Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Nightmare on Curran Street

Curran Street being the name of the actual street I live on, and The Nightmare being the name of the scariest documentary I've ever seen.

It had been the obvious candidate to watch all week -- for a couple weeks, actually -- when planning out a Halloween night viewing. We hadn't even vetted any of the hundreds of other available candidates on Netflix. But always bothering me slightly, whenever I thought about it, was the fact that it was a non-fiction film. And it was still supposed to be incredibly scary.

I'd have to see it to believe it. Now that I've seen it, I believe it.

I'm not even sure if I can think of another documentary that I've seen that was scary at all, let alone possibly one of the 25 scariest movies I've ever seen. I mean, I've seen scary behavior in a documentary. But it was something that was under investigation, something reported dispassionately in the context of the type of research that goes into preparing any documentary. Not something that I thought would give me nightmares.

Well, I'm writing this right as I'm going to sleep, so I can't say for sure about the nightmares. But my wife is already sure she's going to have them. In fact, she's sure she's going to talk herself into the same type of sleep paralysis that is the focus of Rodney Ascher's film, which in fact is described at one point as something that people can talk themselves into -- or rather, something people hear someone else tell them about, then discover themselves having as well because the suggestion was placed into their subconscious. It's like some kind of STD of nocturnal torment.

So I should tell you a bit about this movie. It does indeed deal with a condition affecting some people that has been deemed, for want of a better term, "sleep paralysis." The reason this is a problematic term is that it's not actually a physical condition that is affecting them. People who experience this sleep disorder only think they are actually awake, only think they actually can't move. However, as anyone who has experienced a particularly vivid dream will attest, thinking you're awake is often the mental equivalent of actually being awake, given the similarities in the way your brain processes the things happening to you and feels the corresponding emotions. Once you're actually awake, it's easy to say, "Oh, that was just a dream." But when you're in the dream, no such distinction is possible.

So what seems to happen is that the person will fall asleep, but not realize they've fallen asleep as their dream essentially picks up where reality left off. In other words, it starts out as the world's most realistic dream, essentially creating a seamless bridge between the waking state and the dreaming state, which in turn convinces the dreamer that he or she is still awake. What starts to happen to these unaware dreamers is that they start perceiving things happening to them, right there in their bedroom -- a disturbingly similar set of things. It often starts with what seems like a hallucination of colors in front of them, as well as a tingling in their bodies and a sense of vibration around them. But things only get more sinister from there. People suffering from sleep paralysis usually report hearing something tapping at their bedroom window, or actually feeling a presence that they usually describe as evil in the room. If that weren't enough, they then usually see this presence, which some describe as the three-dimensional shadow of a figure entering the room and coming closer to them, or others compare to that popular image of the alien with the almond-shaped eyes.

What all sufferers have in common: They want to move, but they can't.

They can't roll. They can't shimmy. They can't even twitch. And they certainly can't talk or scream out for help.

It gets worse for some of them. Sometimes this creature talks to them, even screams at them. Other times it appears to climb on top of them. Still other times it causes a sensation of actual pain, pain they say they can still experience upon wakening. It never does anything like transform into a full-on boogeyman with clear features, or start to inflict any actual violence on them. But maybe that's all the worse, because it keeps things on the level of mental torment. In other words, pure fear, none of it based on the practical concern about being sliced in two by an axe or torn limb from limb.

So how, you ask, is this a documentary?

The Nightmare is constructed as a series of interviews with about six people -- mostly from the U.S., but one from England -- who recount their experiences with sleep paralysis, many in eerily similar details to each other. But that doesn't mean this is the entirety of the film's content. Nope, that in itself would be pretty tame.

What Ascher does to terrify us is that he creates visualizations and reenactments of what they're describing, using first-rate special effects to give their words a physical embodiment that is both spine-tingling and palpable.

Is that cheating for a documentary?

No way. Never once does Ascher try to pass this off as anything but a reenactment. That may be a rather obvious statement, but it's probably worth stating clearly. Just because a movie is a documentary does not mean it might not feature actors acting out scenes that are specifically staged as reenactments. The problem is that the use of such a tool is often ineffective, since the reenactments are not usually directed well and come across as clearly artificial. These aren't like that. These are anything but cheesy.

And what's so scary about these reenactments is not the images themselves, which would make effective additions to almost any fiction horror movie but are not in and of themselves original images. In fact, that's kind of the point, that some of the described images may somehow be embedded in the shared unconscious of the human race, and may have in fact helped inspire the monsters that have appeared in the oral, written and cinematic traditions of cultures around the world.

No, what's so scary about these reenactments is that they are things that people said have really happened to them. They weren't just dreamed up by a screenwriter. To these victims, what we see in this movie is real to them. They told Ascher that this is what the figures they saw looked like, and Ascher created figures that looked exactly like that. And now we're seeing those figures.

It would be like if you were describing the guy who mugged you to a police sketch artist, and the artist drew a photorealistic image of what the guy actually looked like.

And once you know that people out there, sane people, have seen frightening images that looked almost exactly like these, or possibly worse -- and that this could potentially happen to you -- well, that's not only going to send a chill down your spine. That's going to send a chill down the chill that's already going down your spine.

What's most horrible for these people is that they don't have just one or two episodes of this. They have one or two episodes a week. Or sometimes they have it occurring nightly for weeks on end, or periodically for years on end. Some of the people interviewed in this movie have suffered the condition their whole lives, and now they are adults.

They know that this stuff is a dream -- they do. In one very clear-cut case of that, a guy describes an experience in which he was not actually paralyzed, and shattered his phone when weird shit started happening to him during an episode. When he awoke a moment later, he discovered his phone still intact by his bedside, and only two minutes having passed since he first started trying to go to sleep.

But just because they know it's not "real" does not make it any less real. If you are scared shitless every night, it hardly matters if what's scaring you is real or not. What matters is that you can't control it, you can't stop it from happening, and you can't stop fear from being the primary emotion that accompanies it. Over time, that's enough to drive the sanest person insane. And when you consider the similarity of the things these people experience reporting, you probably have to ask yourself: Well, isn't it real on some level?

Now the question I'm asking myself is: Is this going to happen to ME? Tonight?

The answer is, "I don't know, but I'm about to find out."

I've written what I've written so far in about the 45 minutes since I finished watching The Nightmare. I guess what I should probably do is publish it now, and write a comment in the morning to tell you if I'm still alive. But I expect that comparatively few of you will read this in its first eight to ten hours live online, so you won't be sitting there, holding your breath, just waiting for me to confirm I survived the night. It would be cool if you were, but let's be real about it. It'll probably be all the same to you if I just include my follow-up in the body of this piece, and it'll save you the work of having to jump to my comments section. (Though if that encouraged you to comment, I guess that would be a happy byproduct.)

So instead I'll just give you a row of asterisks to separate the writing I've done on Halloween night and the writing I hope to do on the morning of Sunday, November 1st.

Because I don't really think I will sleep paralyze myself to death tonight ... do I?

Do I?


Hey there. It's the next morning and I'm okay. I did sleep horribly, though.

The thing is, the reasons for my horrible sleep seem to have had nothing to do with The Nightmare.

They didn't even have anything to do with my nearly two-year-old, who is usually the culprit when my wife and I wake up the next morning more bleary-eyed than usual.

Nope. It was just a shitty night's sleep.

At 1 a.m., I woke up thirsty and too hot. My stomach was also slightly bothered by our pizza dinner. I'd known it was too hot when I'd gone to sleep, but got to sleep anyway. To try to abate the heat, I opened one of our windows, but it was also too windy out. (That's a thing in Melbourne -- being both hot and windy -- though the heat in this case was something that was trapped inside our house.) With the extra wind, the blinds were rattling against the window, which was too noisy. (But did not contribute to a sense of fear that I thought one or both of us may be experiencing.) Still, I ultimately fell asleep again.

At around 3:30, I woke up again, drenched in sweat. My wife had closed the window, and I wasn't about to open it again. So I moved myself to the living room, where I could prop open the living room door and be cooled that way. But I didn't get to sleep immediately. A lot of tossing and turning was first required.

Time to dig our fans out for the season, I guess.

In short, no strange colors. No tingling sensations. No dark figures moving toward me.

Do I sound disappointed? Yeah, I guess a little. But only because that's what a good scary movie does to you. You want to stay in its grip for a little while after you finish it. And I was definitely in The Nightmare's grip in one way or another, even if it was only manifesting itself in me not being able to find that ideal comfy angle in which to repose my body.

If you think a restless night under the covers is the least way you can honor Halloween -- and you've still got your Halloween night viewing ahead of you in the U.S. -- then The Nightmare is available for streaming on Netflix.

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