Remember that time we barely escaped the axe murderer, only to come face-to-face with the headless horseman, forced to battle to the death (or until awoken in a frantic fright)? It’s actually a likely occurrence, since nightmares are a universal phenomenon, afflicting close to 85 percent of young adults according to one study Nightmare prevalence, nightmare distress, and self-reported psychological disturbance. Levin, R., Fireman, G. Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY. Sleep, 2002 Mar 15;25(2):205-12. . But might our favorite scary movies be partly to blame?
Nightmares Aren’t Just on Elm Street — Why It Matters
Illustration by Elaine Liu
While there are many causes of nightmares, psychological stress is a big-time fright factor. These late night disturbances are often a reflection of real life emotional stress, conflict, and traumatic experiences, ranging from a school exam to the death of a loved one. And since horror flicks can spark anxiety and trigger painful memories, we may want to skip watching Jack Nicholson hacking down the bathroom door (RedRum, anyone?) to avoid a haunted slumber.
Still, seasoned horror film buffs may be able to sleep more soundly. Since reactions to horror movies partially rely on a person’s scaredy cat scale, research suggests those who scare less easily may be less susceptible to nighttime spooks.
Heeeeeere’s Johnny! — The Answer/Debate
But don’t plug in the nightlight just yet! Nightmares are more prevalent in children, haunting an estimated 10-50 percent of toddlers. Fears, worries, and scary dreams in 4- to 12-year-old children: their content, developmental pattern, and origins. Muris, P., Merckelbach, H., Gadet, B., et al. Department of Psychology, Maastricht University, The Netherlands. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 2000 Mar;29(1):43-52. . Nightmares also become less frequent as we grow older, so the chances of bad dreams decrease as our birthdays rack up. And good news for the guys out there: Studies show women are at greater risk for nightmares. So ladies, think twice before curling up with Hannibal Lecter Gender differences in nightmare frequency: a meta-analysis. Schredl, M., Reinhard, I. Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim, Germany. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2011 Apr:15(2):115:21. .
Still, researchers have yet to find a direct correlation between scary films and nightmares. But while relatively little is understood about the development of terror-filled dreams, it’s safe to say scary occurrences in the waking hours could trigger just as frightening events in dreamland.
Fright Fest — Greatist’s Spooktacular Movie List
Up for risking a spooked slumber? Here are Team Greatist’s scary movie picks that left us cringing, crying, or just plain scared to the bone:
1. The Shining. An old hotel, iced-over hedge maze, and a pair of creepy twins waiting around every corner are reason enough to keep the lights on during this classic Kubrick flick.
2. Misery. We might think twice about writing a novel after watching an author’s “biggest fan” torture him with sledgehammers to the ankles in her creepy, remote home.
3. The Omen. A father adopts a child who turns out to be the Antichrist— talk about needing a long time-out.
4. Scream. If only Drew Barrymore knew better than to answer the phone in this classic 90s slasher film. And don’t even think about saying “I’ll be right back.”
6. Paranormal Activity. Apparently no place is safe— not even our homes. We suggest watching this at a friends’ house, with the deadbolt locked and security on speed dial.
7. Bride of Chucky. Love those favorite dolls from childhood? Just beware of the murderous doll Chucky and his bridal-gown clad sidekick, known for slashing and shooting nearly anyone in sight.
9. The Ring. Forget ghosts and killers— here’s a cursed videotape that can kill its viewers in just seven days.
10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This classic horror film involves hitchhikers, gas stations, chainsaws, and a tormenter named Leatherface. Consider this fair warning.