A good night’s sleep. That’s something most of us take for granted; we doze off, we wake up, lead our lives, and repeat til death. A select few around the world, however, don’t share the same luxury; when they shut their eyes to go to sleep, they re-enter a second life inside an impenetrable fortress of nightmares. Sleep paralysis is a rare condition wherein the sufferer feels as if they are trapped within their own body, and experience visions that torment them. The Nightmare, a new documentary from Rodney Ascher – the warped genius behind Room 237 – sheds precious new light on this little-understood terror.
Following eight distinctly average people dotted across the States, these subjects attempt to describe – in unnerving detail – the horrific boundary-crossing dreams they are plagued by. One aspect they all share is the shadowman: a pitch-black outline of an entity visits each of them, expounding an evil presence and – in some especially terrifying circumstances – bearing glowing red eyes. Ascher, clearly keen to mine the cinematic potential of these nightmare-scapes, makes a smart move in not only dramatically reconstructing the dreams, but in framing the sequences with a fourth-wall breaking device: the camera rests on one of these shadowpeople vexing one sleep paralysis sufferer, before floating behind the scenes of a film set to another victim’s room. It’s somewhat of a masterstroke: it intimates that these corporeal beings have more knowledge about this plane of existence than we do, and that it’s all really just one big movie production.
And you’ll keep telling yourself ‘it’s only a movie.’ The most terrifying aspect of The Nightmare is that for thousands of people, this is very much their nightly reality. The reconstructions are comprised of some unbearably disturbing imagery; Ascher’s film is probably as close as we’ll come to experiencing the subjects’ dread and confusion. But where the feature is visceral in some parts, it doesn’t quite hold up in others; we skim only the surface of sleep paralysis, with zero weigh-ins from scientists and psychologists. Having said that, science still doesn’t understand this condition – so it’s perhaps just as well the perspective is solely from the sufferers. Tonally, it’s most effective in conjuring up the same paranoid energy as those sensationalist documentaries on the paranormal which were all rage in the ‘90s and early ‘00s; alien abductions, crop circles, poltergeist activity, and now, sleep paralysis.
While The Nightmare doesn’t delve too deeply into its own mysteries, it does come from an extremely compassionate viewpoint on those with this uniquely savage condition. If you feel afraid to go to bed at night after watching this movie, it’s a feeling that’ll eventually, naturally pass. For these people, they fear to hit the pillow almost every night of their lives.