The Surreal Terror of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis has a logical and scientific explanation. It’s a phenomenon where you partially wake up from sleep, but your muscles still remain frozen. A biological glitch in our bodies causing one part of us to wake from the dream, while the rest of the body is on lockdown. Perfectly explainable. Yet try telling that to someone who’s lived through it.

The experience can be terrible. You’re still dreaming and the things you see appear real. But you cannot move or speak or scream.

You are frozen in terror, staring up at the monstrous creations of your subconscious.

Sleep paralysis is actually a protection mechanism designed to keep you safe while dreaming. The images and scenarios in your dream are vivid and seem real. If a tiger leaps out, you scream and run. Your muscles are locked down to prevent you from flailing about or making a large racket (that would have attracted predators back in the day).

Even as we understand more about this phenomenon, there’s no denying the surreal quality it evokes—to see your dreams as real, right there before you. Photographer Nicolas Bruno has captured some of these images. He is a victim of sleep paralysis and his photos are a window into his subconscious mind.

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Bruno began to jot down notes about his dreams. He wanted to recreate them using recurring imagery (like gas masks, bowler hats, or lanterns) and compose them the way a painter would. His photos show a haunting world that Bruno describes as  “a bittersweet homage” to his dream-world life.

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Often times, dreams serve as a way to work through the events of a day. But dreams aren’t logical. They are an emotional outlet. You typically see your fears come alive, such as being buried alive. The fears don’t make sense. It’s your minds way of dealing with them.

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Because dreams mash up images, the result can seem surreal and downright strange. We move from place to place instantly.

The glitch of sleep paralysis has haunted humanity for thousands of years. Over that time, cultures created creatures that stalk us in the night as a way to explain the frightening sessions of paralysis. They myths center around nocturnal monsters or demons.

In the Amazon, we have the Boto, a river dolphin that transforms at night into a vaguely human creature. It wears a hat to cover it’s blowhole. In Africa, the night prowler takes the form of a bear. Known as the Tokoloshe, it slinks in at night and bites the toes off children as they sleep.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

A carving of a Tokoloshe.

The folks at the Sleep Paralysis Project, along with director Carla MacKinnon, have created a documentary about sleep paralysis. This both serves as an explanation and a terrifying vision of the phenomenon. Be warned, if you don’t suffer from bad dreams, you will after watching this.

The film Devil in the Room depicts the grotesque creatures alongside the scientific explanation. It was meant to evoke the feeling of sleep paralysis and I say it does a damn good job.

Tim Kane

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2 comments on “The Surreal Terror of Sleep Paralysis

  1. kaylacurry1 says:

    I have experienced this. It used to happen almost every night, and sometimes multiple times in one night. Thankfully it is very rare now.

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