In one of the most jarring scenes from The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s “subjective documentary” about sleep paralysis, we’re made to consider the possibility that the recurring figures who have haunted people’s dreams for as long as anyone can remember may not be archetypes of our subconscious, but actual beings who’ve learned how to travel between alternate dimensions. Ascher visualizes this by depicting our individual consciousnesses as interconnected sets on a movie soundstage, through which these shadow fiends have free reign to roam. The limits of human perception make it so we only catch glimpses of these malicious forces–but those glimpses are more than enough to drive some of us mad.
This scene wouldn’t feel out of place in any of Ascher’s darkly humorous and psychologically unnerving documentaries (minus one), a list that includes a nine-minute short about logophilia, The S from Hell (2010); his debut feature Room 237 (2012), which collects a number of wild fan theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; the aforementioned exploration of the human dreamscape, The Nightmare (2015); the pilot for a (sadly) unproduced series about traumatic media memories, Primal Screen (2017); and his latest, A Glitch in the Matrix (2021), which explores the mind-warping belief that we are living within an artificially constructed reality.
All these films, up to and including Matrix—his most ambitious and imaginative yet—layer first-person testimony over intermedia montage, dramatic recreations and a Brechtian aesthetic to create a surreal experience that routinely dips headlong into the uncanny valley. The combination has a two-fold effect, imbuing his films with the same eldritch terror described by his subjects when recounting their individual hallucinations, revelations, and recollections, even as it allows the viewer to gradually work out the overarching psychological and cultural forces shaping these stories.
Because all of his documentaries are either centered around or heavily feature individual media—most notably movies (The Shining, Magic, The Matrix), but also television shows and commercials, graphic and fine art, video games, literature—Ascher has been described as a pop culture anthropologist. But this is selling him short. His main interest is not in the ephemera of entertainment, but in humanity’s search for some grand Universal Truth. It’s this ever-elusive quest that drives people to look for hidden signs and signals everywhere—in art, media and technology, yes; but also their own dreams and memories—and which, when left unchecked, can quickly turn into debilitating obsession.
In this regard, Ascher may actually be the single documentarian who has best captured the spirit of our age, for the obsession on display in his films is the same that lay at the heart of modern conspiracy theory and which found its ultimate political expression in the Capitol Riots of 1/6/21. And while a huge moral gulf exists between someone who reads The Shining as a secret apologia for faking the moon landing and someone who declares that a school shooting was staged or a fair election was rigged, the same cognitive dissonance is evident in both cases.
Similarly, many who would laugh at or denounce such conspiracy-driven worldviews display the same thinking in their literalist approach art—after all, how are the people who find hidden meaning in every background prop or continuity error within The Shining any different from those who comb through the latest Marvel movie looking for Easter eggs? How does the person who takes that film’s subtext for its entire meaning differ from those who go to YouTube to watch ‘___ Explained’ videos? Is there really any disparity between some armchair expert claiming to know what Kubrick was really thinking and the knee-jerk ideologue who regularly mistakes artistic depiction for personal endorsement? A quick perusal of film discourse on social media makes it clear that we are all living in Room 237.
Unsurprisingly, the reception to that film was driven by much of this same thinking, with any number of viewers complaining that by not adding any overarching commentary, Ascher was lending his subject’s theories credence. No doubt A Glitch in the Matrix will brook similar responses, even though it, more than any of his other films, takes care to show how these solipsistic, literalist worldviews can lead to truly terrible reckonings.
And yet, it would be wrong to reduce Ascher’s films to mere cautionary tales, just as it is wrong to view them only (or even primarily) through a materialist lens. Their true power is derived not from whatever political, psychological or sociological insight they contain—although that all certainly adds to their power—but from the mysterious liminal spaces they occupy, and the attendant terrors they find therein. Because while there is obvious trauma undergirding many of the individual experiences shared by his subjects (trauma that manifests itself in paranoia, obsession, phobias, illness and even violence) there is also a deeper cosmology at work.
As embodied by that scene from The Nightmare, at the heart of each of Ascher’s film lies the truly disturbing idea that beyond our reality lies another, one controlled or at least populated by sinister forces (the dimension-hopping dream demons within The Nightmare are not dissimilar to those purely fictional phantoms that haunt The Overlook Hotel or the machines that control the Matrix), who reveal only glimpses of themselves through eerie and intractable sensations, synchronicities and symbols.
It’s something humans have wrestled with forever, a feeling we just can’t shake and so have built entire philosophical (Plato’s Parable of the Cave), psychological (Jung’s Collective Unconscious), scientific (simulation hypothesis, the multiverse theory), and mythological (from old accounts of faerie sightings to modern stories of alien abduction) concepts around in order to pin it down.
But the idea finds its greatest purchase within our art, from ancient folklore to modern examples of cosmic horror and weird sci-fi, which allows us to, in the words of the Coen Brothers (who themselves have played with this concept), “accept the mystery.” Ascher’s films fit nicely within this tradition, along-side the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, David Lynch, and, yes, Stanley Kubrick–artists who routinely attempt to pull back the veil of everyday reality in order to locate the source of this world’s madness.
This, perhaps, is Ascher’s greatest feat: once you immerse yourself in his work, it becomes hard to describe it without sounding like one of his subjects.