The Nightmare

The Nightmare

The Nightmare (2015) — Directed by Rodney Ascher. Starring Siegfried Peters, Steven Yvette, Yatoya Toy, Nicole Bosworth, Elise Robson, Age Wilson.

The Nightmare grabbed my attention after seeing a trailer for it earlier this year. The premise of this new documentary from Rodney Ascher, director of Room 237, is simple– several people who suffer from sleep paralysis describe their experiences while we watch recreations of their descriptions. The concept and the chilling imagery intrigued me. It looked like it could be a frightening little flick. When it recently appeared on Netflix I moved it to the top of my list.

If you’ve never heard of it, sleep paralysis is an inability to move while a person is drifting off to sleep or waking up. It is often accompanied by specific types of hallucinations, typically of someone or something sitting on your chest or a shadowy figure lurking in the room. It’s a pretty interesting phenomenon to read up on or, you know, watch a documentary about.

I’ve only experienced it once that I can recall, without the hallucinations. One night while sleeping I wanted to sit up in bed but I couldn’t move. I panicked as I struggled to lift my body against the weight of the paralysis, finally breaking free and lurching up into a sitting position. That was all… but the sensation of not being able to move was disturbing enough. It felt as though a weight pressed upon my torso, holding me down against the bed. Though I missed out on seeing any creatures straddling and staring at me, I got a glimpse into how the sensation would create the illusion of a malicious presence holding me down.

The people in The Nightmare aren’t just a handful of random folks on the street who remember one or two scary dreams from their childhood. These are people who suffered from vivid sleep paralysis episodes night after night for long stretches of their lives. Not getting any sleep because you’re visited by hellish presences for nights on end? As a parent, I can empathize with how horrible that is. Seriously though, for them this is not just an occasional minor disturbance of sleep but an all-consuming, ongoing series of invasive interruptions, a severe problem they are desperate to find an answer to.

Ascher only spends a little time exploring the background of the condition, instead focusing on the experience of his subjects, most of whom aren’t convinced that their nighttime visitors are mere hallucinations. They believe that the presences tormenting them are real. Sleep paralysis is a common experience across different cultures and throughout history. There are several examples of it represented in art pieces from around the world. Henry Fuseli’s painting from the 18th century titled The Nightmare is probably one of the most famous. This massive, historical shared experience and the intensity of their episodes throughout their lives convinces the film’s subjects that there is more to sleep paralysis than a simple brain and body state. A couple of the interviewees mention that it completely changes their outlook on religion. One sufferer claims that the episodes stopped when she invoked the name of Jesus, thus converting her into a Christian. Another describes an experience that occurred while he was awake and in the woods. Frankly I can’t be sure he wasn’t under the influence of some kind of hallucinogenic, in spite of him not mentioning drug use one way or the other. It certainly sounded like a situation where drugs might normally be involved.

But I’m not really interested in discrediting these long suffering people and dismissing them offhand. I certainly haven’t been through what they have so who am I to judge? Really all I want is to hear some scary stories and see these wild experiences come to life. The Nightmare has some truly frightening moments. The lurking shadow men are eerie to look at as their dark, blank faces gaze back at you. I was also unsettled by a dream one guy had concerning a call he receives on his cell phone. There are a couple of good jump scares, one of them that effectively mixes a shot of a person describing their experience when a special effect invades the screen. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

The look of The Nightmare has a sharp slickness that almost seems out of place but still works. It’s not a very grainy film. The colors that emerge from the darkness are sharp and vibrant. The effects effective but they begin to wear out their welcome. The descriptions are vivid and frightening enough that sometimes the shadow people in hats are unnecessary. Luckily we get to see the interviewees from time to time, unlike Ascher’s previous documentary Room 237 where the subjects never appeared onscreen. This breaks up the barrage of intense imagery. Still, the recreations allow us a more visceral experience of what these people are going through.

When I recall my single experience and how vivid the feeling of it still is I marvel at how these poor people are still able to function. I think what’s most important about The Nightmare is the opportunity it provides to understand the torment these poor people are going through. And it ends up being a fun, scary ride in the meantime. It’s well worth checking out, although you might want to avoid watching it on your tablet while in bed.

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