Lucy Milburn 8th November 2017
Imagine awakening to a state of paralysis. You cannot move a muscle but there’s an intense pressure on your chest. There’s a faceless figure in the corner of your bedroom and, regardless of how hard you try, you just can’t move your body. This nightmare is a living reality for approximately 10% of the population who are regularly affected by the terrifying phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
Scientifically speaking, our bodies paralyse themselves during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to ensure that we don’t physically act out any vivid dreams. During an episode of sleep paralysis, your mind regains consciousness before your body wakes up and you are plunged into a hyper-realistic and multisensory space. As a physically harmless condition with no clinical treatment, the NHS advice is vague, recommending that sufferers of sleep paralysis establish a regular routine and “get a good night’s sleep”. To effectively come to terms with the crippling fear and intense hallucinations, many feel the need to get creative.
An apelike, demonic creature crouches on the chest of a sleeping woman in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (above). The oil painting is thought to be the first artistic impression of sleep paralysis, dating back to 1781. As a visceral onslaught of the senses, it is no surprise that many have turned to creative practice to explore the little-understood condition. Creative mediums such as photography, paint and film lend themselves to expressing vivid detail and the confusing phenomenon is beginning to gain traction in popular culture. For creative minds navigating the disorientating space between sleep and wakefulness, art can serve as both personal therapy and an educational tool.
The Overtake spoke to several artists who have channelled their sleep paralysis as a source of inspiration to create surreal and evocative art.
Horrific episodes of sleep paralysis have ruled Nicolas Bruno’s life since he was 15. The condition was extremely debilitating for the New York-based photographer who has battled insomnia, depression and traumatic dreams. Recording his experiences in his dream journal, Bruno now therapeutically articulates his personal trauma in surreal self-portraits with violent imagery and anonymous figures. The photography is a clear effect of his torment and Bruno believes that discovering a creative outlet has completely transformed his life.
“Finding my voice through the creation of deeply personal imagery gave me the boost that I needed to persevere and grow as an artist,” he says.
The creative process begins with his dream journal, a physical record of his encounters with faceless figures and telekinetic forces. Bruno often combines multiple dream experiences to develop a creative concept and represents key symbols with strange props and costumes.
“I become multiple figures within my work with a layering and masking process. I become both the protagonist and antagonist in a single composition,” he explains.
Bruno believes that his photography has both personal and public benefits. Art has become a therapeutic remedy for his trauma as he is able to establish more control over the events of his sleep paralysis episodes. He also sees his images as a springboard for others to interact with the condition and develop their own coping strategies.
“Translating my dream experiences into artwork has lifted my spirits from the darker place that I used to reside in. I believe that it is important to make your experiences tangible and to manage stress carefully and calmly,” he says.
Samantha Goss also views her vivid photographs as a means of aiding fellow sufferers. Although inspired by a variety of life experiences, sleep paralysis is a particularly dominant presence in her life and takes centre stage in her work. Creating surreal photography articulated feelings that Goss was initially scared to discuss and now she expresses a keen desire to educate others about the sleeping disorder.
“By creating my art, I’ve been able to connect to others and allow them to speak their own experiences. Some people have been able to finally put a name to what they were experiencing and felt very happy to come across my work. That’s all I can ever ask for – that my art helps another person to heal,” she says.
Both Goss and Bruno follow a similar creative process by isolating elements from a sleep paralysis episode and developing them into a visual concept.
“I often take a scary subject and turn it into something aesthetically appealing. However, I am working on a series that shows the more gruelling, dark and unspoken side of my sleeping disorders,” she says.
Art has a didactic element for Carla MacKinnon, an animator from London, who became frustrated at the lack of useful resources about sleep paralysis. Frequently suffering from the disruptive condition, she decided to actively tackle the problem and collaborated with psychologists to create The Sleep Paralysis Project. The collection includes mixed-media film Devil in the Room, an informative website, event series and a gallery installation. Aiming to encompass both scientific explanation and artistic interpretation, the cross-platform project is designed to help others navigate the cultural history, scientific background and emotional associations of the condition.
“I couldn’t find any information which talked about sleep paralysis as a phenomenon that could be explained by science but also as something which was frightening, mysterious and surreal,” she explains.
The biggest impact of using sleep paralysis as a source of inspiration was a change in how MacKinnon perceived her episodes of nightmarish sensations. In a search for artistic stimulus, she focused on intently analysing the experience.
“Instead of shying away from the experience, I really got to know it. This caused a respite in the condition. It frightened me less. I think I stopped getting it so often because I wasn’t as terrified,” she says.
MacKinnon’s experience is echoed by film director Rodney Ascher who created horror-documentary The Nightmare after realising that his experience of sleep paralysis was “woefully under-discussed”. After a traumatic first experience of sleep paralysis featuring an invasive shadowy figure, Ascher was convinced that he’d had a supernatural encounter. A lack of understanding about the condition has contributed to a range of cultural associations as sleep paralysis has been linked to alien abduction, the paranormal and demonic possession.
After discovering an online community of people sharing their sleep paralysis experiences, Ascher decided to create his film from a first-person perspective. In The Nightmare, he interviews participants and uses professional actors to recreate their trauma. Indebted to the horror movie genre, the re-enactments are visually striking and accompanied by a rumbling soundtrack to create an atmosphere of terror. Unlike Devil in the Room, The Nightmare does not provide a clinical perspective in favour of creating an immersive, horror experience.
“As I came across speculation that sleep paralysis may have inspired folklore, superstitions & ghost stories, the idea of using some of the vocabulary from horror movies in this film made more and more sense,” he explains.
After years of being accused of laziness, Rebis Alobar (not his real name) was diagnosed with narcolepsy. Bouts of daytime drowsiness are the popular hallmark of this condition but for Alobar, the lesser known symptoms of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations were the most distressing. Determined to overcome this mental hurdle and struggling to represent his experiences by writing fiction, Alobar turned to drawing and painting.
“I found it wonderfully therapeutic as I wasn’t limited to converting my abstract concepts into words. I could create concepts that were far more abstract and more accurately represented my emotions during an episode of sleep paralysis,” he says.
Alobar now sleeps with a sketchpad by his bed and believes that it is his subconscious that dictates his artwork. His drawings are chaotic, bursting with symbolism and splattered with black ink. According to Alobar, his artwork reflects his precise emotions during a narcoleptic episode and presents his search for an abstract “truth” which he conceptualises as a “glowing orb submerged in tar”.
“It’s why my art is mostly black and white and looks frantically splattered on a canvas. I want to hold on to that frantic element from my dreams,” he explains.
It is interesting that several of the artists recalled a noticeably intense experience following the end of production. Ascher recalls a surreal, visual hallucination that occurred during the end of The Nightmare’s filming.
“I heard a turbine begin to wind up as coloured sparks appeared in front of me. I told myself I should let it happen and take notes so I relaxed, laid back and enjoyed the lightshow,” he says.
MacKinnon describes a more disturbing post-production experience. Devil in the Room was shot in her own bedroom and the development required her to create a miniature version of her bedroom. Awakening from an episode of sleep paralysis, she found herself in the miniature film set as a doll with the events of the film occurring around her.
She says: “It was like a horror film where life imitates art.”
Lucy Milburn 8th November 2017