In last week’s blog post, I talked about night terrors—episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep—and suggested it might be dangerous to wake someone in this state. They might become violent and aggressive and attack you. A thought occurred to me as I wrote that blog post. People who have episodes of night terrors have also been known to sleepwalk. And some sleepwalkers have been known to kill, or at least they have been acquitted based on a sleepwalking defense. So, if you see a night-terror-suffering sleepwalker about to walk out the door and thereby potentially endanger themselves, do you try and wake them? What if they wake up and attack you? What if they don’t wake up and try and murder you in their sleep? Maybe you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
As bizarre as it sounds, over a handful of cases have been documented where the accused have used the sleepwalking defense in murder cases—some successful, others not so much. Probably one of the most notorious cases is that of Kenneth Parks, which occurred in Toronto on May 24th, 1987. It represents the first time in Canada that the sleepwalking defense has been used successfully as a defense for murder.
According to news reports, while sleepwalking, Parks left the house at night (leaving his garage and house door wide open), drove about 23 kilometers to the home of his in-laws, retrieved a tire iron from their garage, opened the door to their home (with a key they had given him), bludgeoned his mother-in-law many times—before getting a kitchen knife and stabbing her to death. He also choked his father-in-law into unconsciousness, but the father-in-law survived the attack.
Their two teenage daughters were home during the attack. And while Parks confronted the teens grunting like an animal, he left them unharmed.
It’s a matter of debate when, but at some point after the attack Parks woke up.
A short time later, Parks left the house and drove to a nearby police station. Bloodied and wounded—he’d cut all the flexor tendons in his hands while stabbing his mother-in-law six times—he turned himself in and confessed to police.
Parks said, “I just killed someone with my bare hands; oh my God, I just killed someone; I’ve just killed two people; my God, I’ve just killed two people with my hands; my God, I’ve just killed two people. My hands; I just killed two people. I killed them; I just killed two people; I’ve just killed my mother-and father-in-law. I stabbed and beat them to death. It’s all my fault.”
Parks wasn’t exactly a model citizen. He had gambling debts. He’d been fired for embezzlement. He had an upcoming trial in connection with the embezzlement charges. He had a few marital problems. But he was trying to improve himself. He’d confessed his financial problems to his wife. And he’d vowed to tell his in-laws, whom he reportedly had a good relationship with, about his financial problems. Evidence presented at the trial showed Parks was under a lot of physical and emotional stress, depressed and suffering from insomnia. He also suffered from a number of parasomnia disorders including night terrors and sleepwalking. All of these factors and his remorse about the crimes combined to render an acquittal. Not guilty. The Supreme Court of Canada even overturned an appeal and the acquittal stuck. And since Parks wasn’t judged insane, he was not sentenced to a psychiatric hospital and walked away a free man.
There are over half a dozen similar cases, where the sleepwalking defense was also used, albeit not always successful. The sleepwalking defense is tied to automatism, the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.
In the United States in 1994, Michael Ricksgers said he’d accidently killed his wife while being in a somnambulistic state, claiming he woke up with a gun in his hand with his bleeding wife in bed beside him. His lawyers said his sleepwalking was brought on by a medical condition called sleep apnea. But the prosecutors argued that Ricksgers was distraught and upset that his wife was planning on leaving him. The jury didn’t buy Ricksgers story and, according to the Associated Press, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Sleepwalkers have indeed performed some strange, astonishing and complicated things during their episodes. An Australian woman would regularly get out of bed and have sex with strangers, a phenomenon called sexsomnia.
A chef cooked spaghetti bolognese and fish and chips in his sleep. Some sleepwalkers have been reported to eat entire meals in the middle of the night.
While sleepwalking, a friend who visited me one summer left an upper guest bedroom (I was sleeping downstairs, thank God), walked into the adjacent guest bedroom where his brother slept, stared at him eerily for several long minutes, and then left the room and started walking downstairs. At that point, his brother followed him and woke him without incident; although the sleepwalking guest did claim the next morning that he was convinced my house was haunted.
American sleepwalker Alyson Bair told ABC News she had a nightmare that she was in a river and struggling to stay afloat. Drowning. She woke up with the realization that she actually was in a river and was drowning. She eventually made her way to safety.
One of the most bizarre examples is that of Welsh Australian artist Lee Hadwin. At night, while sleeping, he draws beautiful and oftentimes intricate art—with virtually no recollection of his “sleep-drawing.”
At least one therapist who examined Lee recently suspects that Lee’s night time drawings are actually created in a dissociative and unremembered state related to trauma he suffered as a child.
According to his website biography, “With no training, and no inclination in his waking life to be an artist, Lee draws and sketches portraits, figures and landscapes in his sleep. ‘Sleep-drawing’ since the age of four, it wasn’t until he was 14-15 years old that his nocturnal talents as an artist began to emerge. He recalls: That during his early teens the drawings became a lot more intricate and had more depth to them. Lee draws or scribbles on walls, tables, clothes, discarded newspapers—with pens, crayons, paints and coal—anything he can get his hands on. After all these years he is prepared and has his sketch books and materials scattered around his apartment. His work over the years has become more detailed and more profound. Now, with interest from galleries around the world, TV offers, and talks about writing a book, Lee has discovered a global demand for his work.”
Damn, I wish I could write a horror novel in my sleep. It would save me a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Hell, even a chapter or two would suffice.
Many sleep specialists believe sleepwalking and other forms of parasomnia occur during deep non-REM slow wave sleep (SWS). They claim sleepwalking is caused by a physiological event where the brain attempts to exit SWS and wake up. In normal sleep, the brain transitions from stage one or two of non-REM or REM sleep into the wake-up stage but not normally from SWS. When the brain tries to exit SWS into wakefulness, it gets stuck between this sleeping and waking state, causing sleepwalking.
The Canadian Psychiatric Association contends that sleepwalking usually happens in the first one-third of the night; sexual arousal is not present; episodes usually last less than thirty minutes; sometimes violence, injury and self-injury occur, and sleepwalking is more common in children.
The National Sleep Foundation says symptoms of sleepwalking include sleep talking; little or no memory of the episode; difficulty waking a sleepwalker during an episode; inappropriate behavior like urinating in closets; screaming (when sleepwalking is combined with night terrors), and violent attacks on those who try and wake up the sleepwalker.
While nobody is sure why people murder during sleepwalking, it’s reasonable to assume that—using the bizarre and notorious case of Ken Parks as an example—many circumstances must be present such as stress, depression, financial and marital problems, sleep deprivation, etc. Sleep specialists recognize that the case of Ken Parks is unique and many sleepwalkers are not likely to find themselves in his predicament.
Treatment: While some sleep specialists claim sleepwalking is a physiological disorder and medical treatments will help, others say that no one treatment completely eliminates sleepwalking. They suggest preventative measures to reduce its terrifying effects on many who wake up in compromising situations with little or no memory of how they got there. Among the preventative measures are education; scheduled awakening; hypnosis; making your house safe; consistent sleep schedule, healthy diet, limited alcohol and drug use, etc. On and on it goes.
I don’t suffer from sleepwalking. But I’ve devised a preventative measure to implement if I ever encounter my sleepwalking friend in a dark hallway in the middle of the night. I’ll try handing him a blank canvass and a crayon.
If that doesn’t work, I’ll run like hell. Sleep tight, dear readers. Sleep tight.