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Nightmare, Sleep Terror or Ghost?

by Maria Koropecky, Homespunspa owner

“‘Twas the month of Halloween and all through the house, not a creature was stirring…” until I sprung up from the depths of sleep like a bat out of hell. I saw — and felt — plain as day — a bald man standing over me at the foot of my bed. He made some sort of gesture as if reaching for a pencil behind his right ear and said something like, “Alright then.”

He scared the bejeesus out of me

I…FREAKED…OUT. I screamed so loud I’m surprised I didn’t shatter glass. I frantically turned my bedside light on and the figure disappeared, but I wasn’t sure if I was alone or not. Maybe he dropped to the floor or dodged into the next room? My heartbeat by this time was racing like a runaway train. It felt like my heart was the size of a pumpkin and was protruding from my body, like you see in the cartoons.

I kept on expecting my landlords to call asking me if everything was alright but they didn’t. I couldn’t for the life of me get out of bed. I wanted to check around to see if anyone was there but I was frozen. I sat there scared stiff for the next 10 minutes just trying to catch my breath, my screams still echoing in my ears. The time was 10:30 pm.

Within a few minutes, my black cat, Charlie, who wasn’t in the bedroom when I initially woke up, appeared in the door. He wondered what all of the hubbub was about. I figured, because he’s a bit of a scaredy cat around strangers and likes to hide, no one else was in my apartment with us. What a relief. But then again — it begs the question — if a real person wasn’t standing there, (scary enough), what did I see, (also scary)?

I pulled the covers up to my shoulders and shivered. Somehow I dozed off again and I’ll admit, I slept with the light on until about 2:30 am.

What happened?

Let me backtrack a little bit. I have been feeling really anxious lately (hard to believe, I know) because I was layed off from my job with the government in September and have been worrying about my finances ever since. How am I going to earn a living and pay my bills now? I’m sure many of you can relate.

I didn’t think I was feeling that stressed about my situation, but now that I think about it, I have been falling back on my old stand-by habits in an effort to cope. I have been eating more, drinking more, shopping more and watching too much tv. (Thank goodness I’m still exercising regularly).

Earlier that evening, I was watching the tv show, “Lie to Me.” I had only seen the show once before. This episode was about some guy taking hostages and pointing a gun at people and I thought to myself, I don’t want to see these kinds of images before I go to bed, so I turned the tv off. Too late. I think they had an influence on my psyche and sleep anyway.

When in doubt, read a book

The next day I grabbed the book, Sleep, by Dr. Carlos H. Schenck (Penguin Group 2007) off the shelf. Dr. Schenck is a senior staff psychiatrist at the Hennepin County Medical Center and Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. I learned about him when he appeared on Oprah.

I flipped to Chapter 10, Sleep Terrors, The Night the Ghost Got Scared. The jury is still out though on whether or not I had an actual sleep terror episode because:

  • I woke up with a scream;
  • It happened in the first hour of sleep, during slow-wave, NREM sleep rather than toward the end of sleep during the REM cycle, like nightmares;
  • My heartrate (tachycardia) and breathing (tachypnea) increased;
  • I have been under stress which may have triggered a sleep terror episode;
  • I vaguely remember hearing a thump-thump noise right before waking up which may have been just loud enough to jar me awake;
  • I suspect this event will have happened in conjunction with the days leading up to my period (sorry about the TMI) which can be a contributing factor;
  • I saw a ghost and/or a robber in the house which are common sleep-terror images.


  • I do remember having had the experience which is not characteristic of sleep terrors;
  • I recognized my surroundings (my cat for example);
  • I did not experience super-human strength;
  • I did not have the fight or flight response in the sense that I did not blindly try to attack anything, protect anything or try to escape;
  • I do not have a history of sleepwalking which often goes hand in hand with sleep terrors;
  • I did not drink any alcohol that evening which is often a variable in the mix;
  • It could have been a nocturnal panic attack where there is memory of the event, increased heart rate and an awareness of surroundings but there are no screams or hallucinations.

Regardless of what you call it, a nightmare, a sleep terror, a nocturnal panic attack or a ghost sighting, I need to turn up the dial on my relaxation routine. For a start, I’m glad I went to my yoga class the next day because that really helps. I’m also going to stick to my regular sleep routine as best I can. I’m also going to try to practice some self-hypnosis, visualization and breathing techniques more regularly before bedtime but that’s a post for another day.

If you would like to get a copy of Sleep, please visit, your local bookstore or your library.

And if you’re having trouble relaxing, managing stress or sleeping, please contact me and tell me your situation. Maybe I can help because this is a interest of mine and I can relate.

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  1. Debbie says:

    Yikes, Maria!! Freaky stuff!

    1. I know!
      Have you ever had anything like that happen to you?

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