Monday, June 8, 2015

THE NIGHTMARE...




I've experienced 'sleep paralysis' similar to what is described in The Nightmare, a chilling documentary from director Rodney Ascher. I'll be in the middle of a sound sleep, when I sense that someone is in the room with me. I try to wake up, but I'm frozen in my bed and can't speak. The person, who looks a bit like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, edges closer. Finally, with a great effort, I'm able to shake myself awake. That ends it. But it makes for an uncomfortable night.


Unlike the people in the documentary, I've only experienced this a few times, but the effect was unforgettable. The people in the movie claim to experience it nightly, which would be more than I could handle. Also, I'm certain it's just a bad dream, while the people in The Nightmare are convinced that something more sinister and otherworldly is going on. When you hear some of their stories, you may be convinced, too.

Eight people from various locations are interviewed. They vary in age and social background, but they tell the same story. In short, they are continuously stalked in their sleep by shadowy figures. Some of the apparitions are playful - one man recalls being tickled by them - but most of them are menacing. A whisper from one of them is filled with the howls of tormented souls. A woman describes one of these shadow people hovering over her and feeling as cold as death. 

A pattern emerges. Not surprisingly, it's psycho-sexual. One of the women recalls being raped in her sleep. A man in the movie claims a shadowy figure taunted him about masturbating in his mother's bed. After awhile I was convinced that all of the people being interviewed had been molested as children because the 'visitors' appear to walk freely into their bedrooms, and usually climb into bed with them. (This idea of childhood trauma is never developed, though one of the women being interviewed reveals that she'd been beaten often as a child.) The shadow people are occasionally hostile. One young man recounts a demonic figure appearing in his room and hissing, 'I know what you are, and I'm going to kill you." No wonder the poor guy looks as if he hasn't had a good night's sleep in years.

These peculiar visitations are recreated for the movie, and they're chillingly effective. In fact, these scenes are scarier than most of the horror movies I've seen this year. Rodney Ascher is an interesting filmmaker. He gave us Room 237, which explored a mythology built around Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. He's obviously intrigued by urban legends, and his films are effective because he respects these legends and treats them accordingly. He also respects the people he interviews, which gives his work a solemn, serious tone.  You can tell these people in the movie are happy and relieved to have someone hear them out.

Of course, many of the stories in The Nightmare could be explained away as dreams. Some, though, are not so easily dismissed, such as the time two people in the same bed experience very similar 'visitations' from a dark figure with red eyes. Both wake up screaming. It's weird. Is it possible that their proximity made them pick up each other's dreams, like a radio frequency?

It's hard to understand why our minds would play such evil tricks on us. From what I understand about sleep paralysis, the human body goes into something like suspended animation as we sleep. This is to protect us, more or less, from falling out of bed. But why would our minds be so filled with menacing characters? Some suggest that these dream figures are alien presences, or creatures from another dimension. I'm not sure if that's valid or just hokum. On the other hand, I don't know what causes these people to be terrorized in their sleep by the same shadow shapes, and that bugs me. 

I felt sorry for the people in this documentary. They've sought help, but as one of them says, if a doctor doesn't know what you have, he doesn't care. I find it interesting that one of the women became a born again Christian, and no longer suffers from these frightening visits. The others seem resigned to their fate. One even accepts that he'll probably die in his sleep someday. What makes The Nightmare so discomforting is that the shadowmen seem hell-bent on winning. What's less clear is what they're trying to win.



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