When the first thing that pops up during a horror film is the line “Inspired by True Events” or “Based on a True Story”, the filmmakers are attempting to make reality be the reason you are frightened by the end of the movie. It’s cheap, but extremely effective, so long as the movie doesn’t rely solely on that tagline. Documentaries are in a unique position because they are purely non-fiction. The Nightmare is a documentary which recognizes the inherent terror of its premise, and amps it up with simulated events pulled from different subjects’ experiences.
Nothing can match the feelings I felt while watching Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to his Shining-focused documentary, Room 237. The Nightmare is perhaps one of the most terrifying documentaries I have seen, and it is mainly because it treats sleep paralysis as the villain in a horror film. By having eight different people share their personal experiences with sleep paralysis, Ascher finds a way to convey their horrors unto the audience. Though the eight subjects do not feel wholly unique at times, they do all have a story to tell that will make the condition feel very real.
One of the minor issues with the film is that it is more concerned with terrorizing the audience than trying to alleviate any fears. Scientific reasons why sleep paralysis occurs are hardly even mentioned, and the film makes it seem like just knowing someone who has experienced sleep paralysis is enough to make another person experience it too. The viral nature of it becomes one of the more terrifying aspects, but what assists in that is the films reluctance to provide safety for the viewer. It makes for a really good horror film, but as a documentary it becomes a little less informed.
There is more than enough nightmare fuel to make up for its shortcomings as a documentary. There are subjects who detail ways in which they combated their condition, and they bring science into question. But it adds to the mystical, fragile nature of these experiences people have had. The Nightmare is broken up into chapters which focus on stories dealing with a specific topic. Whether it is how they have dealt with sleep paralysis or when it got to its worst point, the stories are all really well told and get that added punch by Ascher’s use of dramatic retelling.
Hearing these stories is one thing, but to see shadowy figures become a common trope of sleep paralysis makes it even more horrifying because it feels more realistic. If everyone is seeing shadowy figures, feeling pain, and hearing voices, then it must be a common staple of the condition, right? It’s that questioning which turns The Nightmare into something more than just a good blend of horror and non-fiction. It’s the perfect blend because it is still forcing imagination upon the viewer and letting horror seep into their heads. The more you hear someone say that the person they were sleeping next to was also having a fit of sleep paralysis, the more you believe it is contagious.
What also makes The Nightmare effective is its incorporation of famous horror films that utilize elements of sleep paralysis. The obvious one is A Nightmare on Elm Street, which has a villain that manifests in dreams. These references to films make the horrors even more terrifying because the audience now appropriates the potential to die from a nightmare. It builds the fictional components only to blur the line between reality and imagination.
The Nightmare creates horror from anecdotes, and provides visual cues to accentuate those experiences. Everything feels far more real, even though what you are seeing on screen is obviously fake. In fact, the film goes out of its way to show green screens and costume changes to demonstrate the falsity of it all. It doesn’t help though, as I still wound up feeling horrified that this is a condition that people have to contend with. The movie played its tricks on me and did it with such effectiveness that I can’t help but be afraid that every night from this point on I could experience sleep paralysis. That can only happen from something that is both grounded and horrifying at the exact same time.