Last week I did a photo session on the topic of sleep paralysis after learning more about it and hearing other people’s experiences. I also began reading about dream work by Sigmund Freud through my work where I’m being trained to use metapsychological approaches in therapy as a psychotherapist. I collaborated with photographer Wendi Brungraber, makeup artist Sloane, her daughter Sofia, and model Sandy. My friend Emily also came along and observed the photo session so as to help me write a blog post about it. I am so grateful for the talented and creative people who helped me put this all together. And now for the following which was written by Emily:
In a woody clearing at the top of Mount Lemmon, a small group of creatives shivered in the wet cold as they shared stories about lived paranormal occurrences: mysterious chalky handprints on hotel pillows, a weight on the chest making it hard to breathe, and strict avoidances of Ouija boards because of what they could bring into the home and body. It was hard not to think about these unsettling experiences in the gray afternoon with thunder rumbling in the background. Ghosts, however, were not the reason that we gathered in the woods that day.
There are as many ideas of what ghosts are as there are people who believe in ghosts: spirits of the dead, residual energy, unfinished business, an otherworldly being bent on revenge. They might be encountered as a drop in the stomach, a cold spot, or a full-bodied apparition that seeks to be noticed. None of these, however, explain what Priscila Matei and Wendi Brungraber were hoping capture in their photo shoot on July 13.
Underneath Priscila’s creative direction and with the help of Wendi’s husband Chad, we brought to life the background for some eerie and unsettling art. A tulle veil moved gently in the post monsoon breeze above a white mattress and antique dolls lay in waiting with vacant stares. Electric candles and a giant, distant spider added moody details to the setup. Sloane, our talented makeup artist, helped models Sofia and Sandy, in their vintage dresses, look the part of waif-like dreamers caught in a nightmare. Together, these elements became the embodiment of two common and greatly misunderstood phenomenon: sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations.
As I observed the process of the photo shoot, I was impressed with Priscila’s ability to remain calm in the midst of her nightmares come to life. Sleep paralysis occurs when a person experiences the normal paralysis of REM sleep while they are still partially awake. Hypnagogic hallucinations are a form of dreaming while awake, and this dreaming most commonly involves terrifying and threatening presences hovering close to the bed. Priscila recreated the essence of her nightmares and managed to smile and laugh throughout the whole process.
Perhaps what was helpful in the situation was the ability to have some control over what was happening. In the midst of sleep paralysis, it is impossible to move, and if you’re also having a hallucination, it is equally impossible to try to fight off what’s hovering over your bed. For hours, Sofia and Sandy made movements under the enthusiastic direction of Priscila and Wendi, who often gasped and yelled over poses and scenes that unexpectedly captured their ideas particularly well. Priscila could run if she needed to, but she didn’t want to.
This is, in part, the power of art: to be able to grasp the intangible and mold it into something that you and others can understand in order to be heard. Priscila turned something distressing into something that can be shared, talked about, and empathized with. And when we look at them, we will find our own meaning among the solemn faces and ethereal movements of the photographs.
Sigmund Freud wrote that there are two parts to dreams: dream content and dream thoughts. Dream content is the images and scenes that appear in our dreams, and dream thoughts are the way that we interpret the dreams, often with the help of a therapist. Dream thoughts can be influenced by our personal experiences, as well as universally shared experiences or meanings given to symbols or objects, and their exploration can help us to bring greater understanding to difficult emotions and unwelcome behaviors.
Priscila expertly brought to life the dream content of her sleep paralysis and hallucinations, in a way that can help herself and others understand her experiences. We, the readers and observers, will bring our own dream thoughts to the table, adding additional depth and life to Priscila’s art, and joining together in our own collective unconscious around what we see. For this, it is worth venturing into the dark and indefinite spaces of Priscila's sleep paralysis photo shoot and the unnerving feelings that her pictures create in us.