A question that's been keeping everyone awake at night.
Insomnia is a condition that’s been portrayed countless times in movies and TV shows, the most famous case being Christian Bale losing half his body weight to play an insomniac in The Machinist.
But despite the many depictions of insomnia seen on the big and small screen over the years, it’s never quite right. In fact, some portrayals of the condition just look and feel plain wrong.
Since this was keeping me up at night (metaphorically) I decided to chat to my housemate who is an actual insomniac, Will, about the condition, how it comes about, and why films and TV shows keep dropping the ball when it comes to fictional depictions of insomnia or other sleep-related conditions.
Straight away, Will debunks the widely-used visual of someone lying in bed at night with bloodshot eyes and staring at the ceiling. “That’s not entirely accurate, you’re more likely to look like you’re asleep than that,” he says.
As for how insomnia manifests itself, Will describes it as his brain being unable to turn itself off despite being exhausted. “It’s usually as simple as your brain fixated on one random topic, like a joke or picture or whatever, and being unable to stop thinking about it for hours,” says Will, “that’s what keeps you awake. It’s all in your head so I need like a movie or show to help me drift off.”
The widely believed thing about not being unable to sleep for long stretches of time – like The Machinist‘s premise of Christian Bale’s character having not slept for a year – is also not strictly inaccurate either.
“That’s just not how it happens, at least for me,” says Will, “you physically have to sleep, it’s just that rather than sleeping for seven or eight hours at a time, I only get one or two.”
“Sometimes I might not sleep for a day but then I end up sleeping for 10 hours because of exhaustion from the previous couple of nights. But then the thought of ‘okay, I’m going to get good sleeps from now on’ after that great 10 hour night will play on my mind and stop me sleeping again. It’s a pretty vicious cycle.”
Will says he occasionally tries to combat his insomnia with sleeping pills, there are side effects, one of which is outright terrifying. During one instance when our house flooded in the middle of the night, Will was the only one who didn’t leave his room to come help clean up. As it turns out, he knew exactly what was going on, he just physically couldn’t move from his bed let alone help mop up.
“Sleeping pills help but they lose their effectiveness over time,” says Will, “and even when they work, I’m still conscious of what’s happening around me, I just can’t physically move my body.”
“When I wake up, I sometimes wonder whether everything I heard was a dream or whether it all actually happened in real life and that plays with your head, which sort of leads to more nights of not sleeping because you become fixated on that one thing.”
After getting the lowdown on the condition, I asked Will just why films and TV shows keep getting insomnia wrong and his answer was essentially “because it’s just not a very visually interesting condition.”
“If you were to show insomnia accurately, it would just be someone tossing and turning with their eyes closed trying to get to sleep,” laughs Will, “it’s pretty boring so movies and shows need to make it entertaining somehow.”
That’s… fair enough.
When you throw in scientific studies showing that insomnia leads to weight gain rather than the scenes of weight loss we’ve been fed, it means that we’ve been somewhat duped this whole time but it was all in the name of staving off boredom.
If The Machinist had portrayed insomnia realistically, Christian Bale should’ve been rocking his fat Dick Cheney body while trying to get comfortable in bed for eight hours instead of what we ended up seeing.
Towards the end of our chat about insomnia and why The Machinist is bullcrap, Will casually joked that he’s probably not going to sleep that night. When I asked why, he said that just chatting about insomnia to me is enough to get his brain fixated on the topic and thus unable to switch off.
After apologising profusely, he laughed and shrugged it off as something he’s used to the bitter irony of chatting about insomnia only for it to trigger a bout of insomnia.
“The sleepless night will be worth it if you get people reading.”