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The sweet terror of dreams

Is the dream phenomenon of sleep paralysis one of the last legitimate ways we can experience the supernatural? With Halloween on the way, TEODOR RELJIC investigates this often horrifying subset of dreams

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Teodor Reljic
29 October 2015, 7:09am
The Nightmare (1781) is an oil painting by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli and has remained Fuseli’s best-known work. The canvas seems to portray simultaneously a dreaming woman and the content of her nightmare. The incubus and the horse’s head refer to contemporary belief and folklore about nightmares
The Nightmare (1781) is an oil painting by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuseli and has remained Fuseli’s best-known work. The canvas seems to portray simultaneously a dreaming woman and the content of her nightmare. The incubus and the horse’s head refer to contemporary belief and folklore about nightmares
Halloween is soon upon us. Although the holiday has by now officially been shorn of its spiritual power for the majority of the world populace – barring a neo-pagan niche, perhaps – its appeal remains enduring. This could be attributed to a variety of factors, of course, the most obvious of which are somewhat superficial: an indulgence in sweets (for kids) and an excuse to dress up and play the fool much in the same way we do for Carnival (for both kids and grown-ups). To say nothing of nerds like me, who enjoy the license to indulge in – now internet-boosted – re-watches and re-reads of their favourite horror classics.

But nerdy pleasure and tacky commodification aside, perhaps there’s something more legitimate in our commitment to celebrate Halloween and all of its trappings, year in and year out. An acceptance of ghouls, monster and demons into the ‘surface world’ not only adds a dash of colour – either red or deep black – to our predominantly beige day-to-day existence… it speaks to primordial fears about the unknown and the ineffable, about the things we can barely recognize as human or earthly, let alone deal with. 

There’s a reason why pagan cultures continue to be associated with the milieu of Halloween on the one hand, and with ‘nature cults’ and ‘hippies’ on the other. Unlike the more politically ingrained and staunchly hierarchical world religions of today, paganism in all its forms – at least going by the interpretation fomented by popular culture – appears to be more ‘in tune’ with supernatural forces underlying our lives. Supernatural forces which are, of course, an embodiment of the ancient, powerful and non-negotiable structures of the natural world. 

It’s no surprise that today’s post-Enlightenment world has relegated such beliefs and rituals to the fringes, since belief in the supernatural is all but abolished and natural phenomena can be analysed and understood through biological processes. But isn’t it even more significant, then, that such beliefs still linger? The author and cultural critic Marina Warner in fact dedicated a pretty thorough volume on this phenomenon – Phantasmagoria (2006) – in which she asks this very question and scans the history of art – from writing to visual art to photography and cinema – to pinpoint how we cling on to the supernatural even when we don’t want to. 

Because if we believe in the subconscious, then this is the perfect arena in which these forces can play out. And what better, more vivid, and more common manifestation of the subconscious is available to us, than that of the world of dream?

Sleep paralysis

Dreams, of course, vary in shape, texture and – apparent – longevity. But a recent documentary has taken to exploring a particularly unnerving variant, which leaves its sufferers baffled, stunned and sometimes, sadly, damaged for life. Directed by Rodney Ascher, ‘The Nightmare’ explores the phenomenon of what is dubbed ‘sleep paralysis’ – a kind of nightmare that leaves the sufferer rooted to their bed, despite apparently external stimuli telling them that they should move. These stimuli could be anything from a simple pressure on one’s body, to shadowy presences sneaking into the bedroom to threaten, admonish or torture the dreamer. 

When we asked sufferers of sleep paralysis to describe their own experience, we saw the same commonality of experience, that somehow still feels strange: an upsetting intrusion into your consciousness that nonetheless happens quite often, and to a lot of people. 

“I actually remember the onset of it – how it would start each time,” one sufferer, Matthew, told me. “I would always fall asleep with the radio on, and at one point, the sound would always slip into a loop. And then, it would get distorted…”

It would be at this point, Matthew says, that he would start feeling the pressure that ultimately pins him down to the bed.

“Then I would sense one of my hands lock into position, and my breathing would become laboured. I would then start sensing the bed inclining, as if this ‘presence’ is clambering onto the bed…”

Ironically enough, despite not being religious, Matthew revealed that the only thing that made the sleep paralysis stop was “saying the rosary”. 

Josef, another person we spoke to about the experience, confesses that when put into the words, the experience of sleep paralysis sounds more exciting than what it feels like.

“However, the horror is quite indescribable. The closest I can come to giving you an idea of what it’s actually like is… there’s always somebody forcing me down, while I was doing my best to break through…”

This is fact matches my own experience: though many find the ‘scientific’ explanations and treatments for sleep paralysis from the medical field unsatisfactory – an ineffective banalisation of a horrific, and sometimes scarring, experience – the ‘paralysis’ bit is certainly right. You feel as though you’re pinned down and can’t move despite otherwise feeling like this is the one thing you must do. In fact, Josef describes it as an innately “primordial” – cementing the fact that the sensations it brings out are ancient: pre-scientific… and even perhaps pre-religious. 

In fact, one key aspect of Asher’s documentary is that those suffering from sleep paralysis, being frustrated by the “cut-and-paste” and ultimately ineffective advice dished out to them by medial professionals, found solace online. And there’s something of the Halloween spirit in that too. Random, normal people gathered around the digital campfire to share stories of unexplainable, but strangely common, happenings. In an effort to understand. In an effort to heal. 

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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