A horror documentary about sleep paralysis that's both fascinating and frightening
With only two features and one short, Rodney Ascher has established himself as a documentarian focused on the communal aspect of horror. His first documentary, the short film The S from Hell, played testimonies by people who were terrified by the 1964 Screen Gems logo at the end of various TV shows. He followed that up with his feature debut Room 237, about people with wild conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With both of these films, Ascher explored how a piece of media could conjure up such strange and specific reactions. What is it about The Shining that makes people speculate so wildly about hidden meaning? Why did a TV logo strike fear into the hearts of so many children? With The Nightmare, Ascher sets his sights on a similar idea, but this time he’s effectively transitioned from niche topics to something far more universal.
The Nightmare isn’t just about scary dreams. Ascher delves into the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, where people find their bodies frozen while some sort of demonic entity (or entities) terrorize them. Each person has their own unique experience getting scared senseless. Sometimes a person might only feel an evil presence around them. Other times shadow people or demonic creatures stand directly over them, looking like they’re moments away from attacking. Ascher’s subjects have a large supply of anecdotes about the times they’ve suffered from sleep paralysis, with some of them so strange it’s hard not to get creeped out.
Ascher doesn’t feel the need to delve into more than what the eight people he profiles tell him. It’s easy to want to hear from a medical professional or a neurologist to learn about what might cause such a horrifying event. Ascher doesn’t really see the need for it. Anyone who’s experienced sleep paralysis knows how vivid they are. Almost all of the interview subjects believe with absolute certainty that what they felt and saw was real, and it’s hard to argue against them. Much like The S from Hell and Room 237, Ascher is more interested in relating these subjective experiences, using filmmaking techniques to place viewers in the same mindset as his subjects.
This is where Ascher takes a big formal departure from his previous works. In Room 237, Ascher only played audio of his interviews over footage of The Shining, and by obsessively poring over sequences frame by frame it made it easy to understand where some of the out there theories were coming from. The Nightmare actually shows the faces of who Ascher interviews, usually shooting them at nighttime in their own bedroom. This is the first half of the film, with the other half dedicated to highly stylistic re-enactments of the different nightmares. The on-camera interviews feel necessary because they give these nightmares an authenticity that makes them all the more unsettling. Hearing about them is one thing; actually seeing the conviction and emotions from everyone as they speak makes it easy to understand why they’re so convinced that what happened to them wasn’t a delusion.
The Nightmare’s second half, where Ascher attempts to remake these stories into something cinematic, is where the film’s problems lie. Cinematographer Bridger Nielson makes these sequences look terrific, along with the talking head interviews, but they’re too cheesy to actually generate something as terrifying as what’s being told. Hearing someone talk about being paralyzed in their bed while large, black orbs start floating towards them sounds creepy, especially with the precise descriptions; seeing an actor cower as two poorly rendered CGI blobs float above them winds up being more of a distraction than a means of accentuating the horror. Dreams come from the imagination, and it might have been better to leave things there than try to represent them on-screen. At the end of the day, nothing will be as scary as what we conjure up in our own minds.
While these re-enactments don’t generate as much fear as simply seeing and hearing the real people tell their story as they experienced it, Ascher does bring up a fascinating idea through these sleek representations. All of them are shot through highly conventional and familiar horror techniques: canted angles, shadows, jump scares, and an ominous score. A scene early on has some people afflicted with sleep paralysis bringing up films like Insidious to show how elements come directly from common imagery associated with sleep paralysis and nightmares (one of the film’s lighter moments comes when one person praises Insidious for how it portrayed nightmares, but still found it to be a disappointment when compared to the real thing). These scenes make it easy to ponder just how much horror films and nightmares feed off each other, how one inspires the other in a sort of strange cyclical pattern.
But Ascher isn’t all about making a thought-provoking documentary on what scares us. The Nightmare obviously wants to scare people, and even though Ascher can be hit or miss on the recreations, he does have a good share of unnerving moments courtesy of his subjects (I’ve avoided explaining too much about them here since it’s no fun to ruin the surprise). At one point someone mentions how episodes began to develop from simply explaining sleep paralysis to a friend. “Kind of like an STD, a sleep transmitted disease,” he says, and that’s where The Nightmare offers something far more wickedly fun than The S from Hell or Room 237. In those films it was easy to watch these groups of people with a bemused detachment. In The Nightmare Ascher suggests that, by watching this film and becoming aware of its subject matter, you might have unwittingly let this phenomenon into your own life. Just try having a good night’s sleep with that idea in your head.
Originally published on April 27, 2015 as part of our Hot Docs coverage.