How a Documentary about Sleep Paralysis Led Me to Wintercult

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I travel a fair amount for work. Often while posting up in a hotel room I’ll surf Netflix to check out some horror movies and creepy documentaries because I get less free time to watch this kind of fare when I’m home. Tonight, after sitting through a lackluster creature feature called Dark Was the Night, I settled on a documentary that had been lurking in my queue for some time. This film, The Nightmare, is an exposé of the common sleep paralysis phenomenon that afflicts men and women the world over. The documentary wasn’t especially unsettling, but it did cause me to reflect on my own experience with sleep paralysis. In the course of exploring those memories, I found myself, as I often do when I have free time and am gripped by a certain engrossing topic, scanning the web for metal songs apposite to the topic at hand. What my search yielded was a bit different.

The Nightmare is an engaging documentary that weaves the tales of multiple nightmare sufferers together into a single narrative, with dramatic interpretations of their torments intermingled with folkore and science to demonstrate the ubiquity of this affliction and possible avenues of hope and escape. Although some of the interviewees do eventually find liberation from sleep paralysis through life changes, counseling, religion, scientific treatment, and more, some are shown merely to accept their fates. The documentary ends on a stark note of one young man accepting the fact that a night terror will ultimately be his cause of death.

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This is the frontispiece from a book on dreams. It was illustrated by Friedrich Voigt Leipzig in 1854.

If you’ve never suffered your own bout with sleep paralysis, the dramatic representations in The Nightmare, though duly frightening, are only an approximation of the fear and anxiety of the sufferer. Sleep paralysis has been documented all over the world for centuries, but it was first codified by Samuel Johnson in his A Dictionary of the English Language. He and other early psychologists and doctors (and no doubt clergymen and spiritual leaders) ascribed the acute omnipresence of terror suffered during a nightmare to a mischievous imp or demon sitting atop the sleeper’s chest at night. These demons were labeled in Old English as mære, and our English word nightmare is in fact derived from the Old English/proto-Germanic nachtmare. Although the common theory for the cause of sleep paralysis is held to be a disruption of REM sleep, the actual mechanisms of it, and why certain people seem to suffer far more acutely than others, remain unknown.

What is typically agreed upon, though, is that sleep paralysis is characterized by a condition of motionless, difficulty breathing, and visual hallucinations. In my own experience, I believed that I woke in the middle of the night to see a disembodied mouth and two pairs of eyes dangling above my face, attempting to extract my soul through my throat. I am unsure how I knew that is what the entity wanted, but of that fact I was certain. The creature tormented me, pressing an invisible weight on my chest and restraining my limbs; try as I might, I could not scream for help. I was utterly alone with the beast, isolated, vulnerable. A single soul stranded in a sea of darkness, just like so many other wanderers in the night. Eventually, the effect retreated, and my mind, through terrified beyond reason, returned to a state of sanity.

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Francisco Goya’s “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters” from 1799.

My own experience is fairly commonplace among sleep paralysis sufferers. As pointed out in The Nightmare, the common paranormal tropes of The Night Hag, Alien Abduction, and Shadow People are all easily explained by the gestalt human experience of facing terrifying nocturnal visions while stricken with immobility. Nightmares are as common a theme in our cultural heritage and mythology as vengeful gods and the fear of death.

It’s no surprise then, that heavy metal, as another branch of the spoken word tradition of our oral history, would convey the terror and omnipresence of the mare. A cursory glance at any search engine will reveal all manner of results for metal songs addressing nightmares, from artists ranging from the world’s most popular metal band to otherworldly xenharmonic underground artists. The nightmare, as a vessel of a terror more potent than most everything else, is a perfect source material for heavy metal, a genre that thrives on and dabbles in the darkest corners of our collective consciousness.

I knew, then, that I would need to search a bit harder for something more interesting. Eventually, my quest brought me to a Reddit thread entitled, “What song gives you nightmares?” Although the thread itself was rife with more commonplace- and genuinely non-threatening submissions- one piece in particular gave me pause. One user linked to an unfortunately defunct YouTube video and described a piece of music that produced in him awful, synesthesia-like symptoms of visually perceiving terror and despondency. Dead link be damned, I followed the breadcrumbs (and a partial YouTube title) to a new musician; my documentary quest had led me to Wintercult.

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Honoré Daumier’s drawing of a nightmare from 1856.

Wintercult is a depressive/suicidal black metal band formed in Russia in 2010. Originally the sole work of multi-instrumentalist Waldgeist, Wintercult became a true band in 2012 with the addition of Aequiternus on bass and drums in 2012, just after debut full-length Neverending Selfhatred. Although my YouTube spell took me through a number of intriguing tracks, including an excellent cover of Nargaroth‘s “Manchmal Wenn Sie Schläft,” it is the song “Nocturnal Silence” that is most germane to the subject at hand.

“Nocturnal Silence” is the rare kind of song that manages both to encapsulate the very essence of a band and resonate with a sort of commonality to all who have lived through a certain experience. “Nocturnal Silence” is a song for sleepwalkers, a phantom guide away from the terrors that haunt you at night. The programmed, mechanical drums strike with a sort of somnambulatory cadence that, though never juddering you fully awake with a dazzling light of technicality, is not just serviceable for the song but works perfectly in unison with the icy tremolo riffs and mournful tone to create a mesmeric effect. The steady metronome strike of the cymbals lends the song a pendulous feeling, as if your twilit walk is being conducted under a hypnosis. The excellent riffs, though never overstated, maintain a sense of solitude and isolation, even when arpeggiated runs or sustained notes add a little variety to the steady rhythmic hand. For all their atmosphere-birthing grandeur, though, all of the instruments are subject to the willful and charismatic voice of Waldgeist as he shrieks out of the blowing wind in a manner not unlike the higher-pitched wails of Chip King (The Body) or James Kelly (Altar of Plagues). Waldgeist’s voice is the focal point, the locus in the nightmare, the single thread guiding you somewhere, whether it be deeper into the cold death of terror or out of the bereft tundra into the warmth of civilization. Few metal bands are able to so perfectly match the tone of the music with the tone of the vocalist, and yet Wintercult do so in an utterly convincing and perfect manner.

Nightmares may have led me here, but it is Wintercult, and specifically Waldgeist’s voice, that compels me to remain. Is this band frightening? No, I honestly don’t think so. But on “Nocturnal Silence,” Wintercult does accurately express the gnawing tension, the sorrow, the isolation that one feels in the wake of sleep paralysis. The experience is different for every man and woman and child, but as The Nightmare showed us, and as metal like that crafted by Wintercult reminds us, our own tenuous connection to our humanity and our fear of being alone remains the same.

(Cover Photo VIA)

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