Beyond Elm Street: The Vivid Nighttime Horrors of Sleep Paralysis

The Nightmare
Rodney Ascher's new documentary, 'The Nightmare' explores sleep paralysis and 'shadow people' visions. Courtesy Gravitas Ventures

Documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher came face to face with his first "shadow person" shortly after college. "I woke up, and I was frozen in bed. And I felt this—there's no other word than evil, to describe the emotional quality of this presence," he says. "First I sensed that it was in the woods outside of my house. And then it was in my room. I could see it as clearly as I'm looking around the room today." The figure had no features and appeared as a "sharply defined silhouette." Ascher felt paralyzed beneath the covers, as if the figure had the power to keep him from moving.

"For a long time after, I was sure that this was a supernatural experience," he tells Newsweek. It wasn't until years later that he heard people describe similar accounts and learned that he had experienced a type of sleep paralysis. Not all people with that sleep disorder believe they see figures, but those who do describe them as terrifying encounters with Freddy Krueger–like men in hats, alien-like beings with big eyes and gray complexions and demonic creatures.

Ascher's new documentary, The Nightmare, is perhaps the first mainstream film to explore the phenomenon. "This is almost criminally underreported," the filmmaker says. Until recently, people were stigmatized for speaking about their nocturnal "visitors." Health professionals labeled such sufferers as psychopathic until only a few decades ago, and even in the internet age, such accounts have been relegated to religious or paranormal chat rooms. One supposed expert says the figures are ghosts, demons or extraterrestrials. Another theory states that the figures aren't aliens but the "men in black" who arrive to erase the memory of the aliens. And yet another so-called expert claims that uttering the name of Jesus can repel the figures.

The Nightmare premiered at festivals earlier this year and debuts in theaters on June 5. As with his previous film, Room 237, a critically acclaimed roundup of theories on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Ascher describes The Nightmare as part-documentary, part-horror movie. He says he found his subjects by scouring online message boards and YouTube videos and putting out calls for people to share their experiences. The film features eight subjects from around the United States and the United Kingdom. Ascher conducted the interviews in their bedrooms at night.

Rodney Ascher
Rodney Ascher says that like his previous film,'Room 237,' 'The Nightmare' is part-documentary, part-horror movie. Courtesy Rodney Ascher

"All the darkness looks alive," one subject says. "It felt like something was trying to rip me out of myself," says another. For some people Ascher interviewed, the experiences moved beyond shadowy figures to imposing creatures with red eyes and growling voices. For one subject, the perceived encounter was a sexual one, reminiscent of a horrific scene in Rosemary's Baby.

Ascher says that his earlier documentary "was maybe in some ways more abstract and about ideas. And this one is more about these individual people, and it's also a little bit more about me. So it's more personal." At one point in the film, Ascher turns the camera on himself to discuss his own sleep paralysis experience.

Some critics have noted that The Nightmare lacks expert interviews. "At the end of the day, that wasn't the movie I was making," Ascher says. "There is science out there...but it doesn't get at the questions that I found most compelling."

That's not to say Ascher didn't do his homework. One resource he says he consulted was the book Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection by Shelley Adler. "I'm endlessly fascinated by it," says Adler, the author, who has studied sleep paralysis for more than 20 years. Put simply, she says, sleep paralysis is "being asleep and being awake" at the same time. During the dream phase, a person's body shuts down the muscles so that the person doesn't act out the dream. But during sleep paralysis, she says, "we become aware of the fact that we're paralyzed…. All the sudden there's a consciousness of what's happening."

Henry Fuseli's Le Cauchemar
References to the so-called nocturnal visitors exist in biblical texts, 'Moby-Dick' and Henry Fuseli's 'The Nightmare/Le Cauchemar', from 1781. Luke MacGregor/REUTERS

For some people who suffer from sleep paralysis, dream imagery—including "shadow people"—finds its way into that semi-wakeful state. "People who talk about these experiences describe them as the most horrifying thing imaginable, not like a regular bad dream," Adler says. "There's something so real about it that makes it even more horrifying." Plus, she adds, the awareness of not being able to move can manifest itself into the hallucination of something or someone holding down the sleeper and a feeling of strangulation.

The subjects in The Nightmare say that, for years, they were in the dark about what they were experiencing. But in her book, Adler cites references to such episodes and "nocturnal pressing spirits" dating as far back as biblical times. Such mentions exist in Talmudic writing, Aramaic inscriptions and ancient Greek literature, and Adler identifies names for such spirits in dozens of countries, including China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany and Laos. Women who were thought to bring on such episodes were labeled witches and burned at the stake, and in Moby-Dick, Herman Melville writes that Ishmael awakens to find "a nameless, unimaginable silent form or phantom...seated by my bedside…. I lay there, frozen with the most awful tears."

"There are examples in every single culture. I have never found a group of people that didn't have some kind of awareness of this," Adler says. Even the word "nightmare," historically used to describe such an episode, not a bad dream, likely comes from the word mar, meaning to pound, bruise or crush, she writes in her book.

Freddy Krueger
Experts say it's not coincidental that the 'hat man' vision in sleep paralysis episodes resembles Freddy Krueger of 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'. Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

In contemporary western research, some sleep disorder experts have noted similarities between sleep paralysis descriptions and accounts of alien abductions. And Adler says that the similarity between the "hat man" figure that people describe seeing and Freddy Krueger is not a coincidence: "You picture what is known to you, based on what tradition you're familiar with." (Indeed, Wes Craven has said that he came up with Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street after learning about sufferers of a related sleep disorder, Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome.)

As for remedies, according to Adler's book, the Swedes believe one should avoid looking through keyholes before bed; the Inuits say one should sleep with a Bible or a knife under the pillow. Medical experts have found a correlation between sleep paralysis and sleeping on one's back, and Adler says that trying to move even the tongue or a finger can break the paralysis.

"It actually is a very normal situation," Adler says, estimating that at least a quarter of the population experiences it. "It's part of our shared inheritance as human beings for millennia…. So as horrifying as it is to be alone and experiencing this, you're actually part of a much larger group."