Sleep Paralysis – The Devil in the Room
Carla MacKinnon is a London-based filmmaker and interdisciplinary producer. Her personal experience of sleep paralysis inspired her set up the Sleep Paralysis Project with support from the Wellcome Trust. MacKinnon’s short film, ‘Devil In The Room’ aims to communicate both experiences of, and the scientific background to, sleep paralysis. Here she explains how sleep paralysis affected her and how she hopes her film will help others who have experienced it.
I have always been a very active dreamer. Terrifying nightmares were regular occurrences for me throughout childhood and adolescence. But there was another kind of dream I’d get – one I could not make sense of because it did not feel like a dream at all. I would wake up feeling alert. My body was tingling and had the sensation of being under pressure, as if it was wrapped in a solid sheet of static electricity. When I tried to move, I found myself immobile. Worse still, I had the strong sense of being watched. Sometimes the watcher was visible as a human or monstrous form beside my bed, sometimes an invisible sensed presence. One this was certain – it was malevolent. These episodes lasted anything from seconds to minutes and left me feeling vulnerable and confused, as if I had been touched by something evil and otherworldly.
It was not until I was in my mid-twenties that I heard the term ‘sleep paralysis’, and realised that my experiences were not only explicable, but relatively common. When entering the REM phase of sleep (most commonly associated with dreaming) the brain induces muscular paralysis, a precautionary measure to stop a person physically acting out the actions of their dreams. Normally this paralysis ceases before the dreamer wakes. Sometimes though this process is disordered – the paralysis might occur before the sleeper is fully asleep or continue into wakefulness. The result of this is that a person will find themselves seemingly awake and aware in their bedroom, unable to move.
In some cases, the combination of waking and dream mental activity can cause hallucinations. People may hear noises or see shadowy figures around them. Hallucinations can also be olfactory, and some people report feelings of being moved, or even out-of-body experiences. Shortness of breath and a pressure on the chest are also common.
It is thought that at least a quarter of people experience some form of sleep paralysis in their lives, with around 5% suffering associated hallucinations and unusual bodily experiences. The chances of an attack increase with disruption of sleep patterns, stress and drug use. In many parts of the world mythologies have arisen which relate to the sleep paralysis experience. The best known of these are ‘The Old Hag of Newfoundland’, believed to sit astride the sleeper crushing the breath from their bodies and the ‘Kanashibari’, a Japanese demon whose name translates roughly as ‘bound in fastened metal’. It has been suggested that many alien abduction experiences and religious visitations may also be rooted in sleep paralysis.
I decided to initiate a project exploring and raising awareness for the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The Sleep Paralysis Project would consist of a short film, a series of events and a web resource. The project was launched at the Dana Centre in January 2013 as part of the London Short Film Festival, and continued throughout the year. I interviewed dozens of sleep paralysis sufferers from all over the world, many of whom experience extremely frequent and severe episodes. I spoke to people who had been misdiagnosed as epileptic or schizophrenic, and people who believed themselves to be under attack from demons, or the devil itself.
In creating Devil In The Room, the short film at the heart of the project, it was important to me to balance the scientific voice with a more subjective, internal voice. This comes in the form of two narrators, presenting different angles over the top of a visual representation of a sleep paralysis experience. The film combines live action and animation techniques to create a reality that is insecure, in a constant state of transformation. I’ve tried to combine scientific and cultural information with an unsettling, frightening atmosphere and the odd dash of humour.
Throughout the project I have worked in consultation with Christopher French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths University; Dan Denis, a Psychology MA student specialising in sleep paralysis and Paul Broks, a neuropsychologist and writer whose work explores the science and mysteries of human experience.
Professor French explained his interest in the project in a cultural and historical context: “It is easy to see why this phenomenon has attracted interest from artists of all kinds through the ages, from Henri Fuseli’s classic painting The Nightmare, through literary works by writers such as Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, to modern filmmakers like Carla. It is also easy to see why the experience should so often have been interpreted as supernatural in nature. The Sleep Paralysis Project provides the perfect means to educate both sufferers themselves and the public in general about the true nature of the phenomenon. In the process, we hope we can reassure sufferers that sleep paralysis is, although often terrifying, essentially harmless.”
I hope that people who are subject to sleep paralysis will be able to recognise some of their experience in this film, but will also be able to use it as a way into finding out more about the scientific background of the phenomenon. The research I have done on the project has greatly altered my relationship to sleep paralysis. I still occasionally experience attacks, but am now able to stay calm and examine them from an informed, analytical perspective. I have found that by focusing on details of the experience and cross-referencing them against my research I can distract my mind from the sense of fear and threat, robbing the experience of the overwhelmingly dark power it used to possess.
Devil in the Room is screening at the Royal College of Art Graduate Exhibition, ending June 30 2012 and you can find out more on the Sleep Paralysis Project website.