Rodney Ascher is a rare bird in the documentary world. His debut feature Room 237 took a wildly unique approach to exploring the cultural staying power of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It didn’t detail The Shining‘s production or much of its technical achievements, but instead provided a forum for the film’s conspiracy theorists to voice their own outlandish theories about what Kubrick mean to achieve in the film, which ranged from ideas about Native American genocide & the Holocaust to the accusation that the film was Kubrick’s way of apologising for faking the moon landing. Ascher’s follow-up applies Room 237‘s judgement-free presentations of wild supposition to a different subject entirely: the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Halfway between the late night paranormal radio broadcast Coast to Coast AM & the hyper-artificial dramatic re-enactments of Rescue 911, The Nightmare pushes the boundaries of what a documentary even is & what it possibly could be. Ascher’s approach has little concern for evidence or context, but instead builds narratives from the oral history end of anthropology. This technique is sure to frustrate many a purist, but in its own weird way it reveals more about the power of its subject than a Wikipedia-in-motion style of documentary could.
Sleep paralysis is a medical condition in which a person is temporarily left paralysed after stress-interrupted REM, caught halfway between dreaming & reality and unable to snap out of it. It’s a condition without any real, physically-threatening symptoms, except for an intense, psychologically torturous sense of fear. The strange, paranormal aspect of sleep paralysis is that the nightmare hallucinations are remarkably similar across sufferers’ personal experiences. Almost every sufferer of sleep paralysis reports the undeniable presence of “intruders.” Individual interpretations of “intruders” vary greatly & include such beings as aliens, ghosts, cats, soul-sucking demons and, most common of all, a dark, ambiguous figure called The Shadow Man. As the eight sleep paralysis sufferers interviewed share their experiences, they hypothesize about whether the condition is an out-of-body experience or a journey to the spiritual realm or something else entirely. The only theory they won’t accept is that it’s an imagined experience, both because it feels so palpably real and because the visions of the intruder are so universal among sufferers.
Rodney Ascher reportedly chose this project because of a personal experience with sleep paralysis, but he makes very few moves to legitimize the claims of his interviewees, instead presenting their personal anecdotes without bias, the burden of interpretation left entirely on the shoulders of the viewer. The dream logic of these anecdotes are fascinating & The Nightmare‘s strongest moments are in its dramatic re-enactments of run-ins with soul-sucking shadow demons, TV static aliens, and chest-sitting cats with glowing red eyes. The only time you can truly see Ascher’s own personality peaking through is in a fascination with the way sufferers find solace & community in films like Insidious, Communion, and (duh) A Nightmare on Elm Street, since their claims are largely brushed off by the scientific & medical communities (for obvious reasons). Ascher has obvious love for film and often indulges in somewhat radical ideas about the power of personal interpretation & the basics of what makes a documentary that can both excite & bewilder, sometimes simultaneously. I can’t say that I’ve specifically learned anything from his two features, but paradoxically they’re both distinctly informative in such an unusual, sometimes frustrating way that their power as oddities on the documentary landscape are undeniable.