“Room 237,” Rodney Ascher’s inventive 2012 documentary, profiled a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” His follow-up, “The Nightmare” deals with a different sort of hidden experience — the ominous and, at times, downright terrifying experiences of people stricken with sleep paralysis. The movie features eight sometimes eerily similar accounts from subjects who have found themselves paralyzed in the middle of the night and afflicted with visions of menacing figures.
After its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival’s midnight section in January, we dubbed the movie “one of the scariest documentaries ever made,” partly because Ascher puts so much effort into making the victims’ nighttime delusions feel real for his viewers. At the festival, we asked him to break down his method for injecting real scares into the non-fiction format. Here are Ascher’s tips (in his own words):
Don’t explain more than necessary.
There are actually some really interesting questions involving the history of this phenomenon: “Did this inspire Frankenstein?” “Is this related to Jacob wrestling with the angels as they’re going up and down the ladder?” “Is this related to the succubus?” And all sorts of folklore mythology. We talk about it a little bit in the film, but I waited for one of our subjects to bring that up in conversation. I was more interested in their research, because it’s a part of their search for answers. It isn’t a professor who says, “This is what my research tells me.” It’s more like, “I was freaked out by this, and in trying to find answers about what happened to me, I discovered this, this, this and this.” There’s an emotional connection they’re having to these statistics, these facts and this folklore that they’re connecting to.
Use the genre.
I generally love documentaries, but I also generally love genre films. I don’t have any reservations about mixing and matching the two. I was incredibly surprised by how much consumer electronics played a role in this story, from people seeing things on TV that seemed to be evocative of their experience, but also leaving TVs on to try to keep this from happening, or the guy with voices coming out of his phone and the sounds of static. That came as a big surprise to me, because we’re also exploring the relationship of these experiences to horror films. From “The Poltergeist” to “Demons 2” to old episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” there seems to be a tradition of weird things coming out of the TV and radio waves. I was surprised to find out that this is real. Also, those people who analyze audio recordings to try to find ghost voices — I’ve seen that imagery in horror movies but never in first-person eyewitness accounts.
As far as feeling free to explore horror imagery and working in a horror style: There are moments when these people directly compare their experiences to horror movies. When it happened to me, it was the most frightening thing that ever happened in my life. From research, it became clear that the relationship between horror movies and these kind of experiences is not accidental. They may well have influenced the development of supernatural folklore. The inspiration of horror movies and German expressionism derives from Freudian psychology and inspirations of the subconscious. There’s even a scene in the movie where someone is having a dream about Freddy Krueger.
There’s another guy I talked to that didn’t make it into the cut who, during a sleep paralysis experience, saw Freddy Krueger come to his house. There’s more than a casual relationship between these experiences and horror movies. My ambition was for this to feel like a sleep paralysis episode more than a piece of investigative journalism about sleep paralysis. So that all liberated me to play very freely in the toolbox of horror movies.
Know your limitations.
I did a fair amount of research. I probably read half a dozen books, everything I could find online, and I spoke to two psychologists/sleep professionals. One of the books was so good — it’s called “Sleep Paralysis,” by Shelley Adler. I was like, “This book could make an excellent movie on its own. I don’t think I’m actually the kind of filmmaker who could make the movie equivalent of this.”
I had to do all this research to find out how much else is out there as a way to walk away from it and say, “You know what? I’m not going to cover any of that stuff unless it comes out in the first person testimony from the people that we find.”
I draw more inspiration from “This American Life” than I do from “60 Minutes.” I wouldn’t know how to make a more journalistic, traditional piece of investigative journalism if I tried. It’s just not a world or tradition that I come from, but finding people whose stories resonate with me and kind of bringing them together is a style I’m much more comfortable with. I tried to manage expectations in the little prelude, just saying, “This is the story of eight people. This is not an encyclopedic look at this phenomenon.”
Trust the material.
I tried not to be too methodical or think too strategically. As I was kicking around stuff in the year or so after “Room 237,” this subject was always a contender. As I did more research into it, there was clearly enough there to make a film. One thing the success of “Room 237” taught me was that when it comes to things that I find interesting, there are some other people who find them interesting, too. I might not be as much of an alienated outcast as I thought a few years ago. There are other people that get it.
“The Nightmare” opens in limited theatrical release and VOD on Friday.