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Sharp Health News

The frightening truth about nightmares

Oct. 31, 2016

Do scary movies cause nightmares?

You stayed up late watching the newest, adrenaline-rush horror movie. And now it's bedtime and you wonder if the scary flick will keep on haunting even after you drift off to sleep. Do scary movies really cause nightmares?

According to Dr. Gary Levinson, a board-certified sleep specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group and sleep expert at Sharp Memorial Hospital, "Nightmares can be caused by any stress that leads to anxiety and can cause frequent awakenings from sleep."

"Given the intense multisensory stimulus one gets from horror movies, especially when watched at night prior to bedtime, the brain could perceive this as a form of virtual reality, evoking typical stressful situations of real life," Dr. Levinson explains.

Dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) period of sleep. REM sleep usually occurs about 90 minutes into the sleep cycle and tends to repeat every 90 minutes. If you are awakened by a nightmare, it is typically later in the sleep period.

"Usually when you wake up from a nightmare you can clearly recall the details of the dream and may have difficulty falling back asleep," says Dr. Levinson. "Intense, emotion-evoking dreams are also more memorable."

Nightmares affect around 4 percent of the population, primarily children and adolescents. Levinson explains that some of the causes of nightmares are:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Foods with caffeine and sugars
  • Certain types of medications, including antidepressants and stimulants that increase dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin; and withdrawal from antidepressants
  • Substance abuse of cocaine and methamphetamines
  • Psychiatric illness, particularly PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder
Tips to avoid nightmares

  • Try to not watch horror movies right before bedtime. If you watch a scary movie, watch something light, such as a comedy or sports, afterward.
  • Move around. Talk to other people about other topics completely unrelated to the horror movie.
  • Try watching the scary movie in the daytime and then expose yourself to natural light outside to filter out the anxiety provoked by the movie.

"If you have frequent nightmares, they can be treated by various techniques including behavioral therapy and medications in select circumstances," says Dr. Levinson.

"Nightmares are relatively uncommon, anxiety-provoking dreams that can be induced by outside stressors. Avoiding self-induced stress - like exposing susceptible people to horror movies - would be the most prudent approach to prevention," he says.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Levinson about scary movies and nightmares for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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