Rodney Ascher's New Doc 'The Nightmare' Reveals the Real-Life Horror of Sleep Paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a nightmare experienced while you're awake, paralyzed in your bed while dark figures lurk nearby. Ascher's new documentary explores the terrifying experience.

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May 27 2015, 8:00pm

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At first, you can't move. It feels like you're waking up, except your arms and legs and head and tongue are all frozen in place. You want to cry for help, but you can't. You're betrayed by your body, paralyzed. You lie there as your breathing begins to quicken, your heart rate jolting, until you see it: a shadowy figure in the room, moving closer. Maybe it's a man in a dark cloak. Or maybe it's an old woman, grotesque and witchlike. Either way, there is something sinister—and you are there, in your bed, powerless to do anything.

This real-life horror is known as sleep paralysis: a half-dreaming, half-wakeful state that leaves your body immobilized while you encounter nightmarish visions of terror. By some estimates, it affects about 6 percent of the general population, many of whom are left without an explanation for what happened to them. Was it a dream? Was it reality? Was it supernatural—and will it happen again?

After it happened to filmmaker Rodney Ascher (best known for directing Room 237), he began to seek others who had experienced the same thing, and found a community brimming with its own mythology and philosophy about sleep paralysis. In his new film, The Nightmare, which straddles the line between documentary and horror film, Ascher shares the stories of those who have experienced sleep paralysis and struggled to make meaning of it. I called Ascher to learn more about the film, his own experience with sleep paralysis, and the blurred lines between the real and the imaginary.

VICE: What was it like the first time you experienced sleep paralysis?
Rodney Ascher: The first time was more than 15 years ago. I woke up around four in the morning and I couldn't move, I couldn't talk. I wanted to call for help—I was living in a house with a couple of roommates—because I was paralyzed and kind of panicking. I didn't hear anything, but I sensed that there was something outside the house kind of looking at me, or coming toward me. At a certain point, there was this black silhouette of a man, with very sharply defined edges, kind of slender, and he was in the room, walking toward me very slowly. I was absolutely horrified. I wasn't sure if it was a ghost or a demon or something, but I sensed evil, for lack of a better word. It came very close and it leaned right over my face and I think I just kind of went into a fugue state. Somehow, I peeled myself out of bed in a way that felt like a fly peeling itself off of glue paper. It took me a little while to relax after that.

I was convinced it was a supernatural experience—I thought I was in danger of demonic possession, and it took a long time before any alternate explanations offered themselves up to me.

When did you finally get those explanations?
Well, what was really striking to me was that this had happened to me when the internet was in its earliest days, so there wasn't really anything that I could use to research what I had experienced. I think if I did, I wouldn't have looked it up as a sleep disorder. I would've been researching something about, like, ghosts and the supernatural, which is how it felt to me. When I decided to research it a little bit, and see if I could find other people sharing their experiences or find scientific explanations for what was going on, I was astonished to see the sheer number of people out there who had gone through it; who were telling the details of their stories, some of which were even more bizarre and frightening than my own, in a way that they were starting to understand what had happened to them. That was fascinating to me, and made it clear that there was a bigger story here.

In terms of the science, what's actually happening to your brain during sleep paralysis?
Well, even some of the simpler explanations get complicated pretty quickly, but the clearest ones that I've come across talk about moving through REM states in the wrong sequence. When you're sleeping, you go through REM 1 and REM 2, and you're supposed to go back through REM 2 to REM 1 before you wake. But if you break from REM 2—the deepest level—to consciousness, then you're still halfway dreaming. Your body gets immobilized normally when you're sleeping, so that you don't act out your dreams. To me, that suggests that the opposite of sleep paralysis is sleep walking. If your body doesn't shut down while you're dreaming, you might act stuff out and that might be dangerous to you and the people around you. But if it works too well and it keeps you immobilized after you wake, that can be very disturbing. And if you're still halfway in dream mode, then you're seeing things while being aware of your environment, that can be pretty disturbing too.

But none of that stuff gets at questions of, well, why do different people see the same thing? Or if people are all dreaming similar things, should there be a clearer understanding of what dreams mean? The questions I'm interested in about why people see what they see and how they struggle to make sense of this stuff are questions that aren't strictly scientific.

Related: Motherboard explains why sleep paralysis is so terrifying.

What are the common figures that people see?
The three-dimensional shadow man is probably the most common one. Lots of people describe seeing something similar, but wearing a hat—they call him the Hat Man. Then there's another Hat Man that seems to be related to UFO stories in a way that I don't totally have my head around. It can atomize pretty quickly. People talk about seeing the Old Hag, which is like a very old woman, or Cloak Man, who's like more or less the Grim Reaper. Also cats, black cats; spiders...

And these are all part of a common mythology within the sleep paralysis community?
It's weird, because these are like the opposite of UFO stories. Most people are loosely familiar with some of the main details of a UFO abduction story. Most people have an idea of what an alien might look like—a tall, grey alien with big black eyes and a little slit for a mouth. But with sleep paralysis—as common as these experiences are—don't seem to be a big part of American folklore. So first, you have to experience it, and then you look for answers, and then you discover that other people have seen the same things. And that makes it all the stranger.

Since the terror part of sleep paralysis is produced by your own mind, is there a sense that there's a social contagion to it? That if you familiarize yourself with the mechanisms and the mythology, that you're more likely to experience it?
That's certainly something that some people believe. I don't have any hard data, but it is an idea that's out there. But it's interesting that you say this is something "produced in your own mind," which is a very rationalist, secularist, scientific way to look at it. There's not a consensus about [whether or not that's true] among people who have experienced it. This is really one of the questions we're exploring in the film: Is this something that's the product of your own mind? Are you projecting it from inside, or are you sensitive to something that's out there but is usually invisible? Or is it something that's hardwired, some kind of ancestral thing, like the Jungian idea of the unconscious? I don't know which one is scarier.

The entire thing seems terrifying—but do some people experience sleep paralysis without feeling fear?
There's a whole school of people who make peace with it. They see it as a gateway to lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. There was a debate online that I enjoyed where one person was saying, "If you just relax, and don't fear it, your shadow person can become your guide." Then someone else would rebut it like, "Are you out of your mind? These things are demonic presences! You welcome them into your room like you welcome a fire into your house." To me, that was evocative of the debate in the first Poltergeist, of "walk into the light" or "don't walk into the light."

The last time it happened to me, it was in the course of making this film, and I kind of thought to myself, "Oh! Sleep paralysis! This is happening." So I tried to relax and take notes and see if I could see anything that would inform how I would make the film. So I wasn't scared. It was kind of an awesome lightshow.

There seems to be a real power in sharing your sleep paralysis experience with others so that people can figure out what's happening to them.
That's absolutely right. When you see the film, it's not presented as anything like therapy—and because it's terrifying for most people, I tried to make the movie scary for people. I think there may be a connection between these experiences and the birth of the horror movie, and so I allowed this film to go into horror movie mode from time to time. Nonetheless, I spoke to people after the movie who've experienced sleep paralysis, and who've been grateful. Some people have said, "All my life I thought that I was alone, and I thought I was the only person who went through this." It was reassuring to them. So I don't know if I've accidentally made something that's therapeutic—despite my worst intentions—but I think it's always very comforting to find out that you're not alone.

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The Nightmare appears in theaters on June 5.

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