Why Do We Think Demons Visit Us In Our Sleep? Night Terrors Explained

Posted on: April 1st, 2013

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Filmmaker Carla MacKinnon suffered from the condition that woke her up several times a week unable to move, with the sense that there was a disturbing presence in the room with her, and on researching the phenomenon she  is now turning that work into a short film and multiplatform art project that aims to explore the weird phenomenon of sleep paralysis (The film is supported by the Wellcome Trust and set to screen at the Royal College of Arts in London, will debut in May).



Sleep paralysis had former associations with Incubi and Succubi way back as far as 2400 BC – in much less advanced, and more superstitious times – and happens when people regain consciousness from sleep while their muscles remain in the ultra-relaxed state that prevents them from moving . The experience can be suffocating and pretty terrifying and has caused people to hallucinate or imagine a malevolent presence nearby, restraining or suffocating them.

Surveys put the number of sleep paralysis sufferers between about 5 percent and 60 percent of the population and there are numerous descriptions of sleep paralysis in works of fiction throughout the ages, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to accounts by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. There are also the classic artistic depictions painted by Henry Fuseli in the late 18th century that suggest that this has been a phenomenon common in humanity since ancient times.

According to MacKinnon:

 ”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,”

Talking with psychologists and scientists about the disorder, as well as to people who experience the phenomenon the same way she does MacKinnon realised that Myths and legends about sleep paralysis still persist globally, from the forementioned incubus and succubus to a pink dolphin-turned-nighttime seducer in Brazil.


Mythic Tales Of Terror

The Incubus and Succubus began as the Lilu and Lilitu, a male and female demon who appeared at night and seduced victims and had sex with them in ancient Mesopotamia, and would continue to appear throughout European folklore  as the Incubus and Succubus. They were often investigated by the church and in some cases exorcism’s were performed on individuals thought to have been possessed by the demons.

In Brazil and the rainforests of the Amazon Basin ‘the Boto’ is a combination of siren and incubus, a very charming and beautiful man who seduces young women and takes them into the river. It is said to be responsible for disappearances and unwanted pregnancies, and it can never be seen by daylight, because it metamorphoses into a kind of river dolphin during those hours. According to legend the boto always wears a hat to disguise the breathing hole at the top of its head.


Recounting The Horrors



According to LiveScience, while researching these stories MacKinnon heard:

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.

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  • Jeanie235

    I get this on a very regular basis and have done for about 9 years now. I have mastered some degree of control over it (if I really force myself I can make a sound to wake myself up or in some cases change the demon/creature into something less scary) but this doesn’t always work. All research I have done indicates that people are rarely affected for prolonged periods, and that it is more common amongst teenagers. Any suggestions on how I can make it go away?

  • T. J. Wibblywobbly

    I had this condition into my mid 20s and I think it also explains the phenomenom where people think they’re being visited by aliens.
    My theory is that these waking dreams are based in a fear of helplessness due to possible childhood abuse and trauma.
    Mental, physical and/or sexual abuse (including being bullied in or out of the home) can create a feeling of helplessness that manifests itself in dreams. If you wake partially, your mind jumps to the worst conclusion and assumes you are trapped and helpless. Being only partially awake, your subconcious is still in dream mode and it creates creatures and characters that can seem extremely real.

    • SexySuperVillain

      I get this almost weakly, however, I enjoy it, the quasi-fear is invigorating. I’ve noticed that it only occurs if I sleep on my back, if I lay on my side I avoid the paralysis. Also, I’m 33 and didn’t suffer from any childhood trauma of any sort, I don’t think it stems from any preexisting conditions. From what I’ve been told from a few Doctors is that it is more frequent in people with higher levels of intellect since theie brains are more active than most.