Given the outlandish quality of some hypnopompic images, their often terrifying emotional resonance, and perhaps the heightened suggestibility that may go with such states, it is very understandable that hypnopompic visions of angels and devils may not engender only wonder or horror but belief in their physical reality. Indeed, one must wonder to what degree the very idea of monsters, ghostly spirits, or phantoms originated with such hallucinations. One can easily imagine that, coupled with a personal or cultural disposition to believe in a disembodied, spiritual realm, these hallucinations, though they have a real physiological basis, might reinforce a superstitious belief in the paranormal.
The first time it happened I was in middle school. My bedroom was blue and there was a border around the middle of the walls: garish yellow sunflowers. There was something on my ceiling, floating towards me. I was paralyzed. It was terrifying. It was a white balloon. Nothing particularly scary about a white balloon but I couldn’t move and I laid in bed watching it float closer and closer until finally I felt my limbs respond. I jumped out of bed and I stood and watched it disappear, slowly and choppily.
But that doesn’t sound scary at all, my mother said later, distracted, half-listening, almost dismissive. I was eleven or twelve and continually terrified of some new incarnation of evil. This time it was a white balloon. I understood her skepticism, even then.
There was just something about it, I said. Then, as an afterthought: It was like it was really there. But I didn’t know where it had come from. So maybe that’s why it scared me. Like—who broke into my room? And where are they now? You know?
It was just a dream, she said.
But it didn’t feel like a dream.
But that’s what it was. Just a dream.
Another time I jumped out of bed, flailing around and screaming about spiders. Giant spiders. (As hypnopompic hallucinations go, this is one of the most common.)
What? What? she said groggily, sitting up. This wasn’t the first time it had happened with someone else there. The first time had been in high school. A sleepover with an old friend. I scared the fucking shit out of her.
You have to get up, we have to get out. We have to—
I lost steam halfway through. That’s how it happens. The images dissolve. You’re left embarrassed and tricked and with a sick, quick panic that takes a few long minutes to subside.
Go back to bed, I mumbled, defeated. You’re fine. It’s nothing.
You were screaming, she said.
Yeah, it’s fine. I’m fine now.
I dream of nosebleeds, wake up wiping at the skin above my lip. The next night my ear is wet and pooled with blood but when I turn on the light, suddenly everything is fine again. Then later it’s my name. Just my name whispered into my left ear like whoever’s sleeping next to me has leaned over to wake me up. And I wake up. Nobody’s there. It’s an hour until my alarm’s set to go off but I get up now, go downstairs, make myself a cup of coffee.
Sometimes the voice belongs to someone you know; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you convince yourself this must mean something, that whatever friend or loved one you just heard must be in trouble or dying or dead.
You learn to get over it. You don’t really believe in this sort of psychic connection, anyway. And so far, everyone’s been fine.
Later, on Skype, I tell him.
I woke up to you calling my name.
Huh, he says.
Except you called me Kate.
Oh. Well, I don’t call you Kate.
I know. That’s why I thought it was weird.
Sometimes I hear music. The music is always nice. Frank Sinatra or old, defunct boy bands or classical music from ages ago. But usually my name and usually just once, urgently, loud enough to wake me up fully. Your ears ring a little. You are momentarily paralyzed. You wake up too early and too alert.
You get up. You hope nobody thinks you’re crazy. It’s sometimes all you can really ask of them.
Italicized text is from Oliver Sacks’ newest book, Hallucinations.
Completely unrelated photographs were taken with a Canon t1i in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.