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Awake in a Sea of Sleepers: How Insomnia Made Me Love Horror Films

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by Amber Sparks
October 31, 2012 8:01 AM
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Two statements, seemingly separate and unrelated: As a kid I was an insomniac. As a kid I was a horror movie buff.

One might be tempted to link these two traits, to tie them together through the seemingly obvious cause and effect equation of Fear = Sleeplessness—but one would be wrong to do so. At least, one would be wrong to use the equation that way, instead of turning it on its head to come up with this equation instead: Sleeplessness = the Absence of Fear.

That is to say, I was scared of everything but the things that went bump in the night. 

My insomnia has stuck with me for most of my life. Even as a baby, my mother tells me I refused to nap; I would just calmly stare at the ceiling until naptime was over. It seems strange now, but as a kid, I was never panicked or perturbed at my insomnia. I suppose when you’re a kid you’re always being made to go to bed, sometimes even as punishment, and since I couldn’t, I bought myself more time in the waking world. And that was exciting, back then, before I had to get up and go to work in the morning. I’d read under the covers until my parents caught me, or sneak downstairs and watch TV with the volume way down until the sun came up.

And what was on TV so late at night? You had two choices, really: horror and soft core. Of course, being a girl, and thus uninterested in the 80s pancake breasts and asses of full-grown women, I chose horror. I remember watching Jeff Goldblum morph into a fly, watching Nicolas Cage turn into a demon. I remember watching the Crypt Keeper introduce those gory little shorts, Rosemary giving birth to the demon baby, the ghastly scream of the monster’s bride, and yes, watching Jason’s mother fly out of the water at the end of Friday the 13th.  

I especially remember when I first saw The Shining, late one night at a friend’s sleepover.  By the time that elevator opened, I was the only one left awake. I loved the feeling that the ending was just for me, that the picture of Jack at that long-ago New Year’s Eve party was a secret only I knew. I clung to that wild idea, that somehow I was the only one who could see the evil burning itself out all over the screen. That I alone, the only waking one among a sea of sleepers, would see not only the chaos unleashed at the beginning of a film, but the triumph of order, of good and grace, after a near-biblical flood of gore.

And besides, I could not sleep. I was always the kid awake at sleepovers. I was always the kid awake on the bus, on the plane, on the long car rides to visit my grandparents. I was the kid who could not sleep. I was invincible, at least where so many of the terrors that visit children were concerned. What happened when you fell asleep? Freddie Krueger would kill you in your dreams. The boogeyman would come to eat you. The monsters under the bed would show themselves. Even in the traditional children’s prayer, you had to pray that you would not die in the middle of the night. Terrible things can happen to a child asleep. But not to me. I had a competitive advantage.

Don’t get me wrong—I was not a brave child. In fact I was scared of everything: dogs, illness, adults, birds, the dark, bugs, you name it. So the trick of not-sleeping gave me a superpower, gave me a weapon and a fighting chance against the monsters of childhood. Of course I liked to watch other children fare poorly in movies, struggling to stay awake and finally succumbing to the nightmare. Of course I liked to picture myself, my cowardly small self, beating Freddie Krueger at his own game. Sitting up in bed and wielding a huge cross when Dracula or Nosferatu approached, because I’d only have been pretending to be asleep.

How simple it was, as a child. There were no repercussions to insomnia; only a strong sense of security, of self-control. If you stayed awake long enough, the world made sense. If you stayed awake long enough, you could be safe in so many ways. As a small child in other movies, other shows—in your day-to-day waking life—you were powerless to change your world. You were buffeted by the winds about you. But in horror movies, even a child could stave off the darkness, the dreaded evil. You could save yourself and maybe even the whole world, as long as you could stay awake.

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in September by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.

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