"My body was in a net that was being tightened": Director Rodney Ascher on the frightening phenomenon of sleep paralysis

Ascher's new documentary "The Nightmare" follows 8 individuals who have been haunted by midnight spectres

By Joanna Rothkopf
Published May 29, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)
A still from "The Nightmare"   (Gravitas Ventures)
A still from "The Nightmare" (Gravitas Ventures)

Director Rodney Ascher's follow-up to "Room 237" is a documentary-horror hybrid that threatens to give you an addiction to caffeine pills. "The Nightmare" follows eight people who have suffered from sleep paralysis, an eerie phenomenon that causes sufferers to wake up to demonic visions -- for some reason a number of people report seeing a man in a fedora (called "Hat Man") -- in their rooms in the middle of the night. The worst part is that they are often unable to move or breathe to escape their predators.

Salon spoke with Ascher about his own experience with sleep paralysis, horror film tropes and why some people start experiencing sleep paralysis right after learning about the phenomenon.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Broadly, why did you decide to look into this and make a film about sleep paralysis?

It’s a subject that I’ve been fascinated with ever since it happened to me years ago. I had a sleep paralysis experience and I didn’t know that’s what it was called; I thought it was a supernatural encounter. That was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to me in my life. More recently, in the last few years as I decided to reexamine the subject and take another look at it, I was amazed to find out how many people it happened to. It’s an almost criminally underreported phenomenon. What’s kind of amazing is you go online and you start to look around and there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who are sharing their stories and searching for answers about what’s happening to them.

What was your sleep paralysis experience like?

My experience was what I have come to realize is kind of a classic one. I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk. As I started to panic, I could sense a presence outside of my room. I was living in a house on the edge of the woods, and I was certain that there was something coming out of the woods and coming toward my room. After a minute, it was in the room and it looked like a three-dimensional, black silhouette, like a living shadow that was walking very calmly. No matter how I tried to move or shout out, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

That’s crazy.

It’s crazy and it happens to so many people. At screenings and festivals, I always ask for a show of hands of how many people it’s happened to, and it’s like 20 per cent of the audience. If there’s 200 people in the room, 50 hands go up.

Wouldn’t you think people would be more like you and be like, “What is going on?”

I didn’t have a big question. I thought what was happening was a ghost or a demon or something has come to get me in the middle of the night. I was perfectly aware of what was going on. I didn’t like it very much. It was years later when I discovered that it was actually a sleep disorder that happens to, I think the estimate I saw was 6.2 per cent of the population has some version of it in the course of their lives. It doesn’t always come with shadow people; sometimes it just comes with a sense that there’s someone in the room or even just not being able to move. But lots of people have seen those kinds of things, but it’s pretty weird. It’s crazy.

How did you find the people that you featured in the film?

There was a two-stage process. At the beginning my producers and researchers did a search. There’s all these people on Youtube who share their stories. I read a half dozen books. There’s a lot of threads on Reddit. Any time somebody posts an article about sleep paralysis, in the comments thread there’ll be dozens of people saying, “Oh my god, is this what happened to me too?” So phase one was us researching. Then, at a certain point, we announced that we were doing the film and that we were looking for people to talk to. I did an AMA and we put up a Facebook page. Then people started finding us; our Facebook page was overwhelmed with people wanting to share their stories. There’s a weird contradiction that on the one hand, a lot of people don’t tell anyone because they’re afraid that it’ll sound kind of crazy, but as soon as they find out that there’s other people experiencing the same thing, there’s that urgency to share your story. So when people heard that we were doing this film, a lot of people came forward and told us their experiences.

One of the scariest parts of the movie is the second person you talk to who says he experienced it after he learned about it from his girlfriend, so that’s kind of the hype surrounding this, that everyone’s going to get it now. Were you especially affected while you were making the film? Have you encountered anyone who has been suggestible in that way?

Have I talked to anybody who after seeing the movie had a sleep paralysis experience?

Yeah, or when you were immersing yourself in this, was your sleep affected at all?

I did have one sleep paralysis experience in the course of making the film. I’ve only had three in my life; two of them were a long time ago. But then there was one while I was making the film, and it was during the point where I was talking to this one guy about how puzzled he was when he watched the movie “Communion,” which is actually an alien abduction film, in that there were similarities in that film and his experience. I got the DVD and I started watching it around midnight, so I didn’t go to sleep until about three. That night as I was drifting off to sleep, I fell into a very strange sleep paralysis experience. It felt like my body was in a net that was being tightened, and I could hear a turbine winding up and I saw this weird kaleidoscope. I swear to god, there were alien faces inside of it.

You didn’t include any psychologists or scientists in the actual film. I’m wondering if you consulted with any and why you chose to exclude them.

I read a lot of the science, and there was one sleep researcher at Harvard that I spoke with in the course of making the film. Ultimately, it’s a very wide topic and there are a lot of perspectives you can come at it from, including historical and mythological, religious as well as scientific. I just went back to what I found most compelling, the first-person, eyewitness accounts. If this were a science paper, the part that I would find the most interesting are the case studies. That was what I really wanted to focus on, to put the audience in the shoes of people who are experiencing this stuff and spend some time recreating these experiences, which, based on my background as a filmmaker, is something that is well within my skill set. Certainly I don’t deny that there’s a lot of scientific research available on the subject, and some of it we flash, a quick look at the Wikipedia page and things. But if you’re looking for that information it’s not hard to find. What I wanted to concentrate on was first-person, eyewitness accounts. The struggles that these people have gone through to try and understand what was happening to them and some of the surprising ways that the experience changed their lives.

What was the process of doing the recreations? How did you work with each person?

A lot of them I asked to do sketches of the things that they’ve seen. Certainly we talked in depth about their experience. Part of the thing about doing a film like this is that you have to edit it twice; before we could shoot the reenactments I had to make an edit of the film with black holes in it where there might be a little bit of voiceover playing over an empty screen that says “reenactment goes here.” There were a lot of stories that could have very nicely lent themselves to reenactments, but it’s a low-budget documentary, so we could only really afford to shoot stuff that was going to be in the film. So at that halfway point I had a cut with those black holes and then we spent two weeks in a little studio in Boyle Heights filming them. Sometimes we would play the audio back over loudspeakers while we were shooting, to either capture the mood or help us know how long stuff needed to play. The actors would listen to the voiceovers or even watch the interviews to get a sense of the people that they were playing as well.

The majority of the people that you featured seemed to have briefly mentioned that they had pretty fraught childhoods. You also go through the mythological, cultural history of sleep paralysis and things like that. I’m wondering if you have any theories, what you’ve come away from the movie with. How do you explain it? Who is more prone? 

Let me try to compartmentalize that a little bit. It’s also because the nature of the film is more about asking questions than coming up with a lot of definitive answers. In this film there’s not really anything that people are going to confuse with a hard-core, academic research project. If it were, our sample size is certainly not big enough to generalize any sort of conclusion that growing up with this kind of a childhood or in this kind of a culture is more likely to make this kind of thing happen. So for me, when I would find similarities in their backgrounds or experience, it was more of a, “Well that’s an interesting synchronicity, I wonder what that suggests?” I had this one profoundly affective experience when I was 22, and certainly nothing that seemed supernatural when I was a child. So the fact that more than one of these people had these unusual experiences as kids is something that I noticed, though it’s hard for me to draw much of a conclusion from.

The cultural thing is really complicated, too. In some countries, certainly a lot of Asian cultures, sleep paralysis and the things that people see are something that’s a much bigger part of their culture, of their folklore. In a way there’s more of a script for it. The fact that at this point sleep paralysis is still something kind of obscure makes the similarity of the things that people see, if nothing else, just kind of weird. Why do so many people see shadow people or, even stranger, Hat Man?

What are you taking away from this? Are you just like, this is a very eerie phenomenon? 

There’s a couple things I’d take away. One of them is this kind of thing is much more common than I think a lot of us would imagine, which I think goes a long way to talking about why so many people believe in the supernatural. I think so many people believe in it because so many people feel like they’ve experienced it. At a certain point, I also like to take a step back and say, “What is this movie about besides this one halfway common sleep disorder?” I’d like to think that it’s about the ways that people struggle to understand reality or the world around them. Do you rely on science? Do you rely on intuition? Do you rely on faith? The different people in this film have had similar kinds of experiences, and they draw different sorts of conclusions.

The other thing that was surprising to me and that I found really interesting to explore was how many people would be watching a horror movie and see their experience mirrored. To me that raised all sorts of questions about where do these images and these ideas come from. Horror movies or mythological stories, were they inspired by these kinds of experiences? Or do they inform them? Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Which is again a question, not an answer.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you are dying to talk about?

I’m glad I was able to get that thing about the chicken and the egg and horror movies, because sometimes that doesn’t come up and that’s for me one of the more interesting parts of this discussion.

It is crazy that there are all these archetypal horror images that everyone is coming up with themselves.

Like vampires, and ghosts, and demons and Freddy Krueger and Dracula. Are they all springing from this common well of experience? Is it some part of our weird lizard brain from caveman days, being afraid of shadows outside of the bushes or in the cave? I have a 4-year-old, so when he was a baby we had a book that was all silhouettes, and I think part of the theory behind that was that at the earliest stages of development, kids really only see in this stark black and white. So I wondered whether some of these shadow people are like earliest memories from infancy being re-stimulated, like a parent standing over your crib when you’re a month old?

All of our parents wear hats, that explains that, like the Hat Man.

But the Hat Man complicates that. Like, my dad never wore a hat. Or if we see insects or things that are more clearly monstrous or less human, where’s that coming from? There’s an article in the Guardian where a doctor was suggesting that the shadow people that you see are some kind of strange projection of your internal body map, which is a provocative idea, but why is that one guy’s body map wearing a fedora?

Those are the unanswerable questions.

The big question of the movie is, are the things that people are seeing something projected from inside, or is it something that’s outside of you that you’re only sensitive to in this one state of mind? Whichever conclusion you draw, there’s a couple of weird loose ends that complicate it.

"The Nightmare" is set for theatrical and VOD release June 5. Watch the trailer below:

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Documentaries Horror Films Movies Rodney Ascher Sleep Sleep Paralysis The Nightmare Video