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A few summers back, Carla McKinnon was plagued by recurring episodes of sleep paralysis. It would overtake her two, maybe three times a week, her body locking as she experienced aural and visual hallucinations of a Lynchian sort: men in hats leaning over her bed, giant spiders, cats walking on her back (“Classic stuff,” she says).

Rather than allowing the terror of the experience to consume her, McKinnon, a director, writer and visual artist who was pursuing her Masters in animation at the time, instead took a forensic approach to the field, studying the phenomenon and learning as much about it as she could. She consulted scientists and psychologists, artists and those who shared her affliction and began the Sleep Paralysis Project, a visual exploration of the phenomenon told through horror movies.

“It struck me that the really extraordinary aspects of the sleep paralysis experience lay in its realness,” McKinnon wrote, on the Sleep Paralysis Project’s blog. “It opens a door to a state that feels just as real as waking life, but very different.” 

The resulting short film Devil in the Room is an eight-minute short that explores the myriad mythological origins and scientific explanations of the experience while steeping the viewer in a claustrophobic horror.

“Cinema is an artform of illusion, with a long tradition of immersing viewers in constructed realities, sometimes creating unease and terror, sometimes educating and informing,” McKinnon wrote. “As such, film is the perfect tool with which to explore and express the subject.”

The film was released in 2013 to wide acclaim, and McKinnon has been continuing her work with SP while exploring other artistic ventures. We caught up with her and discussed the Project and what drives her fascination with this “glitch in the sleep-wake system.” 

Devil In The Room from Mackinnonworks on Vimeo.  

You've said that, at one point, you were experiencing sleep paralysis two, maybe three times a week. Everyone has a different episode. What did you see?

Lots of intruders. Classic stuff: men in hats leaning over the bed, giant spiders hovering, cats walking on my back. A tiny horse once…

What do you think caused the episodes?

I think it was mostly triggered by the exhaustion of chronic insomnia, which I was experiencing at the time, with a dash of stress for good measure.

Did the Project help you cope?

Since finishing the project I've found it scares me much less. I just ride it out if I get it now. But the intruders have abated a bit — mostly I just have auditory hallucinations of slamming doors and so on.

For the uninitiated, what was the Sleep Paralysis Project?

The project was intended to raise awareness about the scientific and cultural background of sleep paralysis, while also creatively and subjectively exploring the experience. As such, I wanted Devil In The Room to feel like a science documentary crossed with a horror film.

And it does. We recently came across the short and love its fractured format and interesting use of layering, both of which make it feel fittingly surreal. What would you say is your driving inspiration when piecing together these tales of SP?

I wanted to use and subvert some of the tropes of science documentary, but I was also inspired by Lynch, Švankmajer and a lot of horror films. I wanted to create a sense of a reality that was constantly shifting, subject to change, through the use of different materials. 

What did you think about Rodney Ascher's documentary The Nightmare, which also discussed the SP phenomenon?

I confess I haven't seen it yet, but I have seen a lot more work around Sleep Paralysis in the last couple of years. Though that might be a spot of the old Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon on my part. Certainly what used to just feel like scary moments in horror films I now often see as relating to Sleep Paralysis.

What have you learned about other sufferers of SP during your time working on the project?

That their experiences usually scare them senseless. It's very interesting the way that people talk about an experience that is so personal and subjective but so terrifying. They become very careful in the words they use to explain everything. Also that it affects a very diverse range of people.

There are far more SP sufferers than many realize. What do you think SP sufferers around the world should know?

That it is a pretty normal thing to happen; it’s nothing but a natural glitch in the sleep-wake cycle.


This story was originally published in January 2016.