Anyone who has endured the stressful and draining waking hell that is sleep paralysis should find that Rodney Ascher’s documentary The Nightmare resonates to some degree. Sleep paralysis, a relatively little-understood, and for many people, wholly unknown sleep disorder, is a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when the sufferer is falling asleep or waking up. Episodes can last several minutes and are generally accompanied by intense feelings of dread and, more often than not, vivid hallucinations. The disorder has been posited as an explanation for ghost sightings, alien abductions and out-of-body experiences and is generally considered to be a pretty unpleasant experience. I had my first bout of sleep paralysis as a teenager and have suffered intermittently from it for over a decade, so I confess to having a personal interest in the subject matter. It’s possibly for this reason that I found the first half of this creepy documentary such a thrilling, albeit familiar, experience and why I found its denouement to be such a crushing and infuriating let-down.
Ascher’s film focuses on eight individuals who are regular sufferers of acute sleep paralysis. The talking-heads interviews, which are carried out in the dimly-lit homes of the interviewees, are supplemented by low-fi reconstructions of some of the more bewildering and nasty hallucinations and allow the subjects time and freedom to elucidate upon the physical and mental effects of the debilitating disorder. There’s plenty of metaphorical light thrown on the experiences of this group of particularly unlucky individuals; and as a chilling exercise in broadcasting their devastating and genuinely frightening experiences, the film excels.
Fellow sufferers will no doubt nod along at familiar tales of dark figures stood menacingly at the foot of beds and intense feelings of claustrophobic pressure and untamed dread. For non-sufferers, the stories, along with their schlocky-yet-effective reconstructions, should throw open the door to a previously unknown condition. It’s a rare treat to see and hear first-hand accounts of sleep paralysis covered so thoroughly and honestly.
And yet, for all its thoroughness in placing these accounts onto the screen for us all to see, about 45 minutes in you might be asking yourself the question: “and now what?” Well, the obvious answer would be to examine the wider medical and social consequences of the disorder and what might be done to address it. Sadly, Ascher is quite content to let his subjects ramble on, adding relatively little to the film’s second half. There are no interviews with doctors, historians or anthropologists, and no discussion of how sleep paralysis fits into the spectrum of medicine or social science beyond a quick look at how it is reflected in horror literature. Worse still, Ascher indulges his subjects’ rabidly ill-informed personal theories as to why they suffer from sleep paralysis, inevitably involving ghosts, Jesus or inter-dimensional travel. One is left with the unpleasant and, frankly unhelpful, feeling that many of the interviewees are borderline delusional. With a second half that goes nowhere and seeks to shed no new light on the wider issues at stake, Ascher succeeds only in undermining his initial point that sleep paralysis is a fascinating and important disorder that deserves infinitely greater attention.
Documentary | USA, 2015 | 15 | Altitude Film | 26th October 2015 (UK) | Dir. Rodney Ascher | Buy: [DVD]