I was so excited about this one that I started writing this long before the movie was over. If it seems particularly long-winded and pretentious, that’s why. Also maybe the wine.
Actually that’s not entirely true. The cover says it’s about sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome, which is a different thing; but the cover blurb goes on to suggest that survivors of this experience (which doesn’t make sense–you don’t survive; hence the freakin’ name) experience a sensation of fear, paralysis, and the sense that a malign presence wants to hurt them. This second set of characteristics–which we can pretty safely distinguish from death–are precisely the characteristics most often associated with sleep paralysis.
Why would a folklorist who studies supernatural belief be interested in something like this, you ask? (PRETEND YOU ASKED.)
Actually I’m not particularly interested in it. I mean, I am, but primarily from the perspective of intellectual history. I’ve written before about folklorist David Hufford, who pretty much cracked open this whole sleep paralysis thing with his awesomely-titled The Terror that Comes in the Night. From the perspective of contemporary folkloristics, this is an unusual work–very few folklorists do work that is even remotely similar to Hufford’s study–but it’s been a very important one in a number of ways. In my opinion, the most important contribution of the work is what Hufford calls the experiential source hypothesis, which essentially is the idea that some culturally-significant experiences (in this case, the “Old Hag” phenomenon, or sleep paralysis) can occur to people even if they have no knowledge of the related tradition .
Elsewhere Hufford summarizes his experiential theory (though he uses spirits in this example, it applies to all supernatural belief) as follows:
1. Many widespread spiritual beliefs are supported by experiences that:
A. Refer intuitively to spirits without inference or retrospective interpretation, and
B. Occur independently of a subject’s prior beliefs, knowledge, or intention (psychological set).
2. These experiences form distinct classes with stable perceptual patterns. I call experiences meeting these criteria core experiences.
3. Such experiences provide a central empirical foundation from which some supernatural beliefs develop rationally. 
It all boils down to experience. Hufford’s premise is that people are experiencing something when they report events like sleep paralysis; scholars should assume that there is an underlying experience, instead of just dismissing the whole thing as the product of preexisting traditions (i.e, you experience it because you’re already inclined to believe in it because of the cultural context in which you live, etc.). He’s not arguing that the supernatural content is real; he’s just saying, hey, dude said he woke up and couldn’t move. Let’s start there.
This is an important counter to vehement skepticism, in that it helps remind us that people aren’t stupid or passive. I’d go further than Hufford, myself, but that’s neither here nor there.
But wait- there’s a movie review here somewhere, right? Yes! Here it is!
Shadow People follows a radio host, Charlie Crowe, who becomes caught up in an apparent outbreak of go-to-sleep-and-die-disease. Naturally Charlie is skeptical at first, but sooner than you might expect he’s forced to accept the reality of the situation (because, you know, people are dying).
Set in Kentucky, the film purports to be based on true events (hah!), but I’m not sure exactly to what it’s referring (probably just the fact that SUNDS is a thing and is kind of mysterious and creepy). There’s a lot of exposition about sleep paralysis and SUNDS, and it’s all unsurprisingly pretty slow, given that the whole idea is that the scary stuff doesn’t happen until you fall asleep. Nightmare on Elm Street got around that by being nonsensical and full of Robert Englund, but here it leads to a predictably slow experience that relies almost entirely on the reality of these physiological experiences, and the associated belief traditions, to attempt to scare the audience (in other words, describe the situation ad nauseam and hope it does the trick).
So, watching this, you can probably imagine me foaming at the mouth about how this is all Huffordian stuff. The film jumps back and forth between a “dramatic recreation of events” and “documentary” footage of the “actual” people involved in the story, and these jumps are occasionally interspersed with talking heads who wax verbose on related topics. Just as I was about to hurl my copy of The Terror that Comes in the Night at the TV (metaphorically–I love my TV), lo and behold! what do the filmmakers trot out before my nerdy eyes? This:
That’s actually David Hufford, giving an actual interview about his actual research (and he sums it all up far more eloquently than I ever could). A couple of brief clips from this interview run in Shadow People during the obligatory slow-paced “research” phase of things. The interview originally had nothing to do with the movie, as far as I know. I’ve used this first segment in class more than once, including the supernatural course I’m teaching right now.
In fact, this is what they do with most of the experts who weigh in on all this sudden dying people are suddenly doing. I can’t decide if it’s lazy filmmaking or if it’s brilliant, in that it capitalizes on established systems of communication and research (I mean, they show the whole YouTube page and everything–no effort to act like they did anything beyond Google their topic). In fairness, the filmmakers actually do include a bibliography at the end of the credits, and Hufford’s book is cited there. But if nothing else, it’s all a bit misleading, as Hufford (and presumably a few other real academics) are interspersed with totally fake pundits without any clear indication what is fiction and what isn’t.
When the CDC lady comes to talk to Crowe about the recent deaths (which coincidentally involved some of his listeners), he tells her, “A lot of people think just ’cause they can’t explain it scientifically that it doesn’t exist, but I can tell you that our ancestors knew about nightmares and how harmful they are.”
He goes on to tell her–pulling out volumes from the messy stack of books which has, of course, materialized on his kitchen table–that nightmare used to mean something else, but that modern people have changed the meaning to “cover up the truth.” He then does the comparative thing where he frantically outlines the presence of this tradition in a bunch of different world cultures.
You can’t get more formulaic than this, both from a cinematic perspective and from a folkloristic perspective. If you’re curious, the formula is (this is all stuff we’ve covered before–so it will be on the final!!):
- Pick relatively obscure supernatural tradition.
- Kill some folks.
- Have a skeptic become a believer and then crazily try to convince others that the research they did in the last 24 hours proves a point of earth-shattering cultural/scientific significance, which scholars until now have just totally missed, dude.
- Cash check and head off to Sundance for cover blurb (although this film didn’t have any, which is usually an indicator that something is up).
I know it sounds like I’m annoyed, but I’m really just amused. If only things were this simple. But hell, I love the idea that folklore contains buried supernatural truth–that attitude is a large part of why I got interested in the field in the first place.
But there is a lot of weird stuff about scholarship and how publishing works that’s just laughable. Like, Crowe’s arguments for a supernatural thingy hinge on the work of this fictional scholar named Ravenscroft (spoooooooooky). He travels to the campus where Ravenscroft worked to track down his research, apparently unaware that Google Scholar could have saved him the trip. Then after meeting with the CDC lady, she says she has to do the same thing. Seriously, guys, do you not have computers? This isn’t how scholarship works anymore. I don’t think it worked this way thirty years ago. If you needed a copy of an article, yeah, somebody would have to Xerox it or whatever–but acting like physically visiting the scholar’s host institution is the only way to read their work…? The CDC lady isn’t even able to find out that the prof is dead without asking one of his former colleagues in person.
The movie is set, I should add, in the murky, dark, and backward year of 2008.
Okay, so, ranting aside, there’s not much to commend this film, which is a confusing mess of mockumentary/”news footage” and mediocre acting. The academic stuff may seem like it’s just a personal hang-up of mine–and of course, it is–but it’s also distracting and misleading. I think I’m going to go ahead and call this film lazy after all (and coming from me, this is saying something). Production values are fairly high, but the dialogue assumes a kind of passivity on the part of the audience–like, if we make it sound like Law & Order, people will buy it, right?
Oh god, they even do the thing where he has to wiggle his toe to try to break free from the paralysis, but they only mentioned that in passing and I think I’m having an aneurysm.
Shadow People gets a disappointing 1.5 scoops–as a film. But it gets a bajillion scoops for actually featuring a real-life folklorist talking about real-life folklore study. But since bajillion is a made-up number, we’ll go with the first one.
Oh, also, I read recently that asking people to leave comments will actually encourage them to do so (who knew?). So please leave some comments, or give us a like, my ducky.
Honestly, if you happen to have seen this (or any of the films I review), I’d genuinely like to know what you think. Drop me a line so’s we can make this a little less one-sided.