The devil at the end of my bed

I watched Paranormal Activity yesterday evening on DVD. I found the movie deeply, thrillingly, and realistically frightening—not because I believe in ghosts or demons, but because it returned me to a time in my life when I did.

Between the ages of ten and sixteen or so, I experienced a few episodes of what I realize now must have been sleep paralysis. This occurs when the brain rouses from REM sleep but the body essentially remains asleep. You're fully awake and aware, but you can't move a muscle.

That's exactly what happened to me maybe half a dozen times that I remember. I would wake up in the darkness of my bedroom unable to move, terrified by the certain convinction that the Devil himself was holding me immobile, and that he was going to kill me. I would struggle to move for what seemed like an hour, to no avail. I would struggle to form words, to shout for help, also to no avail. I would struggle not to fall back to sleep, because I knew if I fell asleep I would die. I would silently pray to God for deliverance from my assailant, deliverance that only came when I did fall back into unwilling unconsciousness.

On one very memorable occasion, when I was an older teenager, this happened on a visit to my uncle's house in Los Angeles, while I was cocooned in sleeping bag on his living room floor. My father was in a sleeping bag not six feet away, but I couldn't make the tiniest peep to wake him up so he could save me.

I've never talked about this with anyone, so I know that any conclusions I drew about what was going on with these night episodes were completely mine. And the conclusion I drew was that I had somehow, through bad actions and thoughts, opened myself up to the power of evil. (It also did not help that an episode in Mormon mythology has Joseph Smith overwhelmed and held immobile by Satan while he prays to God to learn which church he should join. In a strange way, I convinced myself that Satan would not bother with me unless I had some fantastic destiny to fulfill. And that scared me too.)

The comforting thing I discovered many, many years later, after reading about sleep paralysis, is that my experience was normal for sufferers of this disorder. The paralysis is usually accompanied by panic and a sense of severe threat, and many, many people sense the illusion of a threatening presence during episodes. I'm far from the only person to wake up believing a demon or devil is holding them captive.

Which leads me back to Paranormal Activity. The movie is not about sleep paralysis, but it is about a demon haunting. The build-up of eerie events takes place slowly and with excruciating restraint, which resulted in me hugging my knees on the couch and at moments clambering backward in fright. I think it was probably much more effective playing in a darkened living room that it would have been in a movie theater, at least for me.

But as freaked out as the movie made me, it also left me feeling exhilarated. There was the joy of seeing skilled moviemaking play out, yes, but there was also the shivery return to an age when I truly believed I had brought demons into my home—tempered by the realization that at the end of the movie I could safely return to the reality in which demons are nothing more than a story for scaring gullible children (and adults).

Laura came home before the movie was over, and I gushingly enthused to her about how to the movie was affecting me. Then we went to bed, and I slept like a baby.  

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill

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