Head of horrors
July 5, 2013 5:16 AM   Subscribe

I love watching horror films and reading frightening books. Always have. Now, however, it seems to be backfiring, in that I can't get to sleep at night due to all the freaky images floating around in my head. Bonus question: is this sleep paralysis?

I am once again running on, like, four hours of sleep, because last night I couldn't get thoughts of the chomping zombies from "World War Z" out of my head (and I didn't even find the movie that frightening while watching it!) Also, every so often my cat would sigh, and it would sound so weird and Yoda-like that I would sit bolt upright, convinced aliens were in my bedroom to abduct me.

Do I have to give up my minor addiction to scary books and movies? I've been like this forever, and can remember many a sleepless night beginning with the time as a child that I watched my parents' video of "Poltergeist" when they were out of the house, then laid wide awake all night staring at my closet door. The problem seems to be getting worse, however, and I'm not sure why. I seem to be less able to brush thoughts of creepy things out of my head at 2 am when I'm in a weird headspace and my cat is making otherworldly sounds.

Also, I'm wondering if anyone can hazard any guesses as to what's going on when I'm lying there, and slip into a not-quite-conscious but also not asleep state, am momentarily paralyzed, hear a high-pitched whining sound and start to panic. I've had sleep paralysis before, and this seems like a half-assed version of it, in that I emerge much more easily from the state by simply willing myself to move an arm or leg--that snaps me out of it. However, it's extremely annoying in that I seem to slip into this state repeatedly on sleepless nights when it's late and I'm already freaked out, and it is not conducive to relaxing.

I sleep in a bedroom alone--used to share a bedroom with my boyfriend but we had to move to different rooms due to different schedules and both of us being super-light sleepers. I know he's only a short hallway away, but it freaks me out a little to be in the room by myself (except for the groaning cat). At the same time, when we shared a bedroom I would frequently entertain late-night thoughts that he'd been taken over by John Carpenter's THE THING and at any moment would lurch over to attack me.

Other than all this, my sleep hygiene is relatively thorough (so no need to share thoughts about caffeine, exercise, screen time, etc.)

Also, sorry if this is all over the place. I'm exhausted!
posted by whistle pig to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't comment on the paralysis thing. But I too get vivid dreams and nightmares which are strongly influenced by my media intake during the day.

The one thing I'd recommend bearing in mind is that a curfew can be helpful. If I read in bed, it's almost guaranteed it will come up in my dreams. If I watch a movie in the afternoon, it is much less likely that there will still be images clinging to my brain by sleeptime.

So, I don't watch or read anything vivid in the hour before bed. And if I watch or read anything vivid earlier in the evening, I try and overwrite it with something else before I sleep. For example, if I watch an episode of Utopia with my dinner (AAARGH NO NOT THE EYES), later on I might watch a half hour of comedy. It really works for me.

I don't necessarily like planning ahead that much but, as I think anyone who has super vivid dreams will understand, it can be worth it!

I started taking these measures after reading a particularly vivid sci-fi book which gave me excruciatingly graphic dystopian future nightmares every night I read it in bed!
posted by greenish at 5:35 AM on July 5, 2013

No help on the sleep paralysis from me either, I'm afraid.

However, I used to love Patricia Cornwell's books but eventually my dreams and even casual thoughts were populated with gruesome, horrendous images and scenarios so I just had to quit.

I haven't had problems since but, like most people, repeated exposure to a certain type of image or activity over a set period of time can certainly lead to it infiltrating my sleep.

I'm not clear on whether your main difficulty is in initially falling asleep or the light sleep thereafter. There are tons of relaxation tools and tricks to help you get to sleep and most of those can help you get Back to sleep as well.

Knowing how bad sleep patterns get exaggerated in old age I would work hard to re-establish healthy sleep now (by giving up horror movies etc) and then experiment with re-introducing small levels of stuff to see what sets you back and try and determine a tolerance level.

Good luck and sleep tight!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 5:44 AM on July 5, 2013

Thanks for your answers! And just to clarify, I'm looking for ways to continue my consumption of horror films and books while also getting decent sleep at night. Such a thing may not be possible. I do like the idea of watching comedy before bed.
posted by whistle pig at 6:12 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: I, too, am a sufferer of sleep paralysis and I too get that half-assed thing when I haven't had enough sleep but, for whatever reason (usually horror films, actually...) cannot fall asleep.

Actually, I can really relate to this whole question. And I agree with Greenish's comedy suggestion except that for me, anything with any suspense at all can trigger this situation when I'm already in that state of mind (ask me about my Flintstones nightmares sometime!). So, I read really, really soothing things. Right now I'm almost through The Art of Eating, a wonderful, massive collection of MFK Fisher's food writing. Really.
posted by AmandaA at 6:55 AM on July 5, 2013

Are there other areas of your life where you are feeling stressed? When I have anxiety about money/jobs/relationships/etc., unrelated problems get amplified. Since your sleep issues have always been a slight problem but are now getting worse, I'd look at other areas of your life to see if there's anything that may be troubling you, and work on that.

It might also be helpful to meditate, preferably a method where you focus on an image or thought rather than just trying to clear your mind. I find tonglen meditation helpful when I can't fall asleep.

And yeah, that does sound like sleep paralysis. It probably feels different (and easier to get out of), because it's occurring when you're only half asleep instead of fully asleep. It's a symptom of your insomnia, so hopefully it will go away when you are sleeping better. It always happens to me when I'm sleeping on my back, maybe try sleeping on your side or stomach?
posted by mokin at 7:29 AM on July 5, 2013

I can't comment on the horror movies, but I do get sleep paralysis frequently. I can't shake myself out of it, I just have to wait, and yes it's horrible and scary. I've heard that it can be related to a lack of sufficient melatonin, so sometimes I take melatonin if it's been happening more than usual. Going to sleep and waking up at around the same time, and not over- or under-sleeping really stop it. It happens when I have a very irregular sleep pattern or have been drinking alcohol.

So maybe not being able to sleep because of scary movies is triggering it? I would probably stop watching stuff that affects you right before bed and maybe try some melatonin.
posted by queens86 at 7:31 AM on July 5, 2013

I too have an overactive imagination re: horror media and on top of it have recently been living alone in a very old house. This leads to me getting up 2 or 3 times per night to check for home invaders.

I find a bit of comedy before bed helps as per previous suggestions. On TOP of that, I like to put on a comedy radio programme on low volume when I go to bed to help me sleep (I like the old Ricky Gervais podcasts, but whatever works for you!), which has the added benefit of acting as white noise to minimize any creaks or bumps in the night.
posted by gohabsgo at 7:37 AM on July 5, 2013

This Radiolab episode talks about research into the relation between stress and dreams (and stress from media). The upshot is that is seems that one function of dreams is to prepare you to solve problems (that occurred before going to sleep) by running through the scenario over and over again (sort of like football players reviewing tapes of the previous game to prepare for the next). So if your brain thinks that zombies are your most pressing problem, that's what you will dream about. So try to do some problem solving about non-stressful things as you fall asleep - tell a story in your head/daydream about accomplishing some task.
posted by 445supermag at 12:43 PM on July 5, 2013

Seconding listening to something relaxing while going to sleep. I tend to use already well-known audiobooks, but yes, whatever works. This also seems to have the effect of reducing the number and intensity of my dreams, which may be useful for staying asleep as well as getting there, if it works for you.
posted by howfar at 1:15 PM on July 5, 2013

Thank you so much for your thoughts--I really, really like the idea of listening to light comedy or podcasts as I fall asleep. And food writing! I'll try that and see if it's too distracting. And I will look at my general life stress levels, which can be high on any given night.

And thanks also for your thoughts on sleep paralysis. Ugh, what an unpleasant condition that is.
posted by whistle pig at 6:47 PM on July 5, 2013

disclaimer: this is going to sound nuts. i'm a somewhat charismatic christian (that means i believe in the supernatural realm) and i believe sleep paralysis is demonic activity. i've dealt with things similar to this involving demons. i know it sounds crazy and i even think it's crazy but true nonetheless. i don't know how it would work to try this if you aren't already a christian, but just tell whatever is happening in your room to leave in jesus name. say it out loud. or, you could always ask jesus to help you while it's happening. seriously, you have nothing to lose by doing that even if you think it's total bunk.

actually, now that i think of it i had a friend call on jesus when she had something weird like this happening in her room at night before she was even a christian. she just said or even thought "jesus" and she said it was like a hole opened up in her ceiling and all the stuff she was seeing or feeling got sucked out. iirc, she felt like something was choking her and so couldn't even say the word out loud. no joke. try googling sleep paralysis, demons and christianity and i'm sure you can read some very interesting stories. by watching horror so much the demons have an entry point to harass you. so, i'd cut out or at least cut waaaay back on the horror stuff. like i said you have nothing to lose by telling whatever is there to leave in jesus name. /crazytalk
posted by wildflower at 8:40 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have sleep paralysis, but have read a lot about it and known people who have it, and what you're experiencing sounds a lot like it. An auditory component to the hallucination is quite common - usually it's breathing or footsteps, but I don't see why it couldn't be a mechanical whine. Stress is often a factor in sleep paralysis episodes, so the stress from the horror films could well be responsible. I assume you've done some reading on sleep paralysis already, but if you haven't already seen it this is a really informative set of pages, even though very bad from the webdesign point of view.

Anyhow, I have also been able to scare myself sleepless with scary movies/books/whatever throughout my life. Different things have helped depending on what I've been scared of. For example, when petrified of vampires after reading a bit of Dracula at age 8 or so, what eventually helped was reading about the origins of vampire mythology. Reality trumped fiction. However the most recent freak-out, after watching a movie about possession (when will I learn?) in which all the creepy stuff happened at 3am, the only thing that helped was time. I'd sleep restlessly until near 3am, then wake up until it was clear that no demonic activity was taking place, then be able to sleep again. I used to turn the clock to the wall. Ridiculous, I know.

However generally I find doing something completely unrelated before turning out the light usually helps with insomnia, horror-film–induced or otherwise. For me, it's logic problems like samurai sudoku or pixel puzzles. Something about the repetitiveness of the numbers and logic and focusing the brain usually helps get rid of any extraneous thoughts. I tend to do one until I start to doze off, then turn out the light and I've usually caught the sleepy train successfully! Could help, especially if combined with listening to music or similar.

Good luck, and thanks for the implicit warning to avoid World War Z!
posted by Athanassiel at 11:31 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

wildflower, I'm coming back in to say that in the context of my problem, that is one of the most horrifying things I've ever read. That may well have to be the plot of my next horror novel...if it doesn't put me off of reading and thinking about horror forever.
posted by whistle pig at 6:39 PM on July 7, 2013

hey whistle pig. i just came across this book again that i've seen before. i have no idea if you are interested in reading more about this, but i thought i'd throw it out there as this guy's story sounds interesting. the author is a pastor at a major charismatic church here in california so he is reputable. i haven't read it but am probably going to get it myself sometime as i tend to have a lot of fear: spirit wars. if nothing else it'll make good fodder for your novels. take care.
posted by wildflower at 1:27 AM on July 15, 2013

All right, folks, I'm coming back in for the benefit of people who might be reading this in the future to say that the key is to not read, watch, or think about horrific things. I've been on a media diet and all of the problems plaguing me in my question above have all but disappeared. I fall asleep at night without any sleep paralysis, high-pitched whining in my ear, visions of zombies, aliens, mass murderers, etc.

I miss scary books, though. :(
posted by whistle pig at 8:12 AM on July 24, 2013

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