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Popular movies and their portrayals of sleep

Filed in
  • Insomnia
  • Dreams
  • Movies

By Jack Cunningham  |  Jul 22, 2019
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If you’re not Walt Disney Studios, chances are you’re having a bad time at the box office this summer. While Disney is rampaging this year with several billion dollar box office hits (and many more to come), other studios have been failing at getting their sequels and reboots off the ground. Whether its Men in Black: International (2019) or Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), audiences are being put to sleep by boring and lackluster sequels. Rather than be put to sleep, why not watch a movie about sleep?

Specifically, you can select one in which sleep plays a major part in the plot. There are several critically acclaimed movies that feature sleep in a significant way that are a good watch for a summer night. Some of them are accurate in their portrayal of sleep, while others are completely fictional, or draw inspiration from real-life cases.

1)      A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). This film, written and directed by the master of horror Wes Craven, is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. What makes it so great is that it manages to make sleep, something that every single person does, scary. Freddy Krueger, the movie’s villain and monster, invades and kills people in their dreams, thus killing them in real life. While Krueger and the main premise of this movie are completely fictitious, there were several sleep-related deaths that inspired the film. Craven was intrigued by several Southeast Asian refugees, who suffered from severe and disturbing nightmares and refused to sleep. Some of these refugees then died in their sleep during their nightmares, inspiring Craven to write the screenplay.

2)      Fight Club (1999). The film, based on the 1996 book of the same name, remains one of David Fincher’s best. **This next sentence is going to have massive spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet feel free to skip this paragraph**. For much of the film, Edward Norton’s character has insomnia, which ends up impacting his life tremendously. We find toward the end of the film that he suffers from dissociative identity disorder, creating another distinct personality that only he sees – Brad Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden. According to a study published in 2014, individuals who suffer from dissociative identity disorder tend to have more sleep problems, and lower quality of sleep. This can partly explain his behavior in the beginning of the film and why he experiences insomnia.

3)      The Machinist (2004). This film stars Christian Bale as a man with insomnia who hasn’t slept well in a year, thus rendering him severely emaciated. After an accident involving a co-worker, he begins to lose his ability to determine what is real. He begins to think his co-workers are secretly resenting him and trying to drive him mad with weird and cryptic messages that he finds. This is certainly an extreme scenario, as most people who have insomnia will never experience such drastic effects. In fact, many people who have insomnia  get more sleep, or can function well on less sleep, than they realize. That being said, a study published in 2009 did find that insomnia symptoms are common in people who have high levels of paranoia and delusions. According to the authors, insomnia may be an overlooked problem in people who have paranoid thinking.

4)      Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are star-crossed lovers in this romantic sci-fi film. The premise of the movie relies on two people who erase each other from their memory using the services of a fictional company. The procedure happens in their sleep – in fact, Carrey spends most of the movie in his dreamworld as his memories are erased. While Eternal Sunshine isn’t that accurate in its portrayal of technology and sleep, it is somewhat accurate in regards to the neuroscience of memories. Overall, Eternal Sunshine is a fantastic film about love and loss. 

5)      Inception (2010). The 2010 heist film, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief who steals information by infiltrating people’s dreams and subconscious. Nolan based the idea for his movie on lucid dreaming, in which you are aware of your dreams and can exert some control over them. While the technology to enter someone’s dreams isn’t (sadly) real, the science and technology behind monitoring dreams is always advancing.

6)      The Matrix (1999). This film, while having very little to do with sleep, is still an honorable mention nonetheless. Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a man who awakens from a virtual reality simulation to discover a dystopian reality. This idea, waking up literally and (mainly) metaphorically, is one of the major themes of the movie. However, there’s no scientific basis for any of the technology in this film, despite Elon Musk thinking we probably live in a simulation. It’s still a thrilling movie.

Which of your favorite sleep-related films would you add to this list?


  1. 1 Kerry 01 Nov
    Sleep Walk with Me, My Own Private Idaho, and The Science of Sleep
  2. 2 Vincent 03 Jan
    Waking Life
  3. 3 Laura 29 Jul
    Sleeping Beauty.