I suppose I’ve decided to write this as some sort of farcical, pointless attempt at recompense for the many things I’ve seen and participated in. I would be lying if I said I regretted everything I’ve done, but people need to know just how deep the rabbit hole of our mind goes. We honestly know so little.
I have been a somnologist for over a decade now, at a clandestine government facility nicknamed the Gateway. The departments within specialize in experimental research: everything from alternative transportation, non-linear communication methods and so forth. I had recently geared my focus towards deciphering the enigmatic circumstances surrounding ‘sleep paralysis’. The amount of pop-attention newly garnered by this phenomenon is astounding, especially considering there have been documented occurrences since the beginning of written history. Most countries in the world have even attributed the terrifying instances to local superstition or legends. A ghost or hag that sits on your chest, a small deformed humanoid that renders you immobile to steal your breath; the culprits are endless. I’ve personally never had the displeasure of experiencing such petrifying terror and had decided that in order to better understand these episodes, I would have to experience one.
This was my first mistake.
I began formulating a battery of psychiatric exercises that are designed to the exhaust the mind, pushing the limits of one’s mental clarity beyond coherence. Given that most of my study subjects complained of frequent insomnia and sleep deprivation as a cause of their paralytic episodes (or vice versa), I wanted to achieve the same nonreactive cognitive state during sleep without sacrificing any of the other faculties associated with sleep deficiency. Besides, I doubt I would be able to logically document my experience if I was running on synaptic fumes. Once I finished structuring the exercises, I mixed in a few verbal recalibration mechanisms used in ‘regression’ techniques, or hypnotic recall. Thus, the “Nightmare by Numbers” method was born.
The first subject I tested the regimen on was an Iraqi/Afghanistan combat veteran. He had experienced night terrors since his last deployment and was participating in my research under the guise of it being mandated by the VA, for his disability claims.
Yes-my subjects were unaware of my true intentions; leave your outrage in the comments section.
I theorized that if I could get someone who has already been exposed to the phenomena, to experience an episode in my office, in front of me, then it would only take time and repetition to prove effective on someone like me. We ran through the necessary flash cards and I watched him complete the puzzles, all while playing a soft recording in the background and tapping my pen in rhythmically sonorous fashion. The recording played a low frequency collection of tones my colleagues and I called ‘neural notes’, composed to force the densest possible cluster of synaptic reactions from the subconscious; this would tire the mind. My two assistants and I wore powered earplugs that blocked that range of frequencies.
All these components eventually arrested the man’s brain as his eyes began to droop and his posture began to slouch in his seat. I finished my regimen by reciting a specific, numberless count down sequence and he was out like a light. My assistants laid him out on the couch, latching restraints around his wrists and ankles, and we waited.
It took 20 minutes for his breathing to become erratic and his eyes to dart open. It took another two minutes for the screaming to start, which he previously expressed was common for his episodes. He was staring straight ahead, pupils dilated in massive phobic response. He begun sweating profusely and was trying to speak, although failing to formulate even a portion of a word. My assistants, who were visually concerned, asked if they should wake him. I said no, intent on watching the episode play out in its entirety. About four minutes after the screaming, I noticed something odd about his shadow on the back of the couch; it was pallid. His shadow had become opaque and porous, as if blotched or partially evaporated. It wasn’t just teetering on the limit of umbra and penumbra, it seemed to be dissolving. One of my assistants saw this and immediately ran out the door. Luckily, I have a bevy of undergrads looking for work. The episode ended at 11 minutes in, and I had my other assistant remove the restraints and wake up the subject. During the debriefing, the subject told me he vaguely recalled being stirred as he slept, and that he couldn’t see anyone in the room, but felt a presence and a weight on his chest, as well as an overwhelming feeling of dread: standard sleep paralysis symptoms. Nightmare by Numbers was a success.
The second subject I tested the method on was a 14-year-old girl. She had been visiting with me regularly for sleep issues caused by an explicitly abusive childhood at the hands of her father. He died when she was 11 and had been assigned to state funded rehabilitation program for traumatized youth, a program my department played a key role in. It didn’t take much convincing to get her approved for this study. I didn’t have to feed her any reasons for this surprise visit; children were always trusting, even the broken ones. After she had succumbed to the regimen, I had my assistant prop her up in a binding system of stirrups, similar in design to that of a traction table. I turned on a bright light that pointed towards her erect body, casting a well-defined shadow on a white canvass sheet to her rear.
Her episode began about 40 minutes in. Eyelids agape and trembling lips pursed tight. She didn’t scream or mumble but cried and whimpered (don’t get too morally disgorged, as the pathway to recovery often leads through the trauma). After my initial observations I began examining the shadow, and it was the same as my war vet: pale and translucent, almost flimsy. It seemed to wither and fade in and out as her episode progressed and her heart-rate increased. I ended the experiment and had her recovered before the paralysis naturally ended. It was time to take Nightmare by Numbers to the next step.
I had made several video recordings of myself administering the necessary reactive exercises and tapping my pen. My assistants were briefed on my expectations and watched through the observation glass as I begun playing the recordings and participating. The ‘neural notes’ track was also looped and playing at a reasonable volume. I don’t remember the exact point at which I dozed off, but I do remember it didn’t take long. Then, I was suddenly awake but not really. The room around me was dark and the objects were muddled, hard to define. My breathing was labored and constricted, and I had no compulsory muscle control.
I was in sleep paralysis, and I didn’t feel alone.
I couldn’t quite make out what it was that was in the room with me, as my vision and focus tremored uncontrollably. But I could feel whatever it was, looming over me like a vacuous cloud of mounting terror. It just hovered over me and sapped my fortitude, and then I was awake. My assistants pulled me from the episode with emergency smelling salts; I guess they panicked at what they observed. I took a few minutes to shake off the grogginess of shattered REM and read their report: all the symptoms were the same, right down to the failing shadow. In looking back at all my compiled details regarding the subject’s shadows during each session, I concluded that they were at their most transient state when the subject was experiencing their most elevated heart-rates. This means the more afraid they were, the more their shadows seemed to discolor and dissolve. I now had a new goal in further exploring the untapped knowledge obscured deep within the puzzling nature of sleep paralysis; I needed to induce higher levels of fear in the subjects. I needed to find out where the shadows went.
This was my second mistake.