DZI: The Voice had the pleasure of speaking with British director Carla MacKinnon, the versatile powerhouse behind The Sleep Paralysis Project, a multi-media initiative comprised of a short film, live events, and online resources to spread awareness of this nocturnal phenomena.

Filmmaker Carla MacKinnon
Filmmaker Carla MacKinnon

Alexandra Genest: Tell me more about your personal experience(s) with sleep paralysis. Were you familiar with sleep paralysis beforehand?

Carla MacKinnon: I’d been getting sleep paralysis episodes for most of my life, since I was a teenager. For a long time I had absolutely no idea what they were and I kind of wanted to dismiss them as dreams, but there was something about them that felt very different from dreams. There were times where it almost felt like a ghost experience, and I didn’t really believe in that sort of thing.

In my twenties I read a book by Paul Broks, who’s actually advising on this project. He wrote a beautiful story which included a description of sleep paralysis. I never heard the term or knew it was something other people got, so I tried to find out more about it. Then over the years it came and went and last summer I was getting loads of these episodes. It would manifest in all these different ways like a demon sitting on your chest or a wild animal in the room.

Neuropsychologist and science writer Paul Broks
Neuropsychologist and science writer Paul Broks

Over the summer, I found I was getting more of these very classic sleep paralysis episodes where there would be something or someone in the room with me. It was quite disturbing. And I got to the point where I thought, “Well, since I can’t really sleep properly and focus on work I might as well make work about not being able to sleep properly.

AG: What can you tell us about the short film, Devil in the Room?

CM: It’s a short film about 8 minutes long. It’s very much a creative reference to the experience. I set out to make something that was in between a very atmospheric, artsy piece of work and a science documentary and a horror film, so it’s something that is going to scare you, engage you visually, and give you the information you actually need. It was quite challenging balancing all those different elements, but I’ve been working with a great creative team, mixing live action with animation and puppets and doing things like shooting in a room and building a small scale set of the room, moving between an actress and a puppet. I’ve done a few test screenings and people seem to find it quite unsettling so that is something I consider positive.

Still from 'Devil In The Room'
Still from ‘Devil In The Room’

AG: In some of your previous projects, your purpose has also been to broaden perspectives. What ideas are you trying to open people’s minds to with the SPP?

CM: The idea of the film is really one simple idea that it’s not a supernatural occurrence; you’re not really being attacked by demons or ghosts, even though it might feel like that, but also that when you’re in an experience which is so closed that you’re so mentally and emotionally at the mercy of, there’s a point where it doesn’t really matter because your perceived reality is the only reality that’s important to you.

There’s a constant conflict in the film between the scientific information, the objective information, and this subjective experience which is quite horrific. I think in that sense I’ve got a lot of voices that come in and some of the voices are very scientific. I have a psychologist giving opinions, and other voices like a psychoanalyst and people who experience sleep paralysis. It’s a lot of different angles on this one topic, and I’ve tried not to create a “voice of God” where you’ve got the scientist who has the final word on everything and everybody else is supporting that. I’ve tried to give each of those voices an equal platform so that you can see a lot of different interpretations.

AG: Could you tell me more about your artistic background?

CM: I come from a really mixed background. I’ve made a bunch of short films, I studied fine arts originally but I was always making films. About 7 years ago, I started curating and programming festivals as a tool for exploring different areas of the world. I wanted to use film as a way to explore some of the more interesting questions in life, and I found that it was quite a good format for that, because you’d get filmmakers talking to the people whose careers in business it was to understand what they were making films about, but they didn’t understand film. In that environment, you could get an audience very engaged, and you lost that sense of there being a big divide between the audience and the experts. I always tried to forge good relationships between filmmakers and people in other industries, because then filmmaking can become sort of a fish bowl for feedback and you forget that there’s a whole other world out there.

MacKinnon with Philip Ilson at LSFF 2010
MacKinnon with Philip Ilson at LSFF 2010

AG: When and where can I view the finished product of the SPP?

CM: It’s going to be finished in a couple of weeks. It will be initially screened in London for a couple of weeks at the Royal College of Art’s Summer Show, and it will be going around to several festivals, and then it will be put online. We’ll have DVD’s that contain other information about sleep paralysis and other events we’ve done, so it’s kind of an information pack as well as the film.

AG: What criteria did you have in mind while casting for the film/building your crew?

CM: I think it’s got to be people who can get a lot done on a little since it was low budget, and also people who have the kind of flexibility to be able to take direction while also looking at what other people are doing and work out how all those parallels are going to fit together. In terms of the actors, Anne-Sophie Marie doesn’t say anything. I needed someone to represent the generic sleeper; there had to be someone you wanted to watch, who was believable but who didn’t bring a lot of complexity. She had these wonderful big eyes, and they’re very open and she was just very watchable.

Anne-Sophie Marie
Anne-Sophie Marie

The other character is [played by] Victoria Grove who had a very interesting voice. She plays this story teller so she introduces these demonic characters and she’s the counterpoint to the scientists, so anytime the scientists get too science-y, this other voice comes in and puts in another opinion. She had a very powerful, deep voice which commands attention, so I went with her from very early on.

Victoria Grove
Victoria Grove

AG: Do you have any personal advice to give on how to handle and/or prevent sleep paralysis?

CM: There’s no formal treatment. In really extreme cases people can get prescribed drugs, which can sometimes help, but I think in most cases the best advice is try and regulate your sleep pattern; try to get to bed around the same time, wake up around the same time, don’t sleep during the day, and things like eating and drinking, drinking alcohol, drugs, things that might put your sleep pattern off. If it does happen, just stay calm. Weirdly, in the last few months I’ve had almost no sleep paralysis since I started really studying it, and those experiences started to become research for me so I stopped being frightened of them. I think that if you can find a way to become less frightened by them, maybe by studying and analyzing what’s actually happening to you, or maybe just trying to stay distracted until it’s over, but not letting yourself become completely and emotionally wrapped up in it. It’s not a cure, but it certainly helps.

For more into about Carla MacKinnon click it

For more info about The Sleep Paralysis Project click it

Check out Dominic de Grande’s “I Know You’re Sleeping” featured in MacKinnon’s Devil In The Room and her experimental animation short film The Beginning


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