How can a documentary possibly be scary?

On the one hand, Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare is a pretty standard documentary. It examines an issue through research and personal stories. In the film, eight regular people are interviewed on camera to relay their experiences with a neurological disorder commonly known as sleep paralysis. While it isn’t a dry medical examination, the film does approach scientific explanations and theories to help explain the issues its profiles face. As Sarah pointed out in her essay on the film yesterday, The Nightmare doesn’t engage in any scientific or medical experts, but the interview subjects approach their ailment in a variety of ways. We learn about who these people are directly and entirely through their specific experience, which is something every subject-based documentary should be able to do.

On the other hand, The Nightmare dives deep into the myths, strange connections, mysteries and curiosities of sleep paralysis without a lick of irony. Like Ascher’s previous horror-inspired documentary Room 237 [which we’ll get to with our Related Review at the end of the week], the documentarian gives his subjects full rein to talk personally about their experiences and more interestingly, their interpretations of their diagnosis. Whether it is a religious experience, alien abduction, or proof of the afterlife, the common experiences are met with a wide variety of explanations. To spin back to my opening question, without this approach, there is no way The Nightmare could be scary—perhaps you may think it is taking itself too seriously at time, but if the filmmaking was winking at you in any way it would completely unravel the film’s tone.

Brilliantly, the film is held up by a series of recreations of the dreams and visions that are recounted—proving the rule that there isn’t any more boring than hearing someone describe their dream. They are shot with both the storytellers and actor stand-ins and otherwise stick pretty close to what is being remembered and described. Overall, the filmmaking style and tone give off a mix of Twin Peaks and the nostalgia horror of Stranger Things. The screen is both dark and colorful in a strange, otherworldly place. The monsters we see on screen aren’t over-designed, nor do they have to be—the simplest recurring character, the “shadow men” is the most creepy.

But these recreations alone aren’t enough to make the film scary, at least not especially and consistently scary. Personally, only one or two of the dream sequences got a complete chill out of me and these moments were the typical kind of jump scare paired with a loud noise that has been specifically designed to guarantee a fright. And still the film elicits a creepy, dreadful tone throughout.

Truthfully, the scariest and most effective shots throughout the film aren’t of the demons or aliens or visions but the static shots of the paralysis sufferers. I imagine that one of Ascher’s main goals was to somehow portray what it is like to experience sleep paralysis for those lucky ones who never have and he completely succeeds. Paired with the descriptive and consistent explanations of what the subjects were feeling, the visual representations are completely off-putting.

To me, the scariest movies are also a little sad, too. I put myself into the situation and feel empathy for the victims. When I watch Child’s Play, for example, I get uneasy because Andy is a helpless, innocent kid trapped in this intensely frightening experience. Kill machine movies, like the countless sequels to Friday the 13th, aren’t scary at all because there is no possible way to connect to any of the characters other than to gleefully watch them die. In this way, the very fact that The Nightmare is a documentary actually gives it an advantage to being scary.