In two feature length documentaries, director Rodney Ascher has established a clear and effective formula for making non-fiction as frightening as big Hollywood horror films. Ascher focuses on the minutia of human thought and storytelling. He lets his interview subjects respond as long as they want to in whatever style they feel is necessary to prove their point. From that, Ascher crafts overlapping personal narratives of anxiety and obsession.
The Nightmare is about sleep paralysis. This is a medical phenomenon that is easily categorized, but not easily treated. Essentially, the person suffering from sleep paralysis is in an alert mental state without the ability to control their physical body. This is often mentally associated with paranormal activity by the afflicted. The only known treatment is a recommended course of reducing stress, which only increases stress as the person afflicted with sleep paralysis quickly develops a fear of suffering from another episode.
Rodney Ascher interviews eight people from around the world who have experienced sleep paralysis. These experiences are reenacted with actors, beautiful dramatic lighting, and special effects. Some subjects have only had a few episodes; others are struck every night. Some believe there is a perfectly logical scientific explanation for all the common imagery and phenomena experienced during sleep paralysis; others believe in paranormal or religious origins in ghosts, aliens, or demonic possession during the episodes. Ascher, in crafting a horror film out of a documentary, perhaps gives too much authority to the latter, but it does create a compelling and frightening experience.
Much like Room 237, Ascher's previous documentary on fan theories explaining Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, The Nightmare seems absurd until you actually connect with one of the stories. I have experienced sleep paralysis a handful of times in my life. The stories centered on shadow people emerging from the darkness and watching the victim while they cannot move or cry for help ring true because I've seen similar things; the theories about aliens, out of body experiences, physical attacks, and demonic possession seem unbelievable because I haven't.
How much of our impression of bizarre medical, paranormal, or religious stories comes from our own shared life experiences? If you've never felt sleep paralysis, a real medical condition, do you actually believe what any of these people are saying? Or do you think it's just a nightmare and nothing actually happened? Are we too quick to dismiss personal narratives that are so unlike anything we've experienced ourselves? Or is it the more reasonable, logical, sane approach to compartmentalize fact from fiction purely on what we know to be true about the human psyche based on our own lives? How objective can that truth ever be?
The Nightmare doesn't attempt to answer any of these questions. Rodney Ascher connects recurring imagery and sensations among eight very different people who experienced sleep paralysis in their lives. The personal narratives that stand out are the more wild ones, true, but they only seem so wild because they go a few steps further than the other narratives in the film. If they all expressed a belief in demonic possession, or alien intervention, or something in our dreams attacking us from the inside, maybe those beliefs wouldn't seem so strange. Eight out of eight interview subjects describe the same physical symptoms and identify shadow people during their sleep paralysis. How do we know the rest of the stories aren't true?
The Nightmare is currently streaming on Netflix.