'The Nightmare' Doc Explores Sleep Paralysis: It's Like "Living in a Horror Movie"

The new documentary The Nightmare from Rodney Ascher centers on the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, the rare condition in which sufferers feel themselves wake up immobilized and often struggling to breathe — then sometimes see shadowy figures, demonic presences or other visitations.

In the clip exclusively debuted by The Hollywood Reporter, one of the film's subjects narrates his experience with the condition: "You’ll wake totally paralyzed, and If you're being visited they'll circle your bed and try and touch you," says the Manchester, England resident. "It's hell."

It's not unlike the experience Ascher himself says he had twenty years ago. The director claims he woke up one night unable to move: "I could sense some evil source outside the house, and very quickly it was in the room," he says. "I was certain it was a supernatural experience. Something like that stays with you for a long time."

He returned to the experience when he was searching for material for a new documentary — a follow-up to his 2012 debut, Room 237, which centers on interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. "I started researching [sleep paralysis], and I was astonished, like with 237, by how much I was able to find, how many people were out there sharing their stories and searching for answers," he tells THR.

"It seemed an interesting flip side to Room 237, which is about people who are fascinated with a horror movie. This is people living in a horror movie," he says.

The Nightmare is indeed half-documentary and half-horror film — with the subjects' recollections of after-dark encounters with aliens and shadow men recreated with actors and special effects. Ascher based the reconstructions on their memories and his own. "When our actor put on the [shadow] costume on set, it was frightening, because that was exactly what it like," he says.

Though the documentary includes medical and historical context, it's intended neither to debunk nor validate the subjects' experiences. "This movie is set up to ask a question rather than to provide an answer," says Ascher. "More than trying to explain the science or history, I was interested in trying to put the audience in the head of someone going through this. What does that feel like?"

The film premiered at Sundance and screened at SXSW, HotDocs and the Stanley Film Festival, and Gravitas will release it theatrically and on-demand on Friday. In the meantime, Ascher is still figuring out his next project, but he's planning to return to the intersection of horror and documentary. "I think there's a nice way they strengthen each other. If a horror movie wants to be scary, the fact [that] the stuff is true and can happen to anyone only makes it scarier," he says. 

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