Author and playwright Peggy Riley is originally from LA, but now resides on the North Kent coast. She has worked as a writer in residence at a young offenders’ prison, a festivals producer and a bookseller. She also runs workshops for writers. Her debut novel, the bleakly brilliant Amity and Sorrow, is about God, sex and farming, and hones in on three women on the run from the charismatic leader of a polygamous cult: one father, two daughters and 50 wives. Her filmic alter ego is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Eithne Farry
I am an old friend of sleeplessness, as sleep and I have a terrible relationship. I pursue it; it scorns me. We battle through the night until it completely overwhelms me with dark, heavy dreams it takes all day to shake. Turning myself right side over from a long-haul flight, my sleep is particularly strange. I long to be Sleeping Beauty, spindle-pricked and prince-waiting, dozing for a hundred years. I’d even take Snow White in her glass box of sleep, instead of being this Goldilocks, forever looking for the right bed, the right sleep.
Fairy tale princesses get a bad rap. Yesterday in a bookshop I heard a mother say she wouldn’t buy her daughter Sleeping Beauty, as ‘all she does is sleep’. I thought only ‘bliss’. Bring me a spinning wheel and some fairies – stat.
In seeking a heroine that hadn’t been drawn, my sleep-addled brain found another princess, one of America’s Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara is a handful of a character: vicious and fickle, spiteful and jealous. She takes what she wants and never wants what she gets. But she rides all the rough waves that surround her – war, poverty, the madness of parents, the death of a child, the loss of her many loves – with style and an evolving grace. She even survives the wearing of curtains. I have no doubt that when Rhett leaves her at the door, she shuts it and has a good night’s sleep. She is at peace with herself: after all, it is the needs and impulses she has that make her so compelling, so watchable. And I know that, refreshed of a morning, she simply mounts her horse and charges after him, makes him give a damn. Rhett Butler cannot resist Scarlett O’Hara and neither can I.
Tony Collingwood’s 23-minute animation Rarg (1988) is a charming ode to sleep, dreaming and the subconscious mind. Through Collingwood’s enchantingly detailed drawings and Philip Appleby’s mesmerising soundtrack, the film creates an absorbing idyll of ‘peace and tranquillity; a world so perfect that the sun never rose until it was absolutely sure that everybody was awake’. Rarg is a place where everybody is happy, from its leader, the Rargian senator, to the nesting birds singing outside his window. The key to this happiness lies in the vast library of Rarg: endless shelves stacked with books detailing the revelations of generations. In Rarg, thought and intellectual discovery are highly prized; ‘they discovered simply for the sake of discovery’. The sonorous voice of narrator, Nigel Hawthorne, introduces us to towers filled with professors working away on ‘discoveries’, from tiny revelations to the biggest question of all: ‘where exactly are we anyway?’
To our amusement and surprise, this latter enquiry is answered by an enormous sneeze. One of the professors has installed ‘information-sucking electrodes’ throughout Rarg to determine the meaning of existence. As the professor flicks the switch to turn on these electrodes, an image of a sleeping man named Edwin Barnes appears on his computer screen. When Edwin produces an almighty ‘Achooo!’ the ground shakes in its wake. After six minutes acclimatising to this strangely harmonious world, we realise that Rarg is a construct: the inner mind of a snoring man.
And so the film becomes an allegorical exploration of what happens when we sleep. The industrious professors are the workings of our subconscious minds, building on buried archives of knowledge (the library of Rarg) to reveal truths which remain hidden during our waking lives. And the senator of Rarg, with his delight in creativity and ‘discovery’, shows how our imaginations take flights of fancy when they do not have to deal with the practicalities and complications of our daytime existences. The peaceful harmony of Rarg is – put simply – an illusion and a very fragile construction. This utopia hangs in the balance as Edwin’s alarm clock ticks down to 8 AM. With five minutes left, the inhabitants have two weeks in Rargian time to hatch a plan. The Rargian senate calls a meeting for the first time in 8000 years. Time in Rarg is as fluid as it appears when we dream.
At the prospect of waking up, the mind stages a revolt and the Rargian inhabitants take action to rescue (or rather kidnap) Edwin from ‘reality’ and bring him to Rarg. As the hushed mission gets underway, Collingwood creates some lovely silent comedy set pieces. Like miniature Oliver Hardys, four rotund figures are sent forth with pillowcases on their feet to carry Edwin’s bed. The nuances of their movements are beautifully rendered to produce a delightfully silly heist scene. And, as these figures make their way through Rarg’s streets, a baby bird falls dangerously close to Edwin’s sleeping body, creating another wonderfully tense sequence of physical comedy. These scenes perfectly mimic the lightest stage of sleep in which we might wake from our slumber, every tiny external sound threatening our peace. Edwin survives these perilous moments and the subsequent result is an ending so unexpected and surreal, it is bound to make you smile from ear to ear. As a meditation on the beauty of sleep, Rarg makes you want to turn your alarm clock off, roll over and take another 40 winks!
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?