Twenty years back, at the height of the UFO boom, the truest believers in alien abduction scenarios would argue that their most compelling evidence was the commonalities between regular people’s stories of nighttime visitations. Even under hypnosis, “abductees” testified to remarkably consistent waking-dream terrors: an alert immobility, shadowed and mostly featureless figures right out of Close Encounters, being lifted and flown elsewhere without anyone else — even someone sharing the same bed — being the wiser. Sure, there was never any physical proof, but the reports came from everywhere, so it must have have been true, right?
Every onetime UFOlogist should brave Rodney Ascher’s illuminating, unsettling doc The Nightmare, a film that reveals the probes-and-saucers narrative as an of-its-era re-skinning of an even more pervasive phenomenon, one all mental: sleep paralysis. Its sufferers share lucid and persuasive dreams that they are awake, that they cannot move, that creatures wait in the shadows. These may be demons, or shadow-men, or curiously individualized folks who have been knocking about the subconscious — a newscaster, your mother, some hulking ginger dude you might have seen once and forgotten. Could those black-eyed gray aliens be the brain’s imposition of sense upon its own mysterious stimuli?
Ascher’s film is an interviews-and-re-creations job, one that stages a host of sleep paralysis nightmares for our contemplation and comparison. His eight subjects tell what is essentially one story, over and over. They describe the terror of being unable to move — one likens this to feeling dead — and then their helplessness as the shadows shape up into malevolent forms. There’s always some looming, some panic, an effort to wake up. The divergences in the stories come to feel vital, the mind working jazz changes on a simple melody: Pity the guy whose dream-stalkers chew him out for once having masturbated on his mother’s linens.
There’s shivery pleasure to be had from Ascher’s reenactments of these dreams. His shadow-men are elusive, as if they’re forever about to resolve themselves into more specific monsters, and his variations keep the circular narratives mostly fresh. His best-crafted bit involves a red-eyed demon and a red-eyed cat — it’s also the craziest moment of his interviewees’ storytelling. His subjects seem relaxed, and they talk to viewers the way they might tell all this to friends; as in Ascher’s Room 237, he lets his people’s voices carry the film. The Nightmare is about them dishing what they’ve lived through, not about scientists making sense of it for us.
Ascher sometimes indulges in jump scares, and there’s one unconvincing burst of gore. At first, these horror techniques seemed to me a mistake, but his subjects themselves continually link their experiences to movies they’ve seen, especially Communion and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Two of Ascher’s interviewees recount how seeing those movies helped them to understand that the nightmares they had already been suffering were not unique to their own minds. Elsewhere, it’s clear that movies have shaped how those afflicted with sleep paralysis interpret whatever it is their brains are cooking up — that the powerful formal techniques of horror filmmaking have, for better or worse, forced order upon the chaos of the subconscious. It’s a messy loop: Horror reflects what’s always lurked in the mind, but then the mind reflects back the specifics it’s picked up from horror. Of course Ascher’s doc should look like an elliptical arthouse fright-flick — that’s true to how we dream.