This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In 2005, a doctor giving evidence in the trial of a homicidal sleepwalker said that there 68 cases worldwide of sleeping people getting up in the night and battering people to death.
Since most sleepwalking activities are largely nonviolent and embarrassing, using this in your murder defense is generally viewed as a bit suspicious. It's a pretty convenient excuse for killing someone—since you were entirely unaware that you did it—but there are people out there who have come to in their car caked in someone else's blood and thought, Fuck.
I sleepwalk and I worry about stuff like this on pretty much a nightly basis. My paranoia has been compounded somewhat by the researchers at Heidelberg University who have discovered that if you dream about murdering people, you're more likely to do a murder IRL.
I've had a recurring dream for two decades now where I murder David Jason at my childhood home and bury him in a shallow grave by the fern that grows under the pipe that has been dripping since 1989. It's not looking good for me. There's also an ever-simmering fear that I'll do something worthy of a Wikipedia entry, like Peter Buck from REM on that flight in 2001 where he had a fight with two stewards over a container of yogurt, which then exploded all over the cabin. (He also tried to insert a CD into the drink cart, shouting, "I am REM," and was later charged not only with common assault but also damaging British Airways crockery.)
I've not yet been responsible for a mile-high yogurt massacre, and nor have I been charged with common assault. I have woken up covered in soil, though, 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 find that I'd constructed an elaborate salad in the middle of the night. I've woken up in the shower at 3 AM. I've found tiny apples (seriously—what the fuck?) in my bed that weren't in my house when I went to sleep. Once, I tried to escape my Brixton flat completely naked, 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, shivering, with the globes of my very, very bare ass cheeks turning a pearlescent blue in the morning breeze.
It was in my best effort, then, to try and figure out how to stop doing shit like this. Especially now they're telling us that people commit murders in their sleep. I went down a Google rabbit hole and came out the other end wanting to arrest myself like someone in Minority Report.
"Your behaviors are classic for somnambulism (sleepwalking). It's probably more likely to be sleepwalking than REM sleep disorder, the other parasomnia we have to think about," said Dr. Allen Foster, the medical director of a sleep laboratory in Wisconsin, when I asked him about why I do things like grab people's shoulders in my sleep and hiss in their faces.
REM sleep behavior 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 and made a pretty good film about it all. But whereas Birbiglia's sleep disorder has relegated itself to one sleeping state, apparently mine is because of a disassociation between two and, according to Dr. Foster, a bit like what dolphins do. I'm basically a dolphin with legs and long hair.
"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 in regards to local regional brain activity electrically, chemically, hormonally, and at the molecular genetic level."
So, while you're sleeping, your brain is going through all these cycles. My trouble 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 roommate's room and piss in their handbag. "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 ignore all this, carry on falling into nocturnal-farts-and-drool-covered-pillow land pretending that I don't have a problem. But I've read too much about people wandering off cliffs and waking up naked in the snow to go on like nothing's up. I could end up a sleep-murderer, for fuck's sake.
One of the first recorded cases of sleepwalking being used in a successful murder defense was in Boston in 1846, when a rich guy named Albert Tirrell slit the throat of a prostitute so deeply she was nearly decapitated. Back then, there was no medical explanation of sleepwalking. The defense just called on his family members to lay out a history of chronic sleepwalking and he was found not guilty.
Am I sitting on a grisly Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card here?
Likewise, in Manchester in 2004, Jules Lowe battered his 82-year-old father to death and was later acquitted. But in 1998, Dean Sokell, a Devon chef, 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. Psychiatric reports showed he was not mentally ill and probably not sleepwalking either. He was probably just evil.
Lowe, however, was diagnosed in a series of overnight sleep studies with something called "insane automatism." He wasn't responsible for his actions and 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. Could my ex-boyfriends and housemates and be dragged into the witness box, call me crazy, and secure me a not-guilty verdict? Am I sitting on a grisly get-out-of-jail-free card here?
Maybe not. Experts aren't entirely sold on Tirrell's story. The fact that he burned the brothel down, fled the scene, and went into hiding aren't necessarily compatible with the whole under-the-insanity-of-sleep argument. If he'd been on trial today, the outcome would likely be different. It'd probably 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 before drowning her in their swimming pool with no apparent motive.
The loose screw in his sleepwalking story, though—and the thing that led to his first-degree murder charge—was his neighbor's testimony. He said that, while moving his wife's body towards the pool, Falater motioned for his dog to lie down. Getting your dog to lie down isn't something you're bothered with when you're unconscious. Hide murder weapons and blood-drenched clothes in a Tupperware in the trunk of your car isn't particularly synonymous with innocence, either.
Falater's story, while obviously one of a deranged, violent lunatic, still made me nervous. Given my history, how many nights of moonlit mooning am I away from plunging a knife into my sweet, sleeping boyfriend's back?
Dr. Foster says I need to get the fuck off Google, basically, and stop worrying about the sleepwalking. He says that stress, anxiety, and the very specific fear I will accidentally murder the guy in my bed is just further catalyst for sleepwalking. "People worry, they get apprehensive, and sometimes begin avoiding sleep which leads to disrupted sleep and insomnia," he says. "That only aggravates the parasomnia. People often feel responsible, like there's something wrong with them, something evil or disturbed, and that's really not the case. You have to get past that."
Fine. But if it does ever happen, I want this article submitted as defense evidence to the jury.
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