BY JC DRAKE
It always begins the same way: my eyes pop open, my mind is awake, but I cannot move my limbs or open my mouth. A wave of fear passes over me, my heart begins to race, and I think the same thing – I’ve died and this is the last few moments of consciousness, before my life slips away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Usually after a few terrifying seconds, my limbs unstiffen and I am able to move.
This is sleep paralysis. It’s a condition that afflicts about three million people in the United States and which has only begun to be understood within the last few years. Essentially, many of us will wake up out of a deep, dreaming sleep immediately without going through the various stages of wakefulness. The human body naturally has a self-defense mechanism that keeps us from moving excessively during sleep and an episode of sleep paralysis is triggered when we come out of sleep but that mechanism is still active. In short, we become conscious again before our bodies are capable of movement.
I’ve been experiencing it my entire life, now more than forty years. The first episode I recall is actually one of my earliest memories. I awoke in my bed, lying on my side, but was totally frozen. I tried to scream out – in my brain I was yelling – but no sound came out of my mouth. When my body was once again able to move, I screamed my head off. My parents didn’t understand what had happened, and told me I had just had a bad dream. But I wasn’t dreaming, I was fully awake.
This condition on its own is terrifying enough. After hundreds of episodes I’ve become used to it, or as used to it as a person can be when they suddenly find themselves paralyzed. But not every episode is the same; sometimes, well, I see things.
That, too, began when I was a child, lying in bed frozen from another episode of sleep paralysis. In the corner I would often see a dark figure, not much taller than a child, huddled in the corner of the room. As the episode continued I would see it stand up and walk quickly towards me, before I finally fully awoke and was able to move. Nothing was there after all – but I’d seen it. This usually meant sleeping with the light on for the next few nights.
Again, neuroscience has an explanation for these terrible visages. Due to the rapid wakening process, not only is the body not fully away but the conscious mind is still partially in a dream state. As such, we will see our “dreams” as something present and terrible in our physical space. I am a skeptical person and inclined to believe the rational explanation when one is on offer, but I’ve never been fully satisfied with this aspect of the sleep paralysis diagnosis.
Why is it that throughout history we so often see the same things, across cultures? Dark shadowy figures, little imps and demons, images of terror. Why doesn’t my half asleep mind project an image of a cooked breakfast or my wife smiling from the corner of the room? Why did I see dark, shadowy things crawling out of the walls at age 4 and why do I still see them at age 44? It never changes, no matter how old I get, where I live, or what my mental state is.
It was actually this question, as a young person, that got me interested in studying what we might call the “paranormal,” though I’m really not fond of that term. I grew up in a family that came from a long tradition of rural Southern folktales and folk magic. To say they were superstitious is an understatement. I grew up believing I was seeing ghosts and with access to no other information, that’s what I came to believe. In time I developed a more nuanced approach, largely through investigating cases of hauntings, from talking to other people, and, indeed, from obtaining an education in the sciences. When the lights are on and I am fully awake I can embrace the scientific reality of it all, but when I am again frozen in terror and a black hand is reaching out for me from the shadows, the rational explanation offers no comfort.
There is one incident that stands out from the others in terms of its effect on me, because it turned out to be prophetic. More than just an episode of sleep paralysis, this incident became a ghost story. As a result, my skepticism has never fully recovered.
We bought our house in York, Pennsylvania as a retreat from Washington, DC and the cramped Beltway lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in DC, I just don’t much care for living here. As lovers of history, antiques, and everything old and weird, York proved to be absolutely the best spot for us to set down roots. A crumbling steel town slowly going through a hipster-fueled revival, it’s not for everyone. But my wife and I fell in love with the place from the moment we first drove into town and had purchased a house in an historic neighborhood within two months of first deciding to settle there.
Our realtor never showed us the house on her own – we had to find it ourselves. When we told her we were looking for something “historic,” she never quite got the message and continued to show us places that, while nominally old from the outside, had all the modern feel of a whitewashed home in the suburbs. But that’s not what we wanted. My wife found the Green House and had to force the realtor to take us there.
It’s a three story row house, twice as tall as it is wide, in a working class neighborhood near one of the country’s first industrial cat litter factories. Charming. Built around 1877 when Reconstruction-era industry arrived in York, the house is in various phases of remodel. The parlor is just as it would have been in 1877 and so is the master bedroom and the office. The servant’s quarters upstairs are remodeled and make a fine TV room and one of the smaller bedrooms has been turned into an unpleasantly cheerful modern bathroom. The radiators are all original, the pipes are exposed on the walls. On a good day, the electricity will stay on until bedtime without tripping a breaker.
We fell in love with place immediately, even though the realtor refused to even go upstairs. Our offer was accepted and within a couple of weeks we were moving in. It was within that first month that I saw the ghost.
The Green House is disconcerting. Haphazard attempts to remodel it have left it full of dark corners and blind turns. The stairs are particularly bothersome. When standing on the stairs it is impossible to see what is around the corner in the hallway at the top. When lying in bed in the master bedroom, one can see all the way down that same hallway, but cannot see what is coming up the stairs. This creates a funhouse effect in which one sitting in the parlor or lying in the bedroom is confronted with the staircase, but cannot see what’s coming up or down it.
The house is noisy – it’s a row house in the city and it shakes and rattles like all old houses do. But the stairs have a sound all their own; something walks those stairs, usually late at night but often in broad daylight. Due to their odd construction it’s possible to hear the sound of walking, but to never see what is there. Except for that night, shortly after we moved in, that I believe I saw it. Or rather, her.
I was asleep on my left side in bed, my wife snoring away behind me, the cats snuggled at our feet. Something had woken me up rapidly from a very deep sleep, as is often the case with an episode of sleep paralysis. I couldn’t move, I was frozen stiff, my arms folded in front of me, forced to stare down that long, dark hallway, lit only by the street lights outside. I could hear the sound, the footsteps on the stairs, slowly and gently climbing. And then, there emerged a figure.
She was a little girl, thin with black hair and narrow features, her mouth drawn together tightly, no older than 14. She was dressed in a kind of night gown made of red and white material like gingham. I could see her face and hands but not her feet. She wasn’t fully visible – she was like a photograph projected on mist. She seemed surprised to see us laying there in bed, the door open.
I saw her and she saw me and in my mind I began to scream. Then my limbs started to move, my mouth fell open, and I was awake. The girl was gone.
I got up, explored the hallway, used the bathroom, and went back to bed. I spent the rest of the night playing with my phone, one eye on that hallway. Shortly thereafter I switched to the other side of the bed; my wife is a heavy sleeper and has never been disturbed.
I chalked the experience up to just another bout of sleep paralysis. We adopted the “ghost” as our own in a joking way to make ourselves feel better any time something went bump in the night. Somehow the weirdness of the house was easier to explain with a personality – even an imaginary one – attached to it. I even came up with a little nursery rhyme about her that begins:
I am the ghost that walks the stairs,
Tread carefully or you’ll join me there.
Thus we lived happily in the Green House, enjoying what precious weekends we could afford to spend there, all the while making it our own. I haven’t seen the ghost again, though the sound of footsteps remains. In the summer of the third year we decided to rip out our backyard and turn it into an English-style garden, with fire pit, rocky path, and flower beds instead of the grass we had to cut. It was while putting in one of those flower beds that we found the grave.
An oblong circle of concrete, decorated with inlaid seashells and chunks of white crystal, it’s about four feet wide and four feet deep. It is a solid concrete vault clearly dug out and built in a hurry by an amateur. We began excavating it after lunch on a Saturday, not fully understanding what it was until we got it cleared out. It was full of bricks and lumps of coal all the way down to the bottom. There was no body, but there was fragments of bone and that’s when I realized what we’d found. Someone else had done the same thing as us, stumbled across the grave and excavated it. But they had found the body and had it moved, we hoped, to a proper burial place.
We left the bone in place and removed the bricks for use as a fence liner. Then we turned the grave into a pond, lining it and sealing it up so that it would not be forgotten, but would also be a more pleasant part of the landscape.
I found only one thing that gave any clue as to the identity of the former occupant: a small square of red and white gingham.
JC Drake has a day job with the federal government, but has a passion for researching unsolved mysteries. He and his wife Vickie travel frequently, are the parents of two adorable cats, and divide their time between Silver Spring, Maryland and York, Pennsylvania, where they continue to reside, along with the ghost, in the Green House. If you have a paranormal encounter or a mystery that needs solving, you can contact Dr. Drake at firstname.lastname@example.org