Almost the last of this year’s crop of FrightFest reviews …
Eight men and women from North America and Great Britain – of various ethnicity and background – talk about their experience of ‘sleep paralysis’, a specific kind of nightmare which produces a set of parallel symptoms and imagery. All of them seem to wake up at night, unable to movie, while shadowy malign intruders stand over them. The subjects draw different conclusions about their experience and cope in different ways.
Rodney Ascher’s imaginative documentary intercuts talking heads interviews with subjects who only give their first names and very effective, unsettling dramatisations of their night terrors. Each describe subtly different versions of the beings who seem to stand over their beds.
One sketches a slightly science-fictional pair of big-eyed, rictus-grinning characters whose bodies look like video static (an image strikingly reminiscent of ‘The Galaxy Being’, a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits which has been posited as a trigger for a rash of UFO abduction urban legends). Others invoke a trio of shadow-men, two minions and controlling ‘man with a hat’, and characterise them as demons rather than aliens. When Ascher shows Fuseli’s famous picture ‘The Nightmare’ (in which a malign incubus squats on a sleeping woman’s chest) and other artistic or folkloric representations of the sleep paralysis experience, he proves the phenomenon has been around for ages. What’s interesting, of course, isn’t what these things are but why we choose different explanations – demons, vengeful ghosts, aliens – at different times, and how that leads sufferers to take different approaches to coping with or overcoming their condition. Here, subjects turn to religion, practice ritual magic, make confessional youtube videos, take a firm stand against what they perceive to be inner demons or just get on with life and hope the monsters go away. By limiting the interview pool to just eight sufferers – with no neuroscientists or parapsychologists or cultural historians to offer explanations – The Nightmare feels more like a skyping self-help group than an analysis of its subject. The impressions of those who have suffered are privileged over any attempt to explain, stressing how their lives have been warped and affected by things over which they have little or no control.
At one key moment in the dramatised dreams, one of the shadow-men slips out of the bedroom of one subject and into the room of another. Ascher pulls reveals that the rooms in which he stages the nightmares – supposedly in different parts of the world – are all connected and part of a single complex set. This tends to suggest that the victims are being visited and bothered by the same entities, rather than simply suffering from an extreme but recognisable bad dream. This is a notion that has seeped into the ground-water of genre cinema, and Ascher – who made Room 237, about wild interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – is comfortable when touching on the interrelationship between sleep paralysis and horror movie, though he never addresses the difference between horror films which inspire nightmares and bad dreams which inspire horror movies. Most of his subjects have stories of coming across films – specifically Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Philippe Mora’s Communion (1989) and James Wan’s Insidious (2010) – which reflect their own experience, and finding them not only disturbing but useful in conveying to their friends what they’ve been going through. Perhaps because of rights issues, no one talks about Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001), though its vision of interconnected children’s bedrooms and multiple doors into shared nightmare also underpins Ascher’s thesis and approach to the dramatisations.
Ascher, who hints in his conversations with the subjects that he too has had similar dreams, brings up the fact that Craven was inspired to write Elm Street by a news item about a supposed rash of deaths related to dreams among the Hmong immigrant community in the US (it’s also likely Freddy Krueger wears a hat to echo the recurrent silhouette of ‘the man in the hat’). Though there is a suggestion that the phenomenon is closely related to the lore and mythology of UFO abductions and one subject namechecks the Mothman – subject of Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies (2002) – the fact that Communion is based on Whitley Strieber’s non-fiction memoir, a keystone of alien abduction/anal probe legendry, is not addressed. In popular culture, there has been a slight shift in recent years, between Communion and Insidious, with the alien abductors giving way to demons as the most-cited invaders of sleep and notably it’s the oldest of the subjects who talks in Strieberish terms (to the extent of not outright saying that his persecutors are aliens) while younger sufferers are more likely to believe in ghosts and ghouls.
A particular sting comes from the dream-sufferer who reports that they told a friend about their night terrors and later received an angry message blaming him because ‘that thing you said was happening to you … now, it’s happening to me.’ If this horrible experience can spread virally, like a curse in a Japanese movie, then – of course – the ethics of making a whole documentary about it and exposing large audiences to risk are up for debate.