Filmmaker Carla MacKinnon suffered from the condition that woke her up several times a week unable to move, with the sense that there was a disturbing presence in the room with her, and on researching the phenomenon she is now turning that work into a short film and multiplatform art project that aims to explore the weird phenomenon of sleep paralysis (The film is supported by the Wellcome Trust and set to screen at the Royal College of Arts in London, will debut in May).
Sleep paralysis had former associations with Incubi and Succubi way back as far as 2400 BC – in much less advanced, and more superstitious times – and happens when people regain consciousness from sleep while their muscles remain in the ultra-relaxed state that prevents them from moving . The experience can be suffocating and pretty terrifying and has caused people to hallucinate or imagine a malevolent presence nearby, restraining or suffocating them.
Surveys put the number of sleep paralysis sufferers between about 5 percent and 60 percent of the population and there are numerous descriptions of sleep paralysis in works of fiction throughout the ages, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to accounts by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. There are also the classic artistic depictions painted by Henry Fuseli in the late 18th century that suggest that this has been a phenomenon common in humanity since ancient times.
According to MacKinnon:
”I was getting quite a lot of sleep paralysis over the summer, quite frequently, and I became quite interested in what was happening, what medically or scientifically, it was all about,”
Talking with psychologists and scientists about the disorder, as well as to people who experience the phenomenon the same way she does MacKinnon realised that Myths and legends about sleep paralysis still persist globally, from the forementioned incubus and succubus to a pink dolphin-turned-nighttime seducer in Brazil.
Mythic Tales Of Terror
The Incubus and Succubus began as the Lilu and Lilitu, a male and female demon who appeared at night and seduced victims and had sex with them in ancient Mesopotamia, and would continue to appear throughout European folklore as the Incubus and Succubus. They were often investigated by the church and in some cases exorcism’s were performed on individuals thought to have been possessed by the demons.
In Brazil and the rainforests of the Amazon Basin ‘the Boto’ is a combination of siren and incubus, a very charming and beautiful man who seduces young women and takes them into the river. It is said to be responsible for disappearances and unwanted pregnancies, and it can never be seen by daylight, because it metamorphoses into a kind of river dolphin during those hours. According to legend the boto always wears a hat to disguise the breathing hole at the top of its head.
Recounting The Horrors
According to LiveScience, while researching these stories MacKinnon heard:
One man told her about his frequent sleep paralysis episodes, during which he’d experience extremely realistic hallucinations of a young child, skipping around the bed and singing nursery rhymes. Sometimes, the child would sit on his pillow and talk to him. One night, the tot asked the man a personal question. When he refused to answer, the child transformed into a “horrendous demon,” MacKinnon said.Tags: incubus, night terrors, nightmares, sleep paralysis, succubus