Documentary filmmaker Rodney Ascher brings the nocturnal phenomenon of sleep paralysis to life in The Nightmare.
Rodney Ascher looks tired. He clutches a paper cup of coffee, slight bags under his eyes, and he’s running late in his morning lineup of press interviews. Knowing the subject of his latest documentary The Nightmare, one might worry there are sinister reasons behind his exhaustion. Luckily, the culprit seems to be just a celebratory late night after the opening screening of his film at Hot Docs.
The Nightmare is a first-hand investigation into sleep paralysis, the disorder in which sufferers are caught in a state that’s between sleep and wakefulness where they can’t move, can’t speak, and see evil spirits in their room. Featuring testimonials from eight people from the United States and England, Ascher eschews scientific experts and medical diagnoses, instead looking at the personal toll these experiences have on sufferers. Meanwhile, Ascher recreates their visions for the audience, leaving us to wonder, as we so often do after a good documentary, how these people sleep at night.
Best known for his previous film Room 237, which explores various fan-driven conspiracy theories around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ascher is now one of the most buzzed directors in both documentary and horror circuits. Torontoist spoke with him about his genre influences, from Asian horror to bad sequels, to Monsters Inc., and more.
Torontoist: Can you tell us about your own experience with sleep paralysis, which started all of this?
Rodney Ascher: This was years and years ago, when I was first getting out of college. I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t sleep, and my heart was racing. And somehow I sensed that there was something in the woods behind my house looking at me and coming towards my window. I started to panic, and I wanted to call out to my roommates but I couldn’t talk. And at a certain point it was in my room, and it was a three-dimensional walking shadow. I saw it as clearly as I’m looking at you.
And before that point, the idea of evil was fictional. The same way that when you’re a kid and you’re watching a romantic comedy the idea of falling in love is only fictional, you’re not sure what the feeling should really be. In this case, the sense of evil was just overwhelming. It was hovering just a few inches away from me, and getting out of it felt like a roach trap, like glue paper. I was certain this was a supernatural experience at the time and that I needed to take stock of my life and try to be a better person. I wouldn’t have looked at it as a sleep disorder. I thought it was the power of this presence that was keeping me from moving; the only place I would have looked for help was somebody writing about ghosts or spirits. So when I finally came across the notion of sleep paralysis, I was like “Oh, thank god that’s what happened to me.” And I went on with my life. And for whatever reason a couple years ago I was reminded about it, and I looked it up and was astonished to find not only a lot of scientific information about it, but just hundreds and hundreds of people on YouTube and Reddit and in comment threads all sharing their stories. And for them, that scientific explanation wasn’t enough. They’re dead certain there’s more to it than that.
Your reaction to “take stock” is interesting, since there’s one character in the film that’s even moved to change her religion after her experience with sleep paralysis. Is that something you’ve encountered a lot?
It’s a transformative experience. Based on my experience, that was a totally logical thing for someone to do. But also as a filmmaker, the definition of a cinematic story is one in which somebody’s life or character is transformed after a dramatic experience. So, in most of these people’s cases, and in hers it’s the clearest to see, this is a transformational experience.
A lot of the reaction to The Nightmare is about how scary it is, and it really does feel like a horror/documentary hybrid. Were there any horror movies that influences your style for this movie, besides the obvious ones you actually discuss in the movie, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Insidious?
Those movies didn’t really inspire the style of this movie, those movies inspired thoughts about the relationship between horror and dreams and paralysis in particular. But a movie that influenced the style of this is Demons 2, especially the TV screens. In fact, there’s a lot of Demons in 237. Because Demons is about cinema and film, and Demons 2 is all about TV. And [The Nightmare] is more about TV than [Room 237].
That’s right, at one point TVs are used to prevent the dreams from coming.
There’s a weird consumer electronics connection: there’s the guy’s cell phone [which plays a big part in one man’s vision], people using TVs as cures, and the guy’s first experience with the TV talking to him, which was a huge surprise to me. And that also comes up a lot in horror, especially Asian horror movies. And in Asia, there’s a lot more popular culture about sleep paralysis. It’s much more talked about than it is here.
Like The Ring or Ringu, it’s all about horror in the TV and coming out of the TV. But there was another moment in The Nightmare that really screamed The Ring to me—when one interview subject is talking about how when he told his friend about his sleep paralysis, they started to experience it too, and it’s accompanied with this visual of something like a pyramid scheme of sleep paralysis spreading throughout the population. You feel like once you’ve seen this movie, it’s going to come to you next. Have you heard of anything like this from viewers?
That’s why we make everyone sign a waiver on their way out! No, not a lot. There was a person or two who tweeted about it. But that’s a fascinating idea and it’s true to that guy’s experience and it’s eerie, so it’s totally something we felt we had to include in the film. And it gives us kind of a William Castle, “Emergo” feel where the horror comes out of the screen. And it ties into one of my favourites which is Halloween 3 where stuff can come out of the screen.
A lot of your work, from The S From Hell through Room 237, The Nightmare, and even your next project Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein, has this great retro, low-fi aesthetic. I actually think it really elevates the creepiness of your subjects. Where does that come from?
It might just be my age and the movies that sunk in when my brain was really a sponge. But my style is really very strongly influenced by stuff from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. I made an inspiration reel to sit down with the crew and watch before, there was something from Firewalk With Me and Elm Street, but more of it was coming from that era. There’s also something that Paul Schrader does in Patty Hearst where the camera pulls out of this very realistic room to reveal it floating in this black void. And my movie has a dream component to it and we’re not hiding the fact there’s artifice to it.
Having those dream re-enactments be overtly staged, showing the set and PA’s and actors playing the ghosts, was that to deliberately show the difference between the true interviews and the fake scenes?
That’s something we wanted to acknowledge. I’m pretty flattered that we’re playing at Hot Docs, I’m not sure if they show a lot of monster movies here. But with the subjectivity of these people’s stories and us shooting re-enactments of things happening in this twilight state, my obligation to telling the truth in a documentary is being clear about the artifice.
But it was also something deeply unnerving and dreamlike about it. It’s coming from two places which might not even really dovetail all that well together, but on one hand it’s acknowledging we’re not trying to fool anyone into thinking this is a fly-on-the-wall piece of observational documentary journalism when the ghosts come, but the other is, and it sounds kind of pretentious, but using the idea of the sound stage as a metaphor for the way your subconscious puts things together. And if people from different parts of the world are seeing similar spirits, almost like Monsters Inc., that space means something different to them than it does to us. And our consciousness is something they can access from some central space.
Would you ever do a scripted horror movie?
I would. I’ve had more success to this point writing by editing and finding connections between things that different people say, rather than sitting in front of a blank page. I like to think one day I’ll have a cathartic break and be able to let it all out. But yeah, I love shooting live action stuff and I’ve shot some live action shorts in the past.
And The Nightmare is heading to the Stanley Film Festival next?
It is, and I take real pride in playing both Hot Docs and the Stanley Horror Film Festival back to back. Because [it takes place in] the hotel that inspired The Shining. And I was there with 237 and it was kind of astonishing. I was riding in a van with Mick Garris, who directed the TV version of The Shining and is very close with Stephen King, and also in the van was Leon Vitali, who worked very close with Kubrick on The Shining. And having thought so much about The Shining over the past couple years it felt like I was crossing through the screen into the other side. And because we got along so well that day, Vitali ended up agreeing to play a version of himself in [Director’s Cut: Terror of] Frankenstein. So yeah, that wall seems more and more porous every day.
That’s a great segue back to The Nightmare‘s discussion of reality and unreality.
That’s the question, what is it? Is it unreality? The film doesn’t answer any of that stuff very definitively. And the ending of the movie is somebody hovering in the tightrope between one side and the other. He’s not quite sure whether to take that pill in The Matrix, or in Total Recall, am I really a secret agent on Mars, or am I in a machine that I paid someone to make me think I’m a secret agent on Mars?