In “Theaters” Now: The Nightmare

I watched the documentary/horror movie The Nightmare this morning. It was directed by Rodney Ascher (of Room 237 fame). I guess I should start by saying I feel a bit connected to the subject matter of this film, so my review will not be completely impartial. I will discuss my (very small) connection in a moment, but let’s begin with a discussion of what this film is, since it is a very different type of film than I’ve discussed previously on this blog

The Nightmare deals with the subject of sleep paralysis. For those of you not aware of this condition, it involves the inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up. The research seems to suggest that nearly everyone experiences this sensation at least once in their lives. For a small percentage of the population it happens more often. For an even smaller percentage, this paralysis is accompanied by feelings of terror, sensations of a maleficent presence in the room, or, worst of all, actual hallucinations of shadowy entities moving around their bed (and in some cases actually physically assaulting the individual). These experiences, while dreamlike, do not feel like dreams to those experiencing them… they are experienced as reality.

The first thing to clarify is that this isn’t really a documentary about sleep paralysis in that the filmmaker doesn’t try to explain the phenomena, he doesn’t present any science, nor does he interview any professionals. Instead, it is more of a documentary about individual experiences with sleep paralysis. Specifically, he interviews eight individuals and basically presents a life history of their battle with the disorder, the images and experiences they deal with during their paralysis, how this disorder has affected them personally, and how they’ve tried to deal with it (in remarkably different ways). Ascher adds an element of horror to his film by including reenactments of the participants’ waking nightmares. These scenes are shot like any other horror movie, all the way up to and including jump-scares (the one with the tarantula got me good) and genuine-scares (the scene with the baby in the crib will stick with me for a while). The only weakness of this film is really only a weakness if you go into the movie with preconceived notions of what a documentary is. Here’s the thing, if you’re looking for resolutions or explanations you will be extremely frustrated by this movie. However, if you’ve seen his other film, Room 237 you shouldn’t be surprised by this (also, if you haven’t seen Room 237… stop reading this… right here… seriously, right here… (okay, really after this parenthetical break)… go to Netflix and start watching it (I just checked, it’s there)… if you’re at work watch it there… if you can’t access Netflix at work, leave work (pretend to be sick, say you have an family emergency, or just leave… I don’t care how you do it) go home and watch it… don’t have Netflix?… you’re weird… now that we’ve established that and you’ve been appropriately judged, get Netflix… it’s $8 a month (hey Netflix, Coke Zero didn’t take me up on my offer to be sponsor, so the ball is now in your court… make Coke Zero look like a chump). Remember, this is not a documentary about sleep paralysis it is a documentary about people who suffer severe sleep paralysis. Therefore, it is focused on examining how eight people experience this phenomenon in their own unique ways as well as some of the threads that connect them to one another. Ascher accomplishes this in one scene in particular. At the end of one reenactment the camera continues to roll as the shadow-entity moves from one bedroom set to the other. The camera follows the entity (still completely in shadow) through the movie set, as it goes through a costume change into the next bedroom set (take that Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (also, if you’re seriously going to make that the title of your movie, I think we all should be expected to use the full title when talking about it… at the very least it probably means I wouldn’t have to hear so much more about that… “movie”… same goes for you E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and His Adventures on Earth (that’s seriously the title of the movie… look it up)… also, did I mention that I am halfway through my first caffeinated drink in three days?). This interesting choice by the director accomplishes two things. First, it helps to remind the viewer that these visions aren’t “real”. I used quotation marks around the word real because, as the movie does a good job of reminding us, they are extremely real to those experiencing the paralysis. Second, this clearly demonstrates that while these individuals may have differing nightmares there is a connection between them all.

In the end, if you enjoyed Room 237 or simply want to see a unique documentary that deftly straddles the line between reality and fiction (similar to the visions of the participants) it’s worth checking out. Just don’t expect any handholding by the filmmaker.

Okay, so, I started out this post by mentioning that I felt a connection with this film and that this may have shaded my experience while viewing the movie. A good place to start is to say that I (fortunately) do not suffer from sleep paralysis. However, I have a memory of one experience that, after reading up about this disorder a few years back, I now attribute to a bought of this sleep paralysis. Specifically, when I was ten or eleven I woke up one early one summer morning. I felt this intense weight on the lower half of the body… it was so intense I felt like it going to crush me… it was constricting my diaphragm to the point that I could barely breath. I was looking up at the ceiling as was able to raise my head just enough to see what was on me (though, my arms and legs weren’t responding). In the dim morning light, I saw a full-sized coffin balancing on my legs and lap. It was an old-school, Dracula-like coffin… pitch black and weathered. I couldn’t figure out what happened… all I knew, with complete certainty, is that someone had come into my room and put a coffin on top of me. What I need to stress here is that it was not that dream-like sensation of certainty where your mind just accepts the reality of the unreality… no, this was as if right now you were to lay down on your bed and there was suddenly a coffin on top of you. My mind began to race… trying to connect the reality of the situation to any plausible explanations. That’s when I began to feel the coffin shift… something inside was moving. Completely unable to move (except for a little give in my neck) or speak (apart from some nearly inaudible whimpering), I watched as the coffin lid slowly opened (completely on its own). It took minutes. Then the waiting began… the coffin was completely still again and nothing happened… until, I started to hear a low scratching sound coming from inside. This was followed by a decaying hand with long, black fingernails (not black, like painted black… no, they were black with rot) that began to creep out of the box. That was when I forced my head back into the pillow and squeezed my eyes shut. It didn’t go away… at least, not at first… I could still feel the weight… I could still only barely breath… I could still hear the scratching… getting closer and closer. Eventually, the weight began to dissipate and the scratching became softer. At some point I was able to freely move. I looked down and the coffin was gone… I spent the next several hours sobbing.

This is a memory that has stayed with me… again, not in a hey-remember-that-crazy-dream-I-once-had way… no, this memory is stored right next to the memory of my first kiss, graduating college, getting into a car crash, finishing my dissertation, etc. I know it didn’t actually happen… because it couldn’t have. Nonetheless, it’s right there. I’ve rarely spoken about this experience because it sounds crazy (but also because there is a part of me that fears that by talking about it I will summon it again), but after reading up on sleep paralysis watching The Nightmare I have been able to process it and identified what happened to me as some weird fluke of biology and brain chemistry… but, in the end, it still doesn’t essay the memory and feelings of memory.

Well, once again, I don’t think I’ll be sleeping much tonight…


2 thoughts on “In “Theaters” Now: The Nightmare

  1. Ironically, while reading this I was also halfway through my first caffeinated beverage in three days. On the nose. How’s THAT for creepy?

    Also, I really enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

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