The Nightmare and Traumatic Documentary Reenactment: Therapy or Language Virus?


If there’s a foundational narrative to my creative life, it begins in the nightmares I had as a child. Not in just how vivid they were, how they colored my childhood in their terrifying supernatural red hues, but because my interest in storytelling was borne out of a necessity to alter and combat them. Some of the first stories I constructed and wrote down were done as practice in the hope to gain abilities to shift and change my nightmares when I found myself in them.

My interest and love for horror movies also comes from the feeling of helpless immobility that at times accompanied these dreams. Watching a scary movie was a similar feeling; I was immobile and someone else directing my dreams, so surviving those experiences acted as desensitizing therapy. I didn’t really watch horror movies for plot or content, but rather as challenge. If a movie frightened me, I’d watch it over and over again until it had no effect over me. The experience of watching The Nightmare was unique because I wasn’t watching someone else’s’ nightmares; I was watching version of my own nightmares projected onto other people.

I had a great imagination as a child, so I guess it makes sense that along with that imagination came realistic and imaginative nightmares. From about the age of 6 until puberty, I had frequent nightmares to the point that I remember refusing to sleep. They are not nearly as frequent or intense, but I still occasionally have nightmares, and a few years ago I started to notice a really peculiar version of my nightmares. I would wake up–or rather thought I woke up; I was in a half-awake/half-asleep state in which I felt like I was looking both out of my eyes but also back at myself with my eyes closed. I couldn’t move. Most of my muscles would feel deathly heavy, but nearest to the skin they felt electric. At this point a shadowy figure would walk into my room and head towards me. Where this would get freaky is that in most of my dreams, I’m at some point aware that every other person is a created figment of my own imagination. But this shadow person feels wild, like an uncontrollable outside force. They obviously want to kill me but I can’t move. Eventually I’ll start trying to talk, or quite often pray, and right as the shadow gets to me I’ll wake up saying what I was trying to utter in my dream.

It wasn’t until the second time this happened last year that I finally Googled this and discovered the wikipedia page about sleep paralysis.  I was shocked to find how common, almost by-the-numbers my experience was: the shadow people, the immobility, the praying. It shows up in almost the same forms in almost every culture on earth.

I also discovered that the director of Room 237 made a documentary about it. I finally watched the documentary, but as I was watching it was’t quite sure if that was a good decision. Not because it’s the scariest film I’ve seen in a while, but because I was afraid of what would happen to me as a result of watching it.

According to a few websites I encountered, one of the occurrences of the Shadow People is the Nalusa Chito of Choctaw mythology. The myth says that “if people allow evil thoughts or depression to enter their minds, it would creep inside them and eat their soul.” I’m suspicious about Native mythology that shows up without sources, and found it odd that this exact wording shows up on Wikipedia and and other paranormal websites, but real  (or, real mythology) or not that statement points to a potential danger in the transmission of ideas. This “transmitted” danger is found in stories from those featured in the documentary. One calls the Shadow People an STD: a “Sleep Transmitted Disease”. This subject (sorry that sounds so clinical, I didn’t remember their names), started having paralysis after his girlfriend told him about her experiences, and later a friend started suffering from it after he described it to her. Another subject suggests that talking and thinking about it makes it worse. That these shadow beings feed off of negativity, and then provide further negativity, in some kind of psychic feedback loop that, for them, made the manifestations worse (unlike most of the people in the doc, this subject seems to feel that the shadow people are real beings).

One documentary subject mentions sleeping with multiple TV’s on. He found that this somehow helped to prevent the paralysis episodes. In middle school, I slept with a TV on for a similar reason, and even today, if I want to relax, I will turn on my TV with the volume on it’s lowest level so that the words are only expressive of sounds. There’s something about the electronic presence of the TV that feels comforting. Because of this, one of the films that terrified me the most was The Ring, in which my comfort blanket technology becomes transmission device for a demon curse. It also relates to this idea of language virus. Koji Suzuki’s novels in the Ring trilogy, morph from traditional horror novels to a post-modern deconstruction of semiotics as the cursed tape transforms from video, to novel, to language, to ultimately biology.

In documentary studies, one theory that I’ve always been partial to is an adaptation of Freud’s “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.” In that essay, Freud suggests that we have accumulated all sorts of problems an incorporated them into our lived experience. One form of therapy is to find ways to recognize the residual problems our trauma has left us by acting out those very neuroses in the safe place of therapy. By repeating those acquired neuroses the patient externalizes them, and can work through their problems once they have named and recognized them. The idea is that documentary can be a safe place to remember, repeat, act out trauma.

But The Nightmare made me question that. At what point does repeating only make something worse? Make a trauma stronger? Is this helping the subjects or making their shadow people stronger (several subjections mention that the episodes seem to be able to adapt to overcome any potential preventative measures)? Does this whole exercise ultimately end like The Ring where self-preservation only comes at the expense of infecting and endangering other people? In my own immediate experience, while watching these people relate their paralysis episode stories, I was worried that their stories were going to cause me to have an episode. That their potential therapy was potentially causing me distress.

The night I saw The Nightmare, I didn’t have any problems going to sleep. But I woke up repeatedly, as if every time I was close to waking my body became hyper-alert to make sure I wasn’t putting myself in a situation to have a waking nightmare.

Compared to the people featured in the doc, I’m lucky. Less than 10% of my dreams have involved paralysis, and unlike many of the subjects, my shadow person never adapted in new and frightening. Just experiencing it over and over, as nightmare and through stories, appears to have allowed me to build a tolerance to it. So perhaps, for some people repetition and working through is helpful. I’ve also realized that these episodes always happened when I ended up asleep on my back.  As a kid, I slept propped up onto my side by a combination of pillows and stuffed animals, and wonder if I did this knowing on some level that it helped, without fully knowing why.

Our brains are incredible, amazing things that appear to work in ways we haven’t begun to recognize. Film theorist Steven Shaviro called for a paraphysiology of cinema experience because “film renders vision tactile, short circuits reflection and directly stimulates the nervous system” (52.3). The cinematic aspects to the shadow people experience, the way that for some people the experience is able to be transmitted via story (one of the stories even features a talking television set), suggest a connection between film and nightmare that may go beyond the many metaphors of cinematic and dream experience.




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