I go to work. I do my job. I come home. I have no friends, but no enemies. I don’t bother anyone, or unfairly infringe upon anyone’s time. I’m ordinary, admittedly predictable—dull. My aspirations—the few I have left these days—aren’t fantastical; aren’t even that interesting to me; things towards which I can look forward, if I ever did something with my life beyond the routine into which I’ve settled.
To put it simply: I’m boring, and I don’t think it’s out of line to expect sleep—the time during which I can exist free of stresses and worries—to be similarly, appropriately boring. But that wasn’t the case last night. Last night I had a conscious experience, a waking nightmare, that’ll forever haunt me, regardless of what state of consciousness I happen to be in.
Last night, I was forced into a rap battle with my Sleep Paralysis Demon.
I hadn’t had anything out of the ordinary, at least for my typical dietary habits. An omelette, spiced with black pepper and cumin, loaded with diced onions and cheap cheese that hardened rather than melted under heat. A piece of whole wheat toast, burnt perfectly into a deliciously crunchy blackened square; washed down by equally black coffee, sipped directly from the pot; the entire thing emptied within an hour.
I know you may already have your mind made up—the greasy, less-than-nutritious omelette, the extreme intake of caffeine; no wonder my overly excited mind conjured up the infernal thing a few hours later, right? But I swear to you, this was a rather typical dinner, and I hadn’t ever before dreamt up something so appalling, so viciously awful. This was a first-time experience; unwarranted, undeserved; an incident of cosmic unluckiness.
Hours later, after my post-work ritual of video games, cartoon sitcom clips on YouTube, ASMR, and other nightly habits conducive to sleep, I finally settled into bed; my brain steeped in reward chemicals, my nerves over-wrought by the day’s sensations and stimulations. A day of thoughtless exertion, a night of dimly enjoyed consumption—rote, routine, unfulfilling yet inescapable.
“Tingle immunity”, a dubious condition resulting from the over-indulgence in the sensation of ASMR, was what had plagued me in the nights leading up to last night’s psychological—and undeniably physical—attack.
My usual triggers (stimuli that elicit the relaxing tingling throughout the nervous system) had been failing; had lessened in their familiar effectiveness, so I’d resorted to listening to two different sources of ASMR at once. In one ear, a Bluetooth earpiece relayed fast-tapping sounds from my phone, in the other ear, a regular corded earphone played unintelligible whispering via my PS4’s controller, with my TV bathing the room in the light from the accompanying video. Unlike a lot of people—I assume—I can sleep in a well-lit room, if I’m being serenaded by those mic-eating cyber-sirens.
I laid on my back, eyes closed, unbothered by the images and light playing upon my face and the ceiling. My thoughts, mostly centred around breakfast in the morning, quickly lost cohesion, and my mind fell comfortably, plummeted pleasantly, into the bottomless gulf of mental uncreation; that restful pit wherein the day’s anxieties and unpleasantness could be thrown and left to sink, endlessly, until the self-flagellating brain endeavoured to retrieve them in the morning.
I’d almost done it—almost checked out for the day—when suddenly, as if remembering something important, all the webs and roots of sleep were untangled and dislodged from my mind. I was immediately forced into a disturbing hypnopompic state, in a way that made the discordant, binaural ASMR extremely, uncomfortably distracting.
My first instinct was to unplug my ears and pause the video (but not exit YouTube, I felt that the video’s illumination was direly important) but I quickly realised that I could not move. From my toes to my scalp, I was completely frozen; couldn’t even manage to furrow my brows, and yet I was entirely aware of myself and my surroundings; completely in control of my thoughts; terribly sensitive to the sounds bombarding my ears, the light in my eyes.
As if something had sensed my growing discomfort, the videos were paused; their sounds abruptly, mercifully cut off. I looked around (as much as my peripheral vision would allow) but saw only the walls and furniture of my bedroom. I hadn’t looked at my ceiling, not at first; which, if you remember how I was lying on the bed—on my back—is odd; but some part of me, some evolutionarily developed safeguard accompanying human intelligence, had prevented me from looking at the ceiling. This safeguard, programmed to do whatever it takes to uphold human sanity, hadn’t wanted me to see the thing on the ceiling; the monstrous thing clinging to it.
I’ve had nightmares before. I’ve seen evil-looking things, cloaked in darkness, hidden in the shadows of corners or crouched upon desks and dressers. Things unwholesome and wicked, that glared at me with baleful eyes, that cackled like hell-freed fiends.
These nightmares aren’t unusual, I’ve had dozens of them, in the twenty-eight years of my life. I’m sure you have, too. But that thing, that black, physically protean thing, undulating, pulsing, retracting upon itself, was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Those aforementioned incubi of deep or partially broken sleep become visually innocuous, cartoonish in nature, when compared to that ceiling-spanning horror.
Imagine floating in the air, facing down, flatly, towards a densely packed forest. You can’t see the ground; the collective canopy of trees appears to you as one massive, uneven curtain; the rough, prickly hide of some planet-hugging beat. A wind, source-less and ceaseless, passes through this forest, causing the trees to shift wildly, irregularly, throwing their tops and branches haphazardly against one another—but the collisions are soundless, the buffeting entirely inaudible to you, even though you’re hovering just meters above the terrestrial violence.
That is a rough approximation of the thing on the ceiling. Staring at it, frozen on my bed, I felt as if I were the vertically dominant one; as if I hovered above its place of rest, observing its nightly tossing and turning. To say that I was afraid, that this thing elicited what you, the luckily inexperienced, could fathom as fear, is an abysmal understatement.
There is a supreme, barely cognizable terror in the ignorance of something’s true nature. To not know whether an unknown “thing” is a creature, or merely a force, is inexpressibly unsettling. If I had known then that it was a creature, if that were a given, and the question was simply whether or not it was intelligent, I wouldn’t have been as terrified. But without even that knowledge, with the uncertainty being its status as a thing of life, or a thing some other, unrelatable animation—it was horrible.
Another cause for terror, but relatively minor in comparison, was that the light from the TV seemed to avoid the thing, or be entirely absorbed upon contact with it. The photons simply did not reach it, did not rest upon it, did not reflect off of it; were not transmitted from the television to the ceiling, in any way detectable to human sight.
This photic rejection—the recognition of the unreal phenomenon, at least—alone would have driven me to panic; but coupled with my inability to categorise the thing, it was fuel on the already raging fire, transforming my terror into a conflagration that set aflame my heart. The organ beat rapidly within my chest as if it sought to make up for the movements my limbs would’ve made, had they the privilege to do so.
A moment of luck, an opportunity for my physical and psychological salvation, arrived in the form of a fallen earbud. My body must’ve been trembling violently, the thrum of my heart rocking it from within like an overworked cog ready to come loose in a mechanism, because my left earpiece fell out. An “issue”, entirely personal, that I’d had with them was that the buttons which allow you to increase the volume or skip the presently playing track are incredibly sensitive. Brushing my ear, or pressing an earbud further in, would almost always result in a change of volume or song. When the earbud fell, the two-inch fall from my pillow-raised head to the mattress caused just such a reaction: the paused video on my phone was swapped out for another, and this video had an ad before it.
This ad, this fatefully played, hopefully monetised introduction, saved my life.
The content, the objective of the advertisement, is entirely irrelevant. The most important thing about it was the song that accompanied it. I don’t listen to rap or hiphop. I have nothing against the genre, I just like guitar riffs, and would rather listen to Van Halen than Tupac.
I am, however, familiar with the genre, having grown up during a time when Linkin Park, Eminem, and Lil Wayne could be found on a pre-teen’s iPod, regardless of whether or not they actually enjoyed those artists. So, I have a passing understanding of the genre’s fundamentals, if you will.
This ad played from my dislodged earbud, and because ASMR is typically quiet and auditorily intimate, it played the ad’s music loudly; since my volume is at near-max when listening to calming sounds. I heard the song (which was entirely unfamiliar to me) clearly, and so did it.
Above me, the tempestuously clashing mass jerked and swayed in a manner that was still horrible, but horrible in a noticeably different way; there was a receptiveness about it, rather than a blind, idiotic convulsing. It was, I realised, listening the hip hop music.
The ad finished, the music ceased, and the video began. This was another ASMR video, so the sounds were virtually inaudible; I could barely hear them, with my ear inches away from the earbud. The thing above me could not, and I discerned this by yet another shift in its topological turbulence. Despite the utter lack of any features that could, by any lens, be interpreted as human, I sensed an emotion somewhere between confusion and anger in the violent thrashing.
I thought then that it would fall, that it would detach itself from the ceiling and crush or consume me, but instead, something else—arguably as awful—happened: it spoke.
The voice was plainly that of Tupac, cheaply borrowed. I don’t say “imitated” because this was not an imitation. Somehow, and I truly believe this, the thing had captured the sonic emissions and repurposed them, had unmade and reconstituted them, to speak its thoughts in the voice of that briefly heard lyricist.
“You there, bed-thing, I’ve come to feed. Lie there and cry, I’m sure you’ve peed.
Take a look at my face, I’m a superior race, an extragalactic gangster, it’s the cosmic paper I chase.
I’m haunting your dreams, your mind’s unravelling at the seams, your sheets are wet—and we both know it ain’t sweat.
Sickly little sleeper, slumped as if slain, stupid little dreamer, you won’t wake again.
I’m a hypnopompic horror, a hypnogogic hell-raiser, I’ll harrow your soul, now and later.”
I was, as you’d probably be, stupefied.
The thing had just rapped at me, awkwardly, braggingly, like some hip-hoppified Haunter of the Dark. If I hadn’t already been rendered so, I would’ve gone limp, stricken with a fright-begotten palsy by the bizarre introduction. It resumed its original state of violent, forest-like topographical instability, which I took as it waiting for a response. I tried to speak, and found that I could; my tongue hadn’t been immobilised, or maybe had been given the freedom of movement so that I could respond to the strange verses.
When I asked why it was doing this, its pitch-black “face” shifted, slightly, in a way that bespoke of a lack of understanding. I tried a few other questions, and these were similarly received—without comprehension. Then it dawned on me that the rap music had probably been its first experience with human speech—it was expecting a reciprocation of rhymed verse.
And thus began the Rap Battle with my Sleep Paralysis Demon. (I apologise for the shame I assuredly brought to the genre in my attempts to communicate with this eldritch lyricist)
“So, you know, I’m just trying to sleep, yet you’re bothering me like some cosmic creep.
You’re scaring me, man, I’m not afraid to admit that, but I’m not a coward, I’ll still hit back.
Stuck to the ceiling, trying to hurt my feelings, darker than the night, you think you ready for a fight?
Better call a fire station, these verse’ll start a conflagration, people will congregate just to see your incineration.”
After a moment of silence, during which I assume it was mentally processing my poorly composed lyrics, the thing responded, excitedly:
“I am the beginning, I am the end, I’ll keep your head spinning while I terrorise your kin.
Thoughtlessly you thought those fledgling, feeble phrases, mere tic-tac-toe to my lyrical mazes.
To Hell and back I’ve gone, a winter vacation, through time and space I’ve flown, a short destination; in lightless voids I’ve watched the clips of prime creation, in sub-dimensions I’ve slept—a cosy two-dimensional hibernation.
You can’t beat me, mortal, I wrote the Grand Equation.”
I shuddered, the most movement I’d exhibited since lying down to sleep. The thing’s verses were far superior to mine, even though it had only just come to understand human language. Quickly, for fear of being bombarded by more scathing verses, I blurted out a reply:
You brag, you self-aggrandise, thinking you’ve won some prize, for those childish verses you’ve memorised?
Hell is a joke compared to the heat I’ll give, the feats I’ve lived; I’m lyrically combative.
Crawl outta this place, get outta my face, teleport your faceless mass into outer space.
I’m done with you, creature, you’re nothing but a feature, this song is on my album—I am your music teacher.”
I was sweating; the mental exertion of having to come up with rap lyrics on the fly was worse than doing mental math as an adult that hadn’t had a math class in nearly a decade. And yet this inhuman thing took only a second to order his thoughts into a lyrically corrosive volley:
“Weak words woven by a womanly wuss; you call those bars? No impact, all fuss.
I wreak havoc in the celestial studio, setting fire to the mic, my engineers are driven insane by hype, these bars are faster than light.
You’ll sculpt idols of my image as I flay your mind; I outlive decay and time; I moon-walked through Cretaceous times.”
Even though these lyrics were better than anything I’d said, I sensed a waning in its abilities; as if its understanding of English was nearing its limits. My spirit was emboldened by this observation, and after only a moment’s pause, I delivered the lyrical death-blow to my once formidable opponent:
“You sound tired, all fired up, looking dumbstruck and shit outta luck. Is your tongue tied, are your thoughts stuck?
Cosmic this, celestial that, shouldn’t you be eating planets in a two-pronged hat?
You’re boring, your verses would make a rock start snoring, don’t quit your day job of void exploring.
This is it, it’s over, your spells won’t work, I’ve battled more aliens than Captain Kirk.”
And as I expected, the thing’s form, that ever-shifting, infinitely black mass, shuddered as it tried—and ultimately failed—to come up with a response. It had completely exhausted its lyrical abilities. Its convulsive movements intensified, and despite the feeling of triumph that swelled within me and even partially restored movement to my limbs, the terror of the moment, of that abysmal first contact, was still very much present and immobilising.
And yet I managed to roll off my bed—a Herculean effort, given the circumstances—just as the thing heaved and fell from the ceiling. It landed on my bed, pressing the whole structure down to the floor; the springs creaking harshly, the foam of the mattress pushing out at the violently burst seams. It writhed there for a moment, rising and falling and bubbling and stretching, hellishly, spasmodically, before disintegrating before my eyes. Only seconds later, all that was left was a flattened bed and darkly stained sheets.
As the fright ebbed away, tiredness mounted, and I fell lazily onto my computer chair. I turned off my TV and console, no longer needing the artificial aid of ASMR. With a smile of victory upon my face, I closed my eyes and finally fell asleep.