I've seen and done and said a lot of really strange stuff in my sleep. I've screamed about pap smears and walked around "delivering" subpoenas. Once my sister found me curled up in a closet under the stairs. Another night, I barrelled out of bed, hell-bent on kicking ass, yelling "You've got to be fucking kidding me!" to the man I "saw" peering at me through my third-floor window.
And then there was the time I watched my duffel bag crawl across the floor. I had just woken from a short nap; my bedroom was dark, but there was enough early-evening light filtering through the curtains to see my large black bag skittering across the room. My mind was foggy from sleep, but still I knew there was no logical way that this bag was actually moving. And yet, because I was there watching it move, I decided to disregard logic. (I remember actually deciding this.) So I picked up a shoe and hurled it across the room, stopping that sneaky bag in its tracks. And then I sat up in my bed, quietly worrying that I'd lost my mind, before getting up to make some dinner.
So, yeah, I have some sleep issues. And I'm concerned enough about these sleep issues to never speak about them seriously. I nervously laugh off the fact that I frequently wake up in the night, see a spider in front of my face and run through my apartment screaming expletives. What's so serious about night terrors? Once, I interviewed a doctor who said I might someday become violent in my sleep: "Your partner should know this and know that they're at risk," is what he told me. That's a tad dramatic, is what I thought. Screaming at invisible strangers in the window once made for a funny story to tell at brunch. Now I hardly mention it. I put my energy not towards treating what could be a serious problem, but towards maintaining a more comfortable avoidance.
Then VICE made me watch The Nightmare and confront my worst fears. And now I'm doomed to never sleep again.
Rodney Ascher's The Nightmare is one of the most frightening films I've ever seen. The documentary recounts the experiences of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that leaves its victims feeling completely immobilized. They wake up to find that they can't move a muscle, speak, react, or sometimes even breathe. Throughout all of this, they feel like a dark presence is in their room, taunting and terrorizing them. Sometimes this presence is seen, other times it's just felt. In one case, that evil presence is a red-eyed cat sitting on their chest speaking in tongues.
If you're someone who regularly gets a relaxing eight hours of sleep and whose biggest sleep problem is having "that dream where your teeth fall out," I'm sure this sounds completely absurd. But given my history, The Nightmare convinced me that I'm just one more crawling duffel bag away from having a demonic cat try to kill me.
I planned to watch The Nightmare on a Friday evening. I thought a gin and tonic (or several) would make the viewing experience easier to handle. I couldn't do it. I decided to just enjoy three G&Ts and watch literally anything else (a compilation of "Best Hurling Saves" on YouTube, even). Subjecting myself to this horror show in a dark apartment, at night, alone was the kind of bad call that characters in scary movies make.
So on a dreary Saturday morning, I sat down and finally, reluctantly, pressed play.
Ana was in her late 20s when she had her first experience of sleep paralysis. She woke up to hear tapping at the bedroom window. It was as if someone was knocking, trying to get in. She wanted to investigate, but she realized that she couldn't move. After a while, she felt like something monstrous was in the room with her. This became a regular nighttime occurrence. "I would feel this presence right next to me, trying to take my soul out," she tells Ascher. "I would try to fight it but my body felt paralyzed."
The film features interviews with people from all over the world who have had similar, equally awful experiences. They even use similar language to describe how sleep paralysis feels ("You will get an electrical shock just as you're falling asleep," says Stephen. Ana says she'd feel a tingling sensation coursing through her body). Most describe seeing three-dimensional "shadow men" creeping toward them during these attacks. Often these shadows would scream at them, crawl into bed with them or tell them they were about to die.
The point of the film isn't to explain why these attacks happen, but simply to make the viewer understand how it feels to experience them. Ascher does this through vivid, deliberately frightening reenactments. He uses all the classic horror-movie techniques to manipulate and terrify you—jump scares, long shots, an ominous score. (It works!) Shadowy figures slowly approach a paralysed victim. Close-up of the victim, her eyes wide with panic. Cut back to the room, and there's no one there. Then the shadowy figure steps directly in front of the camera, staring at you.
Like a true professional though, I was taking notes and trying to document my experience—these notes consist mostly of swear words like "Fuck" and "Jesus" emphasized with underlines and exclamation points, as well as desperate pleas like, "OMG, I don't want this to happen to me".
I couldn't handle this alone. I grabbed my cat and forced her to cuddle.
Forrest recalls an episode from his childhood where the shadow men were verbally abusing him, telling him he'd won the "giant insect of the month club." We see a child, frightened but frozen in bed, shadows outside his door. Then, very suddenly, a massive spider is dropped on little Forrest's face. That was enough for me. This was my experience only magnified. Is this what's in store for me next?
I needed to take a break. I went on Instagram and liked a photo of jeans that cost $84. I texted my friends for reassurance. I convinced myself that this was a level of fucked-upness I would never experience. Deep breaths.
Then someone talked about an old man appearing at the end of their bed (I've seen him too). They discussed sleep paralysis lore and the various characters that can "visit" victims at night, including "The Old Hag" (the star of my most vivid nightmare). Every weird experience and bad dream I've ever had were now evidence that I had symptoms of sleep paralysis. There were no interviews with smart doctors who explained in dull, soothing tones the scientific reasons for these experiences. No talking head told me how this occurs (or if it could be cured).
"Symptoms of sleep paralysis" was something I'd dreamed up in my rattled brain and convinced myself that I had.
And then there was Jeff. Jeff said it's almost as if sleep paralysis can be passed on to someone else just by talking about it with them...like a goddamn STI.
At this point I was practically hysterical. Notes include: "Don't freak yourself out," and "This is too fucking scary."
I reminded myself that I have never woken up paralyzed. It's cool, you're fine, I thought—well, actually, remember that time when you were a kid and you woke up and your legs didn't work and you dragged yourself up a flight of stairs to your parents' bedroom crying? REMEMBER THAT? Or remember when you went to the doctor because your arms felt like dead weight right before bed? You are totally screwed, Regan.
I was losing my mind at noon on a Saturday.
The film mercifully ended and I rushed to get out of my house and walk amongst normal people. I'm just like you! I swear. I sleep! I called my dad to say hi. We joked about what a weirdo he raised. We laughed. Everything was fine.
I went about my day, forcing myself to feel better. And eventually I did. I'm okay, I thought. Scary shadow men will not hover over my frozen body screaming "You know who I am!" Completely unlikely. Certainly not going to happen.
And then I tried to go to bed.
It was true; sleep paralysis is contagious and I'd fucking caught it. I was sure of it. I lay wide-eyed in bed, panicked, just waiting for that infernal cat to saunter in.
The Nightmare plays at Hot Docs Film Festival on April 27 at Hart House Theatre.
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