The Horrors of Sleep Paralysis: Alert, Unable to Move, and Scared Out of Your Mind
The new documentary The Nightmare explores the terrifying phenomenon known as “sleep paralysis”—when you’re semi-conscious but can’t move. It’s the scariest film of the year.
Were Unsolved Mysteries and A Nightmare on Elm Street to have a threesome with Errol Morris’s true crime classic The Thin Blue Line, the offspring might very well be The Nightmare, a horror-documentary that’s destined to be the scariest thing you see on a screen this summer—and likely to then keep you up at night in bed, terrified of what’s to come when you close your eyes.
That’s because the film, which opens in limited release this Friday, concerns the unnerving real-life phenomenon known as “sleep paralysis”—a disorder in which people find themselves in a semi-conscious state where they’re aware of their surroundings, yet can’t move. Making things worse, many sufferers report that, when in this suspended animation, they witness dark figures entering their rooms, approaching them, and hovering over their bodies—faceless silhouettes that are commonly referred to as “shadow men.”
The Nightmare focuses on a group of unrelated men and women from around the country who’ve all experienced some form of sleep paralysis, and who recount their tales via traditional on-camera interviews. However, those stories are also visualized through dramatic re-creations that help to highlight the disquieting similarities (and differences) in their accounts, as well as to generate a mood of unsettling, bewildering unease. That mood mounts the more it becomes clear that the film is less interested in providing definitive explanations for sleep paralysis, and more concerned with immersing itself in the inexplicable—and in functioning as a work that isn’t just open to interpretation, but is fundamentally about interpretation.
If that set-up—a collection of real-life speakers giving theories on a shared subject about which they’re all intensely interested/obsessed—sounds an awful lot like last year’s Room 237, a documentary about wild critical readings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, that’s because it comes from the same filmmaker, Rodney Ascher. “I’ve always been interested in multiple points of view, and in unreliable—or partially reliable—narrators, where you pick and choose what makes sense for you,” he says, noting that The Nightmare’s ambiguity is what links it to both Room 237 and The Shining. “I didn’t come to a lot of strong, conclusive, definitive answers that made me say, ‘Well, I’ve solved this to the best of my knowledge, and I’m no longer interested, and I’m no longer searching.’ I continue to think about sleep paralysis, and to question it.”
It’s no surprise that Ascher continues to be fixated on this topic, given that the initial impetus for his latest was his own encounter with sleep paralysis, which involved a shadow man emerging from the woods and entering his home, apparently intent on possessing him. “It pales in comparison to the people that are featured in the film, but that was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me in my life. And I was sure it was a supernatural experience when it happened,” he says.
Returning to research such incidents a few years later, Ascher found Reddit, YouTube, and the rest of the Internet teeming with anecdotes about horrifying frozen-slumber nightmares. If those weren’t enough, he found that even bringing up sleep paralysis in casual conversation would invariably result in people admitting that they too had endured it, even if they didn’t know that the occurrence had an actual name.
“The Nightmare is a story that, in some ways, is almost criminally underreported. The statistics I’ve seen suggest 6 to 8 percent of people have a form of this at some point in their lives,” he says. “It’s endless. At every screening, I ask how many of the audience members have had this, and it’s routinely 10 to 20 percent. At our premiere, there were maybe 300-400 people in the audience, and 50-60 people raised their hands. One incredibly emotional woman just got overcome, and was explaining her experience—it had to do with the ghost of a boyfriend coming out of a TV. It was really, really disturbing. Every screening is like that.”
Those sorts of anecdotes speak to a key facet of The Nightmare—namely, the film’s suggestion (during a discussion about A Nightmare on Elm Street) that sleep-paralysis experiences share crucial imagery and elements with scary movies. The implication is a chicken or the egg scenario: Are our movies informing our nightmares, or is it the other way around? And if it’s the latter, does that mean that these unholy sights all come from some sort of linked subconscious place? Or some other demonic plane of existence we can only access during sleep?
“In talking with people, and hearing that a lot of them saw their experience echoed, after the fact, in watching horror movies, it totally inspired all sorts of questions and conversations about whether this is some kind of feedback loop,” Ascher says. “Where do these images come from? Because you have horror movies, but even going back to the silents, we only have about a century of those. You can go much further back into art, literature, folk tales, and mythology. Vampires and succubae and all sorts of things.”
“There’s something to suggest that Frankenstein was inspired by a sleep-paralysis experience,” he continues. “In fact, Ken Russell, in 1986’s Gothic, kind of restages the 1781 painting The Nightmare by [Swiss artist Henry] Fuseli—it’s the movie poster, and there’s an extended scene where Mary Shelley falls asleep looking at the painting, and she wakes up, and there’s a little gnome creature crouching on her chest. And so is it a feedback loop that started hundreds, or thousands, of years ago, and is continuing? That to me is completely fascinating.”
The Nightmare embraces this life-imitating-art-imitating-life cycle by employing horror movie conventions in its staged recreations, be it sequences featuring lurking shadow men (including a particularly haunting “leader” in a wide-brimmed hat), or a series of jump-scares that are more effective than almost any found in today’s crop of PG-13 shockers. To Ascher, that felt like a natural way of tackling such unique material, both because he’s always loved the non-fiction and horror genres (“I feel like they’re different aspects of my personality”), and because they echoed his nightmarish narratives. “If part of the idea of this film is to put people into the shoes of the people that we’re talking to,” he notes, “then we need to try to scare them!”
In that regard, what makes The Nightmare so fascinating is that it not only stays true to its speakers’ various stories, but also is honest about its own inherent artificiality. At regular intervals, both during its staged re-creations and its interviews, Ascher’s film reveals its production apparatus—a camera spied in the frame, or a shot of the set being used for a reenactment, or even a jarring cut during a one-on-one chat that underlines how the director has skipped over some comments to streamline what’s being described. It’s a formal device that makes the film as upfront about itself as its speakers are about their experiences—and, in the process, creates an ominous atmosphere of dislocation, where memory, dreams, and fears all uneasily coexist.
How, then, to explain sleep paralysis? The most common hypothesis is that it comes as a result of disturbed REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which usually causes complete muscle paralysis to prevent those from acting out their dreams in their sleep. Ascher, for one, is reluctant to provide his own analysis for fear of contradicting or disparaging others’ opinions, many of which involve not-of-this-world speculation. “For the majority of people I’ve encountered, including friends I know who’ve gone through it, science is not enough. REM state, neurology, and sleep disorders—those do not satisfy many people who go through this.”
Ultimately, The Nightmare’s unshakable terror comes from this refusal (or inability?) to posit answers to the questions it poses—questions that are shared by far more people than anyone seemed to previously realize. And for Ascher, that search for understanding is an ongoing process he doesn’t imagine will stop anytime soon. “I am going to suggest that, whatever you wind up writing in The Daily Beast, there’s going to be a very lively comment thread underneath from people who’ve gone through it.”
Let the chilling conjecture continue…