“There’s nothing we can do when it chooses to visit us, but to breathe, keep our eyes open, and wait for morning.”
It’s not often that one of your dearest friends appears in a feature documentary. In fact, the closest I’ve come to that is when a high school classmate, was interviewed on our local TV station when they did a special feature on bulimia. We naturally celebrated her brief moment in the local spotlight as we focused more on the fact that she was on TV than on her brave confession on her ordeal with bulimia.
It wasn’t long ago that my friend, Kate Angus texted me that she was going to appear in some documentary about sleep paralysis. We soon forgot about it, then months later, she texted me “they’re coming over to shoot the documentary at my apartment—OMG, I’ve spent the whole day cleaning!” “Who is the director,” I asked. “Rodney Ascher. He did some documentary a year ago that got good reviews.” I replied, “That’s awesome!” It was then that I took this thing more seriously. However, knowing that Asher is the director of Room 237, I thought, God I hope he doesn’t make her look like a nut case! Over the following months, I kept my thoughts and fears to myself, and did as any good friend would, telling Kate that she would be fine and most importantly—if she did come off a little crazy—I was certain she would, at least, look pretty.
In Rodney Ascher’s 2011 documentary Room 237, he assembles a collection of slightly off (I’m being kind) interviewees who discuss their various conspiracy theories around the film The Shining. This time, in The Nightmare he assembles a collection of similarly likable if not awkward interviews where the victims of a disorder known as sleep paralysis retell their worst nightmares. The disorder, where a patient is stuck in a conscious, dream-like state while physically paralyzed, is accompanied with terrifying nightmares and the specific visit of a shadowy figure—sometimes sporting a Freddy Kruger like hat.
Kate was approached by Ascher, a confessed victim of the phenomenon himself, after he found an article in The Toast that she wrote in 2014 titled “The Dark Thing Beside You: Night Hags and Sleep Paralysis,” where she recounts her own experiences related to sleep paralysis.
The Nightmare opens this weekend in theaters and on VOD. Of course I had to take advantage of my friend’s “fifteen minutes,” and so we met at a crowded East Village wine bar for drinks, an interview, and a chance for me to go on the record by saying, “Kate, I’m so relieved that you don’t look or sound crazy.” —John David West
“The word nightmare originates from sleep paralysis and its accompanying hallucinations. The Anglo-Saxons believed in a ghastly nocturnal visitor known as the mare (from the Old Norse mara); a night hag who would sit on sleepers’ chests and strangle them.”—Kate Angus
West: How did Rodney Asher find you?
Angus: Somebody from his production team, emailed me, and said that Rodney was coming to NY to interview a couple people and would I want to be one of them.
West: Did you know what you were getting into?
Angus: I didn’t think about it. I googled him, and I saw that he had one documentary out (Room 237), which got good reviews—but which I did not actually watch. I didn’t do my due diligence.
West: [Laughs] Had you watched it, you might not have wanted to do the interview.
Angus: But I have so many friends making docs, so when I see them go through the long process—Marah Strauch (Sunshine Superman), and my friend Barak who has been working on a documentary about a band [Silver Apples] for a number of years. So, I’ve been watching two friends that I adore go through the lengthy process of making a doc, trying to get people to talk to them, so now I have this inherent and ingrained desire to help somebody making a doc. So, I was like, well he seems reputable, he got good reviews. Here’s a man making a documentary and I want to be helpful. I didn’t really think about it all that carefully. I’m currently in a stage where I’ll say yes to whatever—we live in an unpredictable world, it might be fun! So I said yes and I kind of forgot about it.
West: How did you prepare?
Angus: I didn’t. I forgot. Then a few days before they were due to interview me, they called. Then I freaked out. Because they were going to film in my apartment. So instead of watching his other movie, I freaked out about cleaning my apartment. I just didn’t think about the fact that this is a documentary and that anything I say can be in the movie.
West: So you didn’t do any prep for the interview?
Angus: What is there to prep, David? It’s my life. They were going to ask me about my experiences. My preparation was cleaning my apartment. Oh, and deciding what to wear and putting on some eyeliner before they came over.
West: Did you think about that fact that it might be a movie that’s released in theaters?
Angus: I didn’t really think about that. I didn’t realize how much trust I had given to them until well after the fact. Then I was, oh, god, what if I look like a crazy person in this sleep paralysis documentary—they could make me look like a lunatic.
West: I remember when you texted me that you had been asked to do the movie. It wasn’t until long after you agreed [to be in the film] that I did my own due diligence and realized that this was the same director of Room 237—a movie I very much enjoyed—and that the interviewees were a bit kooky. Some were really kooky. Did you worry how you might sound?
Angus: Not really, I didn’t think about it at the time. I wished that I had. When I teach I have a teaching filter, so I don’t swear that often. But I don’t generally use—[laughs] what they call blue language—in my teaching. If I had thought about it, I would’ve remembered not to swear. Because that’s what bothers me the most about being in this documentary is, “oh, no I swear so much! My mother will be appalled.” [laughs] It’s shameful. I use bad language. I’m a failure as a WASP. I’m a WASPY failure.
Angus: But not on film, David.
West: They didn’t do any reenactment with your story.
Angus: No. Because I’m the most boring.
West: [laughs] Thank god!
Angus: I know.
West: Ascher didn’t interview any scientist or psychologist. You’re actually the closest thing to that.
Angus: I am the closest thing to a scientist or psychologist that they used and that’s not my normal hat. I’m glad I didn’t’t get a reenactment like the spiders, or the giant claw or the woman who had sex with her creature. I was glad that my sleep paralysis is so normal.
West: Is it stress related.
Angus: The last time I had it was when I saw a guy killed on the L train so yes.
West: When you in experiencing sleep paralysis are you aware that you’re in it?
Angus: Yes, I know it now. I mean the first time that it happened; I didn’t know what it was. I thought somebody broke into my building and they were going to rape and murder me. Then I looked up what I experienced on the Internet the next day and I found sleep paralysis. So I thought, “Oh, that’s what I have” and then ever since that first time, it wasn’t scary to me. It became sort of a metaphor, that’s how I rationalize it: in life, the few times I’ve had it have happened during times where I was figuratively paralyzed—during a stretch after grad school when I couldn’t find a job or when I saw someone die and couldn’t help them. Awake, I couldn’t change the external circumstances around me, so in sleep, I had sleep paralysis.
West: That’s why you didn’t get a reenactment! Yours wasn’t horrifying to you or the viewer.
Angus: Yeah, it was weirdly comforting; it was like, “Hey, there! Hi, Sleep Paralysis.”
“Only New Guinea legend offers sleep paralysis not as thing to be feared, but rather as something potentially beautiful.” –Kate Angus
West: You touched upon the similar sleep paralysis shadows appear in different cultures.
Angus: Yeah, I really like the one [Asher] featured from New Guinea, tribe that believe paralysis comes from sacred trees, they need to feed on human essence to keep going, but they’re polite so they don’t want to do it while you’re awake, so they paralyze you while you’re asleep and feed on you then. But, sometimes you wake up in the middle [of a feeding] and that’s why you have sleep paralysis.
West: It’s a nice spin on it. But of the shadowy figures are terrifying to the interviewees.
Angus: I’m such an optimist about the world, so naturally I see a weird dark figure and I think “why wouldn’t it be nice?”
West: Hm? I’m from the Midwest too and I have to say that I don’t think I would react the same way. I mean some of the interviewees had really dramatic, life changing, reactions to their shadow figures. One girl turned to Christianity.
Angus: Yeah, well, OK, this is me speculating—I don’t know these people—and it’s probably unfair of me to speculate but I also wonder if they’ve had additional trauma in their lives.
West: Most people have some horrors in their past.
Angus: True, yes, everyone has something in the past that affects them and it can cause trauma, but my life was really – not – that – bad. I don’t mean to impose. I mean it not fair of me to put a narrative on other people.
West: The people in Room 237 appear a bit more crazy and weird than they are in this movie.
West: They are, well with their wild—although entertaining, conspiracy theories and odd obsessions on [Kubrick’s] The Shining.
Angus: I believe Rodney interviewed a lot of people, and I’m sure there were a fair amount of people with boring stories like mine that didn’t make it into the film. But, since I’m a teacher, I’m pretty good at presenting boring material in an entertaining manner. It’s what I’m paid to do, with my meager little teaching salary.
West: But you didn’t embellish your story or experience
Angus: No, no, no, in fact it’s pretty boring, so clearly not.
West: Did your shadow figure wear a hat?
Angus: No. He didn’t have a hat. He was like Death from the Seventh Seal, but he didn’t have a face—or a hood, just that shape. It didn’t really have arms.
West: Oh my god. That’s scary. Wait, what makes him masculine?
Angus: It didn’t feel especially gendered but I guess it was masculine.
West: But what makes it masculine?
Angus: I don’t know. Maybe there’s more appeal in the masculine, maybe I have a patriarchy default setting.
West: Actually a lot of the [interviewees] saw masculine figures. There didn’t seem to be any women shadows.
Angus: Well, how do you know? I mean they weren’t chanting “I’m a man, I’m a man!” Or holding up a Playboy centerfold.
West: [laughs] They weren’t shadow lady figures with big racks either.
Angus: I’m a little offended by that. Even in the shadow world, you’re imposing cultural norms of beauty on women, you monster.
Our server, Marianne arrived just in time to check on us. After some polite customer-server talk we learned that Marianne was a wine and spirits specialist and asked her to create a drink for us. Something with cardamom, yuzu and gin.
West: Would you ever appear as an interviewee in a doc again?
Marianne brought our drinks especially created for us, to which we toasted documentaries and shadow spirits.
West: Kate, what would you do differently?
Kate took a generous sip of her icy cocktail of yuzu, gin, orange juice, and ginger and cardamom bitters
Angus: I wouldn’t swear as much!