I’d rather be locked in a room listening to an audiobook of Ulysses read in Latin than hear you tell me about the dream you had last night (unless I was in it; in that case, tell me more). But one of the most unexpected things about The Nightmare, the new documentary/horror film hybrid by Rodney Ascher (Room 237), is that you can’t get enough of the eight people interviewed in the film recounting their dreadful nighttime experiences. In the faces of these men and women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s and spread out everywhere from Los Angeles to Manchester, you can see the genuine terror they suffered — and, in some cases, continue to suffer.
The Nightmare isn’t about bad dreams. The film is an exploration of a condition known as sleep paralysis, in which the sufferer wakes up in bed unable to move or speak (or sometimes even breathe). Often, the sufferer sees and hears strange beings —– shadow creatures, aliens, demonic presences — watching them from the corner of the room or uttering menacing or incomprehensible threats, or, in the worst cases, touching them, from tickling to rape.
Yes, the condition may sound ridiculous, although enough cases have been reported for medical researchers and neurologists to take it seriously (just Google it). But the whole thing still seems, at least on paper, a little far-fetched.
That’s one of the great accomplishments of Ascher’s film: Intercutting his interviews with fictional recreations of what the subjects are describing allows you to see a version of what they saw, and you don’t need to believe any of it for The Nightmare to give you a major case of the creeps. One man recounts his first sleep paralysis incident when he was only a year old (it’s his first memory) and saw creatures made of TV static approaching his crib. After that, his parents later told him, he refused to sleep in that crib again.
One victim started sleeping in a room full of TV sets, hoping the background noise would keep his nightly visitors at bay (no luck). Another man talks about an incident in which he was woken up by his cellphone on his nightside table. When he answered it, the voice on the other end was muffled and unintelligible, so he got up and walked into the living room to get better reception. Suddenly he could understand what the caller was saying — and the way in which Ascher reveals the brief conversation that ensued will make you cower like a little girl (the film has, among other things, a terrific, complex sound design).
Most of the people interviewed in The Nightmare admit they didn’t seek psychiatric help because they didn’t think doctors would take them seriously. Those who did were told they were probably suffering from mild seizures or stress (Ascher makes a point not to interview any professionals in the film because the movie does not claim to be a work of journalism, exactly — it’s more of a sensory documentary). Like he did in Room 237, which concentrated on the wild theories some rabid fans of Kubrick’s The Shining had about the film, Ascher introduces the effects of popular movies on his subjects (among those referenced are Insidious, Natural Born Killers and Communion, in which Christopher Walken played a man who claimed to be visited by aliens in his bedroom at night). He also points out depictions of sleep paralysis in art and sculpture dating back centuries, including such famous works as The Nightmare by the 18th-century painter Henry Fuseli, in which a sleeping woman is seen with a demon sitting on her chest.
Full disclosure: While watching The Nightmare, I flashed back to an incident I had as an 8-year-old in which I woke up in the middle of the night while sleeping on my side, unable to move and absolutely certain there was something — a person, a monster, something — watching me from the other side of bed. Its presence was so palpable and real, I have never forgotten it, and I’m the sort of person who can never remember my dreams. Like one of the people featured in the film did, I finally concentrated hard enough after several minutes to be able to roll over to see who (or what) was stalking me, and there was nothing there. Until now, I had always dismissed it as the work of the imagination of a kid obsessed with horror movies (it has never happened to me again), but why do I still have such a strong memory of it today? You don’t have to make such a personal connection with The Nightmare or even buy sleep paralysis as a real disorder in order for the picture to fascinate you. When Ascher asks one person in the movie, “Is it scary?” about their condition, the only possible response is, “Yes. Yes, it is.”
Editor-director: Rodney Ascher.
A Content Media Corp. release. Running time: 91 minutes. Brief vulgar language, frightening imagery. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.