There has been a lot of positive buzz surrounding Room 237 director Rodney Ascher's latest documentary, The Nightmare. In the film, Ascher interviews eight different people (seven in North America, one in the UK) about their experiences with sleep paralysis.
When I first heard about this film and how scary it was supposed to be, I thought, "Yeah, I've had sleep paralysis. It's weird but not scary." It wasn't until I saw the trailer that I realized why everyone was so terrified by this movie.
When I finally got up the courage to watch The Nightmare, it was during the daytime (I'm not stupid). Ascher adds reenactments to the individual descriptions of sleep paralysis, including visual interpretations of "the shadow people" and "the hat man," dark figures that appear to those suffering from sleep paralysis. In many cases, these figures speak to and even threaten their "victims." I had no idea anyone experienced this during sleep paralysis.
In addition to the absolutely unnerving stories and reenactments, I became fascinated by the idea that perhaps sleep paralysis is responsible for much of our horror iconography. The red lighting and the image of Hat Man made me think of classic Giallo films like Blood And Black Lace and I wondered if perhaps those films were also inspired by the history of this phenomenon. Ana M. mentions an incident where she felt like she was being sexually assaulted by one of these nocturnal visitors, which immediately reminded me of The Entity.
Although no one mentions Giallo films or The Entity in The Nightmare, Ascher does confirm that A Nightmare On Elm Street was inspired by director Wes Craven's fascination with sleep paralysis. In addition, Communion (based on Whitley Streiber's book of the same name), Jacob's Ladder, and Insidious are also referenced by those who have suffered from sleep paralysis as good interpretations of their experiences..
These movies are fiction, though. (I hope.) I already knew that the idea of an incubus or succubus had been partially explained by hypnagogic states of consciousness, but could astral projection, vampires, or even alien visitations be explained by this phenomenon?
The Nightmare discusses how universal these occurences are; nearly every culture has tales of shadow people or red-eyed demons that visit people in their sleep. Yet, despite the global preponderance of these stories, each person's encounters seem uniquely tailored to them. In at least two instances in the film, for example, the figures address the person by name or say things like "I will find you" or "I know who you are." This tension between the universal and the personal is intriguing.
Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded the school of thought known as analytical psychology, addressed such a tension in his theories on archetypes. According to Wikipedia, archetypes "are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world." Jung believed that "evolutionary pressures have individual predestinations manifested in archetypes."
Having suffered from insomnia and panic attacks my whole life, I was also struck by the similarities between some of the incidents described in the film and my own life. I've never seen shadow people during any of my own episodes of sleep paralysis (thank the gods), but the stress that the such visitations caused most of the people interviewed reminded me of being an over imaginative kid who worried all the time about everything, believing that if I thought about something enough I could conjure it into existence somehow. One subject, Chris C., thought he could keep the visitations at bay "if certain requirements were met," a textbook definition of OCD if I've ever heard one. His idea was to leave televisions on while he fell asleep, a technique that I used for most of my life. But it eventually stopped working for him.
Although some of the subjects in The Nightmare have dealt with these problems, whether converting to Christianity or deciding to accept that sleep paralysis might kill them (a sobering thought), doctors have not helped any of them. Despite how frequently such sleep paralysis visitations occur, both on a global and individual level, and how negatively it has impacted lives, physicians and therapists seem content to respond to their pleas for help with "it's just sleep paralysis" and don't provide them any relief.
So is it really sleep paralysis or is it something else? Although Kate A. explains her experiences rationally, she does state, "you can't put logic onto liminal situations." The fact that making the "positive lifestyle changes" their doctors suggested did absolutely nothing to stop the traumatic visitations for these people is disconcerting. In some cases, it's contagious, as some who suffer from it have actually passed it on to others. Are these apparitions nothing more than a sleep disorder, mental illness, or as Stephen P. speculates, could they be the result of the theory that we reside in multiple dimensions?
The most troubled person in The Nightmare is easily Chris C., who seems to have had the most negative and persistent experiences with sleep paralysis, which probably results in his attempts at humorous storytelling and his clearly fatalistic attitude. "It will kind of learn how to adapt to you. If you try to avoid it, it will find you and it will make it happen somehow," he says. Considering the lack of resolution for most of these people, his statement might be the scariest thing in all of The Nightmare.