There are plenty of scary documentaries. Most of them have to do with scary subject matter, such as the threat of nuclear weapons (Peter Watkins’s The War Game and Lucy Walker’s Countdown to Zero take very different approaches nearly half a century apart to make us worried half to death). And certainly horror is a word applicable to countless docs focused on the effects of war, genocide and other acts of violence, against the many or a single individual (and this may include animals). Yet Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare is the first documentary I’d definitely label, in a genre sense, a nonfiction scary movie or horror doc.
Unlike the majority of documentaries with the power to scare us, this isn’t an issue film. It doesn’t warn us about nuclear disaster or dangers to our health or environment. The Nightmare features eight people from different parts of the world, though mostly the U.S., telling of their experiences with sleep paralysis. This is a condition that occurs in a half-sleep state and involves complete immobility combined with disturbing hallucinations. Many of the things seen and heard during these experiences are common to those who suffer from sleep paralysis, including shadowy creatures and demonic voices.
As each interviewee tells his or her story, we watch the described incidents unfold in the form of literally visualized reenactments. What separates Asher’s doc with the many TV programs showcasing dark and/or mysterious anecdotes accompanied by dramatic re-creations is the level to which he aims to frighten the audience. Techniques employed in the editing, sound design and score are more manipulative, as any horror movie would have. And there are jump scares, which aren’t usually found in documentaries. The Nightmare doesn’t settle on giving us the willies. It wants to shake us up. It wants to actually leave us restless.
Part of the way it rattles is in visual reiteration. As far as nonfiction storytelling and information-delivery go, the film has been criticized, fairly enough, for being repetitive. As far as haunting material goes, however, it’s all about leaving a mark. With horror movies, there’s an understanding that the less you show, the scarier the scene. The same should apply for a documentary aiming to be a horror movie, but this one works in an opposite manner. Because the terrifying images are actually held on screen and repeated rather than hidden, they get stuck in our minds and stay for a while, keeping us properly disturbed.
If these images, of the shadow men and red-eyed demons and metal claws tearing at men’s crotches, were in just any horror film, they would be plenty frightening, but because this is a documentary and we’re supposed to trust that these stories are all real, the images have an association of truth, even if they’re presented as only being visions. That makes them even scarier. It doesn’t matter if the creatures don’t really exist or that there’s no kind of risk to the people involved. The fear of being in such an extreme state of fear is enough, at least if that state is as bad as it sounds and looks here.
There’s also an implication made by the film that sleep paralysis can be contagious, that hearing these stories can trigger the condition in others. It’s a slightly hinted at idea, possibly unlikely, coming in the form of one interviewee claiming that speaking of his experiences has affected his friends in such a negative way. Ascher also works in the links between sleep paralysis and fictional horror stories throughout time, including movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Insidious, that are clearly inspired by the condition, how they in turn perpetuate certain imagery in a cycle of subconscious association and influence.
The messed up thing, then, about The Nightmare is that it’s most effective when it causes its viewers to suffer from sleep paralysis. Or at least gives them awful night terrors. If the condition can indeed be caused by the hearing of detailed accounts, then this film with its detailed spoken accounts and detailed visualizations of those accounts would have to do the trick. But I don’t know that Ascher believes in that possibility or intends for it, anymore than he seems to believe all the crazy theories about The Shining shared in his previous doc, Room 237. It’s more likely that he, as a sufferer of sleep paralysis himself, wants his audience to fully understand that experience, through the film rather than through actual first-hand experience.
The Nightmare is a documentary out to put us in a mood, at least, to affect a feeling. Anyone who thinks Ascher should have gotten interviews with doctors or other experts on sleep paralysis is missing the point. He doesn’t just want us to know what it is; he wants us to know what it is like, how it feels. The only way he fails with this clever feature is by having an audience who fails to accept the stories, who can’t buy into the material any more than they can stories of alien abduction and supernatural abuses, which are of course relevant and also easily dismissed by a natural inclination toward skepticism. Criticisms that the film is silly or stupid have nothing to do with the film and everything to do with the viewer.
I doubt Ascher should even care that The Nightmare is viewed that way, as his films so far tend to deal in ways of seeing, in perspectives and personal associations as well as the more common connections of the collective unconscious that could allow for Freddy Krueger to be linked to the archetypical grey aliens. So don’t take anyone’s word on the film being good or bad, because it’s still a very unique documentary, one worth experiencing for yourself whether it turns out to be your thing or not and either way whether it affects you in any way.
This review was originally published on June 6, 2015.