Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind: Some memories of hypnagogic hallucinations

A little while ago, my friend Stephen put a call out on social media for people to tell him their ‘true ghost stories’. I didn’t have a ghost story properly speaking, but it made me think of some weird experiences I had as a teenager. Here’s what I wrote for Stephen – if you fancy hearing some others, head over to The Widdershin Yarn.

Happy Halloween/Samhain everyone! 🙂

When I was 17 or 18 and living in my parents’ house in rural Austria, I had a series of nightly ‘visions’ that at the time unsettled and thrilled me to equal degrees. The pattern was always the same: I would wake up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason and see a figure in my room, as distinctly as everything else around. It was clear to me each time that I was not dreaming, and after a while I would simply go back to sleep again.

The first of these visions was a human skeleton sitting in a chair on top of my clothes from the previous day, which I had thrown on there before going to sleep. It was perfectly still, gleaming faintly in the moonlight that was coming in through the curtains, and seemed altogether quite dead and non-threatening. I watched it intently for a long time to make sure that I wasn’t just making up patterns out of the heap of clothes, but no matter how I looked at it, it was most definitely a skeleton, hanging on the chair in a somewhat awkward slouching position. At some point, I must then have simply dropped back off to sleep. Needless to say, when I woke up in the morning, there was no trace of a skeleton or anything else out of the ordinary in my room.

I puzzled over what I had seen and tried to come up with explanations. Our house wasn’t old, and even though we were used to hearing lots of strange animal noises at night because of our close proximity to the forest, it seemed unlikely to me that the house itself could actually be haunted. Having been forced to watch my way through the register of ‘80s horror classics by a best friend who was a great fan of the genre, the best I could come up with was to speculate that our house was located on some kind of ancient graveyard, and that one of its occupants had, for whatever reason, decided to come for a visit.

Then, a few days later, my theory was destroyed by a second vision that didn’t seem in any way related to the first one. I had asked my mother to sleep in my room and was myself sleeping on a mattress on the floor when, again, I woke up suddenly and seemingly without cause. I didn’t know what time it was, but it was dark and my mother was clearly asleep, her breathing coming deeply and peacefully from the direction of the bed. About a metre and a half from where I was lying, there was a small, solid figure standing on the floor. Silhouetted against the lighter surface of my wardrobe, it was slowly raising its head, which I could see in profile. Unlike the skeleton, which had reflected the moonlight, this figure was too dark to make out clearly; the only thing I could tell for sure was that it seemed to have a mohawk, and its mouth, which was slightly open, was full of thin, spiky teeth. While the skeleton hadn’t scared me, this creature pretty much terrified me. For a moment, I debated with myself whether I should try to touch it, but threw that idea out very quickly on account of the teeth and decided to pretend to be asleep instead. Lying stock still and breathing shallowly, I waited for the creature to go away — and in the process fell asleep again.

I didn’t have to wait long for a third creature to make its appearance. The setup was almost identical to that of the previous time, but once again, what I saw and the effect it had on me were quite different. Again, I woke up on my mattress, with my mother snoring away in the bed, and again I saw a figure more or less where the goblin creature had been — except that, where the goblin had been small and dark, this one was huge and almost see-through. It was a giant made entirely of big, square blocks of stone that seemed to be looking down at me almost from the height of the ceiling. Perhaps noticing me watching it, it started walking towards me. Since this figure somehow felt harmless despite its height, I wanted to quickly reach out and touch it, to find out once and for all whether there was anything of substance there that could be felt as well as seen. Except I couldn’t raise my hand — in fact, I couldn’t move at all; I was, I found, completely paralysed, so that all I could do was breathe and blink. Helpless in my immobilised state, I had to watch the giant get close only to fall asleep again before either of us could attempt any form of contact.

Even though two of the three apparitions hadn’t worried me at the time, the fact that I had seen them at all and that I couldn’t explain them started to gnaw at me. Did they want something? And if so, what? And was there anything ‘real’ about them, or were they just the product of my overactive imagination? Or even darker, was I going mad? Was I having hallucinations? Were they ever going to go away?

There must have been a gap in the visions, because by the time I had the next one I remember, I had moved into a different room in the house, my brother having taken over the ‘haunted’ one, seemingly without any ill effects. I had taken to sleeping with my lights on when I woke up one night from a particularly strange dream to find a tall, dark figure standing over my bed, a scythe in one hand, its face hidden by the hood of its long cloak. Before I could decide on whether to react in any way, or even whether to be scared or not, the figure raised its hand with the scythe in it and brought it down on me fast, sending me back off to sleep in an instant.

The next figure that appeared turned out to be the last one. When I woke up that time, once more with the lamp on my bedside table still on, there was a man standing beside my bed. He was dressed in an old-fashioned uniform that made him look like he had come from around the time of the French Revolution: white trousers and waist coat, jacket, sash, tricorn or bicorn hat on his head, and, I think, a rapier at his side, though I couldn’t say that for sure. I couldn’t describe his face now, but I think that his hair was dark, and I distinctly remember that there were gold trimmings on his uniform. In any case, he was standing there with his arm outstretched, holding a big paper scroll out to me that was tied by a cord with a wax seal dangling off it. As with the stone giant, I tried my hardest to reach out my hand, but found that I simply couldn’t move.

After that, the visions stopped, as suddenly and inexplicably as they had started. On one occasion, when I was already at university, I had an auditory hallucination after having just woken up in the morning, during which the voice of a university friend of mine was moving through my room towards my bed, but I never saw any pictures again, and after a while I stopped thinking about the whole thing.

Years later, I was standing in the quadrangle outside the department at my second university with some other students and one of our professors, having a chat. I can’t remember how or why, but at one point in the conversation our professor told us that sometimes, in the state between waking and sleeping, she would see things that weren’t really there.

‘It’s called hypnagogic hallucinations,’ she said. ‘They can happen when your brain isn’t sure whether it’s asleep or awake.’

So there, finally, was an explanation for the strange nightly visitations of my youth! They were pictures conjured up by my unconscious mind and superimposed onto reality, like dreams spilling over into waking consciousness. Knowing that this was a ‘thing’, and that other — saner — people had them too, instantly made them more comprehensible. The first three visions were easily explained by my consumption of pop culture at the time; skeletons, of course, are a staple of the horror genre, whereas the goblin bore a strong resemblance to the monsters from films such as Gremlins or Critters, and the stone giant might well have been inspired by the Rockbiter from the Never Ending Story.

As for the other two, everyone knows the Grim Reaper, and most of my generation, I suspect, have at some point seen some costume drama about the French Revolution. Still, part of the mystery remains: why did I have those visions at that particular time in my life, and only then? Was there something my unconscious was trying to tell me? All of this happened many years ago now, but I sometimes still wonder what I would have found had I been able to reach out and open that scroll.