Perchance to Dream
Looking back on things I’m unable to put my finger on when it all started. There were occasions, not long after we moved in, when using the bathroom in the early hours of the morning I’d felt … but just what had I felt?
A sense of foreboding? No, that’s too strong.
A sense of unease? No, too vague and wishy washy.
All I can say, when pressed, is that there have been times when standing in the darkened bathroom all I want to do is get back into bed as quickly as possible and that the thought of walking back along the unlit landing makes my flesh crawl. Thinking about this in the cold light of day, I can remember having similar feelings when I was a young boy – racing upstairs to my bedroom as quickly as I could in order to avoid ‘the monster on the landing’ that I was convinced lurked in the roof space behind the loft hatch.
My sister, visiting us for a long weekend, had once reported that she had woken with the distinct feeling that there was ‘someone else in the room’ with her. But the house is relatively modern – only about forty years old – how on earth could it harbour ‘a presence?’
Then one morning I’d gone into our son’s room to wake him for school and found him sitting up in bed with a serious look on his face.
“Daaad,” he said with that falling and rising cadence that annoys the hell out of me.
“Who was the person in my room last night?”
“What do you mean?”
“Weeell,” there it was again. “Last night I woke up and I could see someone, or at least their shadow, on the wall by my window, but when I got out of bed and put my light on there was no one there.”
I gave a light, brittle laugh and breathed a sigh of relief.
“I expect it was just a bad dream,” that old, old excuse, I’d said ruffling my son’s hair. So this was what it was like to have a child with an over active imagination.
About two weeks later, in the wee small hours of the morning, I had to make a trip to the bathroom silently cursing that second mug of tea I’d had before going to bed. The door had not latched properly and had swung open as I stood washing my hands giving me a clear view across the landing to the head of the stairs. The stairwell was illuminated from below by the lights on the Wi-Fi hub that stood on a small table at the foot of the stairs, while light from the street-lamps leaked around the curtains that had not been pulled completely closed across the window at the top of the stairs. Stairs and landing were both bathed with a soft, pallid greenish yellow light.
As I reached for the towel, I caught a flicker of movement in the corner of my eye and looked up. The bedroom wall at the head of the stairs appeared to ripple and bulge in a nauseating way. A clot of darkness appeared and a shape, or a shadow – if such a thing was possible in the low lighting conditions – the size of a small child detached itself from the wall, crossed the space at the head of the stairs and descended to the ground floor. It was moving quickly and in complete silence, no soft footfall on the carpet no creak of the wooden stair treads. My heart gave a sickening lurch and I shot back to the bedroom as fast as I could. Climbing back into bed clumsily I managed to disturb my wife.
“What’s up?” she’d asked lazily, still fogged with sleep.
“I think I’ve just seen … someone, or something … going downstairs,” was my lame response. ‘Idiot,’ I’d thought, ‘why did you say that out loud?’ My wife was now properly awake.
“Great, so you’re just going to lie there while we’re all murdered in our sleep!”
There was nothing for it, so I got up – very reluctantly – and went downstairs, with my heart in my mouth, switching on every light that I could. I spent as little time as possible checking for an intruder. Every door downstairs was shut and, when I opened them, every room was unoccupied. There was nothing and no one to be found, much to my relief.
After that everything went quiet, for months our son slept peacefully and made no mention of nocturnal visitors. And as for me … let’s just say that trips to the bathroom were thoroughly uneventful. The situation finally changed as our son prepared to transfer into a new school.
Each morning when we went into his bedroom we would find him looking pale and gaunt, with great bruised shadows under his eyes. He began to complain about bad dreams, of feeling that there was someone who wished to do him harm in the room at night. More worrying was his claim that at times he would wake up in the night feeling a heavy weight on his chest, “like someone is sitting on me,” he had said one morning.
“He’s hag ridden,” was his grandmother’s response when she heard the about the problem.
“What are you on about Mother?” I’d responded testily.
“When I were a girl, back in the village, the olduns would say someone like him was hag ridden – visited by the night mare like.”
“Oh for God’s sake! Stop trying to fill the boy’s head with such drivel! His imagination’s bad enough without you adding your folklore rubbish to the mix.” Gran had gone off in a huff after this, muttering darkly under her breath.
We, eventually, took our son to the doctor who listened patiently, with his chin resting upon his right fist, while we explained the problem. There was a pause when we had finished in which the doctor had picked up his pen and fiddled with it in a distracted way before he began to talk.
“This sounds to me as if this could be a case of ISP.” He caught our quizzical look and added hastily, “Isolated Sleep Paralysis,” we both continued to stare at him in incomprehension. The doctor clicked his pen on and off a couple of times before continuing. “When a person enters REM sleep …”
“Pardon?” That was my wife.
“Sorry,” said the doctor and continued a little more slowly. “Rapid Eye Movement sleep, that’s when you start dreaming. Well, when you enter REM sleep the brain shuts down the body’s motor functions, it stops you physically acting out your dreams as you sleep. Now, sometimes on leaving the REM state, the brain wakes but the body’s motor functions don’t get turned back on. In effect, the brain is conscious, but the body can’t move.
“This causes the brain to trigger a threat response – commonly called the fight or flight response – but the body is still not able to react and so a feedback loop is set up. The brain tells the body to run, the body doesn’t respond so the brain panics.
“Patients who have ISP often report the sensation of a malevolent presence in the room, nightmares, feeling that they have a heavy weight on their chest preventing them from breathing. Some even report hearing voices or music playing in the background.
“Of course, in the past this was interpreted as a form of demonic attack by Succubi, Inccubi, the night hag or the night mare. Nowadays people usually claim that they’ve been abducted and experimented on by aliens. I suppose it’s a case of science fiction taking over from superstition,” he laughed.
“ISP can be triggered by stress – your son’s pending school transfer would be a likely cause in this case – and it can be exacerbated if the sufferer sleeps on their back.”
“Is there any cure for it?” asked my wife.
“If by that you mean is there a drug I can give you? I’m afraid the answer is no. There is no known cure.”
“So what do we do?” My wife was beginning to sound mildly irritated, something I knew well.
“The standard treatment is education,” the doctor continued sounding a little ruffled, he was beginning to get my sympathy. “If we teach the patient about what is happening to them it can help to lessen the severity of their response to the problem in the future. Also, encouraging them to sleep in a different position can help.”
I’d been sitting through all this in silence, letting my wife ask the questions, knowing full well that I would be criticised for my ‘lack of interest’ when we got back home. Truth to tell I was worrying about what the doctor was telling us. If our son was suffering from a physiological disorder what had I seen that night on the landing? Had I really seen something at all or was it just a trick of my own imagination? After all I’m sure I was fully awake at the time. What was worrying me more was the thought that it could be a sign of something really bad like impending dementia? These thoughts and questions buzzed around the inside of my head like an angry wasp trapped in a jam jar.
We had left the surgery with my wife feeling vaguely dissatisfied. We had no medication and only the promise of a referral to a sleep specialist which wouldn’t be for some weeks.
On the night before the end of the school holiday I’d made a visit to the bathroom in the small hours of the morning – again. As I walked past our son’s bedroom door, which was standing ajar, I hesitated as I heard the sound of ragged, troubled breathing. I stood with my hand hovering over the door handle unsure of what I should do, should I enter and check on him or should I pass on? For a moment his breathing eased and I had just decided not to enter when I heard what I can only describe as a low animalistic growl, which raised the hair on the back of my neck and sent a shiver down my spine. Without a second thought I pushed the door open and stepped inside.
I could see my son clearly by the glow of the night light that we had put in his room when the trouble had started. He was lying on his back, his face pale and sweaty; his fair hair lay in damp curls plastered to his forehead. I noticed that his eyes were wide open and full of fear and that his breathing was shallow and laboured.
What gave me a shock, however, was the sight of the ‘thing’ squatting on my son’s chest. It was roughly the same size as the boy; its head was bald with large, bat like, ears and small slanted eyes that shone with an intense red light. The mouth was thin lipped with two long fangs that protruded upwards from the lower jaw and overlay its upper lip. Its skin, where it showed, was a dark leathery brown, although most of its body was covered in soft black fur shading to grey across the shoulders. Its right arm was extended with the long slender fingers of its hand gripping my son’s throat.
The creature turned its head, stared straight at me and gave a soft snarl that sent another shiver through my body. A cold bead of sweat trickled slowly between my shoulder blades. My bowels felt as if they were filled with iced water and I froze, there was no weapon readily to hand and the thought of touching the thing with my bare hands revolted me. The creature turned away as if I was no longer a thing worth considering and tightened its grip causing my son to let out a frightened whimper. The instinct to protect kicked in and with a strangled, wordless cry I rushed towards the bed. Before I was halfway across the room the creature gave a sharp hiss, dived under my outstretched arms and scuttled across the room. When it came to the wall opposite the bed it did not stop but carried on going. The wall just seemed to absorb it, the last view I had of the thing was of a small hairy foot with long yellow nails disappearing through the grinning face of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Now I can’t sleep at night, I lie awake worrying about what I will do when the creature returns as I’m sure it will. When I do eventually drift off, my sleep is disturbed by nightmares, mainly concerning our son’s death. It has started to affect my health and my work.
But shall I tell you what really terrifies me? There have been several occasions when I have woken in the middle of the night with the strong conviction that, as my wife lies sleeping peacefully next to me, somewhere in the darkness of our, oh so familiar, bedroom someone or something malignant is lurking.