The Nightmare (2015)
Dir. Rodney Ascher
You awake in the middle of the night and find that you can’t move. Your eyes are open, but your body is completely paralyzed, leaving you unable to do so much as make a sound. And then, a figure appears. It’s shadowy, but its eyes are red, and as it menacingly approaches, you struggle in a panic, to resist, to turn away, to scream. But you can’t.
This sound like a horror movie, but actually it’s a well-documented real-life phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. It’s common enough that a 2011 study found that as many as 7.6% of the population has experienced it as some point in their lives. Historically, many cultures have had names and elaborate folk explanations for the phenomenon, attributing it to demons, “Old Hag,” Incubus and Succubus. John Henry Fuseli’s famous 1782 painting The Nightmare, and many similar images, are thought to portray the experience. Today, it is considered in more medical terms. Doctors theorize that it is related to REM atonia, the natural paralysis the body undergoes during REM sleep to prevent the limbs and body from moving and “acting out” dreams. When REM atonia fails, it can lead to sleepwalking -- but when it succeeds in the absence of unconsciousness, a state called hypnogogic or hypnopompic paralysis can result, wherein the brain continues to dream and the body continues to be paralyzed, but parts of the mind “wake up” to experience it. In this state, vivid visual and auditory hallucinations can occur, including the common sensations of “tingling” or “vibrating,” hearing voices (often threatening ones), feeling “crushed” “smothered,” and seeing terrifying “intruder” figures, which are typically shadowy and menacing.
I mention all this, because this documentary doesn’t. This is not a documentary made with the aim of educating you about the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. There is almost no historical or cultural context. There are no doctors interviewed. No statistic cited. Similar to director Rob Ascher’s previous film, the half-fascinating, half-intolerable ROOM 237, THE NIGHTMARE is a surprisingly --almost experimentally-- limited in its scope. The totality of its runtime is devoted to eight longtime sleep paralysis sufferers, who tell their stories while reenactors dramatize them. It is interested exclusively in the subjective experiences of these people, and parses those experience for meaning only to the extent that the speakers themselves offer. It offer no commentary, no perspective; just a medium for eight people from different walks to life to relate their own tales of personal hell. The result is something of a grown-up version of sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories with eight strangers. Are You Afraid of The Dark, the documentary version. You may find this approach refreshingly succinct or irritatingly limited, but that’s what you get.
It’s also a very particular campfire ghost story session, because they’ve only invited people who want to tell the same story. The details vary, but when you come down to it these people are all here because they’ve had, in essence, the same experience, which all pretty much just boils down to waking up, being unable to move, and seeing (or, in one particularly uneventful telling, not seeing but “sensing”) a shadowy, malevolent presence in the room. Some experiences get a little more complicated, but that’s the meat of every one of them. Especially early on, the stories are nearly identical. So a lot of your potential enjoyment here is going to depend on exactly how much milage you’re going to get out of that basic setup.
Me, I like it. In fact, the repetition is actually part of the spooky charm to me, because man, what the fuck!? All these people, totally unconnected to each other in any way, having the same scary vision of shadowy people menacing them at their most vulnerable? I’ve seen enough horror movies to know this doesn’t end well. It’s undeniably repetitive, but the interviewees are convincing, and if you’re the sort to be unnerved by creepy ghost stories, their obvious real-life anxiety is infectious and effective. And even if it’s really only got one move, it still manages to build and escalate as the stories get more elaborate.
It’s also maybe the only horror movie I’ve ever seen which indirectly threatens the viewer. Multiple interviewees say they only experienced the phenomenon after someone else had told them about it. It spreads, like a virus, as more people learn about it. Thanks, THE NIGHTMARE, how am I supposed to sleep tonight now? What is this, THE RING?
Stylistically, the film has a few annoying tendencies, like its occasional unnecessarily arty decision to show off the backstage setups for the dream re-enactments. Ooh, meta, you’re blowin’ our minds here. And one interviewee --the one with the least interesting story, to boot-- irritatingly takes a sharp left into Jesus-ville towards the end. But the reenactments, simple as they are, are genuinely pretty terrifying, and accurately capture what it’s like to have a strange nightmare in which things which cannot be real become real. There’s probably a more comprehensive documentary to be made about this fascinating subject someday, but THE NIGHTMARE gets its milage from being totally subjective; whatever’s really happening, its power is these people really truly believe they’re suffering from a force not of this earth, which gives it some real punch that actors never could. It’s that little slice of reality that turns this from a fairly undistinguished ghost story into a real life ghost story, which, for my money, was always the best kind of campfire tale. If you’re all all susceptible to this sort of nonsense, it virtually promises to provide nightmares in spades. Certainly, it’s the only horror film I know of which, by the very act of watching, makes you more likely to end up in the sequel.
But it’s also a documentary about nightmares that put my viewing companion to sleep. So your mileage may vary.
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