The Real Sleep Science Behind Some of My Favorite Spooky Sleep Movies (Just in Time for Halloween!)

(just in time for Halloween!).

I love movies, including scary ones (yes, I’m the one who actually covers his eyes and then peeks out). And—no surprise here—I’m always curious about how sleep is portrayed and used as a plot in films. Think about it: there are a lot of movies, including a bunch of scary ones, that rely on sleep experiences to tell a story. Hello? Nightmare on Elm Street, anyone?

I was reading last week about a book that examines the science behind Stephen King’s novels. (I’m also a fan of those.) I thought, what a cool idea. So, this Halloween week, I thought we’d have some fun and take a look at the science behind some movies that have sleep themes. Grab your popcorn!

The sleep science behind Inception and Dreamscape: lucid dreaming

With his recent release of Tenent, Director Christopher Nolan is in the news, but his prior movie Inception is my current favorite, and my all-time favorite classic Dreams film is DreamScape with Dennis Quaid. These are two awesome sci-fi thrillers that are all about sleep and dreaming. Inception is about a criminal “dream stealer” (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who conducts corporate espionage by invading peoples’ dreams in order to manipulate them and steal secrets. The director of Inception has said the inspiration for this story came from the sleep phenomenon of lucid dreaming.

Dreamscape also involves dropping into other peoples’ dreaming lives. In this movie from the ‘80s, a teenager with psychic abilities is put into a secret government program that trains people to enter the dreams of others. Before long, the teenager (played by a younger Dennis Quaid) is being used to try to manipulate the US president through the president’s dreams.

The real-life sleep science of lucid dreams:

We can’t control other peoples’ dreams, but some of us can control our own. That’s lucid dreaming: the awareness of being in a dream and the ability to control the dream you’re in.

I’ve written about lucid dreaming before, including here and here. It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of dreaming.

Not all of us have lucid dreams, but more than half of us will probably have at least one lucid dream during our lifetimes. However, regular lucid dreaming is more rare. I’ve been a lucid dreamer for as long as I can remember.

Scientists have learned that brain activity associated with lucid dreams is very different from regular dreaming.  Research has found lucid dreamers displayed significantly higher brain wave frequencies than non-lucid dreamers. Lucid dreamers also appear to have increased activity in regions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain that are typically inactive during sleep. These parts of the brain are deeply involved with conscious awareness, a sense of self, as well as language and memory.

Recently, scientific study revealed that the brain activity of lucid dreams is similar to what are brain’s look like when we’re awake and in what’s known as a state of metacognition—that’s a state of heightened self-awareness, where we’re able to reflect on what we’re thinking about as we think about it.

We don’t exactly know why some people have lucid dreams but others don’t, but there are some interesting clues in the science of lucid dreaming. Some research indicates that certain personality traits and cognitive styles may be linked to lucid dreams:

  • Imagination and creativity have both been associated withmore frequent lucid dreaming.
  • Introspection, and a tendency to rely more heavily on internal thoughts (rather than external information) have also been linked to lucid dreams.
  • People who can effectively split their attention between different tasks, or points of focus, may be more apt to have lucid dreams.
  • People who have a greater ability to remember their dreams may be also have a greater capacity for lucid dreaming.

There are also certain sleep phenomena linked to lucid dreaming:

Lucid dreaming is something we can actually get better at, a skill we can improve with practice. And there’s evidence that we can use lucid dreams as a therapeutic tool—to enhance creativity, to reduce the intensity of nightmares, to work through traumas and phobias.

How can you enhance your ability to lucid dream? There are several techniques to try:

Reality testing. Make a habit of checking in with your surroundings throughout your waking day. As you observe your waking environment, ask yourself: am I awake or am I dreaming? This practice can prompt the mind to ask this same question while you’re dreaming, and create a self-awareness in dreams that may enable you to take control of your dream world.

Wake back to bed (WBTB). With WBTB, a person sleeps for 5-6 hours, then deliberately wakes for a period of time—as little as 10 minutes, or up to an hour—before going back to sleep. The idea here is to send yourself immediately into REM sleep (which occurs most prominently in the final third of the night), where most, if not all, lucid dreaming occurs. (One note: don’t use WBTB if it shortens your sleep amounts or leaves you feeling tired and shortchanged on rest. Lucid dreaming isn’t worth actually losing sleep over!)

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD). This is one of the best studied lucid dream techniques. It uses intention to stimulate self-awareness in dreams. Before going to sleep, say to yourself: “The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I am dreaming.”

A 2017 study investigated these techniques above and found that people who used all three together were successful in stimulating lucid dreaming.

Improve your dream recall. Enhancing your ability to remember your dreams is one way to develop an ability for lucid dreaming. Keep the journal at your bedside. As soon as you wake, write down everything you remember about your dream.

Meditate. Meditation is a practice of mindful awareness, of attention to the present moment. Practicing meditation during your waking day will help you develop your capacity for awareness of where your mind is in the moment. That skill may translate into the dream world, increasing your ability for self-awareness—aka lucidity—in your dreams. A 2015 study found that meditation and mindfulness were connected to more frequent lucid dreaming.

The science of The Conjuring: sleepwalking and sleep paralysis

This is a supernatural horror film from a few years back that my teenagers and I watched one night and really liked. It’s about a married couple who are paranormal investigators, working with a family to try to rid the family’s farmhouse of some seriously angry, dangerous spirits. The Conjuring is full of scenes involving sleep phenomena, including sleepwalking and sleep paralysis.

The real-life sleep science of sleepwalking and sleep paralysis:

Sleepwalking and sleep paralysis aren’t caused by demonic possession, of course. But they can be scary, dangerous, and in some rare cases, even violent. Both conditions are known as parasomnias, the term sleep scientists use to describe unwelcome, unpleasant behaviors and experiences during sleep. And both involve mixed states of consciousness, where parts of the brain are active in ways similar to waking consciousness, while other parts of the brain are in a sleeping consciousness.

Sleepwalking is what’s known as an arousal disorder. Arousal disorders usually take place during non-REM (NREM) sleep. Sleepwalking typically occurs during deep, slow-wave sleep. It tends to occur in the first half of the night, when deep, non-REM sleep is most plentiful. When in a sleepwalking state, parts of the brain are aroused to allow for waking activity, while other parts of the brain remain in a sleeping state of consciousness.

Sleepwalking most often occurs during childhood and will often disappear with age. Sleepwalking and other arousal disorders share some common characteristics, including:
• An absence of memory
• Slowed, slurred, or strange speech
• Mechanical answers to questions
• An appearance of confusion, or just staring off into space

There’s a broad range of behaviors that can take place in a sleepwalking episode, ranging from wandering around the bedroom to having conversations, driving, eating, and undertaking other complex tasks—all while still in a mixed consciousness state of sleep.

Twenty-five percent of children are sleepwalkers at some point in time. More than 3 percent of the adult population may experience sleepwalking —and sleepwalking appears to be becoming more common, according to scientific research. Factors that increase risk for sleepwalking include:

  • Genetics—sleepwalking tends to run in families
  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation and disruptions to regular sleep schedules, such as from travel through time zones
  • Medications, including hypnotics, sedatives, and medications to treat psychiatric conditions (We’ve all heard the stories of people who take sleep medication and wind up sleep eating or sleep driving.)
  • Substance use, including alcohol consumption
  • Sleep disorders, including sleep-disordered breathing and restless leg syndrome

Sleepwalking can put the sleeper in danger, most often from injury or accident. And in rare cases, sleepwalking is linked to violent behavior. Some scientific estimates suggest as much as 2% of the population will experience sleep violence at some point in their lives. I’ve written before about sleep violence and the role of parasomnias in this frightening and dangerous sleep behavior.

When you experience sleep paralysis, you wake up from sleep and cannot move or speak. It can be an incredibly frightening and disorienting episode that can last for a few seconds, up to a few minutes.

As frightening as it is, sleep paralysis—another parasomnia—isn’t actually dangerous, nor is it typically a sign of a serious condition. The phenomenon is actually relatively common, and can occur at any point in life. Estimates vary widely, but as many as 65% of people may suffer an episode of sleep paralysis at some point in their lives. Factors that make people more likely to experience sleep paralysis include:

  • Genetics—research has shown that people with certain variations of the PER2 gene are more likely to have episodes of sleep paralysis
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Chronic anxiety, stress, depression
  • PTSD, and the presence or history of trauma
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep disorders including obstructive sleep apnea and narcolepsy
  • Using sleep medications

Sleep paralysis can occur when you are awakened from sleep and it also can occur when you’re in the process of falling asleep. What’s causes sleep paralysis?  Scientists don’t know for sure. But it appears likely that many instances of sleep paralysis occur because of difficulty transitioning in and out of REM sleep.

In a state of sleep paralysis, you’re actually in a combination of waking consciousness and REM sleep. REM includes a temporary paralysis of major muscle groups known as REM atonia, which is thought to keep you immobilized during an active dreaming stage. In people who experience sleep paralysis, they wake with REM sleep still active in the brain, leaving the body paralyzed while the mind is alert and in a waking state of consciousness.

Sleep paralysis may also include hallucinations. People often describe feeling a ghost-like presence in the room with them, as well as feelings of terror and foreboding. These hallucinations can include strange sounds and even smells, along with sensations of falling or flying. Although the mechanisms of breathing aren’t impaired by sleep paralysis, people sometimes feel breathless, and often feel a weighty pressure on the chest.

There are steps you can take to eliminate the frightening disruption of sleep paralysis and make your nights more restful. Those steps include treating sleep disorders, adjusting medications, managing stress, seeking therapy for psychological distress, and knowing how to relax and cope during an episode of sleep paralysis. I’ve written in-depth about how to get rid of sleep paralysis for good.

The science of Maleficent (and Sleeping Beauty): long sleeping (and beauty sleep!)

Maleficent is a live-action fantasy film (starring Angelina Jolie) that’s based on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which was itself a classic mid-20th century animated film from Disney. (Fun fact—the 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty was the last full-length animated film Disney made for 30 years. The next one? The Little Mermaid.) We all probably remember how the fairy tale goes—having been cursed by the evil fairy Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty falls into a deep, permanent sleep, and can only be awakened by a kiss from a true love.

The real-life sleep science of oversleeping:

We aren’t capable of sleeping endlessly, and healthy sleepers aren’t typically capable of sleeping for more than a normal full night of rest. The body is biologically hard-wired to maintain balanced sleep and wake cycles throughout the 24-hour day, driven primarily by two systems:

Our circadian system, which regulates sleep and wakefulness within a 24-hour daily cycle.

Our internal sleep drive, which revs up the longer we go without sleep and slows down after we’ve rested.

There was a once-in-a-blue-moon case a few years ago of a boy in Kentucky who sleep for 11 days straight. Doctors couldn’t figure out why. The boy was treated with seizure medication to successfully bring him out of his extreme duration of sleep. Seizure medications often work to alter activity in the brain’s communication cells. Seizure conditions, including epilepsy, can be accompanied by excessive sleeping—but not to this degree. An 11-day sleep stretch is incredible and just about unheard of!

Much more common, are sleep, mood, and health disorders that lead to what’s known as hypersomnia—that’s the clinical term for chronic oversleeping.

Like its counterpart insomnia, hypersomnia has several core symptoms:

  • Sleeping for extended hours at night (typically well beyond the 7-8-hour general norm)
  • Difficulty waking up in the morning (including sleeping through an alarm)
  • Trouble rising from bed and starting the day
  • Grogginess on and off or consistently throughout the day
  • Trouble concentrating

While it may seem like a welcome thing to be getting super-sized nights of sleep, hypersomnia is a form of disordered sleep with potential health consequences. Sleeping too much is linked with many of the same health risks as sleeping too little, including heart disease, metabolic problems such as diabetes and obesity, and cognitive issues including difficulty with memory. Similar to people who sleep too little, people who sleep too much have higher overall mortality risks.

The sleep disorder that comes closest to a “Sleeping Beauty” condition is a rare neurological condition called Kleine-Levin Syndrome. People with KLS experience recurring episodes of excessive sleeping that can last for a few days or a few weeks. During an episode, they sleep for up to 20 hours a day, getting up to eat or go to the bathroom before falling back asleep. During their brief daily awakenings, people with KLS are often confused and disoriented, have trouble communicating and display an absence of emotion. They feel “spacey,” and frequently are highly sensitive to light and noise.

In between episodes, people with KLS function and sleep normally, and they typically have no memory of what happened during their episode of excessive sleeping. Episodes can occur as frequently as every few weeks, or not reappear for months or even years. KLS occurs most often in teenagers—an estimated 70% of cases are in adolescents—but this disorder can also occur in younger children and in adults.

While the intense, prolonged hypersomnia of Kleine-Levin syndrome is rare, a lesser degree of chronic oversleeping is common, and can be the result of a number of different underlying conditions, including:

Medications, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics, sedatives, antihistamines can also trigger hypersomnia.

And what about beauty sleep? There’s an abundance of real science to back up the idea that sleep can make us more physically attractive. Stay tuned, because I’ve just finished an article about the power of sleep to make us look and feel younger and it’s coming your way soon!

This was fun—and there are a bunch more movies that deal with sleep and strange sleep phenomena. I’ll do another round of looking at sleep in the movies down the road!

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM

The Sleep Doctor™