The Nightmare and Sleep Paralysis

This year, for the first time ever, I suffered a bout of sleep paralysis. It wasn’t anything particularly unique, as far as these attacks go, but that didn’t matter in the moment. In the moment, it was utterly terrifying and upsetting. I recognized it for what it was, simply because a few months earlier I’d seen the promotional material for this year’s new documentary by Rodney Ascher and thought it looked really interesting. I was actually planning on watching the film (as part of my attempt to catch up on this year’s output) when I had my attack. A few days later, I watched the film. This was, in the short term, a mistake. It was too fresh after my sole sleep paralysis. The film follows a handful of people who suffer from sleep paralysis regularly. Several who suffer from it nightly. Who believe it could be transferred to people by describing it to them. And at least one who was convinced it would ultimately be the death of him. I stayed up the night after watching it, worried The Nightmare would prompt my slow descent into the kind of affliction shown in the documentary.

The film is fascinatingly subjective. It almost solely constrains itself to the subjective experience. Most notable is the complete lack of authoritative voice. Never once is there a scientist, doctor, or psychologist on screen. No one with any authority gives us any factual, objective look at the effects of sleep paralysis. Instead we hear this sort of information second hand through the sufferers of sleep paralysis. They tell us what the doctors they went to say, and we’re left to sift through how much of that information has been distorted by a series of people who are clearly a little distrustful of medical professionals.

The closest the film gets to an objective authoritative voice is a pan over a screencap of the Wikipedia page on sleep paralysis.

The very first thing I did the morning after having a sleep paralysis attack was go to Wikipedia. It describes the symptoms of the attack. Normally suffered when someone is just falling asleep or waking up, sleep paralysis starts with one’s entire body freezing. Hence the paralysis, you literally cannot move during an attack. Then you imagine something that, because you’re not actually asleep, feels totally real. It’s accompanied, normally, by an intense shattering fear. Wikipedia goes on to explain that it may either be a one off attack or part of a recurring ailment. The article goes on to dance around how little is actually known about sleep paralysis before eventually showing off what I found to be a morbidly hilarious prognosis.

“Sleep paralysis poses no immediate risk to those who experience it, despite the fact that it can be an intensely terrifying experience.”

The film also slides into the subjective with its other chief narrative mechanism – cinematic retellings of sleep paralysis visions. Distorted static aliens, shadowy figures, tall commanding beings, fantasy worlds, death states, visiting loved ones, and demons descend upon sleeping actors. The movie attempts, with fair success, to create the kind of tension that accompanies sleep paralysis. It helps that we see and hear the broken up people who saw these visions in the first place. Their descriptions of the events’ tone and timbre help prepare us for what we’re meant to feel. It’s a neat little narrative trick, almost necessary in a documentary, but in this situation it reminds me of the nightmare figure in Mulholland Drive. With the introduction showing us how terrified someone else was by the events we’re witnessing, it helps build up the tension in the viewer. Generally the nightmare visions presented in the movie are all too effective. A few do start to drag, or feel a little repetitive (there are common recurring figures and themes in sleep paralysis nightmares, so this might be unavoidable). Still the cast of people the movie interviews is varied and interesting enough that the film never actually becomes boring. Rodney Ascher has clearly taken some effort to find some of the most interesting and extreme cases of sleep paralysis out there. People who believe Jesus saved them, people who believe the ailment can be spread “like an STD”, people whose visions seem to explain away alien abduction as sleep paralysis, people who visit complex symbolic dream lands, people who believe nature spirits saved them, and people who believe the ailment will kill them one night.

My sleep paralysis vision was a fairly boring standard one it seems. It all happened so fast I had to figure out what it was in retrospective. There was the feeling of terror, then there was a figure. The same shadowy figure, I suppose, that appears throughout The Nightmare. Although The Nightmare’s version of the figure reminded me of a goofy monster from The Mighty Boosh, if I’m to be perfectly honest. No goofy resemblances crossed my terror-stricken mind during the vision though. The incredibly tall shadowy figure leaned over my bed. I screamed, three times. Then the figure was gone, and I was awake. I realized what had happened when I realized I hadn’t actually made a single noise. I lay awake in bed the rest of the night watching Twin Peaks and catching up on the latest season of Archer. I basically did the same thing again after I watched The Nightmare, as a preventative measure. I did not want this to be a recurring thing. The documentary is filled with people who have sleep paralysis visions literally every night, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how awful that would be.

The film is filled with all sorts of interesting and deft touches and flares. The film’s reality is occasionally undone by shots of the sets used for the recreations, or the actors slipping into their monster costumes. There are some weird compositions, like a few shots that sneak in the director reflected in mirrors. The film tries to bring a sort of dream logic to the cinematography, lighting, and editing, leaving the whole thing feeling unreal and frightening at times. This, coupled with odd digital depictions of nerves and the interviewee’s drawings (and other such things), help create this weird surreal pastiche.

The film is a little oddly paced, admittedly. The problem isn’t just the occasionally similar dreams; it’s a more fundamental thing missing from the documentary. It’s lacking any real kind of point or driving narrative. Instead it’s more like a character study of sleep paralysis itself. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means when the film starts to lag there’s no overarching point or narrative to carry you through it. There was a brief moment, when one of the interviewees explains he believes sleep paralysis can be spread like an STD by describing it to someone, when I thought the movie had built to a point. I wasn’t necessary excited about the idea that the movie was maniacally trying to infect the audience, but that sort of gleefully malicious thematic drive appealed on other levels. However that wasn’t the case, and the idea is pretty much dropped. Instead it just sort of follows a few people’s journey with sleep paralysis. It starts with their first incidents and builds either to their last, or the way they’ve chosen to live with sleep paralysis. It does mean the middle chunks can drag, but the movie is short enough it’s never unforgivable.

That moment though, where I was left with the feeling that the film was gleefully trying to infect me with recurring sleep paralysis, went a long way towards keeping me up that night. It’s a testament to the movie’s command of tone, and to the shattering terror of sleep paralysis, that I didn’t even want to attempt to sleep the night after watching Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare. The shadows in my room seemed ominous and filled with potential sources of horror. A few people in the documentary had described their occasional sleep paralysis evolving into a nightly affair, and I could almost see that possibility on the horizon.

The movie is thoroughly small and intimate. It’s only concerned with the subjective lens through which these people view their ailment. It looks at their experiences, their understanding of mythology, the films they identified sleep paralysis with. It’s more concerned with getting inside these people’s heads and their experiences than it is with drawing conclusions or following any one thematic thread through to a conclusion. While this decision does lead to a few scattered pacing issues, it’s generally a choice that works for the film. This interior, subjective perspective, grants the film a ton of frightening tone and content, and makes the whole thing more unique than some clinical medical exposé would’ve been. The movie plays with its subject matter in a way that’s far more cinematically interesting because it’s odd and distorted. Talking heads blur into edited chunks of recreations and recreations blur back into odd staged versions of reality. This interweaving of reality and fiction helps create the unreal and yet hyperreal feeling that accompanies sleep paralysis.

I haven’t had another sleep paralysis attack yet.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Brent Holmes says:

    Harry, glad to see you back and insightful.

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