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The Monster from the Id is Colourful: Looking into the Nightwell (An account of Sleep Paralysis)

by Samuel Marlow. Published 29th April 2012

A couple of people have complained that it has been some time since I have blogged anything (meaningful) on Tumblr. Ironically this is because I have recently finished two large jobs and, though I have slightly more money than I did a few weeks ago, I am no longer sitting watching a render bar crawl across the screen. I am now working full steam ahead on a slate of shorts.

Partly my work is full steam ahead, but I also decided to take a few days off the week before last, in part because of an experience a couple of Monday's ago. In short, I had an encounter with this fellow:

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Don't worry. I haven't just lost my mind - that happened ages ago. No, I was the victim of sleep paralysis. This is not the first time this has happened, in fact it is the third. On both of the previous occasions it was the fairly standard "mental hand-break" that your brain applies to stop you thrashing around and injuring yourself while in REM sleep. Simply put, I have woken up and been unable to move or open my eyes. The first time this happened I thought I had had a stroke, but then quickly found myself thinking, "Ah, I've read about this. This is sleep paralysis. If I wait a moment it'll wear off." And sure enough it did.

This most recent occasion was different, however. Rather than waking, seemingly naturally, I found myself jerked awake by the very real sensation of impending danger. Rather like Spider-Man and his spider-sense, I felt it was very important for me to wake up that very instant. I found myself awake, with my eyes open, but unable to move.

Unlike previous occasions when this has happened, I was very aware of a sense of real threat. This is where things get a bit weird, but bear with me. I was aware that there was something else in the room with me, standing very close over my left shoulder. I couldn't see it, but I knew exactly what it would look like if I turned to look at it. A monster.

Like something from a children's storybook, this monster was a brilliant combination of animal and human features. I remember the face being stretched and elongated, crazy teeth, but intelligent eyes. What struck me most about it, though, was the colour. The face was swirls of the most vivid scarlet and electric blues I have ever (not) seen. I since have the feeling the face was covered in short feathers, too, though I am willing to accept I may have added that as the colours reminded me so strongly of a macaw.

After a few seconds the feeling of a presence subsided and I could move again. I'd be lying if I said the experience didn't leave me feeling a little shaken, though I was fascinated and thrilled by how supernatural it had felt.

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It wasn't supernatural, of course. I had merely found myself in the liminal state between sleeping and waking. I had first come across sleep paralysis a few years ago while doing some research for a screenplay about a young man who thinks he is being abducted by aliens. Sleep paralysis is widely accepted to be the source of many alien abduction experiences, viewed through our own cultural prism that no longer believes in fairies and witches, which have afflicted humans since forever.

Other symptoms of sleep paralysis, in addition to being unable to move, sometimes include an out-of-body experience, visual and auditory hallucinations, feeling like you cannot breathe, and what has been described as an "evil" presence.

The idea of an evil presence struck me as fascinating, so much so that I went away and outlined a project for a man who thinks he is being haunted by the Devil, only to find it is this kind of sleep paralysis. In this story, though, I had conceived the "Nyktomorph" as similar to the apparitions that visit Boonmee in the Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - something dark, primitive and shapeless. But something bothered me - a presence kind of made sense, but why evil? I had my suspicions, but it wasn't until my own experience I understood.

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Evil isn't really the word for it. I would, in fact, struggle to find the word. The nearest thing I can liken it to is what I imagine it would feel like to be in a room with a wild animal. An animal is obviously not evil, but it gives off all sorts of cues that prime our primitive monkey brains for "fight or flight". It was certainly alarming and threatening, but not necessarily malicious.

All of this confirmed what I suspected. I was the evil presence. Or at least my Id was. For those of you who haven't got the reference, the Monster from the Id was (sort of) the villain in the brilliant The Forbidden Planet, Fred M Wilcox's 1956 sci-fi film, inspired by The Tempest. I shan't spoil the ending, as I urge you to see it, but it does star a very young Leslie Nielsen, still with dark hair.

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The Id is one of the three components, along with the Ego and Superego, of the human psyche identified by Sigmund Freud (though German physician Georg Groddeck coined the term "das Es"). While the Supergo is the, some might say, artificially imposed set of moral values and social contract we are raised with, the Id is all the primitive animal instincts that the Superego counters to ensure we don't all go around raping and murdering each other. The Ego acts as the interface between the two.

What I suspect, then - and this is only my own uninformed hypothesis - is that the experiences of people who have this sensation of an evil presence are not being visited by the devil, a witch, aliens, fairies, demons, ghosts or the like, but peering into the Nightwell of their own subconscious without the mitigating prism of our higher brain function. We are looking at all the horrors we normally repress, and do not normally allow ourselves to acknowledge. A bit like looking into the reactor core in The Forbidden Planet, to view it directly would be fatal, so we must view it reflected in a mirror.

So there you have it. Taking this as a cue that I was stretching myself a bit thin, I decided to take it easy for a few days. And my nocturnal visitor hasn't returned since.

But I suspect he is still around. Hovering just our of sight.


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