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The Shadow People (2012): Film by Matthew Arnold

Shadow people 2012SPOILER ALERT: if you are planning on watching this movie, then avoid this post!!

The other day I was just browsing through YouTube when I came across the straight to DVD, 2012 horror film, the Shadow People. Initially I was a little wary about watching the film as I am not known for being one of the bravest people when it comes to scary films (I am completely unable to watch anything to do with voodoo or demonic possession without hiding behind a cushion or friend). So I was a little concerned about what effect the film would have on my overactive imagination. The clinch was that the film opened up in Cambodia and being at the moment a resident of that country, I was immediately hooked. I mean there are not many films of any genre that begin in Cambodia!

The story follows the experiences of world weary loser, late night radio talk show host Charlie Crowe played by the excellent Dallas Roberts. Crowe’s graveyard slot is under threat due to low listener figures. That is until he receives a phone call from frightened teenager, Jeff Pyatt. Jeff is terrified of unseen forces that come for him when he falls asleep. Charlie dismisses it initially as a crank call. Soon afterwards he receives a mysterious package on his doorstep containing pictures of what looks like an experiment from the late 70s being conducted on the sleeping forms of a number of men of South East Asian origins. That same night Charlie again receives a call from Jeff who claims to be holding a gun. During the conversation a gunshot is heard. The boy is found alive and admitted to hospital for his own safety. Charlie is convinced by his radio bosses to interview the boy. When he arrives at the hospital, he finds out that Jeff had died in his sleep, an event which has baffled the medical personnel as Jeff was physically healthy when he was brought in. This leads Charlie on a one man campaign to find out the truth behind the boy’s death, the photographs and the phenomenon known as the Shadow People.

Nosferatu, Dir. FW Mirnau, 1922

Nosferatu, Dir. FW Mirnau, 1922

Through his research Charlie becomes increasingly convinced that the Shadow People are real. Eventually Charlie begins to see them for himself and discovers that they feed of delta waves emanating from the brain. Along the way he is joined by a sceptical CDC investigator, Sophie Lacombe (Alison Eastwood). Together they find an old film of the 1970s experiments which contains footage of something that looks to be a moving shadow. Crowe insists that this is the definitive proof he has been searching for and wants to reveal the evidence to the world, Lacombe is less sure. She still maintains the 1970s deaths were due to a medical condition known either as Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome or Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). Lacombe believes that the recent spate of deaths are the result of the placebo effect i.e. if you believe something is real, it becomes real. This leads to the crux of the story, that whether or not SUNDS is a supernatural or medical condition is actually irrelevant as is the existence of Shadow People, instead it is the power of the mind which is the dangerous factor.

The film’s theme which brings together the two separate strands of medical versus supernatural is summoned up neatly by Jeff who asks the chilling question:

“how do you stop thinking about something?”

True story or clever fabrication?

The movie itself claims to be based on true events and in order to give the story credibility it begins with interviews of people (some of whom believe in the existence of Shadow People whilst others are sceptical) talking about having watched the clip of the 1970s experiment on Youtube.

The film also presents itself as a docudrama as it intersperses the dramatization with ‘real life’ footage of the actual events and people as well as interviews with a number of experts on the phenomenon. The director, Matthew Arnold asserted in an interview that the film is based on his own experience and subsequent research,

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781

“I woke up one night, and my body was totally paralyzed. I felt like my body was asleep, but I was awake, and could see a shadowy person standing over me. I finally yelled and willed my body to get up, and the figure shot through the wall. What the hell just happened?”*

I personally could not find the film of the experiments on Youtube but this may be due to my own incompetence rather than to its non-existence. Some comments that I have read of people who have watched the clip have stated that it was published on Youtube at roughly the same time as the release of the film and that the number of viewers recorded was way down on the figure shown at the beginning of the film.

Real footage or a clever marketing tool?

The Great Beast himself

The Great Beast himself

One of the many things that did not ring true was the depiction of the doctor, Professor Aleister Ravenscroft. I mean could you ever imagine a more sinister name and any name more suited to a gothic novel. Not to mention his first name ‘Aleister’ immediately makes me think of Aleister Crowley the British occultist and for many one of the most menacing characters of the 20th century. Add to this a strong German accent and you have a prime candidate for either a Hammer Horror film or a part in the Rocky Horror Show! Turning to the ‘real’ footage and interviews, I have to admit that I was confused. I personally think it is fake as I felt that some of the sub plot themes were just too clichéd. In particular Crowe’s depiction as a loser with a failed marriage and a son he can’t relate to i.e. loser in life has a chance to do something to impress his son and prove his worth but instead sacrifices his own happiness for the good of all!

Even though I have a hard time believing it, I have to admit that it was cleverly done. Using less attractive unknown ‘actors’ to convincingly play the roles and the slight differences between the ‘real’ and dramatized scenes definitely gives the documentary side a more realistic feel. The end obituary note which shows a photograph of the ‘real’ Crowe is for me a step too far as it then gets you thinking, if others who just listened to his show were targeted how did Crowe who was obsessed with them survive and what did he really die of?

After scouring the internet for photos or information about the ‘real’ Crowe, I wound up empty handed. I did find a Charlie Crowe, footballer and a Charlie Crow, DJ but neither bear any resemblance to the guy in the film. If he really existed surely after the film’s release there would be something on the internet about him!

An effective horror film…

Despite everything I have said above, I do actually believe the film is a good horror story. I mean I went to bed reluctant to turn off the lights and the film did play on my imagination for a while afterwards (but as I said in the beginning I am easily frightened, just ask Leonora!). I also find the tagline of “how do you stop thinking about something?” very effective and thought provoking.

On the other hand I found the ‘documentary footage’ which constantly cuts into the film jarring. Other people have enjoyed this device but personally I found it interrupted the building tension as every time I started to immerse myself into the story I was immediately shaken out of it. For me I would have preferred the ‘real’ footage to have come at the end of the film. I would still recommend the film as it deserves credit for tackling a relatively obscure and unexplored topic. I would love to know what other people think!

The Cambodian connection

The Krasue or Ap spirit.  source Nerdygaga

The Krasue or Ap spirit. source Nerdygaga

One big issue I have with the film, is the opening scene set in Cambodia. I get the feeling that whoever was responsible for this, just thought ‘what is an exotic country that we can start off in?’ and sticking a pin on a map randomly chose Cambodia. The whole scene show a complete ignorance of Khmer (Cambodian) people and culture as well as being an illogical choice. Khmer culture has a deeply rooted traditional belief in ghosts and the supernatural. Entities range from the Ap, a bodiless creature with the head of a beautiful woman whose internal organs hang down from her trachea and who is believed (vampire-like) to drink human blood to the banana tree ghost, a beautiful woman who made her home up a banana tree and died giving birth to the child of her unfaithful lover** to traditional ancestral ghosts.

Even today these beliefs are still strong and nearly all Cambodian children and adults I have spoken to claim to have seen a ghost or know of a place that is haunted. I was even told of a ghost up a coconut tree near where I work and live but the child told me that as I haven’t done anything bad I have nothing to fear. The same child also tried to reassure me with the words ‘Don’t worry teacher, one day you will be a ghost’, not sure how comforting those words were but he was being so sweet that it was hard to argue.

As in all Asian cultures, honouring ancestors is an important part of life, music is played at weddings and funerals to keep ghosts away and some families still all sleep in one bed as protection against ghosts. As a result I find it really hard to believe that over thirty years ago, just after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge when millions of Cambodians were killed and died in horrific circumstances that a mother would tell a child that he had nothing to worry about and not to pay attention to his elders.

The other question is why depict Cambodians when it is well known that it is the Hmong people and those of Filipino ethnicity whose traditional belief system ascribes the sudden death of otherwise normal healthy young men to the actions of a malignant shadow.

SUNDS: A medical condition

The medical condition SUNDS first came to the world’s attention in 1977 when a number of Hmong refugees died in the United States. The Hmong people are a particular ethnic hill tribe who are found mainly in Laos and Northern Thailand.

Another outbreak in Singapore between 1982 and 1990 saw 230 previously healthy Thai men die suddenly in their sleep (it was noted that the Thai men were of Laotian descent). In the Philippines the condition is known as “bangungot” and it is known to affect 43 out of 100,000 people. Although the condition doesn’t exclusively affect only those of South East Asian ethnicity it is more prevalent, especially amongst adolescent or young men.

Understanding of the causes of SUNDS is still at an early stage. Medical investigations on the bodies of people who have died of SUNDS have not discovered any heart abnormalities but cardiac studies conducted whilst patients were experiencing sleep paralysis before the onset of SUNDS indicates that the patients suffer from ventricular fibrillation and irregular heartbeats. Those who survive the paralysis find that their heart rhythm returns to normal on waking.

Some Filipino doctors also believe that the paralysis is due to acute haemorrhage pancreatitis (although this has yet to be accepted by the medical world). It is believed that it is during the sleep paralysis that people seem to experience shadow beings, this is before they die of SUNDS. It is funny how many people on internet forums seem to believe they have suffered from SUNDS. Surely the clue is in the name “death syndrome”, it is highly unlikely that they could have suffered from SUNDS and continue to post on the internet!

SUNDS and Superstition

For both the Hmong and Filipinos the death of healthy young men in their sleep has long been cloaked in superstition. The Hmong people of Laos ascribe the deaths to the action of a malign spirit “dab tsuam” who appears in the form of a jealous woman. In order to protect themselves against the spirit and avoid her attentions, some Hmong men will sleep dressed as a woman.

Dab Tsuam spirit, source unknown

Dab Tsuam spirit, source unknown

In the Philippines these deaths are believed to be brought about by a spirit called a Batibat. These fat hag like creatures immobilise their victims by sitting on their chest or face and suffocating them. The vengeful spirit enters the home when the tree in which it reside in is cut down and made into support posts for a house. The demon migrates through holes in the pole. One way to protect a household from an attack is to forbid anyone from sleeping near a post. It is interesting that the Filipino word for SUNDS is bangungot which in the Tagalog language means both a nightmare and ‘to rise and moan in sleep’.

Many older Filipinos recommend wiggling the big toe to snap the heart back to normal (in the film, Crowe is seen to wiggle his big toe to release himself from the paralysis when under attack from a Shadow Person). Many other countries have their own names for this phenomenon for instance in Laos it is called Dab tsog and in Thailand ‘Lai Tai’ meaning to sleep and die.

The rise of the modern day mythology of the Shadow People

Nowadays, increasingly more and more people are reporting having seen Shadow People or black masses during episodes of sleep paralysis. You only have to do a google search or look at Youtube to find numerous ‘first hand’ accounts or clips claiming to have caught them on film. I am not going to go into the causes of sleep paralysis and the associated ‘Old Hag Syndrome’ as Leonora did a great analysis in her post Hikes, Hostels and the Old Hag… except to say that most medical views reiterate that shadow people are a hallucination caused by a number of factors alone or in combination including sleep paralysis, drug abuse, reactions to certain medicines, psychological trauma and sleep deprivation. A number of ‘experts’ on Shadow People have emerged, most noticeably Heidi Hollis whose appearance on the late night radio show ‘Coast to Coast AM’ has done much to popularise the subject. She spoke about dark masses with human shapes who just flicker on the edges of peripheral vision and jump on the chest of victims to choke them. Hollis’s views are based on a strong Christian belief as she asserts that they are enemies of god and can only be repelled by calling out the name of Jesus. Her view is an extremely negative one but amongst other investigators there is no consensus on whether they are evil, good or neutral.

Alliens from Plan 9 from Outerspace, Dir.Ed Wood, 1959

Alliens from Plan 9 from Outerspace, Dir.Ed Wood, 1959

Other theories put forward suggest that they could be aliens, inhabitants of parallel dimensions or even time travellers. One thing which remains constant is the description of them. They are usually depicted as either wearing a long cloak or wide brimmed hat with piercing red eyes. It is not surprising that Wes Craven was so inspired by a story in the LA Times about a series of mysterious death that occurred during sleep that he used the idea of Shadow People to create his most famous character, Freddy Krueger.

And finally-a warning to the curious….

If Shadow People exist (and I am the last person to say categorically that they do not) and they feed of delta waves from people when they think about them, then to everyone who is reading this article….

Sleep and his half brother death by John William Waterhouse 1874

Sleep and his half brother death by John William Waterhouse 1874

Good Night, Sleep Well!

 Bibliography and Notes

*Exclusive Interview with Shadow People’s Matthew Arnold and Dallas Roberts, http://dailydead.com/exclusive-interview-with-shadow-peoples-matthew-arnold-and-dallas-roberts ** Banana Tree Ghost, http://www.everythingscary.com/story/banana-tree-ghost.html Krasue, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krasue Heidi Hollis, http://www.jerrypippin.com/UFO_Files_heidi_hollis.htm Actual Sleep Deaths Inspired ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, http://www.stufftoblowyourmind.com//blog/actual-sleep-deaths-inspired-a-nightmare-on-elm-street Sudden unexpected death syndrome, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudden_unexpected_death_syndrome Batibat, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batibat The Shadow People (2012), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3rLdVy_5TA