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Sleep Deprivation Punishment

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"In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."
Menachem Begin, White nights: The story of a prisoner in Russia

This trope is about torture, bullying, punishment or abuse with Sleep Deprivation.

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Sleep deprivation, also known as insufficient sleep, happens if an individual gets less sleep than they need to feel rested, awake and alert. Not having enough sleep like when you're busy and must pull an allnighter, or if you're so stressed that you can't fall asleep, or if you're disturbed by those noisy kids next door — that is bad enough. Now forcing someone to be awake and deprive them of their basic need is just plain evil and cruel. In Fictionland, sleep deprivation is often used as a way of bullying, punishing, abusing or torturing our poor characters.

Insufficient sleep has many bad effects on the body. It can cause loss of concentration, confusion, lapses or loss of memory, aching muscles, headaches, hallucinations, seizures... up to the complete exhaustion and failure of the organism, by which we mean death.note  Sleep deprivation can be used to disorientate abuse victims and set them up to have more power and control over them.

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Sleep deprivation can be used as a means of interrogation. Though it is generally agreed that the suffering is not as bad as other forms of torture, because the word "torture" implies that the pain is more intense and the cruelty more off the scale. However, it is still considered inhuman and degrading, especially if used non-stop or for prolonged periods of time. In fiction, it's considered "clean" and "effective" method of torture. Often used by Secret Police or Police State on their citizens or by military personnel interrogating captured soldiers from enemy sides. The trope is likely to occur in Spy Drama with spies, secret agents, double agents, or some other form of espionage professional. See also Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.

Members of special forces and soldiers might undergo so called "resistance interrogation" programme, a type of military training that prepares them to resist interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation after getting captured by the enemy. Usually they experience sleep deprivation during the training so that they might understand the effects of lack of sleep and they are also taught how to deal with the situation.

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Compare/contrast to The Insomniac (characters who can't sleep or have troubles falling asleep) and The Sleepless (characters who don't need to sleep). See also The Ludovico Technique, which often involves sleep deprivation and is usually portrayed as torture.


Sleep-deprived, tortured examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Comic Books 

     Fan Works 
  • The Very Secret Diary: In some of the most disturbing scenes in a very disturbing story, Tom torments Ginny this way, refusing to let her sleep for days. It gets so bad that she passes out at one point.

     Film - Live Action 
  • Foreign Correspondent: The conspirators torture Ambassador Van Meers for information, using bright lights and loud jazz music to keep him awake for days on end.

     Literature 
  • Artur London testifies in The Confession to have been deprived of sleep in order to be broken up by his interrogators for his show trial.
  • Indecent Exposure: In Tom Sharpe's satire of The Apartheid Era South Africa, sleep deprivation is used by the Bureau of State Security's local agent, Liutnant Verkramp, on the suspected communist spies and subversives he rounds up for interrogation. They include hitherto unexpected comsymps like the manager of the local Barclay's Bank, who the interrogating officer wishes to get even with for refusing him an overdraft.
  • In Horatio Hornblower book Mr Midshipman Hornblower, Midshipman Jack Simpson bullies other middies. He takes their food, spirit rations and clean shirts, but has other tricks up his sleeve. He orders Hether to wake up Mackenzie every half hour, day and night, so that neither of them is able to sleep. And he has toadies among the crew who are ready to tell him if Hether ever fails in his task.
  • In Professor Dowell's Head by Alexander Belyaev, Dr. Kern tries to drive Arthur Dowell (the title character's son) insane by trapping him in a room with permanent lights on and playing loud annoying music — essentially, by depriving him of sleep for many days. Unfortunately for him, Arthur's willpower is strong enough to first pretend to sleep peacefully, just to spite his captor, and then to actually fall into a kind of restive half-sleep state, thus surviving the torture.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel: Sir Percy withstands 17 days' worth of torture with sleep deprivation in Eldorado when the French authorities are trying to break him.
  • Sleep deprivation is a common tactic of Mord-Sith in the Sword of Truth series. Cara mentions at one point people would end up begging to be tortured instead.
  • At the end of The Sympathizer, when the protagonist is captured by the Viet Cong he is held in a torture chamber where one of the punishments is having incredibly bright lights shone on him at all times, alternated with random moments of absolute darkness. This disrupts his sleep and causes him to slowly lose his grip on sanity, all in an attempt to get him to confess.

     Live Action TV 
  • In the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Akela Amador is revealed to be being Forced into Evil by lack of sleep when the team sees a feed from her eye where she writes a note to her handler saying "Can I sleep?", to which her handler replies via text feed with an order to continue her mission. It establishing the Centipede group's MO of using their Explosive Leash cybernetic eyes to force people to do their bidding.
  • It's a recurring point in Burn Notice that physical torture doesn't work. The show mentions, and even sometimes uses, "non-violent" methods that do break someone such as prolonged isolation, being subjected to loud noise for long periods of time or sleep deprivation.
  • Homeland has an interrogation scene with a prisoner has been deprived of sleep from sporadic Death Metal blasts.
  • Horatio Hornblower:
    • In "The Even Chance", the bully of a midshipman Simpson forces Archie Kennedy to wake Hornblower up every half an hour. When Archie gets a fit, implied to be stress-induced by Simpson's presence, he orders Clayton to take over his "duty". All the more cruel since Kennedy, Clayton and Hornblower are friends.
    • In "Mutiny", the crew has to deal with a crazy captain. Hornblower is punished by having to serve 36 hours of continuous watch (that later gets even prolonged). Buckland later says that continuous watch is as good as a death sentence.
      Sawyer: Were you still a midshipman, I would flog you like we have Mr Wellard. Your position, however dictates a more imaginative approach. You are on continuous watch for the next 36 hours and I would remind you that an officer caught sleeping on duty is subject to the most rigorous penalty of the Articles of War. And you know what that is.
      Hornblower: Yes, sir.
      Sawyer: Then God help you if you're found asleep.
  • Planet of the Apes: In "The Interrogation", Wanda deprives Burke of sleep as a form of torture. She believes that this will weaken his mental resolve and make him more likely to name the humans who helped him, Galen and Virdon evade the authorities.
  • Supernatural: During season seven, Sam is suffering from hallucinations of Lucifer, due to him remembering his time in Hell. As the hallucination can't physically harm him, its main method of torture is ensuring that Sam cannot sleep. After several days, it's clear he's been driven to the brink of insanity.

    Video Games 
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, one of the masks that you collect is the All-Night Mask, which prevents the wearer from falling asleep. According to one of the Gossip Stones, it is a torture implement.

    Web Original 
  • The Russian Sleep Experiment Creepypasta is about Soviet political prisoners being put through fifteen sleepless nights, both as torture and as an experiment, the result of which is quite scary even to the scientists.

    Real Life 
  • The NKVD used sleep deprivation against its prisoners to interrogate them, as told by Menachem Begin:
    "In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."
  • Sleep deprivation is among the five techniques used by the Brits with Battleships during The Troubles.

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