Photographer Nicolas Bruno suffers from sleep paralysis
He uses his nightmares as inspiration, and recreates each horrific scene as a photograph
Nicolas Bruno falls asleep like the rest of us. But when his eyes snap open, things are very different.
A demonic, faceless silhouette floats above him. It’s screaming into his ear. Ghostly hands are choking him. His body is frozen, rigid, to the bed.
He feels everything. And he can’t move a single muscle.
There’s nothing he can do but try to wake up.
It sounds like a great setup for a horror movie, but this is all too real.
The 22-year-old photographer suffers from sleep paralysis. It’s a condition which happens just as he’s about to enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the dreaming phase.
In REM sleep, our bodies paralyze themselves to ensure that we don’t act out our dreams – but in Bruno’s case, his mind is awake and conjuring up vivid, macabre hallucinations.
“For people who haven’t experienced it, and say they want to – they really don’t,” Bruno tells CNN. “You’ve never woken up being choked out by shadow hands. You’ve never had a looming figure floating above your bed, screaming into your ear.”
Sleep paralysis dreamers report hearing screaming, feeling malevolent presences in the room, or an immense, evil pressure on their chests. All the while, they’re unable to lift a finger.
Dreams of possession
Nicolas Bruno first experienced sleep paralysis when he was 15. The visions came to him almost every night. “I would go to bed and I would wake up immediately right into one of those dreams. I wouldn’t sleep for two days at a time because I was so afraid to go to bed,” he says.
“I thought I was possessed by demons.” It pushed him into a cycle of insomnia and depression, too exhausted to stay awake and too terrified to go to sleep. He was borderline suicidal.
Relief only came near the end of Bruno’s high school career, when a teacher suggested that he try to document these night terrors. After seeing Bruno’s journals, his teacher suggested he should take these visions and implement them into his art. Bruno combined a talent he’d recently discovered – photography – with these visions he’d never been able to comprehend.
Taking back control
By turning his visions into a concrete, physical reality, Bruno was able to take back control from a condition defined by a total lack of it.
“It’s a great experiment, to take things from your own head that you’ve experienced, to take something terrible and turn it into something tangible,” he says.
His work has allowed him to learn to live with his condition.
Bruno brings his own, whimsical style to his moments of terror, creating darkly comic images laden with dream symbolism. His photos are ornate and motif-heavy, an “Inception” for the thinking man.
The characters that appear in his images are blindfolded, or entirely obscured by wraps of linen. They’re bound and yearning for escape from swampy water that drags them down. Flame bursts through like a moment of awakening, while hooded figures attack and give chase.
But his shots are also darkly comic, with incongruous touches and lashings of the surreal: from Magritte-style bowler hats and apples, to implausible William Tell scenarios and cumbersome diving helmets.
Through his work, Bruno has found that it’s enabled him to talk about his condition as he’d never been able to before. “I found it very hard to talk about the dreams to people before I started this process. People thought I was crazy.”
And in doing so, he’s found a community of fellow sufferers.
“I’ve gotten so many responses from people who have had these dreams and didn’t know what they meant. I think it’s my little mission to spread the word of this condition.”
Bruno has been commissioned to bring his unique aesthetic to several book covers and he’d like to move into making artwork for bands – but this recent graduate is currently working on showing his work in galleries, where so far it’s been met with a positive response.
He sees his art as having saved him from a terrible fate. “This project has gifted me a sense of who I am. It gave me the strength to persevere in life, to create art and speak to people. It gifted me art, and I don’t know where I would be without it,” he tells CNN.
And while Bruno sees photography, not film, as his medium, he’s also in the early stages of a virtual reality project which will combine his art with the moving image. The idea: to set up a single bed in a gallery. “One person goes in at a time and we’ll put them in this bed and put a VR headset on, with a virtual reality experience of what it might be like to have a sleep paralysis dream.”
It’s as close to the real thing as you’d ever want to get.