We’ve been flapping our gums about Rodney Ascher’s inventive [and deeply chilling] 2015 documentary The Nightmare all week here at the Cinessential, but who better to shed some light onto the film’s unique blend of horror, compassion, stylish execution and psychological insight than the director himself. Ascher—whom many first noticed via Room 237, his astounding 2012 feature-length video-essay deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our most pressing Nightmare questions. Here’s the conversation:
As a filmmaker approaching his subject, in making The Nightmare how was your relationship to your interviewees’ sleep paralysis stories similar or dissimilar to your relationship with Stanley Kubrick and The Shining during the making of Room 237?
Ascher: Well, they’re both personal in their ways. I saw The Shining for the first time as a (too) young kid, and never forgot it. Kubrick was my first favorite filmmaker and I’ve never fallen out of love with his work. The worlds of those movies feel real enough to get lost in. When [producer] Tim Kirk and I started exploring the interpretations of the symbolism in [The Shining] we went for months wanting to think and talk about nothing else. Likewise, I had an intense sleep paralysis experience years ago—when I was just getting out of college—and it left a mark. When I discovered the countless stories people were sharing online about their own experiences and the search to understand what was happening I was terrified, but couldn’t look away. In both films, I try to present things through the eyes of the people I’ve interviewed. People who share my own obsessions, but who’ve traveled further down those roads than I have.
What were some of the biggest technical challenges in staging the recreations of your interviewees' sleep paralysis experiences?
Ascher: Time and money, I suppose. We shot them all in nine days at a studio in Boyle Heights, just south of downtown LA. I never intended them to be totally realistic, but trying to thread the needle between “stylized” and “phony” is something of a trick, and I may not have pulled it off in every instance. Also, it complicates things working with kids, spiders, a cat that was the wrong color, and low-budget alien costumes. A real find at the FX shop was the robot claw, which was re-purposed from a cable TV special about dinosaurs. In its previous life, it has lizard skin over its metallic skeleton.
Making the film, did you ever worry that you might suddenly begin to suffer from sleep paralysis, or that the film might trigger instances of sleep paralysis in its viewers?
Ascher: I did have a pair of SP experiences while working on it. So did a few crew members. I’ve heard reports of people getting it after seeing the movie, but I think they were isolated incidents. But I don’t know. SP doesn’t really have one defining cause, so in most cases we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
Have you remained in contact with the film’s subjects? How are they doing these days?
Ascher: Not all of them, but many. Facebook is a big help in that capacity. They’re doing well. In fact, one of them is working on his own documentary about an unrelated autobiographical story.
When you hear reports about things like alien abductions, angel encounters, or hauntings, do you suspect that a lot of that sort of stuff is actually just people suffering from sleep paralysis?
Ascher: That’s a powerful theory, certainly. We talk about it briefly in the film. I’ll see something like The Entity or one of the Conjuring movies and wonder if SP was behind the true stories that inspired them. But many times, those kinds of experiences resist fitting into neat, easily explainable boxes. As easily as is to find overlaps, there are also aspects of many accounts that don’t fit.
Do you have any favorite horror documentaries?
Ascher: Cropsey scared the hell out of me. I love the Hellstrom Chronicle, though there’s a lot of fiction in there. In Search Of… worked like magic on me as a kid, and was undoubtedly a big influence. To me their effectiveness is pretty plain: this stuff is real; it happened to real people—it could happen to you. This new information must be integrated into your understanding of the world.
I’d love to hear about anything you're working on now.
Ascher: I did a 30-minute pilot for a doc series on Shudder, Primal Screen, about movies/books/tv shows/art/etc. that terrified us as children and what, looking back, we might learn from it as adults. The first one was about the trailer for 1978’s Magic and how the ventriloquist dummy featured in it changed the lives of three little boys. That, and I have lots of other stuff in development, too.
To learn more about Rodney Ascher, please visit his website. The Nightmare is currently streaming on Netflix and elsewhere—don’t watch it before bed!