Sleep paralysis is a condition that affects people in a liminal state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. When it strikes, a person is unable to speak or move. Several people who discuss their own experiences with sleep paralysis in Rodney Ascher’s documentary The Nightmare mention that the sensation is like being pinned against their will.
While prone, a person will experience an intense and nightmarish hallucination: a shadow in the room, an ugly presence with red eyes, many interviewees even describe these things as demons or as evil. The prone person is helpless, terrified, and there’s nothing he or she can do but experience this fear, as if death was breathing down their necks.
And Ascher chillingly recreates these experiences for his film.
Director: Rodney Ascher
Release Date: June 5, 2015 (limited, VOD)
Rather than rely on scientific rigor or consultations with medical professionals, The Nightmare is more about the experience of sleep paralysis and what it means to the people who suffer from it. The focus on individual voices rather than experts makes The Nightmare similar in some ways to Ascher’s previous documentary, Room 237, which was about conspiracy theories and off-beat critical interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Each segment of The Nightmare is generally the same: a subject recounts his or her experience with sleep paralysis, and Ascher recreates the hallucinations with actors, generally culminating in a mini-horror set piece of some kind rife with Dario Argento color schemes and creepy sound design. What distinguishes each experience is the individual interpretations and descriptions of the sleep paralysis sufferer.
In one of the most memorable of these horror tableaux, a giant three-dimensional shadow creature hunches over the bed. It’s so tall, this shadow, that it has to stoop in order to fit in the room. The only distinguishing feature about it are red eyes and fangs. In the distorted voice of nightmares, the shadow tells the dreamer, who’s frozen and staring up into its eyes, “You’re going to die.” He’s told this repeatedly. He can only listen. It’s a menacing moment, and there’s something about the angles of the room and the vulnerability of the dreamer that makes it an effective horror spectacle.
But it’s more than mere spectacle, which comes back again to the importance of the individual voices of The Nightmare. Dreams are so personal, and while therapists and sleep specialists can help uncover the neuroses and the neurology that influences them, the visceral experience of dreaming is always something private until someone chooses to share it, and even that can fall short. Think about when friends recount their nightmares, but the terror seems foreign to you because of the difficulty of relaying the physical and intensely psychological experience. The Nightmare recreates the visceral space of bad dreams, and the voices of the subjects add the personal dimension that heightens the terror of being helplessly at the mercy of our minds--it makes a personal experience participatory.
Keeping expert analysis out of The Nightmare also helps relate the personal discoveries and struggles that people with sleep paralysis experience, as if they’re finding touchstones and footholds in the real world to make sense of their interior lives. Inevitable references are made to horror movies and science fiction movies with similar imagery--A Nightmare on Elm Street, Communion--and there’s brief mention of the various manifestations of sleep paralysis hallucinations around the world. All these people, all over the world, throughout history, terrified but not alone in this helplessness. That’s almost comforting, at least until the next episode of sleep paralysis.
When I interviewed Rodney Ascher about Room 237, he referred to The Shining as a machine for spontaneously creating synchronicities and coincidences, which also seems like a nice way of describing the way we try to make sense of dreams, in this case bad ones. When confronted with something so existentially dreadful that’s rooted in the unconscious and subconscious, there’s an attempt to make sense of it somehow. The dream might point to some greater psychological or spiritual need (maybe these aren’t separate concerns). We get to ask, “Why did I dream about x-thing?” or “Why did y-person do this to me?” or, ultimately, “What does this mean?”
If we couldn’t ponder meaning or create meaning from this mental matter, that would be absolutely terrifying.