There’s truly nothing more terrifying than the human brain, mostly because, try as we might, we can’t quite understand it. It does things that we’re trying to figure out but until we do we just have to be content with the utter weirdness around us. This is why we can scare ourselves by doing nothing more than sitting in our homes alone, allowing our brain to fill in gaps, and why, if we somehow lose control of that, we can be literally trapped in our own hallucinations, that maybe aren’t hallucinations. Rodney Ascher’s new documentary The Nightmare might therefore be the scariest movie to come around because it takes a real phenomenon, sleep paralysis, and visually interprets the horrors that people see while they’re conscious but unable to move or scream.
Sleep paralysis is a real condition that most people can’t quite explain, but it manifests during sleep when one’s body is entirely immobile, in its resting state, but one’s mind and consciousness are active. Some people report having seen things in their room, like entities or people, and that’s where we get the folklore about the succubus, or the demon/cat/whatever sitting on your chest, making you unable to move. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know how unnerving it is.
Ascher’s documentary does not so much talk about the causes of the disorder as much as it talks about the effects of it and how it is perceived. He interviews eight people who suffer or have suffered horrible bouts of sleep paralysis, some going all the way back to when they were in the crib, and reenacts their visions people in costume, intense lighting, mixtures of sounds, still images, or really any other possible way to make the fear those people felt palpable. And it really, really works.
This is perhaps one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, documentary or otherwise, for a couple of reasons. First is that these are people describing things that happened to them. There’s no reason to believe any of them are making this stuff up and to see a very vivid realization of those nightmares gets to something deep and primal in all of us, making us remember childhood fears and and phobias which might still affect us, whether consciously or subconsciously. Something as simple as relaying experiences is scarier than tons of elaborate, gore-filled horror movies that get made.
And the other reason it’s so effective is that, unlike a regular horror movie, there is no safety net of narrative. Even the most disturbing and grueling horror movies have to adhere to some level of story structure, meaning things need to follow in a basic order and there needs to be a reason for things. But when people are just telling you, essentially, about very vivid dreams they had, or hallucinations, or unexplained occurrences, there’s no promise that what you’ll see next will be expected or within the realm of plausibility. Because none of it’s plausible. Ascher is able to visually illustrate the images of a person’s fears and those could be anything from Shadow Men to fuzzy-static aliens to amorphous blobs. There is nothing off-limits or stupid, because it’s all “happened” to these people.
That’s really Ascher’s beauty as a documentarian. His first film, Room 237, was about different people’s (often ridiculous) theories about what Kubrick’s The Shining means. While many of these are laughable to me, Ascher presents all of them equally and passes no judgment. That trend continues here when we get toward the end of the movie and the eight sleep paralyzed people offer up some non-scientific, wholly supernatural or metaphysical explanations for what it actually is that’s afflicting them. Nobody’s theories are presented as more or less valid than any others and he merely leaves it to the audience to decide if they believe that or not.
The Nightmare is a completely singular work of documentary, unseen before to this degree of craftsmanship. The images in this film are more frightening than anything you’ll see in modern horror films, and I guarantee this one will stay with you a lot longer. It’s in limited release now, and I recommend it… if you think you can handle the fear.