Rodney Ascher on the Art of the Horror Documentary

We also talk to the ‘Room 237’ director about his short film ‘Primal Screen‘ and what he’s got coming up next.

“Horror documentary” has become a bit of a buzz term in recent years, and there are quite a few films that we might include in the canon of works that blend documentary exploration with stylistic influence from the horror genre. But if there’s one director whose work has made the biggest strides in this regard, it’s certainly Rodney Ascher.

Ascher first came onto the documentary community’s radar in 2010 with his short The S from Hell. A festival favorite, the film looks back at the old logo for Screen Gems, which had the unintentional effect of terrifying some children with its “vexing, unfolding sights and mournful, dissonant sounds.”

But it was 2012’s Room 237 that really announced Ascher as a force to be reckoned with. Utilizing reams of footage from 1980’s The Shining (under fair use), the film is a deep dive into the various interpretations of and conspiracy theories about Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Among other things, Room 237 screened at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, garnered glowing reviews, earned two awards from the International Documentary Association, and even provoked bewildered commentary from King himself.

Ascher’s follow-up to Room 237 came in 2015 with The Nightmare, an unsettling exploration of sleep paralysis. Using a robust arsenal of tools from genre filmmaking, Ascher recreates the nightmares of his subjects, offering the audience a vivid glimpse into the affliction that both he and they share. In a rave review of the film for IndieWire, Eric Kohn rightly notes that The Nightmare “manages a tricky balance of visceral fright and sincere investigation. It’s a rare nonfiction achievement that earns the ability to freak you out.”

Ascher’s most recent project, Primal Screen, debuted on the horror-themed streaming service Shudder last year. The short, which “asks real people to look back at pop-culture artifacts that traumatized them in their youth and describe the effect they had on their lives,” can currently be streamed for free and without a login at the site.

Ascher and I spoke by Skype recently and discussed a wide range of topics related to his work.

Nonfics: One of your subjects in Primal Screen talks about his fascination/obsession with the trailer for Richard Attenborough’s 1978 horror film Magic, and how that led him to see the movie, then read the book, and then start his own creative writing practice. I could certainly relate to this trajectory, and it made me wonder if you did too. To what degree are your films “autobiographical?” When you were promoting The Nightmare, for example, you talked candidly about your own struggles with sleep paralysis…

Rodney Ascher: Well, certainly they’re not straight autobiographies, but, in researching and talking about and exploring subjects that I’m interested in, these films can’t help but be autobiographical in some ways. At the risk of sounding pretentious, they’re about ideas more than events — things that have stuck with me or fascinated me over the years.

Some of the people that I talk to reflect aspects of my personality, some are coming from a completely different place. I try to use these projects as a way of showing how each of the people that we talk to sees the world or understands something. Some of them are closer to my worldview than others.

So any similarities between yourself and your subjects might be more incidental than intentional?

I think what’s nice about any documentary project is that you don’t know where it’s going to lead to. You don’t know what things are going to end up being the big ideas or surprising twists. I’ve certainly never known how any of my projects were going to end when I started them!

On that note, your films have such a clear creative vision, but one can also feel that sense of discovery. How do you maintain that balance when you’re planning out a project?

If we’re talking about Room 237, The Nightmare, and Primal Screen, those have all had a similar approach and plan of attack: that is, I explore the topic through a handful of people who are highly engaged with that topic and coming at it from a certain personal place more than an academic or professional place.

On Room 237, my producer, Tim Kirk, and I spent a year tracking down as many interpretive theories of The Shining as we could find. We also looked at different related things about people looking for codes and trying to solve mysteries, whether we’re talking about the Zapruder film or the Madonna scene in Reservoir Dogs. Then we spent time sort of finding what we found most interesting about all those ideas, and identifying those people coming at things in more significant ways. For example, I knew we wanted somebody who made good maps of the hotel in The Shining. I also certainly knew that we wanted someone who interpreted the film through the lens of World War II. So there is a little bit of casting that goes into it.

But once the rubber meets the road — and this has happened every time — you discover that real people don’t fit into boxes all that neatly. They bleed out into other perspectives and introduce new topics and categories. They always surprise me and tell me things I wasn’t expecting to hear — and often in ways that change the trajectory of the project in a big way. When John Fell Ryan told me that he could feel his life turning into The Shining, it was kind of a shock, and then I was pretty certain that was going to be the end of Room 237. It wouldn’t have been especially interesting to end with someone saying, “And this, definitively, is what The Shining is about.” It’s much more interesting, I think, to end with someone saying, “I am turning into Jack Torrance.” So those surprises are oftentimes the most powerful things that wind up in the films, and they’re things I’d be incapable of making up.

I was utterly fascinated by the digression in Primal Screen about ventriloquist dummies and lying. I can’t tell, though: was that something you initially set out to explore, or was that one of those discoveries you made during production?

No, that idea was completely surprising to me! And, again, that’s something much more provocative than anything I could have come up with myself.

Going back to Room 237 for a moment, I was sort of curious to ask you about the range of responses that it received. On the one hand, you had critics like Manohla Dargis and Chuck Klosterman, who really “got” the film and what you were doing. On the other hand, though, there were pans from the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and Stephen King, who strangely seemed to think you took all these interpretations of The Shining at face value. What was your takeaway from all the conversation about the film?

I might not be speaking exactly to your question, but let me put it this way: I always thought Room 237 was going to be an underground movie. The fact that it was something that generated discussion at all was a huge win for me.

The Shining and Room 237 are similar in some ways and different in others. Because Room 237 is about different interpretations and reactions to The Shining, that kind of inoculated it from negative criticism for me. The idea that different people react to the same movie differently was the whole idea of Room 237, so different people reacting differently to Room 237 is like history repeating itself as farce.

The Nightmare was a more personal movie, so, in that case, the criticisms of it stung a little bit more. In both cases, though, I feel like I was deep, deep in the black, so I can’t complain about a handful of negative reviews. They were low budget, incredibly idiosyncratic films; I feel very lucky to have made them and gotten them out there.

Last year, you did a guest spot on the Kill by Kill podcast, and offered a remarkably thoughtful take on the virtues of Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives. That seemed fitting, as you have a gift for teasing powerful, indelible elements out of “low culture,” crass marketing and branding, and so on. I’m thinking here of what you do with the Screen Gems logo in The S from Hell, the ad campaign for Magic in Primal Screen, or even (arguably) The Shining in Room 237. Is this something you’ve thought about?

Not necessarily; a thousand different decisions will bring you to a particular area.

I do remember when we were researching Room 237, though, at a certain point the question came up: are we doing this about the right movie? 2001: A Space Odyssey felt like a more plainly symbolic movie on its surface, so we wondered if we should consider focusing on that instead. But as it turned out, when we looked around, there didn’t seem to be as much out there in terms of people wrestling to understand and decode 2001 these days. But yeah, I was happy that that turned out to be the case — I especially enjoy heavy, even academic thinking applied to more disreputable genres. I don’t know if I can speak more explicitly about it than to say, “There’s something about all of that that I like.”

In the wake of Room 237 I’ve seen a lot of people looking for deeper meaning in the most mass market, mundane films, TV shows, commercials, music videos, and so on. They’re looking at things like Super Mario Bros., Duck Tales, and Back to the Future, finding things like 9/11 prophecies and religious symbols. The fact that they’re finding things like this in work that a lot of people might dismiss is so much more fascinating to me than people parsing obvious classics.

Switching gears a bit, I also wanted to ask about your approach to interviewing. The interviews in your films are very distinctive. The subject matter is definitely part of it, but there’s also an enthusiasm and a place your interviewees go when you talk to them: they seem to be spilling their guts very naturally and comfortably. I presume at least some of that comes from how you set the table for them.

You know, technically speaking, the films have all been done very differently. With Room 237, we couldn’t afford to travel, so the interviews were all recorded over the phone — just audio. The Nightmare was a fairly large crew for a documentary, including lighting and sound people. With Primal Screen, which was just audio again, we brought people into a sound recording studio.

So, the situations have always been very different. What’s the same, I suppose, are the kind of people I’m attracted to. And me, I guess — I’m always the same. You can’t discount the mirroring effect either. Though, whether I’m mirroring their tone or they’re copying mine, I couldn’t tell you.

I was also curious about the workshop you did at the Los Angeles Public Library a while back, “The Art of Appropriation.” What can you tell us about that?

Yeah, that was fun. That was like a conversation where I sat with a moderator and showed a lot of handful clips that I found very powerful and influential. We talked about why I was attracted to them and how they’ve impacted my work.

What are the principles and guiding ideas for you around appropriation?

I think that, for me, what’s most exciting is the transformative nature of it. I like how you can see a clip that, whether you’re familiar with it or not, in the context of a new project, and it plays very differently. It says something else.

In Room 237, part of the fun of that was seeing how malleable Jack Nicholson’s character was. At times, he could represent Jack Nicholson, he could represent Jack Torrance, he could represent Stanley Kubrick, he could represent any of the people who were being interviewed, he could reflect third parties that they were talking about. With just a little bit of a narrative push, this stuff could be so radically transformed.

I had a really transformative experience in film school watching the films of Bruce Conner, which did this pretty effortlessly. Today, a lot of people are experiencing this for the first time in things like mashups and remixes and video essays online, but a lot of that plays very differently than the first generation of what I call “cut-up cinema,” in the William S. Burroughs sense of the phrase.

A few months ago, the cover of the New York Times Magazine declared the past year “The Year of Horror.” Can you talk about the last year in horror cinema, and your thoughts about that frame for it?

That’s a big ask, but I’ll see what I can do! I should say, too, that I didn’t see everything: I’ve got a seven-year-old, so I don’t get out as much as I used to.

Get Out was an instant classic, and my favorite movie of last year. It’s incredible. I saw it in a crowded theater that responded to everything and really interacted with it. But it’s also a film about some very big ideas. Even talking about race makes a lot of people nervous, and horror movies are all about anxiety and fear and nerves. The racially charged horror film should really be an old standby at this point.

The one that I probably found the scariest, though, was The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Again, I have a seven-year-old, and, without spoiling it too much, it’s just about the most horrifying movie I can imagine seeing as a parent. And it doesn’t start off as a horror film: it starts off as, like, an Atom Egoyan-esque drama that’s kind of minimal, and it takes a while to get a handle on the relationships between many of the characters before it kicks in midway through. Then it just, like, hits you in the back of the head.

I thought the Channel Zero season “The No-End House” was pretty incredible, too. The first season of that series was really strong as well.

I admired IT, but I didn’t really have a strong emotional reaction to it. I liked the way it was shot, it had good performances…but I felt more like a spectator to it. Maybe because it’s a movie for teenagers and I’m an old man now.

But, you know, that article gets recycled every year. I remember coming across the summer of 1979’s Newsweek, with a cover screaming “Hollywood’s Scary Summer,” featuring Alien, Dawn of the Dead, and Love at First Bite. It’s an evergreen topic, like “Crash! Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!”

On the subject of narrative films, you do have some fiction work in your resume, including a chapter of 2014’s ABCs of Death 2. Should we expect more narrative and less documentary from you in the future?

In an ideal world, I’d be able to explore in multiple directions. Most everything on my plate right now is nonfiction, but they’ll be done in different ways. One project is based on an archive of footage from the ‘90s that we’ve discovered. There’s another one that would follow a process similar to Primal Screen, The Nightmare, and Room 237. A third one would be nonfiction but include scripted narration.

Can you tell us anything more about these projects?

There’s nothing I’m quite ready to announce. Hopefully, there will be one if not multiple announcements soon. Each project seems to be at a different stage of development.