Sleep Paralysis in Art

I’m a bit obsessed with sleep paralysis and its depiction in art. I suffered from the malignant visitations and immobilized panic for at least a decade. I received an email once from somebody who was scouring sleep paralysis forums  looking for people who would tell their story for a television piece on the subject. I declined mainly because it was a week or so after 9-11 and I still wasn’t sure about being up in the air.

I have seen these programs aired now. I don’t know what sleep paralysis is, but the current theory is that is an anomaly, biochemical in nature. “When entering REM sleep, the brain shuts down the release of certain neurotransmitters in order to induce a state of paralysis. The body cannot move, and so the sleeper cannot act out the activity of their dream-life (which would endanger themselves and others). In normal sleep, this paralysis ceases before the sleeper becomes consciously awake. Sometimes, however, the process falls out of step. A person may enter a state of waking conscious and become aware of their body while the body itself is still paralyzed. In some cases, the combination of wakeful and dream consciousness can cause frightening and convincing hallucinations.”–from

The part I don’t understand is why do those of us with hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations all have the visitors? Why the trolls and succubi and grey people and demons? Why are our visiting creatures so similar to one another’s?

Henry Fuseli painted the most popular image of a sleep paralysis hallucination. Because of the popularity of the work, he made this one as well  in 1790. The original painting is cited several times on this blog and is at the heading image.

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Sleep Paralysis "The first one"

Henry Fuseli


Night Terror Art Print

Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (Swiss, 1741-1825).

My Dream, My Bad Dream, 1915, by Fritz Schwimbeck

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The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781 (detail)

Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), by Eugène Thivier (1894)

Robert G Fresson Photograph: Robert G Fresson

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Can’t find a credit for this one but wow, it it creepy

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