Scared Stiff: ‘Mara’ Captures The Real Life Horrors of Sleep Paralysis

Horror films that base their supernatural apparitions on real-world phenomena tread a fine line between realism and creativity. To be successful, they must be able to add a paranormal element to something people face in reality, without taking the fantasy so far that it undermines their lived experiences.

From the producers of Insidious, Mara comes to Amazon Prime on August 14th, and is inspired by the concept of sleep paralysis. The film follows criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Olga Kurylenko), who is assigned to the murder case of a man who appears to have been strangled by his wife. The wife, however, is convinced that a demon killed him while she lay paralysed and helpless beside him. Having to commit the woman to a mental hospital and leave her daughter in the care of her elderly grandfather leaves Kate conflicted. Mara follows Kate’s attempts to find out if there really is a demon killing people in their sleep.

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For most of the film, Mara dances between a logical and supernatural approach. Both explanations for hallucinations shared by people from all over the world and all kinds of backgrounds seem valid. They make sense. It becomes easier to trust the people making outrageous claims as you get to know them as characters, even when others treat them as paranoid or even outright mentally ill. It’s difficult to tell whether the ultimate reveal is going to prove them or their rational counterparts right.

Sleep paralysis as it exists in the real world is explicitly acknowledged. Even as Kate is being shown how the hauntings progress, it is said that there are millions of people who experience the early stage who never end up seeing the demon. This distinction cleverly allows the film to develop its lore without alienating people who actually know what sleep paralysis is like.

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The actual depiction of sleep paralysis is done incredibly well. This is particularly impressive given that it is such an internal experience that, from the outside, isn’t visually noticeable. Mara presents its symptoms with chilling accuracy: the frozen limbs and popping eyes, the quickened breathing, and the sensation that the world is closing in on you. It even notes the way that, in a state of semi-consciousness, you imagine coats hanging on a door are actually people breaking into your home. If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, you’ll recognise it immediately. If you haven’t, you’ll still get a crystal clear impression of why this sensation is so terrifying, even before the demon appears.

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This invitation to empathise with Kate is also consistent throughout the film. She’s a sensible, intelligent woman, so it’s easy to follow along with her train of thought. She’s also compassionate and her motivation is to do what she believes is right, especially when it comes to keeping a young girl safe. This heightens the impact of those emotional moments that give the film its punch. Kate isn’t perfect and she makes mistakes. You feel the intensity of her emotions as she sees the decisions she’s made putting people in danger and resulting in tragedy.

Characters are consistently well developed throughout Mara. They all have rich backstories that are clear in how they present themselves throughout the film. When they do reveal their secrets, those pieces fit together seamlessly.

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This relatability ties in beautifully to the underlying themes of the film. The horror explores the concepts of guilt, responsibility and personal forgiveness. It examines that place where holding yourself accountable for your mistakes crosses into a toxic guilt that eats at you from within, instead of allowing you to learn and grow from your past.

There are moments when the lesson can come across a little bit cheesy, but not in so cringeworthy a way that the moral itself is undermined. It’s a refreshingly good metaphor that holds up under scrutiny.

Mara is a well constructed film that leads you step by effortless step into its lore. The story makes sense and you feel the full impact of every emotional blow the protagonist takes along the way. Its monster is provocative and chilling, and frankly makes your garden-variety sleep paralysis look like a walk in a park in comparison.

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