Sleeping is normally a peaceful activity. When we retire to bed at night, most of us do not feel the need to bolt the doors and hide the keys. Nor do we padlock the fridge or lock away sharp objects. But for the one percent of the adult population who regularly sleepwalk (e.g. at least twice per month), closing your eyes at night can be a strange and sometimes terrible thing.
Although most sleepwalkers will just wander aimlessly around the house, embarrassing their families before finally slipping back into bed, some people do some very strange things indeed.
10 Have Sex
Sexsomnia is a condition which causes people to engage in sex acts in their sleep. Without being aware of it, sufferers can engage in sex alone or with a partner and never remember it when they wake up. Both men and women experience the condition, though it is more common in men.
Sexsomnia can be a particularly dangerous condition, both for the sufferer and those around them, as they are unable to comprehend issues of consent. In 2007, a jury cleared a Royal Air Force aircraft mechanic of rape after hearing that he suffered from sexsomnia. Kenneth Ecott climbed naked on top of an unconscious girl after a drunken party. The jury accepted that he had been in a state of “automatism” when he raped her.
There have been a number of sexsomnia defenses to rape charges, not all of them successful, and there have been attempts to outlaw the defense, albeit with little success. However, it seems juries are unlikely to acquit unless the defendant is able to prove that they had documented evidence of parasomnias prior to being charged with rape.
Just as people walk in their sleep, so it is possible for them to drive. Sleep drivers can often travel significant distances in their sleep. It is not known how common this is, nor how many road accidents are caused by somnambulists. It is likely that while sleepwalkers master the mechanics of driving, they will not be able to use higher skills such as navigation and will merely be driving on autopilot.
And of course, not only can sleepwalkers drive, but they can also drink and drive. In 2012, UK resident Becky Mason had a friend over at her place and drank several glasses of wine before going to bed. Afterward, she drove 8 kilometers (5 mi) to her office in her pajamas, only to be told by a bemused security guard that it was Saturday night and that she wasn’t due in work until Monday morning. She got back in her car to drive home and promptly crashed into a lamppost. Her blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
At her trial, the security guard was a crucial witness in her defense, and she was acquitted of drunk driving on the grounds of automatism. After this debacle, she made sure to hand her car keys to her roommates every night, just in case.
In 2009, Brian Thomas of Wales was acquitted of the murder of his wife after he strangled her while sleepwalking. Thomas had suffered from night terrors for 50 years and usually slept in a separate room from his wife, but they had gone on vacation and were sharing a bed in their camper van.
Thomas usually took tablets for depression, which helped alleviate the symptoms, but stopped taking them while on the trip because they reduced his libido. They had enjoyed a pleasant evening, only slightly marred by a gang of young men racing cars near their van.
Not long after they fell asleep, Thomas had a nightmare that the youths had broken into the camper van, and he dreamed that he was defending his wife from their attack. Tragically, he was, in fact, strangling her. Thomas made a confused emergency call some time later, saying that he had strangled his wife in his sleep.
There have been other cases of sleepwalkers, usually men, killing in their sleep. Not unnaturally, their victims are usually their partners. In 1845, Albert Tirrell was the first person to successfully use the sleepwalking defense in the United States, after he killed his “mistress” and set fire to the brothel they were sleeping in.
One of the most controversial acquittals was that of Kenneth Parks, who, in 1987, drove 20 kilometers (12 mi) from his home to that of his in-laws, beat his mother-in-law to death, and tried to strangle his father-in-law. He then climbed back into his car and drove to the nearest police station and turned himself in. The case caused controversy mainly because Parks had financial problems caused by his gambling addiction. He had recently lost his job as a result of embezzlement. Subsequent examinations by sleep researchers, however, showed that his sleep was highly disturbed, which, when combined with the stress of the discovery of his gambling addiction, was enough to cause a violent sleepwalking episode with such tragic results.
7 Get Naked
Finding yourself naked in public is a common anxiety dream, but for many sleepwalkers, it can turn into reality.
Indeed, it has become so common that one hotel chain has even trained its staff on how to deal with the naked sleepwalkers who wander up and down its corridors. The problem appears to be almost exclusively male (in the hotels, at any rate), with confused guests turning up at the reception desk in their birthday suits to request a wake-up call or try to check out. Staff now keep towels on hand in order to preserve their guests’ modesty and master keys in order to guide them gently back to their rooms.
It is thought that stress probably increases the likelihood of a sleepwalking occurrence, and alcohol or unfamiliar surroundings can exacerbate it and lead to further confusion. Sleepwalkers may believe that they are at home or that they have stepped into the bathroom or even onto a private balcony, when in reality, they are wandering the halls in the altogether.
6 Talk (Too Much)
Almost everyone talks in their sleep at some point. However, some people hold entire conversations with themselves. Sleeptalking, or somniloquy, might seem like complete gibberish to those who are awake but appear perfectly logical to the sleepwalker. Though somniloquy is unlikely to cause serious harm, it can often prove embarrassing for sufferers.
Sleeptalking can run in families. It can be exacerbated by sleep deprivation, stress, and drug and alcohol use. Researchers have discovered that a lot of sleeptalk consists of negative words, such as “no,” and rather a lot of swearing.
Most sleeptalkers, it seems, are fairly foul-mouthed, but despite what the movies will have us believe, people do not tend to blurt out their darkest secrets in their sleep. There is no evidence that what sleepers are talking about is founded in fact. Indeed, in 2001, the Supreme Court in Massachusetts overturned a conviction of indecent assault when they found that the original jury had been prejudiced after hearing that one of the children in the case “disclosed” his abuse in his sleep.
5 Get Creative
Perhaps there is something about being unconscious that stirs the creative juices. In 2015, a 13-year-old girl was filmed playing the piano in her sleep. Though she could clearly be heard snoring and rested her head against the upright piano, she still managed to knock out a tune.
Sleepwalkers have also participated in the fine arts. Lee Hadwin has made a career selling paintings that he creates in his sleep. He claims to be unable to draw when he is awake but produces artworks in the middle of the night without ever remembering it in the morning. Though critics are divided about whether his work constitutes “real art” or just “doodling,” he has nevertheless sold his work to buyers all over the world, including to well-known aesthetes like Donald Trump.
Though most art experts believe that true art requires the artist to be both conscious and responsive, it seems it is possible for the brain to perform some creative functions while the artist is asleep.
4 Live The Dream
For most people, having a dream come true is usually a good thing. For those with REM behavior disorder (RBD), however, it could mean something entirely different.
Usually, when we enter REM sleep, our brain shuts off communication with our muscles, except those in our eyes and diaphragm (which allows us to breathe), effectively paralyzing us as we sleep. REM sleep usually comes in cycles of around 90 minutes, so dreamers will typically experience three or more cycles per night.
When RBD sufferers enter the REM stage of sleep, their muscles are not adequately paralyzed, and they act out their dreams. This may include violence, laughing, or reenacting movements made during the day, such as packing imaginary suitcases. Sometimes, sleepwalkers will jump out of bed or run around the house.
Because the only reality that the sleeper recognizes is the one in the dream, sufferers can injure themselves in real life without feeling it in the dream and without waking up. It’s kind of like The Matrix in reverse.
3 Commit Armed Robbery
In 2007, Maria Hudson fell asleep in front of the TV. Then she put on some pink rubber kitchen gloves and pulled a pair of tights over her head. She walked for ten minutes to her local convenience store, where she pulled out a 30-centimeter (12 in) kitchen knife and yelled, “Hand over your money!” in a tone much like that used by Brad Pitt in the film she had just been watching.
She only woke up when she was pinned to the shop floor by two police officers as they disarmed her. Hudson had no recollection of what happened, but medical experts believed that her “insane automatism” was brought on by her epilepsy.
Although a relative of the shop owners suffered a slashed wrist in the attack, his injury was, thankfully, not life-threatening. He recalled, “She was covered in my blood but didn’t say anything. Then when police arrived she suddenly seemed to come alive.” Hudson was acquitted after a trial.
People with sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) may have a perfectly healthy relationship with food during the day. But in their sleep, they will binge on foods that they would not eat while awake. It is common for SRED sufferers to stuff themselves with thick and high-sugar-content foods such as peanut butter or syrup, stuffing it all down very quickly before going back to bed without waking. Not only do they eat, but sufferers often cook, too, which can lead to knife injuries and burns.
Sleepwalkers can rustle up anything from a sandwich to a three-course meal. However, though they may appear to be awake, they are unlikely to be fully aware of which ingredients they are using, so eating the food that they have prepared may not always be a good idea.
SRED can have a serious effect on health. One obvious consequence is likely to be weight gain. Some sufferers try to cure themselves of binge-eating by ridding the house of high-calorie foods, but they may end up eating other, more dangerous things instead. Sleep-eaters have been discovered eating coffee grounds, bacon rinds, and paper and drinking poisonous fluids like bleach.
On the whole, it seems that stocking the fridge with chocolate is safer.
1 Balance (On Top Of A Crane)
One night in 2005 in London, a passerby spotted a young girl on the arm of a crane, 40 meters (130 ft) above the ground. Thinking that he was witnessing a suicide attempt, he alerted emergency services. It was only when a firefighter crawled toward her that it was discovered that she was asleep.
Responders were concerned that a rescue attempt might wake her. The 15-year-old had apparently walked from her home, climbed up the crane, and walked across the narrow beam in her sleep. Eventually, rescuers recovered her mobile phone and contacted her parents. They were able to phone and wake her gently, while firefighters positioned themselves to catch her if she fell.
Though the girl had managed to climb the crane in her sleep, it took a crew of firefighters with a hydraulic lift two and a half hours to bring her back down.
Ward Hazell is a writer who travels, and an occasional travel writer