United States, 2015. Directed by Rodney Ascher. 91 minutes.
I awaken suddenly from sleep, lying on my back, staring upward…and unable to move. I can breathe, I can move my eyes, but otherwise I’m completely paralyzed: unable to move my arms, legs, or head; unable to sit upright. My mind struggles against the paralysis, trying to force my head to turn to the left (always the left). Eventually, I will my body to move.
Throughout my twenties and thirties, I had such experiences on a recurring basis, perhaps three or four times a year. It wasn’t until about eight years after my first episode that I learned that I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced such a thing. My then-girlfriend, who’d heard of the phenomenon, called it sleep paralysis.
Director Rodney Ascher (director of Room 237, an examination of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kubrick’s film of The Shining) and the subjects of his new documentary The Nightmare also experience sleep paralysis. But for them, it doesn’t stop there. The phenomenon is also known as “hag dreams” and folklore (both antique and modern) associates it with various sensations: hearing voices, seeing humanoid figures, the pressure of a hand pressed against the chest, the unshakable feeling of sharing the room with an evil presence just behind—and to the left—of the “sleeper.” Several of Ascher’s subjects report seeing “shadow men”; one delineates an entire hierarchy of such beings. Another tells of seeing slender, lanky humanoids, with skin like television static and faces like the “gray” aliens popularized by science fiction and UFO lore. Each of these men and women is a vivid dreamer, suffering nightmares that leave them doubting their own sanity.
What is sleep paralysis? Is it a biological condition, or is it metaphysical? Are these figures imagined, or are they real? (I prefer not to regard the visions as hallucinations.) If the latter, are they from other worlds? Other dimensions? Angels and demons? Medical science doesn’t seem to have any answers. Each of Ascher’s subjects presents a different theory. One perceives them expressly as demons in the Christian sense; she drove them away by invoking Jesus’s name. Another indicates that no amount of prayer would save him from his tormentors, and sees them as an unknowable force pulling him, inexorably, to his own death. They struggle to uncover the meaning of what they experienced. Like the subjects of Room 237, each looks for a pattern to explain that which seems to have no explanation. By its very nature, then, The Nightmare possesses relatively little insight, its topic a mystery without a solution.
Ascher touches upon nightmares and the influences they’ve had on our culture, by viewing old woodcuttings and bookplates and splicing in clips from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Insidious, and Communion. But he puts more focus on presenting the nightmares in visual terms, presenting them as if they were literal horror movies instead of ones of the mind. Many of the tactics he uses are cheap shocks and jump-scares, but he deploys them so effectively he could probably teach a class about it. (The “giant insect of the month club” scene still freaks me out, after having watched it three or four times!) It’s the rare horror film that can work on several levels: the emotional, the visual, the existential. To call it one of the scariest movies of recent years is probably hyperbole…but I can say that it’s the first film I’ve seen in three or four years that’s genuinely given me sleeping problems, and I watch horror films like some people drink coffee.
I haven’t had an episode of sleep paralysis in several years. Watching The Nightmare has made me grateful for that.
Originally published by Cinema Axis.