By Jean Balchin 08/01/2018


‘Twas 2am on the night all hell broke loose, and all through the house not even a metaphorical mouse was stirring – except for me. Clad in my faded Mickey Mouse nightie, I tottered out of bed, carefully opened the front door and pressed the doorbell, repeatedly and insistently. The bell’s shrill cries reverberated through the house, sending it into a state of disarray. Children tumbled bleary-eyed from their beds, the neighbour’s horrid little Jack Russell Terrier started yapping, and my father sighed with frustration. Hauling himself out of bed, he wrapped his nightgown around him and headed out in search of his wayward, ever-infuriating daughter.

Meanwhile, said daughter had escaped down the garden path and was heading out onto the open road, where a bemused late-night cyclist swerved to avoid the ghostly figure. My father bundled me up, and led me back to my bed. There’s a commonly held belief that one shouldn’t wake a sleepwalker, but in this case, my father had no choice. As we walked back through the open front door, the cries of my pregnant mother rang through the air. The merry peals of the doorbell ringing at the ungodly hour of 2am had given her such a fright that she had gone into labour. And so, thanks to my sleepwalking antics, my little brother Peter was born exactly two hours later.

A Brief History of Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a phenomenon of combined sleep and wakefulness – a sleep disorder belonging to the parasomnia family. It occurs during slow-wave sleep of non-rapid-eye-movement sleep cycles, when the sleeper is in a state of low consciousness and can perform activities usually performed during the waking state. These activities may be as harmless as cleaning the toilet in the middle of the night, or making a peanut butter sandwich. However, sleepwalking can also be an incredibly dangerous activity, involving cooking, violent gestures, driving or even homicide!

Sleepwalking has riveted audiences, poets and scientists alike, ever since Lady Macbeth first frantically rubbed her blood-stained hands together. The unquiet mind that forces the body to wander aimlessly through the darkness possesses a certain dramatic appeal. Both Hippocrates and Aristotle knew of the phenomenon, and Diogenes Laërtius was said to read, write and correct his works while asleep. Galen, a famous medical practitioner during the second century, actually wrote in his De motu musculorum that he once spent a whole night wandering about in his sleep, awakening only after he tripped over a stone in his way.

Lady MacBeth, Johann Heinrich Fussli. Wikimedia Commons.

Forget the clumsy old Greek philosophers – sleepwalking was far more exciting during the medieval period in the West, when the absent-minded night time wanderings of poor somnambulists were thought to be the immediate consequence of divine appointment, or, in some cases, demonic possession. Sixteenth-century Spanish writer Antonio de Torquemada maintained that the devil makes us “dreame lascivious Dreames” and provokes sleepers “to commit follies whereby we may lose both body and mind at once.” Salacious!

William Hammond, a mid-nineteenth-century physician, summarized these ideas when he claimed that

“In those times when the marvellous exercised so powerful an influence over mankind, and when all phenomena out of the ordinary course of everyday life were regarded as supernatural, it was the prevailing belief that the somnambulist was possessed”.

Supernatural explanations for sleepwalking dominated the Western world throughout the Enlightenment, terrifying many families and providing a great deal of work for already overburdened priests. I’ve no doubt the exorcism kit trade was booming. Who knew that whittling small wooden crosses and bribing the local priest for his bathwater could be so profitable? These occult beliefs persisted well into the nineteenth century and are still maintained by a fair few whack jobs these days, as shall be discussed later in this piece.

As a small sleepwalking child, the notion that I might be possessed by a wayward demon or a malicious ancestor hell-bent on revenge terrified me. I remember many a sleepless night, desperately chanting the Lord’s Prayer in a bid to keep the pesky spirits away. The fact that my father was a Presbyterian minister was of small consolation to me; in fact, his horrifying tales of Ouija board antics and things that go thump in the night only sent me into a greater frenzy. On the odd occasion, my father was called out to perform exorcisms, or to anoint the odd parishioner. I vividly remember him storming around the house one evening, complaining that my mother had used up all the sunflower oil. When I snidely suggested using tomato sauce instead, I was severely reprimanded, and like the maligned children of the proverbial old woman who lived in a shoe, was sent to bed without supper.

Erasmus Darwin

John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist. Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s move on from ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties to more serious matters. Erasmus Darwin, one of the sharpest minds of the Enlightenment was an accomplished poet, scientist, doctor, inventor, philosopher and much more. He addressed the issue of sleepwalking in the second volume of his Zoonomia, or The Laws of Organic Life (1794-6) under a section titled “Diseases of Volition.” Unlike some theorists, Erasmus believed that Somnambulismus (as he called it) was not madness, because one’s train of thought is kept constant by the power of volition. He did not however distinguish between somnambulism as such, and involuntary movements following a seizure, and actually argued that sleepwalking frequently alternated with epileptic convulsions.

Arnold Wienholt

Arnold Wienholt was a German physician who wrote prolifically about his rather eccentric patients. Wienholt was fascinated by sleepwalking, and was particularly interested in those acts that would ordinarily require acute vision and concentration, such as opening locks, distinguishing colours and identifying objects at a distance. One of his treatises tells the tale of a young ecclesiastic, who would arise in the night, collect his fountain pen, ink and a fresh roll of paper and set about composing and writing sermons. My father would kill for this skill. “When he had finished one page of the paper on which he was writing,” Wienholt writes, “he would read over what he had written and correct it.” In an effort to gauge whether the young cleric was using his eyes, the Archbishop of the seminary quietly snuck up on his pupil one night and held a hymn book under his chin to prevent him from seeing the paper he was writing on. “He continued to write on, without appearing to be incommoded in the slightest degree,” wrote Wienholt, “even writing pieces of music while in this state … with his eyes closed.” (Wienholt, 1845, p. 51) Beethoven may have been able to compose Symphony No. 9 while stone-deaf, but could he have done it blind?

Lee Hadwin

Reading of this extraordinary ecclesiastic, I was reminded of a documentary I recently watched on a Welsh artist called Lee Hadwin, who with no training or inclination in his waking life to be an artist, draws and sketches landscapes, portraits and figures in his sleep. Imagine waking up and finding a paint-splattered masterpiece on your bedroom wall? Lee began ‘sleep-drawing’ at the age of four, although it wasn’t until his mid-teens that his artistic talents really began to emerge. After single-handedly vandalising every wall, table or item of clothing he could lay his sleepy hands on, Lee has learned to prepare himself and has sketch books and materials scattered around his apartment. Lee’s making a killing from this odd quirk, having sold sleep pieces for six-figure sums to prestigious buyers such as Derren Brown and Donald Trump. Move over Tracey Emin – there’s a new ‘bed-artist’ in town.  

But I digress. Back to the nineteenth century we go. Wienholt outlined a number of similar cases, including a sleepwalking girl who could read numbers and distinguish colours while her eyes were shut (1845, p. 47). In order to answer the question as to how such feats could be performed in darkness, with closed eyes or blocked vision, Wienholt turned to three pillars of eighteenth-century medicine, Anton de Haen, Albrecht von Haller and Gerhard van Swieten. These brilliant men believed that “the organ of sight was supplied by other means,” including both “the imagination,” which creates a faithful picture based on previous experiences, and the sense of touch, which can “act in place of the eyes and supply all that the imagination alone was incapable of performing” (pp. 54–55).

Thus a mind so equipped is able to control the voluntary muscles in a paranormal state that exists somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. Wienholt goes onto to wonder whether somnambulism relies on a supernatural sense; the soul, which is “able to perceive external objects without the assistance of the eyes, may still be capable of doing the same after it has cast off its mortal coil” (Wienholt, 1845, p. 141). Wienholt’s thinking was backed up by Johann August Unzer, a remarkably astute German physician, who argued that “the secret power of the soul supplies our perceptive faculties, at a time when the external senses are oppressed by sleep.” Needless to say, Wienholt was thrilled about this, exclaiming “Verily! These phenomena cast a new light on our future existence!” If only dear Arnold could have stuck around long enough to see Google Glass.

Freud had his own ideas about sleepwalking, of course.

Sigmund Freud, in true Freudian fashion, came up with an equally eccentric explanation for sleepwalking. Our favourite Austrian psychoanalyst believed that sleepwalking was connected to fulfilling sexual desires (no surprises there) and was perplexed that a person could move without interrupting their dream. While all these intellectuals were off philosophising on the spiritual nature of sleepwalking, the common folk had to make to with alternative, pragmatic treatments. My favourite anecdote is that concerning a few sleepwalking school boys in the Scottish Highlands. In a textbook I unearthed, I found the following advice:

   “The youthful somnambulist is put to sleep in bed with a companion who is not affected, and the leg of the one boy is linked by a pretty long band of ribbon or tape to the leg of the other. Presently, the one disposed to ramble in his sleep gets out of bed, and, in so doing, does not proceed far before he awakens the non-somnambulist, who in resisting being dragged after him, generally throws the other down, which has the effect of awakening him.” Poor sods.

  I can relate. As a perpetually befuddled and tired child, constantly waking up in some unfamiliar place, I tried many an interesting treatment. From locking my door firmly at night time, to tying my leg on the bed, I was at my wit’s end. My only comfort came from reading about sleepwalking characters in popular culture – from Dracula’s brides to the freakish, demonic-possessed children in The Conjuring. Here I felt some sense of solidarity. While medical authorities seemingly spent every waking moment hypothesising over the nitty-gritty details, notions of a tormented soul that cannot sleep soundly go back to the dawn of time. Sleepwalking has been represented in literature, music, art and theatre, ever since the first caveman scrawled his first masterpiece on the cave-wall.