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As with many strange phenomena, much of the conversation about sleep paralysis tends to come in the form of the debate between skeptics and believers as to whether these bizarre experiences are ‘real’ in any way, or just odd tricks of the brain. But what that discussion often lacks is acknowledgement that – to those who ‘suffer’ from sleep paralysis – the experience feels real. Which makes the often-terrifying aspects of these experiences just that much more visceral and traumatic.

In a post on sleep paralysis here early last year I noted that Rodney Ascher – director of the acclaimed Stanley Kubrick-related documentary Room 237 – was seeking sleep paralysis experiencers for a new documentary he was beginning work on.

I’ve been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)… The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who’ve had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what’s really happening to them).

Ascher has now finished his documentary, simply titled The Nightmare, which is being released this week in selected cinemas as well as on iTunes and other ‘Video on Demand’ outlets. And, as befits a director whose last documentary was about The Shining, by all reports the new release manages to capture well the horror experienced by people upon waking in the dead of night:

In a recent interview with Vice, Ascher tells how finding a community of experiencers, and scientific explanations, helped him cope with his own bouts of sleep paralysis – but still left nagging questions that continue to fascinate him:

I was convinced it was a supernatural experience—I thought I was in danger of demonic possession, and it took a long time before any alternate explanations offered themselves up to me.

…this had happened to me when the internet was in its earliest days, so there wasn’t really anything that I could use to research what I had experienced. I think if I did, I wouldn’t have looked it up as a sleep disorder. I would’ve been researching something about, like, ghosts and the supernatural, which is how it felt to me. When I decided to research it a little bit, and see if I could find other people sharing their experiences or find scientific explanations for what was going on, I was astonished to see the sheer number of people out there who had gone through it; who were telling the details of their stories, some of which were even more bizarre and frightening than my own, in a way that they were starting to understand what had happened to them. That was fascinating to me, and made it clear that there was a bigger story here.

But none of that stuff gets at questions of, well, why do different people see the same thing? Or if people are all dreaming similar things, should there be a clearer understanding of what dreams mean? The questions I’m interested in about why people see what they see and how they struggle to make sense of this stuff are questions that aren’t strictly scientific.

You can keep up with the latest news and release dates for The Nightmare via the documentary’s Facebook page.

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