A documentary about sleep paralysis. Does it provide insights or does it make us all want to sleep?


I actually forgot to finish this review for a couple days after watching the movie, which I suppose doesn’t bode well. The Nightmare is a documentary discussing sleep paralysis with eight individuals afflicted by the disorder (note: I use the term disorder because nothing else really fits). Documentaries are a strange genre when one steps back and examines them from a distance. Are they meant to be informative or entertaining? Both perhaps.

In my opinion, a successful documentary must relay the information to the audience in an easily consumable way while also being watchable. There are two sides to a documentary, the topic and the directing. For example, a boring topic directed well could be as engaging as an interesting topic directed in a less sophisticated manner.

The Nightmare boasts a fascinating topic. Sleep paralysis and the visions people see during the episodes have influenced countless films, stories, and imaginations. However, the directing and layout of the film detracts greatly from the people and the topic. First and foremost, the film is poorly lit. I am fine with the cheap special effects for the “scare” scenes, but during the interviews they could have turned on the lights. The lighting and directing is so poor that I was not certain the film was a documentary at first—I wondered if it was a sort of found footage story.

Obviously, it is a documentary. However, the topic and name “sleep paralysis” do not appear until quite deep into the film. Someone who was not familiar with the disorder would be confused as to what the people were actually talking about. As I tell my students, you don’t want your reader confused as they are going through your argument.

One of the obnoxious aspects of the documentary is the absolute void of medical opinion. We hear what doctors have said through the participants, but there is zero medical representation. Documentaries do not have to be balanced (though it would be nice) and I am fine with them pushing a particular argument, but it just seemed lazy. I wanted to know more about the issue from a medical perspective. What studies have been done? That would have been a decent place to start.

I would never deny the existence of sleep paralysis, but without any sort of verification present in the film, it isn’t clear if there was any vetting of the participants. The credibility of the documentary is hurt by the complete lack of ethical discussion about where the information comes from. Why these particular eight people were chosen is never explained.

I appreciate that the narrative had a shoestring budget, but the special effects portions are terrible. Now, that shouldn’t matter, the content is the more important—blah blah blah. Truth be told, the cheesiness of the costuming, and the odd attempts at jump scares in a documentary make the whole thing appear as cheap. There is a level of exploitation in the presentation of this disorder. The participants’ suffering is used primarily for our entertainment. Even if the intention of the film was to spread awareness, it could have done so in a manner other than “wow, that sucks for them,” which is just about all you can say about it by the end.

The purpose of the documentary is still elusive to me. I learned nothing new other than personal experience. A cause or a cure remains in the ether. The people who were interviewed deserve better than their portrayal in this film. 3/10

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