From Hypnos to Hamlet to Zombies, a Look at Our Obsession With Sleep and Death


My partner calls my preferred sleeping posture — flat on my back, toes pointed up, hands at sides – "the coffin."

"Are you going to sleep in the coffin?" he'll ask as I’m getting ready for bed. The “coffin” bothers him, and he’s vocal about it.

“It’s creepy, and you look like you’re dead.”

While I might quibble with his objection to the position in which I sleep (it does wonders for your back), I can understand how blurring the lines between sleep and death makes him uncomfortable. After all, one state is how we spend roughly a routine third of our lives, and the other is how we end it.

Yet sleep and death — both experiences of a non-conscious state — are intimately intertwined in our culture, and have been throughout human history. At the dawn of our species, to sleep was to risk death at a literal level, from exposure to the elements or from marauding wildlife. In Insomnia: A Cultural History, Eluned Summers-Bremner calls the dark sky of night “the doomed roof under which people slept.”

Even though most of us sleep under decidedly less doomed roofs these days, we still can’t shake the association between death and sleep. We talk of both waking the dead and sleeping like the dead. To die is to go to your "eternal rest," where you are told to "rest in peace." To die in one’s sleep is presented as the gentlest and most aspirational way to pass on.

We’re made aware of the similarities between sleep and death early in life, if not through the disturbing "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" prayer, then perhaps via a parent trying to convince us that the mangled raccoon by the side of the freeway is simply "sleeping" in the sun.

But where does our cultural conjoining of sleep and death come from, and how has the entanglement of the two concepts persisted throughout time in our major artistic and historic works?

The answer begins, as so many things do, with the Greeks.

The Early Gods

“I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.”

— Nas, “N. Y. State of Mind”

Nas was on point in identifying a familial connection between death and sleep, but it’s a little closer than he posits — at least according to the ancient Greeks.

In Greek mythology, Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death) are twin brothers, sons of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness). They live next door to each other in a cave in the underworld and are both considered rather unpleasant deities by humankind. In fact, the whole Nyx-Erebos clan is kind of terrible, which gives us a little insight into how the Greeks conceived of these particular facets of life.

For siblings, Thanatos and Hypnos have the likes of Old Age, Suffering, Doom and Blame. Greek poet and Homer counterpart Hesiod also includes the Moirai (Fates) as part of this brood. Hypnos’ own offspring aren’t much better. The Oneiroi consist of Morpheus (Winged God of Dreams, long before he was a Laurence Fishburne character); Phobetor, responsible for nightmares; and Phantasos, who handles surreal dreams full of illusions.

Much like our current relationships with the states they represent, Hypnos can be manipulated or bargained with, as Hera does to help her trick Zeus and turn the tide of the Trojan War. But Thanatos and the Moirai (who decide how long individuals live and when their life string will be cut) have immutable power even over their fellow gods.

From the Bible to the Bard

While Greek mythology personified sleep and death, the Bible also links the concepts — but treats the connection more allegorically. Within its pages, we have sleep portrayed as a spiritual death of not knowing, or of turning away from God. In one of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, he puts it thusly:

Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.

Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.

For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.

But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation

For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ,

who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.

Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.

There's also physical death described as a form of sleep. To “sleep” with one’s “fathers” is a frequent description of a notable figure’s death. The sleep of death in the Bible is portrayed as a transient state after which sleepers are awoken for judgment. Those who are righteous will awake to eternal life; everyone else faces a bleaker infinity. Daniel 12:2 sums it up: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Interestingly, while the sleep-as-death and death-as-sleep metaphor peppers the books of the Bible, it wasn’t necessarily the vernacular of the time. When Jesus tells His disciples that Lazarus is asleep, they assume he’s just taking a nap. In what was no doubt a frustrating conversation for our Lord and Savior, Jesus has to break it down for them: Lazarus is actually dead. Waking him means bringing him back to life. To wit:

“Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep.

“Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.”

— John 11: 13-14

A thousand-plus years later, in Shakespeare’s days, the stakes around sleep are no less weighty than in the Bible. In the Bard's works, sleep is both a longed-for respite that doomed characters are often denied and an allegory for death. Nightly rest is held up as an earned luxury (of the hardworking or righteous), while eternal sleep is a much more anxiety-laden concept.

“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

— William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Romeo and Juliet contains what is possibly Shakespeare's most famous scene blurring the line between sleep and death, but it's in Hamlet where the death-as-sleep allusions come thick and fast. In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet, in his typically emo, equivocating fashion, describes death-as-sleep as a positive thing, at least superficially. Yet he debates whether the dreams that might plague us after death are worse than the trials and tribulations of being alive.

Ultimately, it’s not courage that keeps us (and him) awake and plodding along but a fear of what death might bring that stops us from ending it all. To refresh your memory from high-school English class:

To die; to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die; to sleep;—

To sleep? Perchance to dream! Ay, there ’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffl’d off this mortal coil.

While less focused on playing with the language of sleep and death, Macbeth also links the two concepts.

Most immediately, Macbeth “murders sleep” when he kills King Duncan. Lady Macbeth begins to fear darkness and sleep when the gravity of her role in her husband's murderous act begins to sink in. She takes to sleepwalking with a candlestick and, in her last on-stage appearance, engages in somnambulistic self-revelation, famously describing how the dead king’s blood won’t wash off her hands.

By interrupting the king and his grooms’ righteous slumber and condemning them to the eternal sleep of death by murder, Lady Macbeth seals the same fate for herself (albeit via insomnia and suicide in her case). In Shakespeare’s world, there are dire consequences for disturbing a good night’s rest.

Once Upon a Time

More than Shakespeare, fairytales show us a more sinister and less virtuous side of physical slumber. Instead of a longed-for respite, a prolonged loss of consciousness is a substitute for a more permanent death.

Sleeping Beauty is cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and lapse into a 100-year coma. Her sleep is actually an upgrade from the original curse bestowed on her by an angry fairy: that she’d prick her finger on a needle and actually die. Another fairy is able to lighten the sentence to a century-long nap and enchant the rest of the princess’ family and court into falling asleep as well.

In Snow White, the titular heroine’s stepmother (or biological mother, per the Grimm Brothers’ original) is so envious of Snow White’s beauty that after ever-escalating attempts on her life, she finally convinces Snow White to bite a poisoned apple. Snow White then falls into a state of suspended animation. Unsure of how to handle her coma, Snow White's dwarf friends decide to stick her in a glass coffin in the forest. In the text version, a prince happens along and becomes smitten with the somnolent Snow White. The dwarves are happy to let him take her, coffin and all, back to his realm.

But as his entourage moves her, the jostling dislodges the piece of poisoned apple from her throat — and she wakes up. In the Disney movie version, of course, the prince plants a kiss on Snow White, which is the catalyst for her to return to consciousness.

In both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the princesses’ prolonged sleep is a social death. Both are temporarily derailed from the paths their lives would otherwise have taken had they remained awake.

While not strictly a fairy tale, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle also features a character who is enchanted with a very long nap. In this story, Van Winkle’s period of unconsciousness encompasses the American Revolution. In the 20 years he spends dozing in the Catskills, the American colonies figuratively die, to be reborn as the United States of America. And so does Rip Van Winkle die a figurative social death — in his case, as a hen-pecked husband and subject of the king. He's fortunate to experience rebirth as a free American citizen (and widower who's able to live out his golden years thanks to the largesse of his daughter and son-in-law).

Life Among the Undead

Given how little we’ve known about the mechanics of either for so long, it’s not surprisingly that the intertwining of sleep and death frequently has a magical or supernatural flavor. When something scares us or we find it inexplicable, that’s when our brains get creative.

Our preoccupation with vampires goes back a long time, with their appearance in folklore even predating stories like Snow White. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which defines the modern “rules” we associate with the vampire lifestyledates to 1897 and speaks to the root of my partner’s discomfort with “the coffin.” The connection between sleep and death is made explicit in the figure of Dracula: The two concepts aren’t figuratively interchangeable but physically coexist. The count himself, both in the novel and in his initial film portrayal as Count Orlok in Nosferatu, sleeps in a coffin containing earth from his native land. Despite being “undead,” he is still subject to the same physiological imperatives as humans — to eat and to sleep.

Vampires conquer death via their undead state — a twilight realm between being fully alive and fully dead. They are, however, unable to conquer the remnants of their human urges in the need for food and rest. That vampires are most vulnerable while sleeping harkens back to the fundamental frailty of the human body and our subservience to the flesh.

If vampires speak to our preoccupation with the physicality of sleep and death, zombies, despite their obvious corporeal decay, reflect our interest in the spiritual intersection of the two. Zombies represent our fears about what happens when our “eternal rest” is disturbed. The results — permanent insomnia and cannibalistic predation — aren't pretty.

In an essay in Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead, William S. Larkin argues that our fear of zombies, and specifically becoming a zombie, is evidence of a belief that we will survive death, or that death need not be the end of us. (Biblical authors would concur.) If we truly believed in nothingness after death, we wouldn't mind shambling around in rags and gnawing on the neighbors.

Though zombies have been a perpetually hot cinematic commodity since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)the initial rise of zombie culture paralleled the civil and social unrest of the era. Zombie movies were a way of representing that unrest and seeking to control in narrative the type of death and chaos we couldn’t control off-screen. As Shaila K. Dewan puts it in a New York Times piece entitled “Do Horror Films Filter the Horrors of History?”:

Indeed, what distinguishes that period was the public's almost daily exposure to graphic, violent pictures, whether of napalm victims, street riots or police brutality. Movies were nourished by imagery from the nightly news, the ur-horror film of the day.

Full Circle

Fast-forward to a tumultuous present and witness the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead and of the Twilight franchise. Unlike the ‘60s, however, cinema isn’t our central outlet through which to grapple with mortality. We no longer need the big screen when we have the small screens of television, laptops and phones.

Once again, sleep and death meet up. This time, it’s not in movies or books that we explore their connection but in our own bodies. Through our attempt to manage and optimize lifestyle variables such as nutrition and sleep, we’re seeking to master death. In a reminder of the circularity of life, we’re embracing the habits of our ancestors under that “doomed roof” (a paleo diet, bimodal sleep) as a means of getting there.  

Sleep is no longer an allegory for death but a tool by which we might postpone death’s arrival. To sleep, now not perchance to dream but to pit Hypnos against Thanatos and buy ourselves a little more time on this mortal coil.

Read more at Van Winkle's

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