Inhuman Swill : Nightmares

Floppy puppy

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Between five and six this morning, I had a pretty awful dream. I was somehow in a big grungy rusty white panel van with my family, who I guess were visiting town. Except it wasn't my family as it exists now. It was my parents circa the mid-seventies and my four youngest brothers and sisters circa the mid-eighties. My three other siblings were not around, but for some reason I was being forced to go to church with the family—a stake conference, to be precise. I didn't want to go, but there didn't seem to be a way out, and as we parked in gray dusk light near the church I realized angrily that I was going to miss meeting my friend Kevin that evening for beer (which is actually on my schedule for tonight).

The church was a strange one inside, with a chapel that was much wider than it was long, and with the congregation seated on rising auditorium-style benches looking down at the pulpit. The only door in or out was in the corner behind and to the left of the pulpit, so if I tried to leave everyone would see. As I tried to work up my courage to leave, I realized that I wasn't wearing Sunday clothes like the rest of the family. I had on white shorts and a black T-shirt with something printed on it. (Probably something obscene, I don't know.) Feeling hideously exposed, I turned to my parents and loudly announced that I was leaving and they couldn't stop me.

Outside the church, I found Ella on the porch leaning against the wall beside the door. Apparently she'd been in the van and someone had left it open. Anger surged inside me. Ella was very groggy and didn't even lick me as I picked her up and cradled her in my arms. She flopped bonelessly, like a rag doll, and somehow I knew she'd been hit by a car that pulverized her skeleton. I kicked open the door to the church and strode into the chapel bearing my dog like an accusation. "You did this to her!" I screamed.

That's when I woke up.

Gee, I don't still have any issues.

I watched Paranormal Activity yesterday evening on DVD while waiting for Laura to get home from work. 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.

Occasionally I have vivid nightmares that leave me afraid to go back to sleep. (Probably PTSD from the LDS years.) The night before last, I had the worst I'd had in some time. It was one of those dreams that seems, while it's happening, to go on for weeks or years. It was also populated by a large cast of my friends—except that, in the way of dreams, none of these friends was anyone I recognized from real life.

These dozen or so friends and I were living on or visiting a subtropical island or peninsula of some sort. We were having a grand time doing incomprehensible things until a giant storm brought flooding. I climbed up a high stepladder to get out of the rushing water. One of my friends followed me up the ladder. I don't know if he was pulling me off or if he was going to make the ladder tip over or if I was just selfish or what, but I kicked him in the face until he fell off the ladder. The swirling water carried him away.

Soon enough things were sunny and dry again, and we were all living in a white multistoried house or possibly a beached yacht. All of us were having a grand time—all of us but our missing friend, of course. He turned up before long, though, not dead and hellbent on killing me for kicking him off the ladder. My other friends hid me downstairs in the house or boat, keeping a lookout from the upper stories.

Eventually, one of my friends came downstairs and told me the coast was clear. In a few minutes it would be time for me to meet the rest of the group out front and make my escape. He went back upstairs, and at the appointed time I slipped out of the house to the rendezvous point outside.

I found myself in a jungle clearing, but no one else was waiting for me there. That's when I realized that all my friends were hiding in the jungle, surrounding me. They had been on the side of the vengeance-seeker all along, and had lured me into this trap to kill me. I don't know whether they had knives or arrows or what, but just as they emerged from hiding to go to work on me, my alarm woke me up.

Okay, so that was pretty fucking scary (and maybe I'm thinking about it again today because I finally watched Episode Ten of Dollhouse, "The Attic," last night). I was glad it was time to get up, and that there'd be no question of going back to sleep.

But then something even worse happened. I made a pot of coffee, then set my first cup down on a piece of furniture while I picked up my laptop. I didn't see that the laptop cord was looped around my mug. Coffee all over the floor. I nearly wept.

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