Living Nightmares: Of Hospitals and Horror

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On the edge of sleep I feel myself slipping from my body until I catch my breath and come home. “It’s always midnight in this room,” the nurse laughs as she wheels me to the bed. This is my second concussion in two years, following an accident in my art studio after an exhausting week. Months, really. I am always turned on. The windows are dark, but there’s no sleep here. “The clock hasn’t moved for almost a year,” she says pointing to the wall.

I am a stranger inside my own head. It hovers above me, cuffed by the spine of a brace that squeezes me still. My body rattles. The sliver of the door coaxes my eye. Across the hall, a man in a paper gown, shrouded in tubes, gropes his crotch while he stares back at me. “Will somebody help me please!” someone screams from beyond the wall. “Please, you gotta help me!” A pained voice joins in, slurred by stroke. “Nurse, I can’t breathe. Please help me!” The woman next door sobs quietly. “It’s going to be ok,” I respond with eyes closed, hoping the pores in the grout between tiles absorb the quiet of my voice

Cool air rushes over me. I wake with a panic, strapped to the CAT Scan table. “You were asleep, but there’s a little girl after you. They cry and never hold still,” the attendant scoffs, tapping the velcro that holds me together. Not long after being wheeled back to bed, I hear the shrieking. This living nightmare carries on.

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I returned home last week, set to write you about some of horror cinema’s greatest nightmare sequences, but I am compelled to recall the waking terror, the phantasmagorical, the potent space between dreams and reality. The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s startling documentary about sleep paralysis dwells here, as does Artsploitation Films’ Eurohorror-inspired Horsehead, a surreal tale about lucid dreaming — both released this month.

When I think about movies that cast a nightmarish spell over me, I immediately return to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls — seemingly manifested from the fractured psyche of a repressed church organist whose life is transformed after an accident. Mary (Candace Hilligoss) is haunted by ghoulish figures and becomes inexplicably drawn to a forgotten pavilion where the true depth of her dual nature is revealed. The bridge at the site of her car crash, the church where Mary’s instrument possesses her, and the carnival grounds she wanders are markers of an abandoned life. The film’s ambiguity, partially due to a limited budget, becomes an asset, shaping the dreamlike atmosphere, made all the more mesmerizing by Harvey’s eerie black-and-white photography and Gene Moore’s haunting score.

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Messiah of Evil belongs to a similar uncanny dreamscape. Our narrator Arletty (Marianna Hill) introduces her hysterical tale of occult madness. A somnambulistic character razed from her life by the darkness pervading a seaside town, Arletty searches for her missing father and encounters a bizarre cult that worships the blood moon and waits for the arrival of a sinister stranger. The town itself twitches with anxiety, most pronounced in the movie’s strange set pieces and murals, and Arletty’s nightmarish journey drives her to madness. Messiah of Evil was never fully realized as intended by directors Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, which contributes to the film’s disjointedness and dream logic — much like Carnival of Souls. The film is bathed in the same eeriness that hovers over the fog of a sleepless night.

“I sit here, and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don’t know which is which,” concludes Zohra Lampert’s character in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Recently institutionalized, whisked away to a country farmhouse, and tortured by her husband’s roving eye, Jessica fears she may be losing her sanity once more after the appearance of a seductive drifter named Emily. The truth is brought to light, forcing Jessica to face her worst nightmares. Lured by Emily to a nearby lake, a conduit for the supernatural, Jessica is left adrift on the ripples of her own subconscious.

In the thrall of these living nightmares, we struggle to unravel another world, searching for the keys to unlock the mysteries within us. We fear the nightmares that plague us during sleep, but they become impossible to resist when projected onto the big screen. As one character suggests in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, “There is in some cases a psychic need to loose evil upon the world, and all of us carry within us a desire for death.” Our nightmares draw us intimately nearer to that space, that eternal sleep, the greatest mystery of all.

Alison Nastasi is a giallo addict and the weekend editor of Flavorwire. You can find her talking about exploitation cinema, VHS, occult oddities, Hammer horror, and other genre fare on Twitter.