Rodney Ascher is obsessed with obsession. In his well-received 2012 documentary Room 237, the director turned his lens to the myriad theories surrounding the deeper meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and thereby created a compelling portrait of pop culture fixation. Much of the film’s success was due to the wide-reaching appeal of what appeared to be a seemingly niche world.
In his latest film, the documentary The Nightmare, Ascher spelunks into the dark world of sleep paralysis, the intense, waking-dream state in which the sufferer is unable to move from the eyes down and often experiences vivid, frightening visions. Mixing talking heads and horror, and told in chapters much like Room 237, The Nightmare focuses on the accounts of eight geographically scattered subjects who’ve suffered similar forms of, and have been deeply affected by, the occurrence. One sees static-covered alien-like creatures; another witnesses a red-eyed monster whispering into his ear; nearly all recollect an inky, disjointed figure known as the “Shadow Man” ambling toward their beds. Ascher overlaps each subject’s narration by recreating their nightmares in frightening sequences that let viewers understand, as the opening title card states, “What waits for them in the darkness.”
Atmospheric and unsettling, the film is a poignant investigation into the world of waking nightmares. In addition to telling his subjects stories, Ascher raises chicken-or-egg questions on the influence of vivid dreams on everything from mythology to horror movies. But The Nightmare’s greatest success is that it treats its eccentric subjects not as odd or unsettled, but as victims of a common affliction. Sleep paralysis is not an isolated incident, the film makes clear. Others are out there, too, trembling alone in the darkness.
Van Winkle's spoke to Ascher about the film, his own experiences with the Shadow Man and his hope to bring the “criminally underreported” story of sleep paralysis to the mainstream.
What compelled you to cover the subject of sleep paralysis?
It’s a subject I’ve been interested in ever since it happened to me. I’ve had about three sleep paralysis episodes, one of which contained an appearance of the Shadow Man. And they stuck with me. In the wake of Room 237, which is a documentary about a horror movie that is in some ways trying to be dark and eerie on its own, I wanted to go further down that road and show people’s personal horror movies. And the movie raises more questions than it answers. Our culture’s horror movie tropes and recurring images? Where do they come from? Vampires, succubae, ghosts? Did we invent them and did they start to populate our dreams, or did they visit us at night and inspire these characters?
This affliction is more common than people think.
It’s hard to intellectualize, but sleep presents a window into a kind of secret world. When screening The Nightmare at festivals, we ask people in the audience if they’ve experienced something similar to what is presented and roughly 20 percent of the audience speaks up. And I think it shows that so many people are having these profound experiences and keeping it to themselves. I think sleep paralysis is a criminally underreported story; so many people are going through this kind of thing. You walk around and you see crowds of people walking down the street and it's like, huh, well 10 percent of them have seen these figures. It’s wild.
Did you experience any nightmares when you were working on this film?
Yes. I watched Communion, the Christopher Walken movie that one of my subjects references, and I started watching it about midnight and fell asleep at about two or three. That night, I felt my body tightening up as though it was in a net and I heard the noise of a turbine winding up and saw this kaleidoscope and it was very colorful, not unlike things people talked about in the film. I was conscious of what was happening because of the film, so rather than panicking or being afraid, I thought “oh wow this is sleep paralysis.” But it wasn’t troubling; it was a psychedelic episode.
One of the most fascinating things is the similarity in the experiences of the eight subjects. While the specifics vary, they all have the same characters in their personal nightmares.
We go global and we go historical, too. And one of the central questions in the movie, that Chris is struggling with: Is this something that I’m creating? Or is this something that’s real that I’m only sensitive to in these states?
You didn’t really delve into the why. You let the subjects speak for themselves.
For me, the movie was about people and experience and transformation. I’m much more interested in giving subjects time to talk about how the experience changed their life than to get into the nuts and bolts of brain functions and REM states.
I understand the decision not to have scientists or psychologists weigh in on the phenomenon, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some underlying trauma that caused the dreams.
It’s funny you say [that], because you’re going Freudian and psychoanalytic, which is one perspective. But you know there are many more. My understanding that, in psychotherapy, there’s a move away from interpreting dreams as being significant. That it’s a neurologically-based incident based on mixed-up REM states and how moving through them in the wrong sequence can create these hallucinogenic symptoms.
But the question of “Why are these so similar?” is hard to answer scientifically. For me, what I find most compelling is first-person narratives and eye-witness testimony. I’m here to discuss what they’re seeing, their experiences, what they saw and what they make of it. I present these people, present what they have to say and let the viewer reach their own conclusions.
How did you settle on these eight subjects? I imagine you culled through hundreds.
We did. We found half of them and the other half found us. My team combed all sorts of forums where people shared their experiences. And we we were looking for subjects who had dramatic, compelling experiences and who thought about them in deep ways. Once we put out the official calling for people and sufferers realize they’re not the only ones going through the experience, it's open season. I had to hire a few new staff members.
Whose story had the most effect on you?
I could make a case for all of them. But the one I’m still most in touch with now is Chris, whose story bookends the film. He’s still really wrapped up in the heart of the terror. A lot of people have worked their way through and put the worst behind them. But he still has it — two, three days a week. And he’s looking at this, in a strange way, as a gift and still trying to make up his mind about what it means.
Were any of the subjects involved in helping you recreate the dream worlds?
No. Only in their descriptions or drawings of what they saw. A few people like Forrest drew some of what they saw. But, no, everything I created was from the interviews I conducted. No one has said my depictions are inaccurate. But they’re more interested in the way different ideas about the phenomenon are discussed, or they want to discuss the fact that other people’s experiences are similar are the things they want to talk about
What message are you hoping to get across to those suffering from sleep paralysis nightmares?
One chapter of the film is called “It’s a Thing.” Sleep paralysis happens to other people and there are methods people have used to help it go away. The movie is not necessarily presented as anything therapeutic, but it does seem to provide a sense of catharsis for viewers. And the fact that it plays out like a horror movie is not so much for an added effect, but to get the viewer into the headspace of the afflicted. The main purpose? To tell sufferers a simple thing: You are not alone.