chest that often occurs during sleep paralysis may be a result of the automatic breathing pattern people fall into during sleep. When they become conscious while still in this breathing pattern, people may try to bring their breathing under voluntary control, leading to the feeling of suffocating.
Add to that the hallucinations that seem to seep in from the dream world, and it's no surprise that interpretations lend themselves to demons, ghosts or even alien abduction, MacKinnon said.
What's more, MacKinnon said, sleep paralysis is more likely when your sleep is disrupted in some way — perhaps because you've been traveling, you're too hot or too cold, or you're sleeping in an unfamiliar or spooky place. Those tendencies may make it more likely that a person will experience sleep paralysis when already vulnerable to thoughts of ghosts and ghouls.
"It's interesting seeing how these scientific narratives and the more psychoanalytical or psychological narratives can support each other rather than conflict," MacKinnon said.
Since working on the project, MacKinnon has been able to bring her own sleep paralysis episodes under control — or at least learned to calm herself during them. The trick, she said, is to use episodes like a form of research, by paying attention to details like how her hands feel and what position she's in. This sort of mindfulness tends to make scary hallucinations blink away, she said.
"Rationalizing it is incredibly counterintuitive," she said. "It took me a really long time to stop believing that it was real, because it feels so incredibly real."
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Also on HuffPost:
If you've ever drifted off to sleep or just woken up from sleep but were unable to move any part of your body -- spurring a sense that you are frozen in your bed -- you may have experienced sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is more common in the seconds to minutes when we're first waking up, whether in the morning or in the middle of the night, Gehrman said. When we are in REM sleep, our muscles are paralyzed so that we don't act out our dreams. But with sleep paralysis, a part of the brain wakes sooner than the rest, giving a sense of wakefulness and alertness -- even though the body's muscles are still paralyzed, Gehrman explained. However, <a href="http://www.stanford.edu/~dement/paralysis.html" target="_hplink">sleep paralysis isn't dangerous</a> despite the unsettling feeling experienced by people who have been through it, according to Stanford University. To decrease the number of sleep paralysis episodes you have, stress reduction, getting enough hours of sleep a night and making sure you have a good sleep schedule could help.
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
Opposite to sleep paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder occurs when your brain is in REM sleep but your muscles are acting out your dreams, Gehrman explained. WebMD explains the <a href="http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/rem-sleep-behavior-disorder" target="_hplink">signs of the disorder</a>: <blockquote>Dream-enacting behaviors include talking, yelling, punching, kicking, sitting, jumping from bed, arm flailing, and grabbing. An acute form may occur during withdrawal from alcohol or sedative-hypnotic drugs.</blockquote> Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic sleep specialist Tracy Kuo, Ph.D., told Everyday Health that this <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/sleep/other-disorders/REM-behavior-disorder.aspx" target="_hplink">disorder could potentially be violent</a>, especially if the person is kicking or punching his or her self or partner while sleeping. "Without treatment, it tends to get worse over time," she told Everyday Health. However, there are medications a person can take to help people relax their muscles when they sleep so that they <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/sleep/other-disorders/REM-behavior-disorder.aspx" target="_hplink">don't have any muscle activity</a> when they are in REM sleep, Everyday Health reported. REM Sleep Behavior Disorder has also been linked to <a href="http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/rem-sleep-behavior-disorder" target="_hplink">neurodegenerative diseases</a> like Parkinson's disease and multisystem atrophy, and seems to occur several years before these diseases, WebMD reported.
Sleep Walking And Talking
Similarly to sleep paralysis, sleep-walking and sleep-talking occur when part of the brain is awake but the rest of it is asleep, Gehrman said. "With sleep-walking, people are mostly asleep but you're engaging in what are usually kind of basic routine behaviors," Gehrman said. "So typically, people sleep walk and go to the bathroom, or go down to the kitchen and get something to eat, but it's all usually very routine." Because sleep-walking and sleep-talking occur in non-REM sleep, since non-REM sleep only produces bland, boring dreams, whatever the person is saying or acting out is not related to what they may actually be dreaming about, he said. However, Gehrman said that there is not yet a clear answer as to why we say or act out the things we do when we are sleep-walking or sleep-talking. Sleep-walking isn't inherently dangerous, but if a child is prone to sleepwalking, Honaker recommends that parents take safety precautions by locking windows, putting safety latches on doors, etc., so that sleep-walking children don't accidentally hurt themselves.
Bedwetting, also known as enuresis, is defined as involuntary urination by a child who is older than age 5 or 6 (either in the day or night), according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. Sarah Morsbach Honaker Ph.D., a pediatric sleep psychologist at the University of Louisville, told HuffPost that bedwetting is very common in children, and that most kids outgrow it as they get older, many times without any intervention. Honaker said a possible cause for bedwetting is maturational delay, meaning a child's body hasn't yet matured to maintain bladder control throughout the night. "You wouldn't expect a 2-year-old to be dry throughout the night," Honaker told HuffPost. "For some kids, this ability matures later than others." In addition, some kids may just have a lower arousal threshold, meaning that it takes more to rouse them from sleep if their bladder is full, she said. "Because enuresis is outgrown, there's a tendency in some cases for healthcare providers to make the decision not to treat it," Honaker said. "However, there has been research to suggest it impacts self esteem and can have social consequences." Because of that, she suggests that kids whose lives are strongly impacted by bedwetting to consider an intervention like a bedwetting alarm, which senses moisture and goes off so the child wakes up to go to the bathroom.
Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, occur more often in children, who tend to outgrow them by adolescence, Honaker said. She also clarified that they are not the same thing as nightmares. "When a child has a sleep terror, they're asleep, so typically what will happen is they will be inconsolable, seem very upset, crying, screaming, and don't even seem to recognize the parent when the parent comes into contact with them," Honaker said. Sleep terrors can go on from 2 minutes to 20 minutes or longer, and they can be very scary for parents, she said, but parents should rest assured that sleep terrors are not at all harmful for the children. "They're asleep, so there's no lost sleep, and we don't see them feeling fatigue the next day," she said. "There's typically no recall, and that's a hallmark with a sleep terror." Honaker said that anywhere from 1 to 6 percent of children will experience a sleep terror, with the typical age of onset being between 4 and 12 years old. For parents, the best thing to do is <em>not</em> wake the child up -- "it can actually make the episode worse because the child doesn't see them as a parent," she said.
Teeth grinding, also known as bruxism, occurs when you <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002386/" target="_hplink">slide your teeth back and forth</a>, and can occur in both the day and night time, according to the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. It can be annoying to sleep partners, and can even lead to joint pain or damage in the area. Teeth grinding is a result of any number of factors, including stress, misaligned teeth, ability to relax and sleeping habits, the A.D.A.M. Medical Encylopedia reported. Gehrman said that sometimes, lowering stress and anxiety can help to reduce teeth grinding at night. To manage teeth grinding -- though it isn't a cure -- people can go to their dentists to get a mouth guard to protect their teeth at night.
Exploding Head Syndrome
Exploding head syndrome is definitely more unusual than some other sleep occurrences like sleep-walking or sleep-talking, Gehrman said. "From descriptions, it's this bizarre experience that it does feel like your head is exploding" because of a loud noise going off in the head, Gehrman said. However, he noted that it's not dangerous. The American Sleep Association <a href="http://www.sleepassociation.org/index.php?p=explodingheadsyndrome" target="_hplink">describes it as</a>: <blockquote> ... Similar to a bomb exploding, a gun going off, a clash of cymbals or any other form of loud, indecipherable noise that seems to originate from inside the head.</blockquote> Gehrman said that there is little research on the phenomenon, but it seems to be a very extreme variation of hypnic jerks -- those weird leg jerks that occur when you're first falling asleep. The American Sleep Association reported that people over age 50 and women are more likely to experience the phenomena, and that it's asso<a href="http://www.sleepassociation.org/index.php?p=explodingheadsyndrome" target="_hplink">ciated with high stress and fatigue</a>.