It was warm under a grey sky, yet the air felt crisp. A storm had passed through in the night, lifting a heavy blanket of humidity off the city. The ground was slowly drying in the morning heat and spots of sunlight peeking through the clouds.
I was driving back from my morning class on the north campus – driving because my small two-person dorm room was on the south. As I pulled into the ever-crowded parking lot of my ten-story dorm, dozens of students strolled up and down the sidewalk heading wherever they needed to head. It was impossible to walk the campus without seeing someone who you’ve never seen before in your life, and whom you will probably never see again. I never could decide if that was proof of life’s beauty or its great tragedy; that there are people I could chance encounter every day who I will never know.
I joined the persistent tide of students going about their days. As I walked the half-block to my building’s main entrance, I had a strange vision, like a daydream that was so visceral it had to be real. I saw myself, walking up the sidewalk from behind, but I was not seeing through my own eyes. Someone was following me, and not in the way that hundreds of students trace each other’s steps on the well-worn paths of a university campus. A… presence that I could not readily identify walked with me. But I shook off the feeling as best as I could, certain that I was either just sleepy or suffering from a criminal lack of caffeine.
Having dropped my backpack off in my dorm room, I went down to the café to grab lunch. Two hot dogs and a coke were more than enough to fill me up.
12:30 pm. I had a full five hours until my evening class. My plan was to go chill in my room for a bit before going to the gym to lift for about an hour, leaving ample time to prepare for my one and only night class. For some reason, sitting in my room reading the school paper, The Daily Athenaeum, made me unusually tired. I attributed it to the fact that I had just eaten, and dismissed it, assuming I would regain my normal energy after a good workout at the Rec Center.
But the longer I sat at my desk, distracting myself from a now overwhelming fatigue with whatever game I pulled up on my laptop, the more my eyes started drooping. I stood up, paced around my room, and gazed out the small tenth-floor window onto the street below, trying to stimulate myself. I sat down on my bed, and lay back purely with the intention of relaxing for a few moments. Before I knew it I was dozing off.
12:57 pm. I sat up with a start within a few minutes, trying to avoid falling asleep completely, but exhaustion swept over me. I finally decided to take a short nap and fell asleep almost immediately, but this was not to be a normal nap.
I was dreaming, or at least it felt like a dream, except I was aware of my own surroundings. I could see the bright afternoon light flooding in through the window above my bed, casting pallid hues across my room. I could even see the rise and fall of my own chest as I breathed, but I was not awake. I would learn later that this is known as lucid dreaming, when the semi-conscious mind can exert a measure of influence on the dreaming world.
1:45 pm. I woke again more exhausted than before, and assured myself that this was only a coincidence. I rolled over onto my side a fell right back asleep and into this strange yet appealing state of self-awareness.
I knew that I was dreaming, but this was a bizarre sensation. I relaxed and took a deep breath, slipping ever more steadily into the dream-state. The self-awareness returned, only I could now step out of myself. Soul, spirit, essence, third eye – I could not define it, but some part of me left my physical body as I slept, and I hovered above my own peaceful form on the bed.
But my mind’s vision shifted. The crisp lines of the waking world became hazy, and the pastel colors of the afternoon sun twisted into unnatural shadows and bright splotches of grotesque graffiti. Suddenly I felt overwhelmed by some outside force pushing down on me, as if trying to trap me. My body twisted and reeled, eyes and fists clenched shut, tormented as it slept. And my mind’s eye could only watch.
I struggled, trying to free myself of this… force. I jumped back into the physical world and woke up, my heart pounding.
1:57 pm. I still had time to rest. I stepped back into my dream world, but the external force returned. I knew it was external now, though it did not make sense, this presence bearing down on my unconscious body as my conscious mind could only – feel whatever was happening to me. My arms felt pinned to the mattress as my mouth was sewn shut. I tried to fight, tried to scream, but I was frozen. Even as I tried to step out of myself once more the force whipped me back into my sleeping form violently.
The boundary between waking and dreaming sunk, melding into quicksand that I could never fully escape. Minutes ticked off the digital clock on the bedside table in unnatural increments. Five minutes. Thirteen minutes. Two minutes.
I lay with my eyes shut, but I could see. Sunlight flooded in through the window. An odd sensation crept up my fingertips and then coursed through my body. At first invigorating, the tingling sharpened as if thousands of needles were stitching me to the mattress. I could not move. I felt my muscles twitching wildly, but I was not budging. The light flooding the carpet was overtaken as a shadow crawled across the room, darkening everything.
Suddenly my eyes opened, and I was back in my normal room again.
2:28 pm. My body ached from its exertion against… that shadow. The vision returned, walking up the street, being followed by something. Was I still dreaming? Running to my dorm room, a call rang in my ears, cackling like a hundred crows, blaring horns. Terrible sounds melding into one.
I slammed into my bed once more, drowning in the tangled sheets, unable to move. Rage. Adrenaline surged through me, a tidal wave of fury that threatened to suffocate my sleeping form. I wrenched my limbs against the dark force, thrashing and screaming, but my voice was not heard, not outside the caged confines of my mind. A metallic taste trickled into my mouth. Blood.
The tingling feeling returned. I had to stop it. Hovering over myself now I reached down, grabbed the limp hand clutching the blanket, and jerked it free. Awake.
2:39 pm. But was I truly awake? No. The shadow returned, and the battle began anew. It rammed into my chest as I lay, collapsing my rib cage and driving the air out of my lungs. Breathe. Breathe.
One icy gust of air filled my lungs, and I released it, crying out, desperate for any kind of relief. But still my lips would not part. My eyes did not flicker. I left my body again and saw myself lying there, struggling. My muscles screamed and tore, but my body only twitched pitifully.
Finally the shadow relented, and I could move again. Awake, I think.
2:46 pm. My head was swimming. I felt groggy. Dark stains appeared on the blanket. Blood – real blood – from my tongue. Why was this happening? I wanted to lie down and rest, but I knew that if I slept, the shadow would return. What spirit was controlling me so, trapping me in my own body? It tormented me in my dreams, and yet impeded me physically, paralyzed me. It did not make sense. I did not want to sleep again.
Fear. Exhaustion. Sleep. The shadow was there waiting for me, taunting me to challenge it once more in its nightmare realm. It pulled at me, despite my resistance. And the laugh – bitter, and arrogant. I shuddered, and the sensation returned, knives in every pore.
I knew what to do this time. I channeled my rage, battering against the shadow and heedless of my own pain. My body twitched and jumped more violently now, fists clenched, every muscle contracting. A primal scream exploded from my chest, hateful and defiant. And the laughing ceased.
The shadow released me, and I was awake – truly awake, sitting up in my bed.
3:13 pm. I stood, resisting the urge to rest. I had no energy now to do anything but sit at my laptop, waiting for 5:30 to come. Gradually the dream – or was it dreams? I could no longer tell. The dreams receded into murky memory, dismissed as a singular episode. I did not believe that the shadow would return.
Yet it has followed me ever since, crawling out of the hidden corners of my mind to torment me, until one day I may not find the strength to fight.
Author’s Note: This story is mostly true, with perhaps some embellished details. I originally wrote it in college, around 2007-08, after an afternoon much like I described. What I experienced is commonly known as sleep paralysis. It did not surprise me to learn that many cultures around the world identify this condition as some form of demon or witch possessing their victim as they sleep, trying to suffocate them.
I want to emphasize that this feeling of an external force was planted in my brain long before I learned of the scientific cause — and its more fantasatical interpretations in many cultures. I experienced these episodes fairly frequently, about a dozen times per year, for several years. They have since slowed, but every now and then I’ll have a spurt of episodes. I can identify them now as they happen, but they are still disconcerting for me, considering my single greatest fear is being trapped inside my own body. Hope you enjoyed!