The Nightmare

Eight people experience sleep paralysis, a condition which leaves them unable to move, speak or react.

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  • ★★★★★ review by nathaxnne walker on Letterboxd

    This movie legitimately scared the hell out of me. Like hair-on-end, goosebump-inducing, tremors in your legs, all that stuff. I finished watching it and it is still scaring me. Listen: don't watch this movie in the daytime if you want its full effects. Watch it in the middle of the night. I could go on about the set design or the sound design or the awesome Jonathan Snipes score (he also scored 'Starry Eyes'), but that is not why this movie was so scary to me. It is scary to me because I have lived my entire life with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but have never listened to other people's stories about it until now, until watching this movie. So, for me, it is like hearing someone else tell you about your life. Also, 'The Nightmare' is full of intentionally dis-real re-enactments narrated by the persons who are telling the stories. These are incredible. In this way, this movie is both radically comforting, and radically terrifying. It is a fine, maybe the finest, example of docu-horror that I have seen. This concludes the normal reviewing part of this review. You could stop reading now.

    So, I lived my whole life, from being very small onward, with occasional sleep paralysis and far-out experiences of liminal consciousness around the borders of sleep. I would have long hypnogogic flows of imagery and sound that would go on and on for what seemed like hours all throughout my childhood and adolescence. Sometimes I would see stuff there, in those spaces, sometimes I would die or fall or perceive other beings. Apparently, sleep paralysis is associated with anxiety disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and chronic migraine. I have all that stuff too, so that makes sense. I had a period of super-intense experiences related to sleep paralysis that I wanted to talk about here. When I was 19 years old, the summer after my first year of college, I was living in my then-girlfriend's apartment with one other of her friends. She was not there, spending the summer with friends on a lake. I worked at a gas station, from 11pm to 7am. I liked the job. I would come home, drink some beer, smoke some weed, watch cable news, listen to Royal Trux or Hawkwind or Cypress Hill or Monster Magnet or whatnot (this was in 1993), and try to go to sleep. That is when stuff started to happen. My limbs would move independently of my conscious control, the tv would begin using itself to talk to me, I wouldn't be able to move, and that is when the demons or entities or whatever would come. They were terrifying, and hungry. They would come right up alongside me, into my ear. I could feel their astral cilia brushing up and into me, trying to get at whatever they wanted to eat there. I could feel their buzzing, vibrating at a higher pitch than sound, but like sound. They were like insectile amoebas with translucent internal organ systems. I couldn't see them, but I could perceive them. They never seemed like they were having very complex thoughts or motivations, but they brought with them intense paranoia and bad aura. I had terrible thoughts when they were around, and everything seemed malevolent. I was sure I was having a nervous breakdown and/or a psychotic break, but I was also sure that these things were real, they were there, all the time doing stuff independently of me or my going mad. This would happen whether or not I ended my day with beer or weed, and I wasn't doing any hallucinogens. In fact, the self-medication was occasionally helpful, and occasionally very not helpful, but it wasn't the cause of any of it. I would pray and pray during the whole ordeal, unable to move most of myself. They didn't feel like classical Western demons like you would find in a demonology manual, they felt more like low-level astral predators who had attached themselves to me. It was clear my work-related sleep schedule was having a deleterious effect, so when I couldn't take it anymore, I called in sick forever and told them that I couldn't come to work due to a bad case of demonic possession. They were Christians, and I had hoped they would be understanding. They were not. This acute case tapered off as I stopped going to that job, and the summer ended and I went back to school. Before that, it cost me that girlfriend I had had, who really hadn't signed up for some hysterical 19-year old kid going on and on about demons, and it fundamentally shook how I thought my life was going to go, what I was going to do, and how I was going to go about it. I had suffered from mental illness for years, far-out states of being for years, but nothing quite like this. After this period, I had lots of other experiences in and out of sleep paralysis, and met lots of other different entities, some right up until recent times. But this was the most intense time in my life for this, and until I watched 'The Nightmare', I didn't really have a way of fully grasping or framing that experience. So, yeah!

  • ★★★★ review by Hentai Cop on Letterboxd

    All of the negative reviews on this site are startling, but perhaps I'm in the minority for having loved Room 237 as well. I think that Rodney Ascher is an absolutely amazing editor and his documentaries are some of the most visually striking and well structured films in the medium. With The Nightmare he has proved himself to be one of the most aesthetically ambitious documentarians and the way his films are shot reminds me of the beauty on display in some of Errol Morris' recreation docs. I'm honestly surprised that people find this film boring or wanted there to be more of a scientific explanation for the subject matter, because Ascher's focus is never on facts but on singular experiences and subjective perceptions; why the hell do I need some expert talking about sleep paralysis when it's far more engaging to hear a terrifying story about it. Good cinema is all about storytelling, after all. This is an awesome documentary, and I suggest watching it like I did: in bed with the lights off right before going to sleep.

  • ★★★½ review by Ray on Letterboxd

    Recommended to me by Brandon.

    I've always wanted to lucid dream (but have never been able to do so); being able to control reality in your own mind? That sounds awesome. Though from the many articles and blog posts I've read about this phenomenon, one particularly jarring part of the process that sticks out is dream paralysis. Being able to fly sounds fun as hell, but a lot of people have noted that the developed imbalance between consciousness and bodily function can result in an experience capable of scarring a person's life, just as it has to them as well as The Nightmare's director Rodney Ascher.

    It's clear that he's well-versed in this topic, since he effectively portrays the experiences of the eight people affected by sleep paralysis. The seemingly supernatural aspects of the interviewees' stories are stylized in a subtle way, and are definitely the most eye-opening parts of the film. As much as I respect Ascher for being able to channel his fears into this project, I do think it would have been way more unsettling as a result if the narration bits (when the eight people are describing their sleep paralysis) were taken out. Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely having second thoughts on every trying to lucid dream again after this, but having to listen to each person recount their experiences, especially in a colloquial fashion of speech, really took me out of the scary moments.

    Similar to the way orchestral music can be invasive in action movies, the interviewees talking in this film felt forceful in driving home the overall fear factor . I can just imagine how much more effective The Nightmare would have been for me if it were a compilation of anthology films about sleep paralysis. A visual communication containing disturbing imagery that gets deeper and deeper under the viewer's skin by the second. Of course, doing away with the talking portions would mean that The Nightmare can't be labeled as a documentary, but it's not like I'm a big fan of that genre(?) anyway.

  • ★★★★ review by Austin Armstrong on Letterboxd

    Rodney Ascher is creating his own genre in the form of horror documentaries. Tense throughout, and incredibly scary reenactments make this by far the most frightening documentary I've ever seen! As someone who has experienced sleep paralysis before, I can tell you first hand it is a very scary experience to not be able to move your body. However I never saw any entities. I would love to hear an opinion from someone that has experienced this how similar if at all, this film is to what they've gone through. Rodney need to make a fictional horror at some point in his career!

  • ★★★★ review by Keith Garrett on Letterboxd

    Silly me thought that watching this in broad daylight wouldn't be scary..

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