Since The Haunting of Hill House premiered on Oct. 12 on Netflix, viewers have been equal parts horrified and fascinated by a character called “The Bent Neck” lady. And who can blame them? You’ve gotta have a pretty hardy constitution not to be terrified by a shadowy figure with an unnaturally bent neck who screams at you in the middle of the night. But the Bent Neck Lady also seems to have another horrifying power: she holds Nell (Victoria Pedretti) frozen in her bed, unable to speak or move. It’s a condition viewers later find out is called sleep paralysis, and Nell seeks medical help to try to break free from the Bent Neck Lady’s grasp. To help parse fact from fiction, some experts explain exactly how sleep paralysis in The Haunting of Hill House works.
“During REM sleep, your body is in paralysis so you do not act out your dreams," Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist known as The Sleep Doctor, tells Bustle. "When you wake up from REM sleep — and it happens when you are very sleep-deprived — you stay paralyzed.” REM is the stage of sleep when you’re dreaming, says the National Institute of Health, and since your sleep cycle repeats, you go into REM several times a night.
“Sleep paralysis often rears its ugly head when you’re just starting to fall asleep or at the moment you’re waking,” Erin Berman, a lifestyle and wellness expert at Nectar Sleep, tells Bustle. Berman says it’s common to experience an intense crushing pressure on your chest during sleep paralysis, making it difficult to breathe. She says most people experiencing sleep paralysis can open their eyes, but they can’t move their bodies. But the most terrifying part of sleep paralysis? Hallucinations like the Bent Neck Lady are actually common.
“Many [people who experience sleep paralysis] report hallucinations that feel like there is something or someone in the room with them,” Berman tells Bustle. “Envision feeling trapped in your own paralyzed body. You feel a presence in the room that’s about to harm you. Those few seconds can feel like an eternity. This is what it’s like to experience sleep paralysis.”
Across the globe, those hallucinations take on various interpretations. According to the International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, some people believe sleep paralysis is caused by a witch attack, that their souls have been scared out of their bodies by demons, that they’ve been attacked by a Jinn, or even an “Old Hag” has put a charm on them. Hallucinations from sleep paralysis are also often attributed to alien abduction, says The Cut.
So how likely are you to experience sleep paralysis? The International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research says sleep disorders are really difficult to study, partially because of the various cultural approaches to sleep paralysis, but its estimation is that sleep paralysis affects about 8 percent of the global population. Breman says, although sleep paralysis is one of the most well-known sleep disorders, it’s still very under-researched, but estimates for the United States is that about four out of 10 Americans have experienced sleep paralysis at one point in their lives.
If you do experience sleep paralysis, Dr. Nate Watson, a SleepScore Labs advisory board member, recommends reducing your everyday stress and improving your quality of sleep. It could be a sign of narcolepsy, which is related to sleep paralysis, says Watson, but it’s most likely a sign of disrupted sleep and stress.
Because The Haunting of Hill House was fiction, viewers know who the Bent Neck Lady actually turned out to be (no spoilers here). But if the show is keeping you up at night because you’re afraid your own Bent Neck Lady might show up, know that sleep paralysis might be real, but the Bent Neck Lady isn’t.