“Never Sleep Again”: Horror Movies and Sleep

When you sleep, no one can here you scream! Difficulties with sleeping are incredibly common, and perhaps this is why the idea carries into horror films spanning across almost a century. From some of the earliest silent expressionist horrors, to the ubiquity of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, to more recent cinematic scares, the idea and altering of sleep is found. For your own sleeping problems, you may consider entering the Sleep Advisor Sweepstakes – where a range of gadgets designed to aid sleep are part of a ‘better sleep’ themed giveaway. But first, let’s take a look at how sleep has played a central role in the history of horror films.

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One of the earliest examples, and one of the most influential early horror movies is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The silent German film from 1920 is viewed as the pinnacle of German Expressionist cinema. It follows a hypnotist who carries out murders using a sleepwalker. Crucially, the film was the first to use abstract methods of communicating with the audience that the central character is asleep. Remember, there was no sound to accompany the story, and no dialog to advance the plot. Instead the film is filled with abstract and distorted set pieces,  exaggerated shadows and jagged design to communicate the idea of a feverish nightmare. Film critic Roger Ebert described it as “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives”. All these design elements were the basis for a common idea in even modern horror films – the blurred line between realities, between being asleep and awake.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Heading into more modern territory we continue to see sleep as a source of horror in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Spanning a long list of sequels, spin off TV shows, video games and comics; it’s clear the core idea of the series has lasting appeal. Director Wes Craven was originally inspired to write the first film in the Freddy universe after hearing news reports about Southeast Asian refugees who had died suddenly while asleep. Most were young men who, haunted by memories of war and poverty were tormented by nightmares and refused to sleep. When they did eventually sleep, several died with no obvious reason. “It was a series of articles in the LA Times, three small articles about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and had died in the middle of nightmare” explained Craven.

Much like in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Craven wanted his film to have a distinct visual style to show the distortion of the nightmare world. While the house and school settings at first appear normal, when characters slip into dreams they begin to warp. The filmmakers designed a complex device to rotate an entire set, in order to make the movements during Tina’s death scene more otherworldly and unnatural. There are no boundaries between the floor and the ceiling as she is dragged around the room by an invisible force, signalling to the audience watching that these deaths do not take place in our reality.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

These ideas continue to have an influence on modern horror releases. Insidious explored astral projection – the idea that a human can explore other dimensions while their physical body remains motionless, seemingly in a deep sleep. In the film, characters are able to travel to ‘The Further’, a nightmarish realm filled with demons. There is also the documentary The Nightmare, screened at horror festivals across the world and praised for its insight into real life sleep disorders. It looks at sleep paralysis, a phenomenon where people find themselves temporarily unable to move, in a state between dreams and waking.

Let us know some of your favourite sleep themed horror movies, and make sure you chase off any nightmares with the Sleep Advisor Sweepstakes.