Hot Docs 2015 Interview: Rodney Ascher On Living THE NIGHTMARE

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Hot Docs 2015 Interview: Rodney Ascher On Living THE NIGHTMARE
No horror film will ever live up to the genuine terror one experiences during a nightmare. Many will try, but ultimately, the easier it is to wrap your head around a premise, the less chilling the film.

And so it is without much surprise that Rodney Ascher's creepily mysterious follow up to Room 237, which takes 'the nightmare' as its theme - specifically as it pertains to the numerous individuals unfortunate enough to suffer from sleep paralysis - is one of the scariest documentaries that comes to mind. That such genre-bending is even possible begs for more entries in a largely untapped well that's tempting to refer to as documentary horror. 

The Nightmare is full of ghastly dramatizations of real accounts of recurring images that haunt the souls of its sleeping subjects. Much like the content of an ordinary nightmare, sleep paralysis is an unexplainable phenomenon. There's no shortage of theories as to why those afflicted suffer from tormentingly lucid accounts of unsettlingly perplexing otherness, often physically weighing down upon them, but sadly the theories are nevertheless just that. What's most dumbfounding is the fact that Ascher's varying subjects express freakishly similar variations of the same hallucinogenic sensations.

As the film's subjects attest, it's a maddening condition - both physically and mentally paralyzing - and one obscure enough that its sufferers feel largely alone; especially in the days before the Internet existed to shed light on most anything and everything.

What's so frightening is that the condition is one that can only be speculated on, and rather than search for explanation, Asher's fascination lies with the hallucinations themselves; curious as to why people see what they see, and more plaguing, why so many people around the world throughout time report accounts of witnessing the same thing.

The Nightmare raises many questions, and though most are difficult to concretely answer, at Hot Docs, Ascher addressed some of mine. But as someone who can only look at the condition from the outside in, I called upon the help of my sister Alex, a former-sufferer of sleep paralysis, to offer her knowing perspective to our conversation.

Can you talk about the very first time you yourself experienced sleep paralysis?

Rodney Ascher (RA): It was awhile back now, but I had just finished college and I was living in a house with a couple of roommates. I was sort of on the edge of the woods, and I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn't move. My heart was racing and I started to panic. I wanted to call on my roommates for help, but I couldn't make a noise. Then I sensed something coming through the woods that was sort of watching me and looking at me through the window.

I had the sense that it was sort of judging me, and considering what it was going to do. Then it was in the room. It looks like what we showed in the film was as close to what that looked like as I can remember. That just sort of slender silhouette of a person, jet black but three dimensional, and very quietly and calmly kind of walking through the space. 

How long was it before you discovered that you suffered from a fairly common condition? And what were your feelings before you were able to put a name to it?

RA: Well this was the '90's, so we didn't have Google. I wouldn't have known what to search for. I didn't think it was a sleep disorder. I thought that I had seen a ghost or a demonic spirit, and that all of the other symptoms, the immobility and the panic were coming from him. I thought that it was a coincidence that had happened while I was waking up. I wouldn't have Googled sleep, I wouldn't have Googled sleep disorder. I would have Googled dark spirit. It was a couple of years, and I don't know where I came across it, a magazine article or a textbook or something. 

I think between those years I had seen Natural Born Killers, and there's what looks like a shadow man in the opening credits. It's just in this one shot, it doesn't occur later in the movie, but he's like in this weird fiery vortex in the opening credits. I saw that as a message to me. The movie's a pretty dark movie. I imagined that, I think a lot of times when a movie gets under your skin and it borders on a sort of paranoid delusion, this movie was made for an audience of one, and I'm the one. There's a message in this for me. There's a scene like that in American Psycho, where Patrick Bateman is at a U2 concert. Bono turns to him and he says something that nobody else in the audience can hear, which is "I am the devil and you are just like me."

It's In the book. It would have been a good scene in the movie. It felt like that kind of thing, or like when Manson listened to Helter Skelter. This is a secret communication to me, so that was not at all comforting. 

Was that your voice in the film discussing NATURAL BORN KILLERS?

RA: It was.

Oh, I didn't actually realize that.

RA: Yeah. To add another layer of unreliability there, the director of the film is seeing ghosts, and is one of these people too.

Does your face appear in the film or was it just that moment of voice over?

RA: It does for a moment. It just kind of pans over to me. I like to say I'm in this movie more than Errol Morris but less than Michael Moore.

...Then another year or two later I found some link to it, and when it said the list of symptoms that really described my experience to a tee. It was just this gigantic weight off my shoulders, and I went on with my life and barely thought about it again, which was why a few years ago when I decided to look into it again I was kind of amazed how different peoples' reactions are. They have very quick access to more science and more information about this than I ever did, but based on the vividness of their experience, that explanation is not enough. They are certain that what's happening is in some way, shape or form, real.

Based on the similarities of their experience and the recurring characters that appear to different people, and they appear without a script. Like UFO abduction, which I'm not going to try to solve or dismiss, there is at least a script for what happens and what those characters look like. The notion of the shadow man and the hat man are much deeper underground. Most of the people who see them for the first time are unaware that it's a thing, which complicates the notion of it's a dream, it's a hallucination. Well why are two people in different parts of the world both seeing shadow men wearing hats? That's very weird and complicated.

When did you start feeling like this could be something you could tackle visually?

RA: About two years ago, after 237 had run its course and I was looking for a follow-up. On the one hand I wanted to do something with live action photography, but I also wanted to do another documentary. This was one of the two or three ideas that were really on the top of my list. The more I researched it, and I found out how common it was, the clearer the choice became.

It also got easier to make because the producers are like, a horror movie is something people go see. From their point of view, it's a more commercial production. For me, it's a subject matter that I'm fascinated with, and 237 has a horror component too. Continuing to work in that very rare boundary zone between documentary and horror was really interesting. 

That being said, one of the most fascinating topics of conversation in the film is the chicken and the egg conversation... which came first, the horror genre or the nightmare?

RA: Yeah, and I can't answer that.

I wouldn't ask you to. I would think it would probably be the nightmare. Sure, horror has always existed in the real world via violence or however many thousands of years of sordid history, but as far as more abstract, other-worldly haunts, one would think this to be inspired by the construct of imagination.

RA: Well go to pre-history, cavemen are talking about a hunt, and the tiger almost ate them. He comes back and he tells his friends about it, and he makes a painting, and somebody has a dream of a tiger...

There was a guy I was talking to who might have become a subject of the film, who said there's something evolutionary about, something very adaptive about presuming agency to random data. If you're walking in the woods, and you hear some rustling in the bush, it's adaptive to assume that that's a bear. Like I said, how many of those people actually see a bear when the bear is not there?

I see your point. I enjoy thinking of the horror genre as like an anesthetizing of the nightmare to a degree. If you yourself were to cross over into fiction, and horror was the genre, where might your mind go for something horrific?

RA:  It's hard to say. Certainly I'm drawn to stuff that has allegorical components. Just this year, Babadook and It Follows were working in territory that I was very interested in. Visually I might have that type of feel - hats off to those folks. There was a meatiness to both of those projects that talked to a more important human component than a fictionally created monster who only appears on the screen, and doesn't reflect the parts of our lives. Often the cheapest, most disposable horror movies have great metaphoric power anyway.

How did you set about creating a frightening documentary? What kind of tactics did you consider employing?

RA: Mostly it was going to be a lot of slow dread. What I thought was going to get under people's skin was just the authenticity of people telling their stories. I just found reading people's paragraph long reddit posts would keep me up in the middle of the night. I figured when we connect these to real people who are being really genuine that that would be pretty dramatic.

Alex, what were your feelings while you were watching the film?

Alex Gayne (AG): For me it was a bit like my experience the first time when I realized sleep paralysis was a thing. I also haven't visited the topic in awhile. It was two years ago when I was finally able to put a name to it... what to type into the Internet so I could figure this thing out. Watching this was exciting again. Look how many people suffered from this! And hearing them describe it and I'm actually seeing it... It was amazing, comforting. It was scary because of those jarring moments...

I was scared to death for two years of my life every single night. I didn't want to tell anybody about it. The way that your subjects were describing the condition was so accurate.

RA: Was it just the paralysis, or did you see and hear things too?

AG: No shadow people. I was always very aware that I was above myself, looking down on myself. 

RA: Oh, yeah, okay.

AG: Always. There was a feeling that someone else was there too, but I never saw that person. It was always me looking down, trying to help myself, calling out, I was screaming at the top of my lungs, screaming. Nobody was helping me, and it felt so real, and when I would finally come to, the person right next to me or in the next room said they couldn't hear me at all.

When I was researching it and I encountered people talking about these entities, I was like, "I mean I think that's what this is", but I never thought of the devil or anything evil like that. I just thought, 'oh this is a physical problem. I have some sort of physical problem.' It never even occurred to me that I had a sleep disorder.

RA: Yeah, me either. The out-of-body experience was something I didn't realize was connected to this until I started talking to people for the film. That was really a surprise. I always thought that was coming from a completely different set of experiences.

The film suggests that it is possible to spread paralysis by planting the idea in another's head. That said, did you have any reservations about the realism of spreading the condition onto your viewers? 

RA: A little, but you know if it's true, interesting and frightening... that's the criteria that makes me want to include it in the film.

(Turning to Alex) You said earlier that your paralysis was cured. How were you able to overcome it?

AG: Through homeopathic medication actually.

RA: Oh, wow! I've heard of people finding cures in other places, but that's the first time I've heard of homeopathy as a solution.

AG: ...And, it was very soon after we put a name to the condition that it went away.

RA: Giving something a name is so powerful. I'm sure you've seen Too Many Cooks? It's an amazing viral video and part of the danger, part of what makes the monster in that so special is unlike the other characters... he cannot be named.

Watch Too Many Cooks here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrGrOK8oZG8

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