We spend about a third of our lives asleep, and yet we know very little about sleeping and dreaming. The shroud of mystery around subjects concerning sleep have led many filmmakers to explore the topic in their films.
In this article, I will share 10 movies about sleep and what they teach us. From thrillers to horror films to futuristic science fiction, the explorations of filmmakers have a lot to teach us about sleeping and dreaming.
Continue reading to discover what these movies about sleep can teach us.
1. The Nightmare
It may be a documentary film, but when you’re watching it, you will swear you are watching a horror movie. The subject matter itself is horrifying in nature, as those who have experienced sleep paralysis will tell you.
The participants in the documentary tell stories of being stuck in their own bodies while visions of dark, ominous figures appear to them.
Using interviews and dramatic reenactments with actors, director Rodney Ascher portrays what it feels like for the people who experience sleep paralysis and conveys all of the terror of it.
The Lesson: Sleep paralysis is a terrifying and bizarre phenomenon that about 7.6% of the population experiences at least once in their life.
Sleep paralysis is when a person is unable to move their body upon awakening or right before falling asleep. When you enter REM sleep, your body enters this state naturally to keep you from acting out your dreams, but some people can awake without their body remembering that it should be allowed to move again.
The Nightmare, one of the few documentaries about sleep, focuses specifically on people who experience sleep paralysis with visions of ominous figures. Experts aren’t certain about what causes this, but it is thought to be caused by the mind being somewhere between sleeping and waking.
Dreamscape is a science fiction cult classic that came out in 1984. The main character, Alex Gardner played by Dennis Quaid, is a womanizing gambler and psychic who becomes involved in a government funded psychic research project.
The project centers on entering people’s dreams while they are in their REM cycle to diagnose sleep disorders caused by nightmares. One of the prominent characters in the film is a child tormented by bad dreams that Alex is supposed to help.
Alex soon finds out that the government funded research project is secretly being used for assassinations and that the president is in danger. Despite his less than stellar morality, he takes it upon himself to save the president.
The Lesson: Nightmares are a common occurrence, and you’d be hard pressed to meet a person who never had one. Most nightmares seem to happen in children between the ages of 3 and 6, but there are many adults who experience nightmares on occasion (source).
Nightmare Disorder, like what the young boy was experiencing in Dreamscapes, is not the same as having a nightmare. It is not even regularly having nightmares.
Nightmare disorder is when the nightmares that a person experiences are frequent, disrupt sleep, and impact their life during the day. People with nightmare disorder may fear falling asleep and avoid it at all costs, resulting in a self-inflicted insomnia.
3. Sleepwalk With Me
Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed, and starred in this indie film about a stand up comedian who begins sleeping walking as his life gets increasingly more stressful. It premiered in 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival.
It is made all the more interesting when you discover that it is the true story of Mike Birbiglia’s life. As his long term relationship begins to fail around the time of his sister’s wedding, the pressure to marry his girlfriend mount.
Hiis career is in no better shape, and he soon develops REM sleep behavior disorder which rapidly worsens alongside of the deterioration of his life.
It sounds like sad drama, but the story is told as a comedy as his sleeping walking gets him into some rather comical situations.
The Lesson: Sleepwalking in a movie can be comical, but if you’ve experienced sleepwalking, you know that it is anything but. It is terrifying to think that you are up and doing things while you sleep that you cannot remember.
Sleepwalking is when a person gets up, walks, sometimes speaks, and performs other activities while asleep. They are not awake and will not respond if you speak to them.
Some sleepwalkers do much more than walk when they are in this state. There are documented cases of people cooking, eating, leaving their homes, and even driving while asleep.
You might think sleepwalking is an exceedingly rare condition, but about 3.6% of the population are prone to sleepwalking (source). Most sleepwalking happens between the ages of 4 and 8, but anyone of any age could experience sleepwalking (source).
Sleepwalking can be caused by things like sleep deprivation, drugs or drunkenness, an irregular sleep schedule, or like in Sleepwalk With Me, sleepwalking can be caused by stress, and if you find out that you’re sleepwalking, it will probably cause you even more stress.
4. Fight Club
Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen Fight Club, you might want to watch it before reading this. The narrator and main character, played by Edward Norton, suffers from extreme insomnia. After making a new friend, Tyler Durden, the narrator ends up spending his wakeful nights participating in underground fight clubs.
In a twist, the narrator and the audience discover that the narrator and Tyler are the same person. Tyler did not really exist. The narrator had been doing things as Tyler while he thought he was sleeping.
The Lesson: Insomnia is when a person has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. They do not get enough sleep, but typically do get some. What the narrator suffers through in Fight Club is not possible. The longest a human has ever gone without sleep is 11 days (source).
However, going days without sleep would impact a person’s mental health, and it would do it quickly. After even 24 hours without sleep people could experience increased anxiety, irritability, temporal disorientation, and depersonalization.
After 48 to 90 hours without sleep, a person will begin to experience complex hallucinations, disordered thinking, and delusions. The symptoms are usually alleviated after a getting a good amount of sleep, but not always. (source)
If the Narrator in Fight Club had gone days without sleeping, a psychotic break would be inevitable.
Inception is a mind-blowing science fiction film set in a world where it is capable to enter people’s dreams to spy on them. The main character, Cobb, makes his living doing this until one day he is given a new mission that sound nearly impossible.
Cobb is asked to plant an idea in someone’s mind by manipulating their dreams. The idea is that an idea planted in a dream will have an effect on the actions the person takes.
The movie questions what reality truly is and if the experiences we have in dreams can be just as important as those we have awake.
The Lesson: The time we spend dreaming and the things that happen in those dreams can influence the decisions we make in life. Some scientists believe that our dreams provide solutions to problems (source). The old adage that encourages people to sleep on a problem seems to be true!
While we are dreaming, our minds are able to make broader connections, to see problems differently because the problem is outside of the confines of reality.
People who are trying to find a solution to a problem may dream about it repeatedly as their brain tries to find a solution, but also as it copes with the emotions of the problem.
So, people may not be able to just walk into your dream and plant an idea there, like in Inception, but if they could, it would likely influence your behavior.
6. The Machinist
The Machinist is a psychological thriller about a man named Trevor Reznik, played by Christian Bale. At the beginning of the movie, the audience discovers that Trevor has not slept in a year. He has become completely emaciated, and he is unsure about whether he is losing his mind.
At the beginning, the audience doesn’t know why Trevor is an insomniac or why his health is declining. By the end, the audience discovers that Trevor had accidentally ran over a boy with his truck and that he fled the scene.
From the moment he struck the boy with his truck Trevor had been unable to sleep and his health had dipped. He was being eaten alive by the guilt he carried.
The Machinist ends with Trevor turning himself in and finally getting to sleep, a signal that he is finally beginning his road to redemption.
The Lesson: Insomnia will not cause you to lose weight. In fact, for the most part, insomnia will make you gain weight because your body demands more food to get energy and your cortisol levels will increase.
As we saw in Fight Club, insomnia can cause you to experience instability in your mental health. At the very least, it can cause mood swings and at worst it can cause acute psychosis (source).
More interesting in The Machinist is the cause of Trevor’s insomnia. There are two types of insomnia: primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia is not directly caused by another medical or psychological condition.
Secondary insomnia is caused by another medical condition like asthma or arthritic or another psychological condition like depression or anxiety. Secondary insomnia can also be caused by medication or drugs.
Trevor’s insomnia was primary insomnia. He did not have any medical reason or psychological disorder causing him to be unable to sleep. It was his guilt and the stress associated with killing the boy that caused his sleepless nights.
The Machinist does a good job of showing how insomnia feeds off itself. Many people experience anxiety and angst over missing their sleep, but these feelings only make it harder to fall asleep.
The less sleep you get, the more stressed you become, the harder it becomes to fall asleep and stay asleep. The lack of sleep and the delusions Tyler experiences increase his stress, which only makes it more difficult for him to sleep.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a science fiction romance comedy about Joel Barish, played by Jim Carrey, who keeps meeting the same woman and falling in love with her over and over again. Each time the relationship falls apart, he and his love interest have the memories of their romance extracted from their minds while they sleep.
The movie ends with them discovering their old memories. They decide to stay together and work through the problems in their relationship.
The Lesson: So, a machine that can hide your most painful memories from you for good clearly isn’t real, but this movie still has something to teach us about sleep.
Sleep is very important to long term memory. It is believed that the process of dreaming and reliving life experiences through dreams allows memories to stay with people longer (source).
Additionally, relieving the experiences allows our minds to process the events that happen and make sense of them. We learn from all the experiences we have in life.
Without long term memory, without sleep helping us remember events and process them, we would be doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again without ever learning how to overcome them.
8. Nightmare on Elm Street
Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic horror flick from the 1980s. Freddie Krueger, the monster of the movie, haunts people, generally children, through their dreams and kills them while they sleep.
It is fear that gives Freddie Krueger his power, the fear he inspires in the nightmare just as it is the fear of a nightmare that give it power.
The Lesson: While there is something to say about the power of dreams and nightmare disorder, just like we saw in Dreamscapes, the real interesting thing here is how the protagonist Nancy Thompson avoids sleep.
Nancy tries caffeine pills to keep herself awake. This is a common method people use to stay awake whether it is through caffeine pills, coffee, tea, or soda.
What most people don’t know is that caffeine doesn’t actually give you energy. Caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist. Adenosine is the chemical that makes you feel sleepy. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors preventing adenosine from telling you to go to sleep.
Caffeine can stay in your body for 4 to 7 hours. If you’re having trouble sleeping, cutting out caffeine could help you get some shut eye.
Additionally, Nancy watches movies to help her stay awake. Beyond the fact that television or watching videos on your phone will keep you awake because it keeps your mind active, the blue light emitted from the backlight of these devices has an impact on your circadian rhythm.
9. In My Sleep
In In My Sleep, Marcus (Philip Winchester) suffers from parasomnia. He does things while he is asleep with no memory of them when he wakes up. He wakes up one day covered in blood with a knife by his side wondering what on earth he did.
As you might suspect, in the quest to discover the truth he uncovers who the killer was and why he was suffering with parasomnia.
The Lesson: Parasomnia is an umbrella term used for several different sleep disorders, not just sleepwalking. In In My Sleep, Marcus seems to be suffering from the parasomnia called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder.
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder is a more severe form of sleepwalking. Normally when we enter REM sleep, our body enters a state of paralysis that keeps us from acting out the dreams that occur during REM sleep.
People with REM Sleep Behavior Disorder do not experience this paralysis every time they enter REM sleep, and they will act out their dreams. There are reports of people cooking, driving cars, and even committing crimes all while sleeping.
Considering the dreams some of us have, the thought is absolutely terrifying!
Insomnia is a mystery thriller about a police detective, Cobb, who begins to experience terrible insomnia after he accidentally kills another detective while they are investigating a murder. Cobb tries to cover up the murder. It is set in an Alaskan town where the sun never sets.
The Lesson: While stress is likely the main reason Cobb cannot sleep, the never-ending sunlight also plays a role. How internal clocks are set by the coming and going of sunlight.
Sunlight isn’t the only thing that influences our circadian rhythm, but it is one of the most important external influences.
In the absence of light, our bodies begin to produce melatonin, which signals our bodies to sleep. In constant daylight like that depicted in Insomnia, your body would never start producing melatonin, and you would have trouble feeling drowsy enough to sleep.