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A New Way to Categorize Documentaries / A Brief Review of "The Nightmare" (2015)

The Nightmare is a documentary about sleep paralysis that came out earlier this year to mostly good reviews.  Unlike many documentaries, which are comprised of a wide breadth of interviews from people of various backgrounds, The Nightmare is focused purely on interviews with eight individuals who either currently have the condition or have dealt with it in the past.

The resulting movie leaves me feeling divided and ambivalent.  From the perspective of pure documentary filmmaking, this one has significant flaws - yet the final product is such a riveting and captivating work that I don't want to dismiss it.  I've always believed you should accept a movie on its own terms and review it for what it is rather than what you wanted it to be, so I'm going to use a new term to describe this movie and I hope it catches on: moodumentary.

A moodumentary is a film whose mission is purely to establish and sustain an atmosphere, tone, or mood using the format of documentary filmmaking.  It should be consumed as a fiction-ish work; it's not necessarily made up, but the overall effect is more like a story that's "inspired by true events" rather than any actual facts.

Y'see, it's a little dishonest to simply describe The Nightmare as "a documentary about sleep paralysis," because that implies that the filmmaker wanted to get into detail about the mechanics of sleep, how sleep paralysis sets in, how it has been perceived over time, and so on.  But that's not at all what this is.  Instead, The Nightmare is simply an effective recreation of the dread and terror that comes with knowing that vivid and horrifying nightmares may await you.

As a mood piece, it is fantastic.  The participants' retellings of their nightmares are vivid and detailed.  The reenactments and dramatizations are genuinely creepy, even though they rely on jump scares a little too much.  And when the storytellers start venturing into the territory of the paranormal as they postulate what may be causing their paralysis and what the dreams mean, you get a clear sense of the staggering confusion that results from being unable to discern reality from dream.

The film is so fantastic at creating this tension that I can't bring myself to criticize it for its academic failures.  It would be like looking at a Van Gogh and saying, "Sure, it's atmospheric, but you can't make out any of the details in those buildings.  Try again, Vince."

And that's why I want to review it as a moodumentary rather than a documentary, because if I call it a "documentary," then I have to take it to task for being imbalanced and unscientific in its approach.  The movie lends an incredible amount of weight to the participants' casual dismissal of their experience as physiological - at least three of them describe their paralysis in religious terms, and at least one of them explicitly describes her experience as a literal encounter with demons.  There are no experts to provide a counterpoint, which means that if you were to look at this as an objective account, the inference you'd have to make is, "There aren't any good counterpoints.  Sleep paralysis cannot be explained by science.  Therefore, demons."

This assertion is categorically false - we know enough about what it is that we can describe the mechanisms that cause it even if we can't fully explain why those mechanisms occur.  We certainly don't know everything about it, and we certainly should be studying it more, but to cast all that aside is dishonest.

...or at least, it would be if this was a pure documentary.  Which it's not.

Here's a great example of how the documentary/moodumentary distinction is alternately a flaw and a strength.  There's a part where an interviewee relates how he shared his experience with a friend, and that friend went on to have an episode of sleep paralysis that night.  He then extrapolates from that and supposes that sleep paralysis could be like a "Sleep-Transmitted Disease": simply hearing about sleep paralysis can make you more susceptible to it.

I strongly suspect this assertion is wrong and is just a case of confirmation bias rather than any kind of statistically validated phenomenon, but damn, that's a good way to incite horror.  I won't lie: the night after I watched this, I had a hard time falling asleep because I kept thinking, "If I'm thinking about sleep paralysis, it'll come and get me."  It's just Freddy Kruger all over again.  (Appropriate, since the documentary invokes Nightmare on Elm Street multiple times.)

So, I guess the bottom line is this: if you watch it as a documentary, this is probably a 2 or a 2.5 out of 5.  It's unscientific, biased, purely anecdotal, and incredibly shallow.  But if you watch it as a moodumentary, this is at least a 4 out of 5.  It's tense, unsettling, and incredibly engaging.

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