Many of the elements of the condition called “sleep paralysis” have been incorporated in horror films, most notably Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series. But The Nightmare may be the first documentary to focus on the chemical nervous-system disorder . . . or, if you prefer, the supernatural or spiritual phenomenon.
For those who have never had this spooky and deeply unpleasant experience—nor heard about it from friends (whom you probably avoided seeing thenceforth)—a few details: It’s bedtime and, shortly after nodding off, you suddenly awake, unable to move. Most commonly you can see the room around you looking dark and ominous; you may see it even if your eyes are covered. Your hearing is filled with a roaring rumble . . . or industrial noises, metal on metal . . . or the deafening sound of your breathing or blood flow.
You feel like you’re going to die, which may be an inherent part of the process or, alternately, may be the extreme panic one might expect from the combination of inexplicable surroundings and total helplessness. There is the sensation of being pulled out of your body (suggesting death). Many people see shadowy strangers in the room, sometimes looking like classic bodysnatching, anus-probing Visitors.
Most people experience this once or twice in their lives, but a minority can have these attacks every night or even several times a night for decades. (If it’s not obvious, I am one of the latter; and, if it were relevant, I could go on and on about it.)
Director Rodney Ascher—who made Room 237, a film essay analyzing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—is also a sufferer. He has edited together interviews with seven or eight other victims; he organizes fragments of their comments by topic, which makes the film seem even more repetitive than may have been inevitable.
At the same time, he illustrates their memories with reenactments, in which actors—plus, to judge by the credits and the quality, crew members, neighbors, and the doughnut delivery guy—portray the speakers at multiple ages, as well as their families, roommates, and lovers.
As reenactments go, these are filmed and edited well; on the other hand, it’s hard to keep the portrayed and the portrayers apart.
Of all the elements of the syndrome, Ascher has emphasized the strange, threatening shadow men—the only one I’ve never experienced. (And thank Whomever for that!) And he has steered away from astral projection/out-of-body-experience views, since that’s the stuff that’s most likely to get you taken away by the men with the butterfly nets. Because my own experiences began before sleep research and popular articles grew more numerous, I have trouble completely dismissing the things I read back then—the less scientific views. Amazingly, the movie doesn’t even refer to astral projections until a few minutes before the closing credits.
Given these questionable decisions, the best thing The Nightmare has going for it is its subject. No matter how much better the end product could have been, this is undoubtedly the best documentary on the topic you could choose.