An edited version of this was on VICE UK
No one is 100% certain how bullshit the cases are, but in 2005 a doctor giving evidence in a homicidal sleepwalking trial in the UK stated that there had been 68 worldwide so far. 68 cases of sleeping people getting up in the night and battering people to death while still sleeping. Since most sleepwalking activities are non-violent, largely sandwich-construction- or wardrobe-confused-for-toilet based, pretty much all of these cases are viewed as a bit suss. This is because it’s obviously a pretty convenient excuse for killing someone, but sometimes these people are not lying – they have genuinely committed terrible crimes while asleep and awoken in a car covered in someone else’s blood.
I sleepwalk and I worry about stuff like this on a pretty much daily/nightly basis. It doesn’t help that researchers at Heidelberg University have just discovered that if you merely have dreams about murdering people, you’re more likely to do a murder while awake. I’ve had a recurring dream for two decades now where I murder David Jason under my childhood home and bury him in a shallow grave by the fern that grows under the pipe that has been dripping since 1989. Waking life or sleeping life: it doesn’t look good for me.
There’s also the fear that I’ll do something worthy of a Wikipedia entry, like R.E.M’s Peter Buck all sleeping-pilled up on that BA flight in 2001 where he had a fight with two stewards over a pot of yoghurt and yoghurt exploded all over the cabin (ICYMI: he also tried to insert a CD into the drinks trolley thinking it was a CD player, shouted “I am R.E.M.” and was later charged not only with common assault but also damaging British Airways cutlery and crockery). I haven’t, yet, although I have woken up covered in soil because I decided to do a bit of gardening while sleeping, like a Stoke Newington version of that scene in Pet Sematary. I’ve crept down to the kitchen in the morning to discover I constructed an elaborate salad in the middle of the night using a series of expensive ingredients that weren’t even mine and were completely from Whole Foods so, y’know, that was an issue. I’ve woken up in the shower at 3 a.m. because the freezing cold water has hit me and my pyjamas in the face. I have found weird fruit and tiny apples in my bed that weren’t in my house when I went to sleep. I tried to escape my Brixton flat nude, punched my then-boyfriend when he tried to lock me in the bathroom until I came to, and woke up curled around the toilet bowl the next morning, shivering and still buck naked. Like, that’s not normal. Also, what kind of guy locks a naked girl in the bathroom and doesn’t throw in a blanket.
It was in my effort to figure out how to stop me doing shit like this I found out that people commit murders in their sleep. I went down a Google hole and came out the other end wanting to Minority Report arrest myself.
I asked Dr. Allen Foster, the medical director of a sleep laboratory in Wisconsin what’s wrong with me, why I sometimes grab people’s shoulders in my sleep, hiss things into their face so close we’re basically kissing, before rolling over and deny it ever happened. He said: “Your behaviours are classic for sleepwalking/somnambulism. It’s probably more likely to be sleepwalking than REM sleep disorder, the other parasomnia we have to think about.”
REM sleep behaviour disorder is the kind that comedian Mike Birbiglia has, where people act out their dreams while dreaming. He’s flown out of real life windows to avoid guided missiles in his dreams, climbed to the top of the bookshelf to accept an Olympic gold medal on the podium, written a really great fucking book about it while awake that you should read, etc etc. That ain’t my deal. Birbiglia’s sleep disorder has relegated itself to one sleeping state – whereas apparently mine is because of a disassociation between two. Dr. Foster says it’s a bit like what dolphins do except humans aren’t supposed to:
“We currently and probably somewhat crudely evaluate sleep to be bimodal, and comprised of NREM and REM, which differ from one another almost as much as wake differs from sleep. These differ in regards to local regional brain activity electrically, chemically, hormonally, and at the molecular genetic level.”
So basically, while you’re sleeping your brain is going through these cycles, and the trouble (for me) starts when it gets stuck somewhere between the two or when the change is abrupt instead of gradual. This is when I get up and wander into my flatmate’s room and piss in their handbag. Or tear their posters off the wall and fall asleep beneath them like I’m Liz Lemon with a Tom Jones poster. For example.
“State dissociation is normally seen in birds swimming or flying during sleep, and dolphins and porpoises experiencing sleep in one hemisphere of their brain at a time (the other half keeps them swimming, and most importantly breathing).”
I could theoretically just ignore this thing that my brain is doing but far too many people have gone camping and wandered off cliffs and died, or woken up naked with hypothermia in snowy fields for me to just go on like nothing’s up.
Here’s how dealing with this disorder goes down in a hypothetical real life situation, as recommended by my doctor: If we were drunk enough to decide to get a hotel room instead of our respective nightbuses home to our separate houses, what would happen is regrets, definitely, and also a complicated exchange at the reception desk of whatever bleak hotel we had chosen. I would have to step outside the inarguable romance of the situation and explain to the tired, bored receptionist of the hotel that we would need to be put on the ground floor, in a room with a deadlock and a deadlock key that we could hide (from me). He or she would look apathetic in the oversized hotel uniform while I further explain that I am liable to be found wandering the corridors in the night sans clothes and/or in a bloody heap on the pavement outside having leapt out the 12th floor window while sleepwalking. I need to state this is in the interests of not being dead, and also because I wouldn’t want to implicate you in what would probably look like a murder you did or a suicide I did. It’s a romance killer. But so is every exchange at a hotel reception desk.
One of the first recorded cases of sleepwalking being used in a successful murder defence was in Boston, Massachusetts in 1846, when a rich guy called Albert Tirrell slit the throat of a prostitute so completely she was nearly decapitated. Back then there was no medical explanation of sleepwalking, the defence just called on his family members to lay out a history of chronic sleepwalking and he was found not guilty. Likewise, in Manchester 2004, Jules Lowe battered his 82-year-old father to death and was later acquitted. But in 1998 a chef in Paignton, Devon, called Dean Sokell was jailed for life after attacking his wife with the claw hammer he’d used to fix the bed the day before. He woke up mid-attack/post-31-hits-of-the-hammer and stabbed her in the chest seven times with a kitchen knife to stop her screaming in case the neighbours heard. Psychiatric reports showed he was not mentally ill and probably not sleepwalking either, merely just a weird bad guy who’d drunk nine pints of lager unlike the acquitted Lowe, who was diagnosed in a series of overnight sleep studies with having something called “insane automatism”. Lowe was therefore not responsible for his actions – he had no idea what he was doing (they locked him up in a psychiatric hospital instead).
Given this precedent I wondered if I could murder someone on purpose and use my history of sleepwalking in the event I ever end up in court. Obviously I would think that, it’s the logical extrapolation of that graph. Could my ex-boyfriends and housemates and be dragged into the witness box, call me crazy, and secure me a not-guilty verdict? Am actually I sitting on a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card here?
Well, experts now aren’t entirely sold on Tirrell’s story because he burned the brothel down, fled the scene and went into hiding – three things that are incompatible with being under ‘the insanity of sleep’ (as his lawyer put it). If he’d been on trial today the outcome would likely be different. It’d be more like the 1999 case of the devout Mormon guy in Arizona, Scott Falater, who tried and failed to use his history of sleepwalking to excuse the fact that he stabbed his wife 44 times and then drowned her in their swimming pool with no apparent motive. The thing that gave lie to his whole sleepwalking story (and led to his first-degree murder conviction) was his neighbour’s testimony – he said that while moving his wife’s body towards the pool Falater motioned for his dog to lie down, which isn’t something you’re all that bothered with when you’re not conscious. You also don’t hide murder weapons and blood-drenched clothes in a Tupperware in the boot of your car if you’re innocent. So as to whether or not I could do it on purpose without fucking up a detail like that: the jury’s still out.
But could I genuinely get up in the night and stab the guy sleeping beside me without actually wanting to?
Dr. Foster says I need to worry about the sleepwalking less and stop googling shit like this. Stress, anxiety, the very specific fear I will accidentally murder the guy in my bed – all that stuff just sets it off. “People worry, they get apprehensive, they sometimes begin avoiding sleep which leads to disrupted sleep and insomnia – that only aggravates the parasomnia. People often feel responsible, like there’s something wrong with them, something evil or disturbed or malign and that’s really not the case. You have to get past that.”
Okay sure, but if it ever happens I want it on record that I worried it would.