Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Nightmare of Storytelling: Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare

I have this vivid recollection of a dream I had when I was probably 6 or 7. It was sometime before my parents separated and I was sleeping in my first-ever bedroom with the pink wallpaper and the unicorn lamp someone painted for me. As a kid, I watched a lot of reruns of Adam West's Batman after school. One night, I had a dream that Batman had died and we were holding a funeral for him in my living room. I was barred from attending but I crept down the stairs from my bedroom in the dream, as kids do, and watched the funeral from the stairs. Julie Newmar’s Catwoman was crying next to the casket; Burt Ward’s Robin looked lost; my grandparents were, for some reason, devastated. Suddenly, someone kicked the front door down. It was the Purple Man, in the first of his many appearances in my childhood dreams, and he was pointing a gun. He looked a lot like Rorschach from Watchmen, before I even knew what a Rorschach was. In a later dream, he turned out to be my dad. Riddle me that; I still don’t know what it means.

Did you find that story boring? Were you indifferent and wondering how it was relevant to this review? Perfect. Now imagine hearing about it for 91 minutes.

The sad truth is that no one wants to hear about your dreams unless they’re being paid and Netlfix’s newly-added horror documentary, The Nightmare, illustrates this fact well. The latest from director Rodney Ascher, The Nightmare tells the story of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis and the eerily similar nightmares they’ve independently converged on. Sleep paralysis is a bizarre phenomenon that renders one unable to move or speak during the transitional periods between sleeping and waking. It’s often accompanied by vivid and disturbing nightmares. The medical and scientific hypotheses surrounding sleep paralysis are fascinating but you won’t find them here. In fact, it’s almost 25 minutes into The Nightmare before anyone mentions sleep paralysis at all.

Before I even realized that Ascher was behind this project, I was immediately reminded of his other, equally disappointing documentary Room 237, which explored several interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Both films evoke the same feeling of frustration: they include too many interviewees, too many crackpot theories, and too little information when there’s an abundance of relevant critical theory out there to draw on. In my opinion, calling either work a documentary is generous. The Nightmare is solely comprised of interviews during which sleep paralysis victims recount their nightmares in dimly lit domestic spaces. Instead of breaking up the film with opinions from actual medical professionals, the time in between interviews is devoted to some decently scary dramatizations of the nightmares being described. An opening title card states that The Nightmare’s objective is to tell the story of what happens to these eight strangers when they go to sleep and, to Ascher’s credit, it accomplishes this – but why? There’s something distasteful and expository about hearing a stranger’s dreams. It’s far more intimate than nudity or sexual discourse; it strips one’s psyche bare, leaving the weirder thoughts we hide open to others’ scrutiny and interpretation. In The Nightmare, the discomfort is palpable as, for example, Ana describes having sex with the demon in her nightmare. What does this glimpse into her unconscious mind reveal about her as a person? What does my Batman dream reveal about me? If Ascher’s plan was to unsettle people by encouraging a sense of perverse voyeurism, he succeeded. That might have been the scariest part of all.

If you can avoid delving too deeply into the critical questions The Nightmare begs, there are, at the very least, some enjoyable dramatizations for horror fans. Oddly, the people Ascher interviews, despite allegedly not knowing one another, all see very similar figures in their nightmares with many overlapping themes and experiences. Kate, a teacher from New York and my favourite interviewee, briefly conjectures that these recurring archetypes are part of the shared, biological experience of our species: we all have the same brain so why wouldn’t seeing the same visions be symptoms of a shared medical condition? Her entirely reasonable theory is eschewed in favour of Ascher leveraging the commonalities amongst his interviewees’ nightmares in order to create a universal horror story involving demonic activity and rogue’s gallery of malignant entities. The route he opts for would be better suited to a proper fictionalized horror movie. Ascher’s elaborate dramatizations suggest he has some talent as a film maker but his insistence on making documentaries that fail to impart any actual information is baffling.

From what I gather, The Nightmare resonates strongly with victims of sleep paralysis. The eight people in this film, as it turns out, see things that are seen by many other sufferers worldwide. The condition is also undisputedly debilitating. Reading between the lines of the stories shared in the film reveals these individuals’ struggles with mental illness, identity, and domestic problems. The horror angle also plays better with sleep paralysis sufferers who are more familiar with the feelings of anxiety and fear that accompany the images Ascher creates. While The Nightmare might only be valuable as either documentary or horror film to those touched by sleep paralysis, sentiments expressed in the film suggest that discussing their sleep paralysis experiences can actually be harmful to sufferers because it can trigger further episodes. Several of Ascher’s sleep paralysis victims have deliberately sworn off professional medical or psychiatric help for their problem instead citing demonic possession, aliens, or alternate dimensions as the root of their suffering. By excluding scientific fact in his documentary, is Ascher suggesting the stories concocted by these individuals might have some merit to them? At best, this notion is ridiculous, particularly for the inherently skeptical documentary audience; at worst, it’s exploitative.

Conversely, I wouldn’t go so far as to say The Nightmare is an awareness piece, intended to inform and educate the rest of us who sleep comparatively well at night. It doesn’t inform us of anything at all beyond the specific dreams of these eight strangers. Who, then, is Ascher’s intended audience? And what purpose does aggravating these people’s conditions serve? The Nightmare was not only a documentary without substance but also a story without a conclusion. The scares were spooky enough, but the interpretive and ethical questions I was left with were what truly kept me up last night.

Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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