Saturday, June 6, 2015

In your dreams: The personal and universal in The Nightmare

Rodney Ascher's new documentary The Nightmare attempts to recreate the experience of sleep paralysis.

You go to bed, close your eyes, and suddenly wake up. You cannot move, cannot speak, and cannot breathe. In the doorway, there appears a shadowy figure, then another and another. They advance on you. One of them speaks words of doom as though they come from the devil himself. Beads of sweat form on your forehead. Your whole body becomes tense. You grind your teeth and clench your fists. There is no telling, no imagining what harm is about to befall you. Like a bolt of lightning, something unseen strikes, and you jolt up in bed. Everything is normal. You are now awake.

Nightmares are a universal experience, but as adults, most of us are able to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the waking world and our dreams. However, sufferers of sleep paralysis exist between those two dimensions. Their reality takes on the feeling of a nightmare, and their nightmares take on the proportions of reality.

In Rodney Ascher’s new documentary The Nightmare, the story of sleep paralysis is told from the only perspective that matters: the sufferers’. There are no talking-head interviews with scientists or psychologists and no attempts to explain away what the sleeper is experiencing. There is only the creeping dread and suffocating fear of the moment. Rather than engage the rational part of the audience’s mind, Ascher’s film offers a more primal exploration of the nature of the disease.

Rodney Ascher (left) speaks at the Lincoln Center.
“The idea [was] that we would allow people to tell their stories and allow them to express the path that their search for answers took them on,” said Ascher during a question-and-answer session after a screening of the film Friday at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

“As far as the science goes, we show only so much as it informed their search for answers. Sure, there’s plenty of science about what’s happening in your body during this experience, and it concerns REM states and chemicals, and it gets very complicated very quickly, but it doesn’t get at the questions that are bigger than sleep paralysis. Why do people see the same things? And, certainly in sleep paralysis, it’s dramatic in that point, but even in the more generalized way: Why do people dream about similar things? Why are there recurring themes in many people’s dreams?”

The Nightmare chronicles the journeys of eight people with sleep paralysis, and to a large degree, the things that haunt them are similar, despite their varied life experiences. There is often a shadow man, who is usually described as a demon or an alien. There is the inability to move or speak. Sometimes, they have out-of-body experiences in which they are able to watch themselves sleeping or worse.

For most of these people, their troubles started at a young age, and in a time before the Internet, there was little to do but tell a parent or doctor who would explain it away as a bad dream. Interestingly, what gave many of these people hope were films. Movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Communion put on screen in a visceral way what they were going through, and it allowed them to share with others their experiences.

“The Freddy Krueger thing is so interesting to me because if someone watched Nightmare on Elm Street and then had a nightmare about Freddy Krueger or even a sleep paralysis experience where he appeared, that would make sense as some sort of hallucination, but that’s not what’s being described,” said Ascher. “It’s being described as: ‘I have this weird experience, and then I was watching Nightmare on Elm Street, and it was like a police lineup. That’s the guy!’ If you research Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s based on a true story – Laotian immigrants who were struggling with sleep paralysis – and some of them were dying in their sleep or of heart failure from trying to stay up night after night after night.”

Henry Fuseli's "The Nightmare" (1781)
It goes beyond a simple 1980s horror film, though. Ascher argued that throughout history, there are works of art and other occurrences that could be interpreted as sleep paralysis experiences. He pointed to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1881, as a work some scholars believe was inspired by sleep paralysis. Henry Fueseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare,” from which this film takes its name, depicts nearly all of the classic elements described by sufferers of sleep paralysis.

According to Ascher, even the biblical story described in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with an angel can be taken as a sleep paralysis event. Popular art throughout the centuries and across cultures is riddled with descriptions of happenings that are eerily similar to those given by the subjects of The Nightmare. It was this universality of imagery and experience that interested Ascher, and that meant his investigation would be more emotional and spiritual than rational.

“The connections are deep,” said Ascher. “The whole question of: Where do these images come from? Was there an original that these are all copies of a copy of a copy of a copy of? Do these images come from our [most ancient] memories? Those are questions that are more interesting to me than what REM state you happen to be going through during one of these experiences.”

Yet, as much as the film is an exploration of the history and universality of nightmares, it is also about the individual stories of its subjects and how these eight people either sought answers or found relief, how they learned to cope, and how their lives were altered on deeply personal levels. What is most striking about each person’s journey is how closely tied it is to faith and how much each person’s belief system was challenged or affirmed.

For each story, faith and belief are the twin pillars holding it up, not just in a religious sense, although there is that, too, but on a more fundamental spiritual level. As a skeptic and someone who looks first for a scientific explanation always, I was initially wary of Ascher’s decision to forego a more critical analysis of the phenomenon, but as the film progressed, I was struck by a realization. For sufferers of sleep paralysis, the events that take place are real – no qualifier. No book or article or study will convince them otherwise.

In this way, it is a lot like faith in a god or religion, which more than one person in the film turns to as a cure for her condition. I cannot tell anyone his god does not exist or that his religion is wrong. I do not have the standing to do so. I am not a part of it. No one on the outside can ever understand what it is like for someone of the inside. This makes Ascher’s filmmaking style all the more ingenious and inventive.

Using recreations and re-enactments of the stories his subjects tell, Ascher brings viewers inside this world and makes them a part of it. Every moment of the film is shot like a horror movie, filled with dread, simulating for the audience what it is like to experience sleep paralysis. After viewing the film, I maintain my skepticism, and the logical part of my brain knows to look for the scientific explanation, but I can no longer say I did not experience, on some small level, the feelings of these people.

“[Room 237] is mostly made from archival material,” said Ascher, referring to his previous documentary. “I like working in that style, but I just thought, personally, a challenge that I wanted to take on was creating my own imagery. Because it would be – to the best of my knowledge – impossible to capture this stuff on camera, it opened the door to that. Also, it raised very interesting questions about how to do that. Ultimately, we settled on a style that sort of acknowledged the artifice as a way of being truthful in a documentary context.”

That truth is a nightmare, and thanks to Ascher’s film, now we can all understand the dread of going to bed, closing out eyes, and suddenly finding ourselves awake.

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