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Fuseli - The Nightmare

Experiencing the True Horror of Sleep Paralysis

As with many strange phenomena, much of the conversation about sleep paralysis tends to come in the form of the debate between skeptics and believers as to whether these bizarre experiences are ‘real’ in any way, or just odd tricks of the brain. But what that discussion often lacks is acknowledgement that – to those who ‘suffer’ from sleep paralysis – the experience feels real. Which makes the often-terrifying aspects of these experiences just that much more visceral and traumatic.

In a post on sleep paralysis here early last year I noted that Rodney Ascher – director of the acclaimed Stanley Kubrick-related documentary Room 237 – was seeking sleep paralysis experiencers for a new documentary he was beginning work on.

I’ve been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)… The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who’ve had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what’s really happening to them).

Ascher has now finished his documentary, simply titled The Nightmare, which is being released this week in selected cinemas as well as on iTunes and other ‘Video on Demand’ outlets. And, as befits a director whose last documentary was about The Shining, by all reports the new release manages to capture well the horror experienced by people upon waking in the dead of night:

In a recent interview with Vice, Ascher tells how finding a community of experiencers, and scientific explanations, helped him cope with his own bouts of sleep paralysis – but still left nagging questions that continue to fascinate him:

I was convinced it was a supernatural experience—I thought I was in danger of demonic possession, and it took a long time before any alternate explanations offered themselves up to me.

…this had happened to me when the internet was in its earliest days, so there wasn’t really anything that I could use to research what I had experienced. I think if I did, I wouldn’t have looked it up as a sleep disorder. I would’ve been researching something about, like, ghosts and the supernatural, which is how it felt to me. When I decided to research it a little bit, and see if I could find other people sharing their experiences or find scientific explanations for what was going on, I was astonished to see the sheer number of people out there who had gone through it; who were telling the details of their stories, some of which were even more bizarre and frightening than my own, in a way that they were starting to understand what had happened to them. That was fascinating to me, and made it clear that there was a bigger story here.

But none of that stuff gets at questions of, well, why do different people see the same thing? Or if people are all dreaming similar things, should there be a clearer understanding of what dreams mean? The questions I’m interested in about why people see what they see and how they struggle to make sense of this stuff are questions that aren’t strictly scientific.

You can keep up with the latest news and release dates for The Nightmare via the documentary’s Facebook page.

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  1. Sleep paralysis . . .
    From childhood through young adulthood, I experienced sleep paralysis, and then it spontaneously stopped happening and has never recurred.

    What was terrifying to me was the feeling of total helplessness (can’t move; can’t speak) in the face of known potential dangers (e.g., the house catching fire, a burgler breaking in). Strange and frightening entities, etc., were not part of my experience (there was no element of the paranormal nor feeling something was lurking in the room).

    Nevertheless, the sensations and level of terror experienced (who wants to burn to death paralyzed in her bed?) are perfectly described by sleep paralysis.

    Very likely sleep paralysis is experienced differently by different people, with only some experiencing and describing it as a paranormal event. Those are the people writing and talking about it being an anomalous or otherworldly experience, though it’s not universally perceived that way by all sleep paralysis sufferers.

  2. What I find interesting about
    What I find interesting about sleep paralysis is that it bridges the transition between sleep and wakefulness. My understanding is the mind wakes up, but the nervous system is still shut off as if asleep, so you aren’t lashing about in your sleep – thereby causing the temporary paralysis. However that state between sleep and wakefulness if full of anomalous aka psychic phenomena, is my understanding and experience, meaning are the experiences people have pure hallucinations (dreams) or is it the mind bridging the divide between normal consciousness and expanded consciousness, experiencing the entities existing in other states of being, spirit realm, etc…

    For years I had the vibrations preceding an out of body experience, stifling them out of fear, finally embracing them and achieving one short lived OOBE until two invisible entities grabbed me and I lost consciousness. Other events during that semi sleep state – mind awake/body asleep were energy (Kundalini?) rolling up and down my spine, with audible explosions in my head as it passed each of the chakras, hearing the high pitched frequencies and grinding in my head during and preceding two earthquakes, etc…

    Never actually experienced sleep paralysis, but makes me wonder if there is more to the experiences during them, than mere dreams…

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