Friday, October 16, 2015

The Nightmare (2015)

Nine years ago, I remember dreaming a rather innocuous dream that involved a playful game of chase. I ducked down behind some kind of barrier to hide from my pursuer, and in that moment of anticipation I felt keenly the desire - as one normally would in such a circumstance - to remain hidden, undiscovered. That feeling washed over me as the dream ended, and, in a haze of half-wakefulness, I sensed a presence in my room. Something came over and knelt beside my bed. I thought it was a family member come to wake me, although the rarity of such an occurrence caused me some alarm. I tried to speak, but my voice wouldn't come out. My body was paralyzed. In that moment, my mind jumped to my childhood fear of being abducted by aliens, and so I endeavored to determine the identity of the unknown figure beside my bed. I looked at its face. It wasn't alien, but it wasn't human, either. In fact, it wasn't a face at all, but a ragged mass of flesh - a muddy configuration of epidermal ridges. I was terrified, more than I have ever been in my life, before or since. The fear was visceral and total, untempered by any rational considerations.

Finally I managed to reach my arm out toward the figure, in some mad attempt to interact with the phantasm that was tormenting me. But my hand only passed through the empty darkness. Perhaps my mind seized on that contradiction, because at that moment - as if my gesture had acted to dispel the illusion - the figure began to fade away before me. Only then did I open my eyes - verifying that what I had seen was only a hallucination (having that vividness of conscious reality that no dream could imitate). The paralysis left me, and the fear receded, though not completely. Utterly shaken by this - thankfully for me, once in a lifetime - ordeal, I opened the curtains and the room flooded with sunlight. Too frightened to return to bed, to chance the uncertain realm of sleep so soon, I sat up at my computer and, with tingling nerves, and while periodically glancing over my shoulder, researched what I came to learn had been an episode of what is called "sleep paralysis".

Before that day, I didn't know what sleep paralysis was, but it's a phenomenon that seems universal (if not exactly common) to human experience, across cultures and time periods. Henry Fuseli's painting The Nightmare from 1781 depicts a frequent symptom of sleep paralysis - which goes far beyond a simple bad dream - a goblin (or sometimes "old hag") sitting on the victim's chest to restrict their breathing. Going by the same title, Rodney Ascher now has a documentary out, drawing welcome attention to this haunting phenomenon. Even insofar as exploring the subject may potentially trigger sleep paralysis episodes in some individuals, whether they have experienced it before or not (I'm not sure that's how it works, but I can tell you that watching this documentary made me more afraid to go to sleep than A Nightmare on Elm Street ever has - consider how uniquely problematic it is when the thing you are afraid of is not, in fact, some "thing" coming in to your room at night, but going to sleep itself), I think it's important that people learn about this phenomenon (and that academics continue to study it), because of its significant impact on the lives of those who experience it.

I don't want to overhype this documentary, as it's entirely possible that my own one-time experience with sleep paralysis has contributed to my visceral reaction to the stories and images in this documentary. To an uninitiate, these experiences can sound downright crazy, and really stretch one's capacity for belief (and belief does have a tendency to stretch beyond its normal bounds for those who experience this phenomenon). But this feature probably scared me, physically as much as psychologically, as much as the original Paranormal Activity did, if not more. The documentary features interviews with several different unfortunates, all who have suffered from sleep paralysis for extended periods in their lives (I am thankful my experience was a solitary case, for I can't imagine the horror of having to deal with this condition on a regular basis). The fear in their voices when they describe their experiences is telling, and the dramatized depictions of their episodes are spot on, in my opinion, and wholly terrifying.

The fact that sleep paralysis is real makes it that much scarier. No shortage of horror movies boast stories that are "based on true events", but even those are fictions, to a greater or lesser extent. Sleep paralysis is something that actually happens to people - and when it does, there is no escape hatch. You can't tell yourself "it's only a movie" and shut off the TV. Repeat sufferers have even claimed that no amount of familiarization with the phenomenon makes it any less frightening. But though there are other real terrors in the world - serial killers, wild animals, natural disasters - the thing that makes sleep paralysis unique - and uniquely terrifying - is that it happens in the mind. It taps into a primal well-spring of fear, and is capable of bringing creatures of the imagination (sufferers regularly describe the shadowy intruders that visit them as having an evil presence) to vivid life. And not only do these creatures come for you in the dark of night, when you're in bed and at your most vulnerable - but you're also paralyzed and, thus, powerless to fight back.

Although I wouldn't have asked for it, and dread the possibility of a repeat occurrence, I nevertheless feel grateful for my one-time experience with sleep paralysis. Not only does it help me to understand the phenomenon, by having experienced it firsthand, but even though it was centered around fear, it was one of the most visceral and extraordinary experiences of my life. That having been said, I really can't blame the limits of sanity to which those people go who have to suffer with this condition for extended periods of their lives. A number of potential explanations for the phenomenon are put forth in the documentary, although I wish they had explored the scientific explanation in a little more depth (there was only a fleeting reference to the body's normal production of a paralyzing agent when we begin to enter the sleeping state). However, I appreciate the alternative explanations provided - not put forth by the documentarians as a matter-of-fact solution to the mystery, but just the various conclusions these different people who have to live with the condition have independently come to.

I was very glad that the documentary addressed the similarity between sleep paralysis and the alien abduction experience (one sufferer recognized symptoms of his experiences in the movie Communion). I would be interested in an even more in-depth exploration of sleep paralysis as a possible explanation for such experiences, but I guess that would be better suited to a documentary on alien abductions. Other sufferers frequently attribute a demonic nature to the intruders that visit them by their bedside at night. One such interviewee attempted (successfully, by her account) to expel the demons by invoking the name of Jesus, provocatively demonstrating the power of mind over matter in such an immaterial realm. If anything could turn a person into a believer (as one other interviewee states that he has renounced his atheism) it would be regularly experiencing such a profound phenomenon. John Constantine may take issue with the legitimacy of this approach, but when it comes to believing, those who have contact with supernatural entities have an advantage over the rest of us to whom God remains conspicuously silent.

Even as scientifically-minded as I am, I took some measure of comfort in conceptualizing my own sleep paralysis episode as a sort of symbolic representation of my psychic condition. My whole life has been ruled by fear (I don't think it's merely a coincidence that I've become a horror movie critic), and so I envisioned the faceless entity that had visited me that night as a physical embodiment of Fear, and its presence in my room an indication of the influence it has on my life. Granted, this is all still a product of my own psychology - as I decidedly take Scully's skeptical approach towards the phenomenon - but I shudder to think how much my faith in science and understanding of reality might buckle if this experience had not mercifully been a rare occurrence, but a regular part of my daily (nightly) life. And so, tonight - and every night afterward until the images from this documentary fade from my compulsive thoughts - I shall retire to my pillow and hope that I can drift in and out of sleep seamlessly, as usual, without tripping over the threshold and waking a nightmare unparalleled in its intensity.


  1. This was not just a great documentary but a brilliantly directed one! I hope they make an awards push for it, this should win an Oscar. The lighting and the atmosphere were so gorgeous, and there were a lot of little clever ticks in the frame. Like, man, you would have somebody telling this creepy story and it would be a close up on their face, and then the frame would widen slowly and a hand would reach out, or something, and it turns out to be the interviewer or just someone walking behind the guy or any old thing, but for a split second it seems like something else. There are dozens of instances of this in the film. The director would make great horror movies, I think.

    I, too, was hoping they'd explore alien abduction more. But as usual it was both a want and a fear, when they did dip into it briefly I was almost glad they didn't go any deeper! Ultimately I think they gave it just about the right amount of focus. And the alien-static hybrid monsters were byfar the best monsters in the film!

    So do you mean to imply that PA1 is the scariest movie (until now) or were you just comparing these two films due to their feeling or realness? Speaking of, I know sleep paralysis has been mined for plenty of films (including pretty weakly in Fourth Kind), but it'd be great to have a proper sleep paralysis found footage film! The premise writes its damn self, someone sets up cameras to document their sleep paralysis and then... uh oh, demons! Shadowpeople! Aliens! Limitless possibilities.

    I really loved the segment about film because, naturally, that's the lexicon I intimately understand. And what a roster of films to namedrop, I think they mentioned exactly four films: Nightmare on Elm Street, Communion, Insidious, and Natural Born Killers.

    Like you, I've had one incident of sleep paralysis. In all seriousness, I should be a good candidate for the phenomenon. My sleep has taken on peculiar qualities due to years of haphazard sleep habits; not only do I have a biphasic sleep schedule AND I sleep during the day, but there is no pattern within those parameter, I sleep at any part of the day for any random duration, regularly going 30 hours without sleep. I may also be narcoleptic, two weeks ago I literally fell asleep and DREAMT while I was standing up, sweeping at work.

    Supposedly you're not supposed to have significant dreaming until 15+ minutes into a sleep schedule, but I apparently fall into that phase instantly (which has been documented as possible) because I can fall asleep for 30 seconds and have a fully realized, complex dream. So I'm very lucky I don't have it. I certainly have my troubles in life but the one thing I'm good at is keeping the stress level at a pretty decent low, my whole life is based around that goal (at the detriment of most other aspects of life!) so that's probably why the mare of the night doesn't haunt me.

    Plus, it may make me sound like a baby, but I really do take comfort in the fact that 9 times out of 10 I'm hitting the pillow during the daylight hours. I know paralysis can hit at this time as well but on an emotional level I just do not feel vulnerable to darkness during the day. I love the night, in many respects I LIVE for the night, but like all things with power it has positive magic and, of course, dark magic as well.

    As for believers v. non-believers... Interestingly enough it is my uncanny experiences with the power of the body over the mind (by way of perfectly legal hallucinogenic substances) that convinces me so readily that the supernatural does not exist. If genuine magic is so easy to conjure under what basically constitutes laboratory circumstances, it does not stretch credulity to me, that people would be able to experience a whole host of seemingly otherworldly events without necessitating their existence.

  2. I've often touted the original Paranormal Activity (but also its first sequel) as the scariest movie I've seen in my adult life. This movie's effect wasn't as long lasting, but it's one of the very few movies that could ever make me feel *physically* terrified while watching it, and the first night after, it didn't just make me scared of the dark, but scared to actually /allow/ myself to go to sleep.

    How exactly would a found footage sleep paralysis movie work, considering that the scary bits are occurring in the person's head? Unless you mean to suggest that it's not sleep paralysis so much as a *real* invader with the same power to paralyze you in your bed.

    Re: films - They also mentioned Jacob's Ladder, for the shaky head effect.

    Interestingly, my sleep paralysis episode *did* occur during the day - close to noon. But my room was darkened, and even after getting up and opening the curtains, I was still terrified even as the midday sun flooded my room. Still, I know what you mean - things are just scarier in the dark. It's gotta be an instinctual (if not just rational) thing. There's no telling what's hiding in that space you can't see, especially when it's surrounding you.

    I like your approach toward skepticism, that's a very reasoned perspective. I'm surprised I've never heard anyone put it quite that way before.