Why you should care

Because what if you can’t run from the things that go bump in the night?

Nightmares and sleep paralysis — the temporary inability to move or speak while falling asleep or awakening — have been the terror behind several successful horror films such as A Nightmare On Elm Street, Jacob’s Ladder and The Entity. But the vulnerability of our sleeping bodies is more than merely metaphoric; it’s also a very real horror for some people. Director Rodney Ascher’s horror-documentary hybrid The Nightmare serves as both an entertaining and uniquely visceral experience that meshes documentary-style interviews with chilling reenactments. The result is a nonfiction film more frightening than many of today’s blockbuster horror movies.

In Ascher’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed Room 237, which delved into the minds of individuals obsessed with the mystique of The Shining and its supposed cryptic messages, The Nightmare collects firsthand accounts from eight subjects across the country in interviews and staged re-creations. “Because this is sort of happening in a dream state, there wouldn’t be documentary footage possible to illustrate it,” says the director. Ascher was inspired by his own bouts of sleep paralysis and the fact that “so many people described this experience as ‘like being in a horror movie.’”

The film hovers around its subjects much like its shadow men, leaving the audience distressed, questions unresolved.

The truly haunting accounts range from ghastly sexual violence to hair-raising hallucinations. New York subject Chris C. recounts a shadowy figure’s forewarning of “You are going to die” — a vision shared by his girlfriend as she slept beside him. When the stories begin to find similar threads — slim, three-dimensional shadow people looming over their paralyzed subjects, for instance — is when the film becomes rather unsettling. At its Sundance premiere, members of the audience gasped at the chilling accounts (complete with a few well-played jump scares), and the crowd chatter was a mixture of disbelief and shared experiences.

What’s all the more disquieting is that The Nightmare doesn’t attempt to find answers for these problems. Rather, the film hovers around its subjects much like its shadow men, leaving the audience distressed, questions unresolved. With a MedicineNet.com study suggesting that up to four out of 10 people experience some form of sleep paralysis, The Nightmare has a built-in audience. And, in some ways, it offers itself as cinematic therapy.

Ascher demurs that, for anyone in their right mind, the film doesn’t fit “any idea of therapeutic value,” despite having received a number of emails from people expressing gratitude that the movie was made. “I’m hoping that this movie can be part of a wider conversation,” he says. “There was a saying that I picked up: ‘If your story is only about your story, you’re dead.’”

How fitting.

A full-length trailer for this film is yet to be released, but this short clip gives a sense of the chills in store from The Nightmare.

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