Rodney Ascher, documentarian behind this year’s terrifying THE NIGHTMARE and the acclaimed ROOM 237, took a call from Screen Relish this week to talk about his horror movie influences, what makes a good documentarian, and whether or not sleep paralysis is contagious.
Screen Relish: THE NIGHTMARE explores the terrifying condition of sleep paralysis. What drew you to this topic?
Rodney Ascher: Well, it’s something I’ve been interested in for years. It’s something that happened to me years ago, and when you go through something like that, you don’t forget it all that quickly. A couple years ago I was drawn to revisit it. I was talking to a friend about some other film that had a supernatural component and I was reminded of sleep paralysis.
When it happened to me, in the late Nineties, the internet wasn’t what it is now. Finding any information or finding anyone else who’d gone through it was really difficult. I’d never talked to anyone else that it had happened to. But when I revisited it a couple years ago, things had exploded. I found hundreds of people sharing their stories on YouTube and reddit, and I was struck by the ubiquity of the experience – so many others had gone through it – but also the details of their experiences, how much wilder they were than mine, and the places that their search for answers took them.
SR: Did you find anything in the research and filming that you didn’t expect?
RA: A ton of things! I had no idea that this stuff was associated with out-of-body experiences. I was kind of amazed how many people recognized what they went through echoed back to them in horror films. I was blown away by connections people made between this stuff and alien abduction.
SR: You didn’t have trouble finding people who wanted to participate in the filming?
RA: Oh, no – quite the opposite. We looked for people who had shared their story publically, and we were just buried under the weight of people getting in touch with us. A lot of people kind of keep it to themselves and don’t talk about it with other people, but once the opportunity arises to share your story, a lot of people get very anxious to connect and to have that chance to talk about it.
SR: It’s a very empathetic portrait of these people. The movie doesn’t look at them as much as it experiences things with them. How did you accomplish that?
RA: I tried to be the best listener I could. I think maybe the fact that I’d gone through it, too, helped break down the walls. Empathy was something I was shooting for, and I’m genuinely interested in hearing other people’s stories. I think the best thing an interviewer can do is shut up and listen. The people we talked to were all very articulate folks, very thoughtful, and interested in sharing their stories. Documentary sinks or swims on the strength of the people that you focus on so I was really lucky to find some really open, really interesting people.
SR: In the film, you could see the relief in the subjects’ faces when they talked about realizing they weren’t alone, that this is relatively common. As soon as they realized that there were others that had the same problem, it was a relief to them. Is that the way you felt?
RA: Absolutely – when I realized that it had a name. There’s a chapter in the film called “It’s a Thing.” It seems like, in the stages of going through this and making peace with it, “it’s a thing” is an important part of the journey – when you realize it happens to other people, it has a name, the similarities in what you’ve been through and what others are going through. I’ve been hearing from people who see the film who, although they might be going through this stuff and it’s still pretty distressing, just knowing that they’re not alone seems to help.
SR: One of the scariest things about the film for me was the revelation that this disorder seems to be contagious. Were you afraid that it would come back for you?
RA: A little – and it did come back once. It was sort of a running joke with the crew – who was going to get it in the course of making the film?
SR: Do you have a theory about what causes it?
RA: It doesn’t seem to be any one thing. What I gleaned – from talking to people about their experiences, but also reading up as much of the science as I could and from the sleep experts that I talked to – in a way it seems there’s a list of a half-dozen or dozen things associated with it. I certainly haven’t come across any one deciding factor that is going to make it happen. In fact, I read about people who go out of their way trying to make it happen, people who are curious what it’s like and perform these rituals to try to bring it on.
SR: That’s insane.
SR: You have such a unique and fun style for a documentarian – do you have inspirations in the field?
RA: It’s hard to say. Certainly I have a foot in genre as well as in documentary, and I love documentary, but that’s not my only love. I feel pretty free to mix and match my styles and inspirations from different worlds of filmmaking in my projects.
Horror is not the only genre that I’m interested in, but there’s something interesting when you play with horror in a documentary. The horror is more frightening when you suspect that it’s true. Documentaries are more involving when there’s a genuine emotional component, and there are a lot of emotions that you can play with, but fear’s a pretty strong one.
There’s interesting overlap. I like the way the two forms work together.
SR: For my money, a horror film is most successful if it makes you afraid to go to sleep. If that is a fair standard, then your film is maybe the best horror film in decades. Were you trying to scare us?
RA: Well, it’s about something that’s very scary. More than trying to do a piece of scientific investigation into a physiological condition, I wanted to put the audience into these people’s heads. Early on it became clear that horror could be related to this stuff in a very interesting way. These experiences may well be tied into superstition and folklore and stories of vampires and incubus and demonic possession. The relationship between this experience and horror is a very complicated, braided one. It’s more than one came first and then came the other, but it goes back and forth and back and forth. For all those reasons it seemed like incorporating elements of horror movies into the film was appropriate.
SR: What’s next for you?
RA: I’m developing a handful of different things. We’ll see what becomes my fulltime obsession next.
THE NIGHTMARE is out now in select UK cinemas and hits DVD/VOD October 26, 2015. You can read our review from Frightfest RIGHT HERE.