Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s new documentary, The Nightmare, concerns sleep paralysis, a condition that causes semi-conscious people to hallucinate that they are being menaced by terrifying, shadowy figures. In the film, Ascher himself alludes to having experienced sleep paralysis himself, but doesn’t go into too much detail.
Would he care to go into too much detail now? “Well, sure,” laughs the director, whose film opens in cinemas and on VOD June 5. “In my life, it’s happened, I think, four times. The most recent was while I was actually working on the movie. But the first one, which was the most intense and the most vivid and the most nightmarish, was the one that stuck with me and inspired me to make the film.
“I had recently graduated college and I was living in a house at the edge of the woods with a couple of roommates,” he continued. “It was three or four in the morning and I woke up and I couldn’t move and I couldn’t call out. As I was starting to panic I kind of sensed that there was something emerging from the woods and heading towards the house. After a minute, it was in the room and it looked like a three-dimensional, moving shadow of a person, of a man—a slender but very clearly defined silhouette. I was completely immobile and I was trying to call out to my roommates and I couldn’t make a peep. The thing very slowly and calmly walked through my room and leaned over my bed. I hit this white-hot stage of complete panic. Time stopped and my memory stopped. And then, some unspecified point later, I was sitting on the side of the bed hyperventilating and trying to come back to my senses.”
Ascher decided to make a documentary about sleep paralysis following the success of Room 237, in which fans of Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining laid out their rather fantastical theories about the film. “I did something which I hadn’t done in years, which was go online and research [sleep paralysis],” says the director. “I was struck by how many people it had happened to. I thought that I was one of a very, very small number of people that had experienced it. But you open that door a crack and there are just an endless number of people who are going through it, who are sharing their experiences, who are searching for answers. Some of their experiences are much worse than mine and a lot of them were looking for answers in places that I didn’t. So all of that stuff was very interesting to me. It was clear there was a film in it.”
The director found himself coming face-to-face with his own bad dream while shooting The Nightmare, which features both interviews with sleep paralysis sufferers and recreations of their visions. “The simplest, cleanest [figure] in the film is very, very similar to what I remember seeing,” Ascher says. “The first time we had the actor in the costume, it was very freaky and disturbing, pulling that thing back into creation. Standing in the same room with it, and as he walked towards me, I kind of panicked.”
Has Ascher considered holding a mixer at which his Room 237 interviewees can meet those from The Nightmare? “Well, they’d certainly get along famously,” he laughs. “And actually, when we do [the] premiere in New York, that’s likely to happen. Subjects from both films live there. So, we’ll see!”
You can see a trailer for The Nightmare below.