Filmmaker Rodney Ascher is on some next level shit. His previous film Room 237 used clips, interviews, and more to create a fascinating patchwork documentary exploring the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. His latest doc The Nightmare takes a similar approach as it looks at the terrifying phenomena of sleep paralysis. The film cuts between unsettling anecdotes told by sufferers of paralysis and dreamy, downright horrifying reenactments of their worst nights under the sheets. I’ll say this right now, the film is genuinely terrifying.
Not just a series of nighttime yarns set to visceral reenactments, The Nightmare also does a great job examining the phenomena and investigating the ins and outs of why it happens and, most interestingly, why people hallucinate the same shadow people when it happens. Ascher doesn’t include any serious medical studies of the occurrences – only flirting with details about the electrical connections in our brain that do their thing while we sleep.
In the Q&A following the film, Ascher explained that he wasn’t really interested in the medical studies regarding sleep paralysis – that’s not the story he wanted to tell. He’s much more interested in the philosophical and religious implications of why the hell this happens to people. By having 8 people tell their stories, Ascher presents an illuminating and intimate look at a condition that can literally ruin lives and change peoples’ perceptions of reality.
Unlike in Room 237, Ascher films his interview subjects as they detail their experiences with sleep paralysis. These aren’t regular talking head segments though – these moments possess a powerfully eerie tone that seamlessly carries over to the reenactments. Some of them are held in dark childhood bedrooms and houses, where the subjects first experienced sleep paralysis, which adds incredible weight to their stories.
Oftentimes the transition between the subject’s story and the reenactment is marked by a slow pan, and holy shit once that pan happened, I had to prepare myself. For anyone who’s ever experienced intense sleep paralysis, the reenactments are honestly like reliving them. I’ve only lightly suffered from the phenomena, I’d say from age 15 to 25. Listening to these subjects and watching these reenactments was both comforting and terrifying. It’s comforting to know that you’re not alone and that these people (and literally thousands around the world) have experienced “the nightmare”. And it’s fucking terrifying to relive them on the big screen.
Although the 8 subjects come from many different backgrounds and locations – from the Midwest to London- their recollections share many common images like the shadow men, the man in the hat, the voices, etc.. They begin to overlap and it truly is fascinating that these diverse people from all over have experienced the same thing, with varying degrees of horror. Ascher also shows how this experience has only been loosely documented throughout history in every corner of the globe.
As if the subject’s anecdotes weren’t terrifying enough, the reenactments turn The Nightmare into an honest to god horror movie. There are some jump scares, but that makes sense considering when sleep paralysis hits and retreats, it feels like getting punched. The real terror is drawn from listening to the subjects tell their story as we watch the reenactments play out. It’s incredibly effective and provocative work. “It’s like the darkness is alive,” says one subject. And The Nightmare brings that horror to life.
As someone who experienced sleep paralysis for a solid decade, The Nightmare is the documentary I’ve always wanted to see, but never really wanted to see. It dug up a lot of skeletons, brought up a lot of questions, and did so in a chilling manner most straight-forward horror movies fail to achieve.