Sleep is becoming one of the crisis points of late modernity, as the steady encroachment of the “24/7” plugged-in world only intensifies sleep’s already uncanny nature.[i] To sleep is to slip into a realm of darkness, irrationality, and the supernatural, a realm that is not only profoundly opposed to the contemporary illuminated world but that has always lain uncomfortably close to death. Indeed, the Western way of sleeping has been described as a “lie down and die” model.[ii] To walk or talk while sleeping, in particular, is to act in ways divorced from the world of light and reason, to act without volition and the consent of the mind. The body that acts becomes something other than the person it appears to be, producing uncanny doubles and evoking the profoundly uncanny uncertainty as to whether, as philosopher Dylan Trigg puts it, “‘I’ am truly identifiable with my body itself.”[iii] Horror films in the twenty-first century in particular have turned to sleep to exploit its inherent uncanniness and the way it suggests that we are not always in control of who we are and what we do.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)
Before sleep became the subject of professionalized medicine in the US, and before it became such a hot topic of horror in the 21st century, it nonetheless was dangerous terrain. Invasion of the Body Snatchers warns that to fall asleep is to risk being taken over by an alien being, robbed of all human emotion and individuality. As it often is, sleep was a metaphor in this case, alerting Americans to the possibility of being taken over by Communists or by the force of American conformity in the post-war years. But Invasion also represented quite dramatically how we become someone (something) other than our conscious self—an alien being—for roughly eight hours a night.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)
Wes Craven’s well-known 80s horror film can be read as a literal rendering of the horrors of sleep paralysis. In Rodney Ascher’s documentary about this disorder, The Nightmare (2015), one of his subjects tells of watching Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street one day and immediately realizing that the film rendered nearly perfectly her experience of sleep paralysis. Later on, the documentary raises Nightmare on Elm Street again with a rare interjection by the man behind the camera, who tells one of his subjects (who is speaking of the strange deaths of numerous Hmong immigrants in their sleep in the late 1970s and 1980s) that Craven read an article about this phenomenon and it “helped inspire ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and Freddy Krueger, which,” he continued, “went on to create a weird feedback loop inspiring other people’s nightmares and sleep paralysis experiences.”[iv]
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)
Peli’s famously features a woman who becomes possessed by a demon after a string of strange occurrences in her and her boyfriend’s house. But before Katie (Katie Featherstone) is possessed, she sleepwalks—getting up in the middle of “Night #15,” standing by the bed, and then walking downstairs. When Micah (Micah Sloat) makes Katie watch the footage of herself in the morning, she’s incredulous. “I don’t remember anything. . . I don’t remember standing there.” Continuing to watch, she refers to herself as “I” but talks as if she was another person: “I’m freaking leaving the room. . . . Did I talk to you?” Katie then repeats all of these activities on “Night #21” when she’s demonically possessed, brilliantly suggesting that the alienation of sleepwalking, which robs you of your conscious self, is similar to demonic possession.
Insidious (James Wan, 2010)
The plot of Insidious is centered on “astral projection” as both father and son, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Dalton, are able to leave their bodies while they sleep and travel in what appear to be dreams. Again, as in Paranormal Activity, the separation of body and self (or soul) during sleep offers opportunities to demonic spirits, who seek to take over the body while the conscious mind is absent. Insidious cleverly double the Lamberts’ house with “The Further,” where the demonic spirits live. And just as the house is doubled, so is the person, split between the conscious waking self and an unconscious sleeping self that, as in Paranormal Activity, seems the terrain of the demonic.
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013)
There’s lots of disordered sleep in The Conjuring, including most obviously Cindy’s sleepwalking, which is one of many instances in which non-possessed characters sleepwalk in the presence of demonic spirits (this also happens in Slumber). But the moment when the mother, Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), becomes possessed significantly conjures up famous artistic renderings of sleep paralysis. Exhausted because of the strange goings on in her house (and because she has five children), Carolyn takes a nap one afternoon, only to discover a terrifying hag on top of her. Because this moment, which is the moment Carolyn becomes “possessed” and starts trying to kill her children, is also evocative of sleep paralysis, it helps keep what Carolyn does in the mundane, psychological realm as well as the supernatural.
The Nightmare (Rodney Ascher, 2015)
A documentary that follows eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis. For the most part, Ascher lets them speak for themselves with little commentary, although his subjects are played by actors as he tries to recreate the experiences they describe. There are striking similarities among their experiences, not only the paralysis that is characteristic of the disorder but the hallucinations they have—figures that look human but aren’t, that are black or faceless, always moving inexorably toward the sufferer. Commenting on the famous cross-cultural similarities of experiences of sleep paralysis, one subject asks, “Why wouldn’t we have similar archetypes in our brain? We’re all human.”
Paralysis, short (Robin Shanea Williams, 2015)
A fascinating short film that uses sleep paralysis to depict the psychological deterioration, even splitting, of its troubled main character (Nia Fairweather).
I review the film here.
And you can watch the film on Vimeo:
The Break-In (Justin Doescher, 2016)
Shot completely on an iphone by first-time director Justin Doescher, The Break-In centers on engaged couple, Jeff (Justin Doescher) and Melissa (Maggie Binkley) , who are expecting a baby. Jeff has just got a new phone and is filming much of what the couple does (similar to Micah’s enthusiasm for his new camera in Paranormal Activity). Jeff has also recently installed security cameras and an alarm in their house as there has been a string of break-ins in his neighborhood. The only other characters in this small cast are Jeff and Melissa’s next-door-neighbors and long-time friends, Steve and Lisa, as well as Detective Garcia, who appears a few times to question Jeff and Melissa about the break-ins. With many similarities to Paranormal Activity, The Break-In’s difference, and what makes it interesting, is that it remains in the realm of unrelenting normalcy. The film shows the dangers of sleep period, with none of the intrusion of the supernatural that characterizes all of the other films on this list.
I review the film here.
Dead Awake (Phillip Guzman, 2016)
Dead Awake follows twin sisters Beth and Kate Bowman (Jocelin Donahue). Suffering from terrifying visions and paralysis while she sleeps, Beth goes with her sister to consult Dr. Sykes at the Somna Center for Sleep Science and Medicine. Sykes asserts that Beth is suffering from sleep paralysis, offering a scientific explanation. When Beth insists that she’s also been seeing horrible things, Sykes adds that in “severe cases,” people can hallucinate, but that sleep paralysis is, in the end, “harmless.” Shortly after this visit, though, Beth dies in her sleep—and then Kate, too, starts suffering from paralysis when she sleeps, experiencing the presence of a strange, evil threat—a terrifying, dark, hag-like figure dragging itself toward her. Finding Sykes to be no help, Kate joins with the less conventional Dr. Hassan Davies, who believes that both Beth and Kate are suffering from “Old Hag’s Syndrome,” and that what they experience is a real and deadly threat inhabiting the “space where dreams and reality meet.” He insists that the “old hag” attacks those who believe in her and who are weak and psychologically vulnerable—and that she can be fought and controlled. But can she?
Late in Dead Awake, there is a great shot of the uncanny double that features so often in films about sleep. Kate is not only doubled in the frame—she is both awake, standing at the left of the frame, and asleep on the couch—but she hallucinates her dead twin sister, Beth (also played by Donahue). This shot perfectly encapsulates the problems of identity and agency inherent in sleep paralysis. The “real” Kate is on the couch, but she is asleep and paralyzed, unable to move or, indeed, do anything besides witness the hallucinations playing out in her head. The Kate who is standing to the left is the embodiment of Kate’s mind, split from her body and struggling to exert some sort of reason and agency. She will soon rush over to the couch to try to wake herself up, exerting her limited power to fend off the nocturnal attacker. This frame—and the film itself—perfectly illustrates the problem of identity that all these films about sleep explore.
Slumber (Jonathan Hopkins, 2017)
Dr. Alice Arnold (Maggie Q) became a sleep doctor after her brother killed himself while apparently sleep walking when they were children. She meets a family who are collectively terrorized by something that comes at night: the boy suffers from sleep paralysis while his mother, father, and sister all sleepwalk. Notably, the film marks the rise in both sleep disorders and sleep medicine in the 21st century. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) was established in 1975, and, as of 2005, the AASM had accredited 710 facilities, including 610 sleep centers. By the beginning of 2013, however, in a startling leap, the AASM reported that it had just accredited its 2,500th sleep center.[v]
Some of the most chilling sequences of Slumber occur within the sleep center as the family’s paralysis and sleep walking are captured on the center’s cameras. In the end, Slumber frames sleep disorders as a kind of parasite, suggesting the contagious nature of disturbed sleep in the plugged-in era of constant work and social media. And its ending, in particular, shows that we can never trust in the stability and unity of our selves. Do we know who anyone is? Who we are? The ending suggests not.
Also of interest—and showing how common a theme sleep has become in 21st-century horror:
Marianne (Filip Tegstedt, 2011); Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012); Before I Go to Sleep (Rowan Joffé, 2014); Don’t Sleep (Rick Bieber, 2017); Before I Wake (Mike Flanagan, 2016).
[i] See Jonathan Crary’s really interesting book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2014).
[ii] Shelley Adler, Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2011), 75.
[iii] Dylan Trigg, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 35.
[iv] Several articles have also reported Craven as saying the unexplained Hmong deaths were an inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street. See, for instance, Sean O’Connell, “A Nightmare on Elm Street Was Inspired by This Horrific True Story,” , CinemaBlend, https://www.cinemablend.com/new/Nightmare-Elm-Street-Was-Inspired-By-Horrific-True-Story-67798.html
[v] “Sleep Centers Increase to Highest Number Ever,” Huffington Post, January 3, 2013. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/sleep-centers-highest-number-american-academy-of-sleep-medicine_n_2366719.html.