Rodney Ascher’s 2015 documentary The Nightmare might sound a little too on the nose for horror inspiration, but beyond the surface, there’s an undercurrent of creepy that’s difficult to ignore. With my own background in psychology, I’ve always found myself drawn to the power our dreams hold over us. This film focuses on sleep paralysis, something I’ve suffered in the past as well. For the uninitiated, sleep paralysis is a strange dream state characterized by a temporary inability to move or speak while drifting in or out of sleep. Victims are unable to react at all unless forced through sheer will to break through the paralysis. While this occurs, victims recall vivid and horrifying hallucinations and sounds, even tactile sensations.
Ascher chose eight subjects for the film, and visits each of them individually as they explain in detail their personal experiences with sleep paralysis. As each of the subjects breaks down their experiences, intercut with re-enactments of what it feels like to slip into a sleep paralysis episode, we get a deep insight into these people and the horror they feel. Beginning in childhood, these people have had some sort of problem at bedtime, sometimes from traumatic experiences in their waking life. The re-enactments are detailed and extremely creepy, as are the sounds. Ascher edited the film to run much like a horror movie, with jump scares and sound swells that enhance the experience, making it one of the more enjoyable documentaries in recent years.
As he digs deeper into each of the subject’s stories, it’s hard not to notice the similarities of their experiences. Their experiences are shared and strikingly related; descriptions of the shadow figures, and the sounds they hear hit at the heart of a collected unconscious. Another interesting aspect is how the mere suggestion of sleep paralysis to others often results in people falling victim to the phenomenon themselves, as though the condition is some sort of sleep transmitted disease. Scientists are on the fence about what causes sleep paralysis, or why the experience is the same for most people, or even how it can be transmitted to those who have never had any symptoms before. Some claim it’s caused by stress in the subject’s lives. One of the sufferers implies these experiences are quite similar to out of body sensations or astral projection, while another believes sleep paralysis is the same thing as people claiming to be visited by extraterrestrial beings. Regardless, the condition is real, and sufferers have to find their own personal ways to escape its effect on their lives, either by seeking therapy, or religion, or by simply embracing the condition and learning to live with it.
Writers often use dreams in their work to create parallels with their character’s inner turmoil colliding with the conflicts they face, with varying degrees of success. A key take-away with this film is that often the sensations we feel while dreaming here are very similar, especially in nightmares, and writers can gain a lot of insight if they use this knowledge wisely with their characters. Currently available streaming on Netflix, The Nightmare comes highly recommended for those wanting to add some reality to their hallucinatory scenes. For horror fans, this is one movie you probably don’t want to watch alone, or in the dark, for it is truly creepy, and ironically, can probably cause you to have nightmares.