Year – 2015
Country – USA
Production companies – Zipper Bros Films, Campfire
Director – Rodney Ascher
Interviewees – Siegfried Peters, Stephen Michael Joseph, Yatoya Toy, Nicole Bosworth, Elise Robson, Age Wilson
Have you ever suffered from ‘sleep paralysis’?
It can mean a lot different things and comes in many forms, but my personal experience is being asleep and then suddenly knowing I’m asleep. Sometimes I see my bedroom, not just in a dream, but really see it. I know where my body is and exactly what my eyes are looking at.
That’s when I want to wake up. But how?
I feel my body frozen in place, but I use every molecule of energy in me to shift it. It feels like the force I’m applying is devastating, and yet I don’t move even the tiniest bit. I still know I’m asleep but feel awake. As I keep forcing my body to move the frustration builds and there’s a part of me that begins to question if I ever can wake up.
Finally, I wake up.
As I do my body throws itself in whatever direction I was previously attempting to force it to. Then I’m out of breath and a little disturbed.
This is just my experience and it’s far from pleasant, but for some sleep paralysis is a daily occurrence and comes with much more than a twinge of the disturbed. For some, sleep paralysis is how demons reach out to us and then toy with us for their entertainment, and for others it is something else entirely.
Just describing the concept of sleep paralysis is likely to make most of us curious, and so when director Rodney Ascher experienced what he, at first, had no way to explain – he decided it was something to be explored and documented in more detail.
Ascher’s approach is to interview those who suffer from sleep paralysis from across the western world. Some have suffered since they were children and others have developed the symptoms as adults. They all carry harrowing tales of their experiences, some more frightening than others, and some have found a way to leave the experiences behind, while some have been left with no choice but to embrace it.
The talking head sections of interviews are edited together with ‘re-enactments’ or ‘visual demonstrations’ or what each interviewee is describing. Ascher attempts to make these sections the conventional form of frightening, often imitating what it’s like to listen to a ghost story while you visualise each moment. There’s a lot of nifty camera work, shadows and morphsuits to really make your skin crawl.
It’s also interesting to re-live the experience of each interviewee and listen to the similarities between their stories. Some similarities seem predictable and others don’t. They all describe being frozen in a spot but seeing their surroundings as if it were, with absolute certainty, real. However, some of the stories they recall are so much more than that.
I wouldn’t say you need to have suffered a night of terror in order to find the film interesting, though it is satisfying to hear other people agree with your thoughts.
Ascher’s agenda is obvious from the start. He makes no real attempt to convince the audience that any of this is fact. This could be frustrating for some, because he doesn’t make any revelations or delve into the psyche of someone who suffers with sleep paralysis. Instead what he does is try to recreate ‘the nightmare’ of a sleep paralysis attack, and allows these people to explain exactly how it feels to each of them personally.
The re-enactments can feel a little ridiculous at times, and some of the participants he has chosen for the documentary are questionable, but that seems to be his point. There is one brief shot of Ascher speaking to a man who has suffered with sleep paralysis attacks since being an infant and can still recall them perfectly. Ascher seems genuinely interested in his account but also entirely noncommittal to whether or not he feels the same way.
I found The Nightmare to be a little too flamboyant overall but I did enjoy it. It’s not as frightening as you think it might be when you start watching, and it’s not the greatest example of documentary filmmaking, but it’s almost B-movie documenting – which is a lot of fun. Ascher isn’t about to change your life, but the subject is worth watching whether you have your own experiences or not, and it leaves you hoping your mind (or the demons) will let you sleep peacefully tonight.