Even though my eyes were shut I knew for sure that someone was standing above me, watching me. The mental image was crystal clear, clearer than actual vision, as strong as the unmistakable sensation of being stared at. I felt my whole body shake like mad under this enormous, trembling pressure as I tried to move under a fog of tingling static. I was physically straining to wake up – my will battling with my inert body: ‘Move! Do something! The unconscious has taken me hostage!’
I wrote the description above in a letter to a friend almost ten years ago, following a night of intense sleep disturbance. Jetlagged after a long journey I had gone to bed in a strange room and rather than falling into sleep, I seemed to slip sideways into a quick-fire series of dreams. These were set in my bedroom and peppered with periods of lying awake, unable to move my body. Throughout the night, in this sleep-wake state, I was visited by visions of a pale-eyed demon with a claw-vice grip. It was not the first time I had experienced this kind of ‘nightmare’. I have had similar episodes since childhood. They feel real unlike any other kind of dream, and terrifying.
This is sleep paralysis, a very common parasomnia experienced by up to 50% of people at some time in their lives. While in REM sleep (dream sleep) a sleeper’s muscles are effectively paralysed to prevent them physically acting out their dreams. This very sensible precaution usually ceases before the sleeper wakes. Sometimes, however, the process falls out of sync. A sleeper may become conscious while still in a state of paralysis, finding themselves awake and aware, but trapped in a sleeping body which will not respond to commands. Often this can be accompanied by hallucinations – visual, auditory, tactile, even olfactory. It’s as if a door to the dream-state has been left open, and some elements are allowed to leak out into what feels like the ‘real’ world.
Last summer, during a period of insomnia, I was getting sleep paralysis episodes once or twice a week. I was struck by how… cinematic the experiences were. Researching the phenomenon, I became fascinated by the recurring themes in experiences that are reported. These include the sense of a malevolent presence in the room, often lying on or pressing the chest of the sleeper. It has been suggested that this sensed ‘presence’ is at the root of many mythological characters, from the sex-crazed incubus in Western Europe to the demonic kanashibari in Japan (allegedly the inspiration behind the Sadako character in The Ring).
To kick off the project I put out a call for interviewees. I was inundated by accounts of sleepers visited by sinister visions and a sense of ‘overwhelming, ancient evil’. Words like ‘fear’, ‘isolation’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘helplessness’ cropped up frequently, as did emotional associations between sleep paralysis and ‘the feeling of being dead’. With the support of Wellcome Trust, I devised The Sleep Paralysis Project, a cross-platform project designed to navigate and express the experience, cultural history and scientific background of sleep paralysis across film, live events and an online resource. The project was launched at London Short Film Festival in January, with a sold-out event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. In this evening of film and discussion a psychologist, a neuropsychologist, a filmmaker and a psychoanalyst all presented very different angles on the subject. A series of curated shorts offered other impressions of sleep paralysis and associated areas. These included Paul Vester’s classic short Abductees, a lively animation documenting memories ‘recovered’ during hypnosis as well as new experimental work from Emily&Anne and cinema iloobia.
Another key element of the Sleep Paralysis Project is the creation of a short experimental documentary, currently in production. Inspired by science documentary, 20s surrealism, Hammer horror and musical theatre, the film is created in collaboration with arts and technology collective seeper and artist-composer Dominic de Grande, who is writing a quirky, original soundtrack. Live action film, stop-motion animation and projection-mapped sets combine to create an evolving visual environment, in which perceived reality is constantly in question.
Perhaps the greatest fear is a fear of madness, and the incredibly convincing realities conceived in sleep paralysis are a chilling taste of what our brains are capable of. And what better medium than cinema to capture and communicate the flickering, fearful illusions of the mind’s eye?