Ten Terrifying Sleep Stealers
My absolute favourite scary stories are those that genuinely make me sleep with one eye open and the light on. Such sleep stealers don’t come along often, but when they do, they tend to be stories I come back to again and again—possibly just to check they are still fiction. And while gross outs and jump scares have their place, there is something quite special—and I suspect more difficult to pull off—about a true sleep stealer. They make even the most rational person a believer in ghosts once it’s dark, and leave something behind in the blind spot between your heart and your head that can’t be fought or thought away.
So here are ten of my own personal sleep stealers. Mega-spoilers are ahead so please beware: here be monsters.
IT (Book and Mini-series)
I’ll start with a story that’s given me a lifetime of scares: It. Stephen King does Steinbeck-with-a-killer-clown, and in doing so manages to squeeze in a whole host of sleep stealing moments that chill me whenever I reread. One of those is when young protagonist Ben Hanscom walks home from school one freezing Derry afternoon, and sees a clown standing on the ice—the titular It, aka Pennywise the Clown. Pennywise holds a bright bunch of balloons that drift towards Ben in defiance of the wind blowing in the opposite direction. While Ben is stuck to the spot, unable to comprehend this vision, the clown starts moving towards him. That’s when Ben sees it isn’t quite a clown, not really. It’s something so much worse. It’s a perfect King juxtaposition, jarring in and of itself, while hinting at a deeper level of otherworldly, Lovecraftian, wrongness.
Another moment in that book that works in a similar way is the haunting story told by a bereaved father. His wife won’t go near the sink anymore because she keeps hearing her dead daughter laughing and playing with other children down in the pipes. When she asks for their names—never do this—they reply “Our name is Legion.” I can’t tell you how many times that line has floated into my mind late at night. And if that isn’t enough of a blood freeze for you, the father then confesses that one night, while washing the dishes alone, he heard that same laughing down in the pipes. Only to him, it sounded more like screaming.
Those are just two of the many creepers in the book, but the Derry terror doesn’t end there for me. Much like the novel, which has terrified me on every revisit since I first read it age 10, the 1990 mini-series manages to pack in a few sleep stealers, too. While I loved the 2017 film adaptation, the scares were of a different sort to those in the mini-series, and perhaps a positive consequence of the mini-series’ small budget was that the horror had to be more cerebral.
Take the adapted version of the previously mentioned Ben Hanscom scene. In this take-different from the book but in keeping with its spirit – Ben’s deceased father stands impossibly on the surface of an overgrown pond in the barrens, calling for him to come see him in his new home. And gradually, between each cut away to Ben’s terrified face, his father becomes the clown beneath, pom-pom by pom-pom. Something about the way Pennywise can barely keep control of its disguise here, because it just can’t wait to eat him, shakes me every time I watch.
Like the book, there are many sleep stealing moments throughout the mini-series, but my favourite of all is when a complete stranger working at a petrol station tells a relieved Audra Denbrough that they can stop worrying, their late-night drive is over because they are nearly at their destination. All they have to do is head over the bridge, pass by the barrens…
“The barrens?” she asks, not familiar with one of the stories primary settings the way the audience is.
“Yes,” the stranger says, “where they used to play when they were kids.”
Time freezes. Something is so wrong. You know it; she just suspects it. This stranger has no idea who she is. Should have no idea who they are, let alone where they used to play when they were kids. And did that man’s voice change tone as they were speaking? Did it? Was it a bit more like… a growl?
In just one line, Audra’s relief shifts to dread, and it’s something we go through with her.
Both versions of this film, Japanese and US, terrified me. In fact, even The Ring 2 cost me sleep-perhaps mostly out of reminding me of those initial films’ antagonist. This story shut down a usual item of late night comfort after a scary film: the telly. More so than even Poltergeist. The idea of a television switching itself on to reveal that well was poison to overactive imaginations across the world. Just the awful inevitability that sight brings with it is enough to twist your features in the manner of Sadako/Samara’s victims. But then she arrives, face covered with dripping wet hair, and you can forget all about that well. She comes at you, slowly, taking her time. She’s not concerned in the slightest that you might bolt. She will get you, don’t worry about that. She will get you.
That sort of they’re-coming-for-you-Barbara terror is used to great effect here, and was reinvented in a brilliant way recently by the makers of It Follows. Does it perhaps tap into some atavistic fear from a time when being hunted and eaten was a lot more likely than it is these days? The armchair evolutionary psychologist in me thinks so. And it’s at the heart of all good monster movies. Sadako/Samara somehow embodies the knowledge that you are about to undergo some terrible fate yet are powerless to do anything about it. Which is why despite what statistics suggest about being safer on a plane than in a car on the way to the airport, I’m still more scared of flying than of driving a car—because if my plane is going down, I’m going to know about it for a long, long time. And being stuck with that knowledge is terrifying.
The Blair Witch Project
It didn’t help that at the time I first saw Blair Witch I had to go back and sleep alone in a tumbledown farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. But even re-watching that film now, especially alongside the mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch which I tend to do, it still takes me a few nights before I can shake off the imagery from that film.
One of the most unsettling elements of the film’s documentary style is that the interviews with locals early on in the film are all set in the safety of the town, far from those menacing, never-ending woods. So you hear about the witch initially in an almost jokey way: about her floating above the water, or having a body like a horse. And when the locals aren’t portrayed as having their tongues in their cheeks, they are depicted as crackpots. Either way we don’t take them seriously…. at first.
But by the film’s end, when one of our main characters has seen something so terrifying he is behaving like a small, obedient child, all those stories you’d dismissed at the start begin to sink in. And, God, understanding the significance of that final moment didn’t hit me until I was already outside the cinema. It blew my mind. Oh no, what did he see? What did he see? Something we don’t need to, that’s what. Our imagination, inspired by those jokey legends, will create a far scarier creature for us than CGI ever could. And most likely, it will wait until the witching hour to do so.
I went to a recent 25th Anniversary showing of this classic BBC masterpiece, and as has been the case on multiple rewatches, the creepiness that first captivated me at the age of 10 endures. If you don’t know anything about it, I’d suggest looking it up—or even better, treat yourself to the BFI DVD. Ghostwatch was a fake live television show shown on BBC One on Halloween in 1992. Well-loved television presenters, including some mainly known for their work on children’s programmes, played themselves investigating a supposedly haunted suburban house. It was so well done, that many people-including little me-believed it was real.
While enough has been written elsewhere about its cult status, how ground-breaking and ahead of its time it was, and about the rights and wrongs of how it was marketed, not as much is written about how well it holds up as a piece of horror fiction. It worked as well on a cinema screen in 2017 as it did on my parents’ 15-inch television back in the 90s. And the villainous ghost “Pipes” isn’t just scary to a child: he’s terrifying full stop. And much like the Blair witch, or Pennywise, he’s seemingly just the embodiment of something much older and much more evil. And one of its greatest tricks comes in the programme’s final moments, when it is chillingly revealed that the broadcast may have accidentally created a national séance. And you, the viewer, are now on your own as the credits roll, wondering if perhaps the thing that made trusted national treasure Michael Parkinson start reading Round and Round the Garden out loud from a teleprompter might now be in your own house.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks
Some of those sleep stealers already mentioned caught me when I was young, and I can’t rule out that their initial impact may have coloured my later opinions. With Jason Arnopp’s 2015 debut novel, I can’t make any such excuse. At first you might think you are reading a very black comedy, something like John Niven’s excellent Kill Your Friends, but that soon changes. Jack Sparks is a journalist with an out-of-control ego, too self-obsessed to think twice about running head first towards the supernatural. But when Jack watches an exorcism in Italy, all his cockiness-which unfortunately for him, doesn’t relent-feels like a very thin shield indeed when the demon possessing young Maria Corvi turns its half-amused attention to him after he bursts out laughing. I’ve not really read anything before where humour complements, and even amplifies, the genuine terror of a story. It’s skilfully done throughout the book, and Jason Arnopp gives us a very modern twist on M R James, where even the most arrogant and pig-headed reality tunnels collapse when confronted by pure evil. And that scene in the church is one that lingers long after sunset.
Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
Speaking of M R James, both his short story, and the first 1968 BBC adaptation of Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to You, My Lad, are deeply unsettling depictions of rationality crumbling in the face of otherworldliness. The television version in particular, with its strange rhythm and frequent silences, keeps you on edge from the start and never lets up. In a humourous early scene, the protagonist Professor Parkin-played by a magnificent Michael Hordern-is asked if he believes in ghosts. “I’m never quite certain what it is I am being invited to believe, when somebody asks me a question like that,” the professor replies, channelling A J Ayer while munching his food. Only while out on a walk, he takes a whistle from one of the exposed graves at the edge of the sea-worn East Anglian cliffs. And in doing so, he’ll come face to face with precisely what he was being invited to believe when a floating form pursues him along a deserted beach. It’s a masterclass in why you don’t always need special effects and infrasound to terrify. The atmosphere created by good characters, setting and story will do the job extremely well.
A Head Full of Ghosts
Paul Tremblay’s 2015 book tells the story of a family’s experience being the subject of a reality television show, the primary focus of which is the supposed demonic possession of Marjorie, the eldest of the family’s two young daughters. Are the girls making the whole thing up to help the family’s finances? Are the television crew exacerbating things to up their viewing figures? Is there really a demon inside young Marjorie, or is she suffering from a serious mental illness that is being exploited? The book is subtle, and yet there are enough clues to make an educated guess as to what is really going on. While being super literate about cultural depictions of demonic possession-the book manages to subtly sneak in a treatise’s worth of observations and insights-A Head Full of Ghosts also tells a brilliant story that is both moving and devastating. And one scene in particular, involving a cardboard playhouse and blanket, was the horror equivalent of an earworm: once in your head, it just won’t leave.
Perhaps a controversial choice, as this film seems to divide horror fans. Perhaps it was the marketing push before the film that put people off, or maybe fatigue with the found footage genre in general. Or perhaps people just thought it was a bad film. All I can say is that this film really scared me when I first saw it in the cinema. I watched it in the middle of the day too, with some scary-movie savvy friends. All of us sat in the pub afterwards unsettled, and that night I definitely slept lightly, on alert for any hoofed presences that might enter my room. I always admire a film that can give me something brand new to be frightened of, too. And the scene where Katie stands over her partner, Micah, and proceeds to watch him for what the speeded up video footage reveals is a long, long time, did just that. The person you snuggle up with at night is meant to be there to protect you. To save you from any passing hoof-beasts that might want to eat you. They’re not meant to watch you sleep like a predator waiting to pounce.
The Boogeyman Is Back (The Real Ghostbusters Season 3, Episode 3)
This seems like a good place to end, as it’s probably where my love of a good scare originated. The Real Ghostbusters was a strange show for children. It was no throw away cash in on the success of the movie, and the writers really took the central premise of the film and ran with it. Episodes are packed full of references to the genre (One episode is called The Collect Call of Cthulhu!) and really intriguing stories. And quite often, the show was genuinely frightening. How the melting corpses in The Ghostbusters in Paris ever made it onto children’s television still baffles me.
In what I think is the scariest episode, Ghostbusting brainbox Egon has a near death experience falling from the Twin Towers. His mounting dread following the incident frightens him so much that his pure terror unleashes The Boogeyman, a villain that in an only marginally less frightening previous episode the Ghostbusters trapped inside his weird parallel-dimension home world. Free once more, he can now start terrifying children by entering their rooms through their closets and feast on their fear. This is an obviously terrifying notion to a young child, but even watching as an adult, The Boogeyman is a total nightmare. His voice is a chilling backwards wheeze, his physical appearance a giant half punk-goblin, half goat. This should never have been allowed on children’s television, ever—but I’m so glad it was.
So those are my choices. It goes without saying that terror is very subjective. One man’s Dracula is, of course, another man’s Transylvanian nobleman. So what are your favourite sleep stealers? What terrifying moments set up a permanent camp in your mind?
S R Masters has attempted to write his own sleep stealers over the years, one of which, the short story Desert Walk, can be found in Vintage/Penguin’s anthology Press Start To Play. His debut novel The Killer You Know, a pop-culture inspired murder mystery about the 90s, nostalgia and a reunion of childhood friends, is out on Sphere/Little, Brown in August 2018. He tweets as @SRMastersAuthor and can be found occasionally opining at www.sr-masters.com
I’ll murder three strangers. And you’ll know it was me. That way we’ll all be connected. Always.
When Will jokes about becoming a serial killer, his friends just laugh it off. But Adeline can’t help but feel there’s something more sinister lurking behind his words.
Fifteen years later, Adeline returns to Blythe for a reunion of the old gang – except Will doesn’t show up. Reminiscing about old times, they look up the details of his supposed murder spree. But the mood soon changes when they discover two recent deaths that match.
As the group attempt to track Will down, they realise that he is playing a sinister game that harks back to one they used to play as kids. Only this time there are lives at stake…
A gripping and atmospheric debut psychological thriller – perfect for fans of Ruth Ware and Alex Marwood.