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Artistic impression of an incubus by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Q. What's with the creepy peeping horse? A. It's a nightmare.

Artistic impression of an incubus by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Q. What’s with the creepy peeping horse? A. It’s a nightmare.

Hypnagogia are the states of consciousness between waking and sleeping. A hypnogogic hallucination is basically a fancy term for a specific sleep disorder, most commonly involving the ‘waking dream.’ During a waking dream, even though the person is awake, the dream (or nightmare) continues.

I have experienced hypnagogic hallucinations throughout my life. They have at times deeply unsettled me, but they have also – surprisingly – given me some fascinating and even beautiful experiences.

As a child and adolescent they were particularly disturbing and mystifying. I would hear voices in my head as I was falling asleep, wake up with the sense that someone or something was in  my room and, perhaps most disturbing of all, regain consciousness – yet find myself totally unable to move.

I also had the wonderful experience, when I was particularly exhausted, of hearing music playing as I fell asleep. Some people can experience this as the voices of a choir, an orchestra or a single voice or instrument playing. For me it was always stringed instruments, playing beautiful music that I did not recognise and that I was certain was coming from deep inside me. A peculiarly pleasant sensation.

Waking dreams (or nightmares), sleep paralysis and dream music are all features of hypnagogic hallucinations. As an adult I still find myself disturbed if I wake to find an eyeless creature leaning over me as I sleep, or some small demon running across my bed. Sometimes it is just a feeling that something is there – in the room, or watching at the window. Rational as I am, in the armpit of a dark night, it is hard not to be afraid.

Yet I am getting off very lightly compared to some. Those who suffer from extreme forms of these hallucinations may find themselves tormented frequently and for a long periods. Deformed and malevolent crones, horrific demons and all manner of terrifying creatures have been described by sufferers. These monsters claw their way from the victim’s subconscious, crawl across their beds and mock them as they wrap their talons around their throats. The victim is forced to lie, paralysed but totally awake – sometimes with their partner sleeping soundly beside them – unable to escape, unable to wake up.

The isolation and terror must be horrific – even once you have a diagnosed condition and a scientific explanation. Imagine then the horrors experienced by those without such explanations. Succubus and incubus demons are probably owe their genesis to these night terrors. And there are those who believe in them still. In modern times demons possessions have been replaced (or joined) by alien abductions and encounters. More pleasant experiences are soften explained as the result of angel encounters (also a common response to hearing dream music).

It’s amazing how resistant people can be to the explanation: it’s all in your head. I personally find the thought that these monsters are inside us all, waiting to claw their way from the darkest corners of our twisted imaginations far more disturbing. And if you have never had this experience, just imagine the worst and most vivid nightmare that you have ever had. Now imagine that we wake up – but it doesn’t end.

Sleep tight.


Have you ever suffered hypnagogic hallucinations, waking dreams, sleep paralysis or dream music? I would be really interested in hearing about your experiences, please drop me an email or leave a comment below.