Marten’s Hot Takes: Horror Movies and Sleep

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Marten’s Hot Takes is an ongoing series in which our Mattress Guru, Marten Carlson, offers his candid thoughts on happenings in the world of mattresses, bedding, and sleep.

Many people don’t know that I am a horror movie fanatic. Horror conventions, film festivals, and screenwriting fill my schedule. I’m a sleep expert by day and a horror fan by night.

When you work in the sleep space for as long as I have, you use the term “sleep hygiene” quite a bit. Good sleep hygiene includes keeping your room cool, dark, and quiet and is meant to help you get the healthiest sleep possible.

A big part of sleep hygiene involves avoiding screen time before bed. Studies have shown that the blue light emitted by televisions, computers, and cell phones can lead to a long night of tossing and turning. In addition, if you are going to watch something, you are supposed to stay away from intense content.

It’s time for me to come clean. I promote good sleep hygiene, but I don’t exactly practice it. Sure, I turn off my lights and set my thermostat to a cool setting. I even use earplugs when my neighbors are being loud. However, I draw the line when it comes to the screen time rule. That’s because I love to watch horror movies before bed.

Now, this wasn’t always the case. As a younger kid, horror movies had the opposite effect. When I was 8, my friend’s grandmother rented Halloween (1978) for us. While the film has become my all-time favorite, that initial viewing absolutely destroyed my sleep. After seeing Michael Myers’s closet attack on Laurie Strode, I was convinced he lived in my closet.

A masked Michael Myers enters a closet
Credit: Compass International Pictures

I was so sure of this fact that I rearranged my entire bedroom to face my closet. With the light on and the door open, I could ensure that that pasty-white mask wouldn’t peek out from behind my hanging clothes. I stayed up night after night, hoping and praying that he wouldn’t be there.

Thankfully, he never was.

As I grew up, my fear of Michael Myers and horror movies waned. I found that they not only didn’t disrupt my sleep but actually helped it. Instead of drinking a warm glass of milk, I found myself popping on Friday the 13th (1980), Alien (1979), or Madman (1982) before bed. After a good 90 minutes of terror, I was sleeping like a baby.

Some studies show that horror movies are actually good for our mental health. They give us a way to experience terrifying situations from the comfort of a theater or living room. Our adrenaline rises and, after it calms, we can experience a nice dopamine release.

For me, the use of horror movies is less scientific and more personal. As a young child, horror movies kept me up at night because they were scary, while the real world was not. Church, school, and my neighborhood were all safe places. My parents protected me from the fears of adulthood, so the worst thing imaginable was a monster standing in my closet.

Now that I am an adult (or trying to be), the real world is so much scarier than a monster in the closet. Money, work, and good old-fashioned existential dread are the new enemy of sleep. Instead of staring at the closet, I stare at the ceiling, running over every mistake I made throughout the day, every task I have to complete tomorrow.

Before bed, horror movies simplify the gray, amorphous cloud of adult responsibility into something more definite. Tales of terror and survival are clear and narrow down the world to a more manageable size.

Original Texas Chainsaw Massacre Poster
Credit: Legendary Entertainment

All pontificating aside, I’d like to recommend my top three horror movies that can help you sleep better if you’re a fan of the genre. Let’s start with something truly scary, an insane little movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974):

This hardcore gem hasn’t lost any of its power since its release almost 50 years ago. It concerns a group of friends who stumble upon a backwoods family of cannibals. What follows is 83 minutes of pure, distilled terror. I honestly can’t think of a more harrowing film watch,

This is the horror film you want to watch if you’ve had an overwhelming day. If you have a number of stressful moments and unfinished assignments rolling around in your head, Leatherface is your guy. This is a film about pure survival, no more no less. You’ll step into the shoes of Sally, the film’s Final Girl, and, by the end, you’ll be exhausted and ready for lights out.

Next up, we’ve got Videodrome (1983), David Cronenberg’s prescient masterpiece about the way media can invade and alter our lives and very bodies. The film’s protagonist, Max Renn (James Woods), goes down a rabbit hole of warring media agencies and body transformation. By the end of the film, reality itself has melted for the viewer.

Videodrome is the movie you want to watch after a mind-numbing day of Excel spreadsheets. If you’re feeling a bit like a robot, there’s nothing like a healthy dose of Cronenberg madness to snap you out of it. You’ll never look at your TV the same way again.

Not all horror films are going to scare you, and a laugh could help you sleep as well as a scream can. When I’m in the mood for a funnier horror outing, I pop on Final Exam (1981). This slasher ripoff follows a few bright-eyed college students who, between cramming for tests, are dispatched by the lamest killer in film history. He’s only scary if you have a distinct fear of bowl cuts.

The real highlight of the film is Radish (Joel S. Rice), a proto-Randy from Scream. He’s an expert on mass murderers and is just the sweetest dork in the world. After a long day of mattress reviewing, Radish always puts a smile on my face.

A close-up of Radish from Final Exam
Credit: Motion Picture Marketing

Final Exam is absolutely ridiculous and could help clear out the mess of a particularly rotten day. You’ll go to bed smiling.

While science and common knowledge may say screens and intense films aren’t great before bed, horror movies sure work for me. Being an adult is hard, and I can say these film viewings are the least scary part of my day.

Featured Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Marten Carlson

Marten is the Lead Reviewer at Mattress Clarity. He is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and covers the mattress industry as well as sleep science news. He is specifically interested in the connection between sleep and overall health. Marten has written for media publications like Consequence of Sound and received a master’s degree in Film Studies from Emory University. He comes from Franklin, Indiana, and spends all the time he can writing, directing, and acting in films.