Have you watched “The Nightmare” on Netflix yet? As in, all of it? If the answer is “yes,” you are a hardier mortal than I.
Maybe it's because I live alone. Maybe it's because I've only tried watching it at night, with the lights out. Maybe it's because I've experienced the utter horror of sleep paralysis on more than one occasion and fear that watching the movie all the way through will somehow trigger it again. But whatever the reason, I haven't been able to finish “The Nightmare” yet. I have tried four times.
I'm writing as someone who yawned through all three “Insidious” movies. I'm writing as someone who watched the excruciating “Martyrs” in a single sitting, no breaks. I'm writing as someone who has seen a lot — a lot — of horror films, and felt gripped by the hand of fear only a handful of times. But “The Nightmare” is different. There's a sense that by watching it all the way through, I might somehow emerge on the other side irrevocably transformed.
Directed by Rodney Ascher, who helmed the languorous, oddly compelling Sundance doc “Room 237,” “The Nightmare” features interviews with eight individuals who suffer or have suffered from sleep paralysis, a condition known to evoke terrifying aural and visual hallucinations involving malevolent “shadow people,” nightmarish voices and strange, bug-eyed alien beings with skin like TV static.
These testimonials — often shot at off-kilter angles and through doorways, in shadowy rooms — are frightening enough, but Ascher goes one step further by staging terrifying recreations of the hallucinations being described (“And that is when the shadow man would come,” one woman relates). The feelings of fight-or-flight terror these images evoke are only heightened by Jonathan Snipes' eerie electronic score, which seethes threateningly behind haunting images of wraith-like figures creeping through bedrooms. In their menacing way, the recreations suggest a more artful episode of “Unsolved Mysteries,” a series that haunted the waking hours of every millenial old enough to remember it.
But “The Nightmare” is scarier than that; indeed, scarier than any narrative horror film or episode of television I have seen over the past year, or even the past ten years. It deals with a real, mysterious phenomenon that is difficult to understand or control, and which brings to terrible life the far-fetched childhood fears your parents forever sought to debunk with a calm hand or a soothing coo. In its most terrifying passages it suggests even another dimension, filled with murderous, evil beings who exist for a single purpose: to drive their unwitting victims insane.
I do plan on finishing it, when I can work up the courage; indeed, it's starting to feel like a challenge now. Sure, I could watch it with other people — in a well-lit living room, with wine and crackers and jokes; or during the day, with bright afternoon light streaming through open windows. But somehow that feels like cheating. Somehow, it feels even like a betrayal. Like a child facing down long-held nocturnal fears, I am doggedly determined to get through “The Nightmare” the way I sense it was meant to be seen: alone, with the lights out.
“The Nightmare” is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.