In this guest blog, director Carla MacKinnon shares how her struggles with sleep paralysis inspired her to work with scientists and communicate their research through film. She will join us at the Book Club for Fright Night, an evening exploring sleep paralysis, nightmares and lucid dreams.

Image from Carla MacKinnon’s short animated documentary, Devil in the Room.

Throughout my teens and 20s I would occasionally wake up in the night, unable to move. Sometimes I’d be afraid and have a strong sense that I was not alone, other times I’d actually hear or see things in the room with me – banging doors, people, animals, strange creatures flittering around the bed. I was experiencing sleep paralysis – a phenomenon at the cusp of sleep and wakefulness. In sleep paralysis, the mind has woken up but the body believes it is asleep, and is unresponsive to the will to move. With one foot in a dream-state, the mind can be open to a kind of ‘dream cognition’, which conjures the apparitions that are common to these experiences. I discovered that sleep paralysis is very common – some estimates say that 30-40% of people experience it in some form, with 5% of these experiencing regular episodes including frightening hallucinations.

With support from the Wellcome Trust, I began to work with psychologist Christopher French and neuropsychologist Paul Broks, to better understand sleep paralysis and think about how it could be communicated. I interviewed dozens of people from around the world who experience regular sleep paralysis and drew on their stories as inspiration for a short animated documentary, Devil In The Room.

The film, which features audio from an interview with Christopher French alongside surreal and hallucinatory visual sequences, aims to present some of the scientific and historical context of sleep paralysis while also offering a creative interpretation of the experience.

The project released in 2013 alongside a web resource (thesleepparalysisproject.org) and a series of events. The film’s partner piece, Squeezed by Shadows, was a gallery installation exhibited at Wellcome Collection in 2016. At Fright Night I’ll be showing the film and talking about the process of making it, the science behind it, and all the weirdness of sleep paralysis.