Demystifying the lore that you’re being visited by demon when you wake but unable to move

From time immemorial, there has been the assumption and belief that when someone, though awake from sleep, is unable to move the legs, hands or body, it means an evil spirit is pressing the person from gaining full consciousness. 

Even a Dutch physician Isbrand Van Diembroeck wrote about the case of a 50-year old woman in good health who often complained of mysterious experiences at night, while she was composing herself to sleep. 

Dr Van Diembroeck explained that, “sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was [choked] by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or [breathe], and when she endeavored to throw off the [burden], she was not able to stir her members.”

Demystifying the lore that you're being visited by demon when you wake but unable to move

Like so many other people going through such experience, what the woman in Van Dimbroeck’s account likely experienced was a condition that has come to be known as “sleep paralysis.”

Before modern medical science figured out the causes behind sleep paralysis, many cultures around the world created extraordinary explanations to explain this ordinary phenomenon. Because many people experience visual or auditory hallucinations during sleep paralysis, this phenomenon has long been explained by paranormal or demonic activity. In many cultures throughout history, malevolent spirits, demons, and even witches have been blamed for attacks by sleep paralysis. Today, this may account for many modern reports of ghost visitations, alien abductions, and out-of-body experiences.

Demystifying the lore that you're being visited by demon when you wake but unable to move

Debunking the Belief 

Researchers define sleep paralysis as “a common, generally benign, parasomnia characterized by brief episodes of inability to move or speak  and often combined with waking consciousness.”

People who suffer from sleep paralysis wake up unable to move or speak and often sense a presence in the room. During sleep paralysis, some people experience terrifying hallucinations that make it seem like they’re residing inside a movie…this is where some of the creepiest myths about sleep paralysis come from, because, even if the demon isn’t real, the fear most definitely is.

Describing sleep paralysis as an experience in which an individual is conscious of their surroundings and able to open their eyes, but usually completely unable to move, Dr Jibril Abdulmalik, a Consultant and Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, noted that sleep paralysis typically happens soon after falling asleep or a little before the person’s usual time of waking up. He explained that though very scary, the condition is like any other medical ailment which does not call for panic, but rather for medical advice and treatment.

Also, a Journal of Sleep Research, Volume 17, Issue 4, first published on 28 November 2008, stated that Sleep paralysis occurs immediately prior to falling asleep (hypnagogic paralysis) or upon waking (hypnopompic paralysis). Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are visual, tactile, auditory or other sensory events, usually brief but sometimes prolonged, that occur at the transition from wakefulness to sleep (hypnagogic) or from sleep to wakefulness (hypnopompic). Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are often associated with sleep paralysis.

In fact, these visions and sensations can seem so realistic to many people that they may think they are having a paranormal experience, or even being subjected to strange tests and rituals.

According to Researchers  such as Cheyne et al., 1999a,b; Gangdev, 2006; McNally and Clancy, 2005, most often there is pervasive fear, sometimes so strong that people are sure they are about to die and are afraid to gobac to sleep after such attacks that may include people, animals, parts of objects, or just shapes, and a nightmarish experience. During such experience, people visualize intruders, demons, spirits, animals or vampires in their bedroom; they see someone or something coming through the window; they hear footsteps getting closer and they fear they would be killed or raped in their bed being unable to escape. Some victims see strangers walk in and out of their bedroom. Sleep paralysis and hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations form the basis for historical ‘old hag attacks’, nocturnal attacks and rapes, space alien abductions, and ghostly visitations. Sleep paralysis and hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations can be related to specific physiological conditions identified for REM states. They arise from temporary discordance in the architecture of REM sleep.

According to Dr Maria Cohut, a teacher, academic ambassador, and writer, the reason sleep paralysis is so scary is not just because the patient suddenly becomes alert but also that he/she realizes that he or she is unable to move a muscle or utter a sound and that such experience is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations.

These, as specialized literature has now ascertained, typically fall into three distinct categories:

  • A sensed presence, or intruder hallucinations, in which the person feels the presence of an evil, threatening individual.
  • Incubus hallucinations, in which the person might feel someone or something pressing down uncomfortably, even painfully, on their chest or abdomen, or trying to choke them.
  • Vestibular-motor hallucinations, during which the individual thinks that they are floating, flying, or moving; sometimes, these may also include out-of-body experiences, in which a person thinks that their spirit or mind has left their body and is moving and observing events from above

Among the types of dreamlike hallucinations listed above, the first type, a sensed presence, is one of the most commonly experienced situations by people with sleep paralysis.


To Medical experts, the myth that it is the ‘devil laying upon someone and holding the person down whenever he/she tries to wake from sleep’ is not true. Rather, the experience is a medical condition like any other medical ailment and also has treatment. 

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State, to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in Journalism and enhance Media Literacy in the Country.

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