I woke up in the middle of the night and saw this massive spider on the wall, about six inches across the legs and a sort of pale grey in colour. I reached for my glasses, but then it was gone. My first instinct was that as I hadn’t kept in sight it had escaped into the shadows, jumped to the floor, gone where that I couldn’t find it. Now I was doomed to lie awake with the knowledge that a monstrously big spider was somewhere in the room. My second instinct, a moment later, was that this was another hypnagogic hallucination, that spiders that big did not exit (at least not around here), and it was just a trick of the mind. With that in mind, I proceeded to get up and search the room, just to be sure.
What is hypnagogia?
Hypnagogia is grand sounding word alluding to a rather mystical state; that’s why I chose it as the name for the canal boat central to my novel Wixon’s Day. It is the point of consciousness where you are between being awake and being asleep, where you can confuse the two states. This can lead to things from the waking world creeping into your dreams (such as hearing crashes of thunder in a dream and waking to discover the garbagemen are furiously thumping your bins around) or things from your dreams creeping into reality (such as when you hear vivid dialogue that you try to reply to and your fully awake spouse responds with utter confusion).
Hypnagogia, for me, is one of the most interesting, and often the most frightening, of states.
Things sensed during a hypnagogic state tend to take a very real form. They can be associated with physical or psychological disorders, particularly anxiety and depression. They can also come just because – with roughly half of studied cases having no apparent physical or psychological problems – and it affects people equally across the genders.
These incidents can occur when going from waking to sleep (hypnagogic) or when going from sleep to waking (hypnapompic) – though as the symptoms are more or less the same hypnagogic is used as a general term for both.
Examples of hypnagogic hallucinations
Most often, hypnagogic hallucinations take a visual form, but they can also be auditory or physical feelings. It’s thought that everyone will experience such hallucinations at least once in their lifetime. I can happily say I’ve experienced it quite a lot, though perhaps more as a child.
Visual hallucinations can include basic shapes through to animals or people. For me, it’s most commonly meant spiders. Spiders big enough to be terrifying but not too big that they’re obviously not real. So, usually between the 4 and 6 inch mark. I’ve seen them on walls on the other side of the room, on walls right next to my face, on my pillow and one time on a web that stretched all the way across the room.
On most occasions it’s resulted in me throwing all my bedding across the room in a fit of panic, followed by an extensive search for the beast. The act of hurling bedding typically hindered my ability to tell if the thing was imagined or not, due to a very real possibility that the spider did not disappear, it just got thrown somewhere new. To this day I can’t be 100% sure that all those spiders were imagined.
At least once, I saw something still small enough to be believable but much more frighteningly weird than a spider. Sort of like a spider made of triangles with an infinite number of legs. Once, I saw a humanoid figure composed of floating rags at the end of my bed. For a while I thought it was a ghost, but in time came to recognise that ghosts supposedly come from real people, and there are no floating rag people, alive or dead. It does make you wonder how many ghost sightings have been caused by this phenomenon, though.
Auditory hallucinations tend to be less troubling, and mostly lead to very bizarre conversations with whoever happens to be in the area at the time of your sleeping. I’m sure we’ve all been through this. It can also be the onset of sudden music or sounds related to our surroundings, though, leading to worrying occasions of snapping at someone “What is this garbage you’re listening to?” followed by a startled remark of “Nothing…there is…no music?”
Physical effects are the rarest and probably most troubling symptoms of this state, such as the feeling of a limb being removed, feelings of floating or, worst, paralysis and suffocation. This doesn’t happen to me much, personally, but I do recall a time as a child when I was accosted by an overweight Chinaman with a skateboard in a dream. He drugged me so I passed out in the dream and couldn’t move when I woke up in reality. As the paralysis lasted for a good few waking moments, I wasn’t sure if it was a bad dream or if the Chinaman had simply taken me back to my own bed after drugging me.
The Tetris Effect
A very common phenomenon connected to hypnagogic hallucination is what’s called the Tetris Effect, which is slightly different to the random terrors of the imagination. Connected to memory, this is when you perform a repetitive activity during the day and see things from that activity recurring in your dreams, or just before sleeping. Particularly prominent with computer games, it’s when you’d see tetrominoes falling across your vision, and would be frantically hoping they’d line up in tidy spices. With increasingly vivid computer games it can lead to much worse visions, but in my experience the more basic the activity the more likely those images are to recur.
This has been a short introduction to the wonderful state of hypnagogia and the phenomenon of hypnagogic hallucinations. I’m sure there are countless examples of people’s experiences with this, feel free to share them in the comments below. Or keep them to yourself in a perpetual state of uncertainty about whether or not these things really happened, whatever you prefer.