They come quietly.
You lie in bed, perhaps on a sofa. Time for a nap, or a good night’s sleep. The world is normal. The night is quiet. All is well.
Without warning, something—a whisper, a footfall, a change in your psychic awareness—impels you to look toward the door. Something is there. You blink, look again.
A dark figure, aspiring to human shape, hovers in the doorway. Or, perhaps you see a glowing presence. Perhaps you see nothing at all, yet you know some thing is there. And aware. It is foul, malevolent, and it sees you.
Molten terror sweeps through your body and soul, and you struggle to flee. But not a finger, not a muscle, responds to your will. You fight the paralysis, but only your eyes remain free . . . yet not free at all, for they are fixed on the thing coming closer.
You scream. Not out loud, because your lips and throat are likewise frozen. In your head, however, the screams are so loud your skull aches.
The mattress sags as the thing pulls itself over the edge and then, because you cannot prevent it, crawls onto your chest. Your stomach writhes as if filled with a frenzy of serpents, and the pressure on your lungs threatens to stifle your breath.
For what seems an eternity of horror the thing assails you. Surely this is a dream, a dreadful delusion, from which you can awaken. But voices murmur on the television in the next room; you can discern what the actors are saying. Rain patters on the window. The cat stalks past your bedroom door, tail held high in unconcern. You are awake.The thing presses down on your chest and arms with unrelenting force.
And then . . . it’s over.
Just as quickly as it came, the thing disappears. And you lie in the dark, shaking. Your hands twitch; you’re able to move but terrified to do so, lest your assailant return. Yours eyes dart from shadow to shade, and you pray the presence has departed for good, never to return. There will be no sleep tonight.
I was delighted to discover such experiences—and, according to a wide variety of medical and anthropological studies, at least 15% of the world’s population experience these—is the origin of the term nightmare. More than just the hideous prospect of facting an exam for which one is unprepared, or the coming of the Tax Man, nightmare comes from two Old English words: Neacht (night) + maere (an evil spirit—female—who searches through the night for victims, sitting upon their chests to suffocate them). Virtually every human culture claims a similar spirit, often a ghost, always frightening, and frequently malignant.
Of course, those who suffer these may not feel quite so sanguine, but what a treat for writers of horror and students of the supernatural.
Want to know more about these experiences? David Hufford’s book, hands down, is the place to start.