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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When a nightmare becomes reality: These people committed murder in their sleep

Illustration for article titled When a nightmare becomes reality: These people committed murder in their sleep
Photo: Still from 1920's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Homicidal sleepwalking

What it’s about: Some people snore, some people talk in their sleep, and some people… kill! While it’s very rare, there have been several recorded instances of somnambulant slaying throughout history, where a sleeping person commits murder while completely unconscious and unaware of their actions (or, say the skeptics, just plain old murder someone and come up with this unlikely defense).

Biggest controversy: Even this short list of sleepwalkers includes a few fakers. Arizona man Scott Falater claimed he was asleep when he stabbed his wife, but prosecutors were quick to point out that, while allegedly sleepwalking, he held her head underwater, stabbed her 44 times, changed his clothes, and disposed of the bloody clothes and murder weapon. The jury agreed and sentenced him to life in prison.

Antonio Nieto, a Spanish supposed sleepwalker murdered his wife and mother-in-law and injured his two children. He claimed he was asleep and dreaming of fighting off ostriches, but both children testified that he recognized them, and told them their mother (who he had already mortally wounded) was sleeping in the other room.


Strangest fact: The earliest case mentioned here doesn’t actually have an entry on the list, just an etching from an 1846 issue of the National Police Gazette, of a man identified only as Tirrell, strangling a woman named Maria Bickford while sleepwalking. An 1887 case may be the most fascinating one on the list. French police detective Robert Ledru was called in to investigate a murder on a local beach. After examining the evidence, he came to the inescapable conclusion that he was the killer. He turned himself in, and his jailers gave him a gun loaded with blanks. When he fired at one of the guards while sleepwalking, that was enough to convince authorities he was innocent, though he lived out the remainder of his days on a farm, under guard.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Somnambulant murder inspired one of cinema’s all-time classics; 1920 silent film The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari concerns a hypnotist (Werner Krauss) who uses a sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) to commit murder. Considered the pinnacle of German expressionism, Roger Ebert called it “the first true horror film,” and fellow critic Danny Peary called it the first cult movie. Director Robert Wiene introduced narrative standbys like the twist ending and the unreliable narrator to the nascent genre of film.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The “good man with a gun” fallacy doesn’t hold up by day or night. In one case, a “gun fancier” identified here as “A.F.” heard a noise in his sleep, reached for a nearby gun, and shot the source of the noise—his father, who had just woken up in the adjacent room. Teenager Jo Ann Kiger picked up two guns to defend her family against a monster, presumably in her dream. Instead, she shot and killed her father and brother.

Also noteworthy: One of the best-documented cases is that of Kenneth James Parks, a Canadian man who beat his mother-in-law (who he was previously close with) to death with a tire iron and tried to choke his father-in-law to death (the man survived). Neither police nor sleep specialists believed Parks’ story about sleepwalking, but when given an EEG, the irregular results helped convince the doctors (and a jury, and later Canada’s Supreme Court) that Parks had been asleep during the attack, as EEG results are impossible to fake, and Parks’ story was otherwise completely consistent.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: For those who prefer the other half of the sex and violence equation, there’s the sexy sleep disorder, sexsomnia. It’s another rare but real phenomenon, and “symptoms” can range from unconscious masturbation to full-on intercourse. Usually this happens with a willing partner who isn’t aware they’re getting it on with someone who’s asleep. However, sexsomnia has also resulted in sexual assault, and like homicidal sleepwalking, has been used as a defense in court. The likely cause is neurons misfiring due to a combination of stress, sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, or ingestion of some medications.

Further down the Wormhole: Besides Dr. Caligari, homicidal sleepwalking appears throughout Maurice Leblanc’s series of books featuring gentleman thief Arsène Lupin. Lupin was modeled on Sherlock Holmes (and the famous detective appeared in a few Lupin stories, until Arthur Conan Doyle objected; subsequent editions changed his name to “Herlock Sholmes”), but Lupin’s stories sometimes included fantastic elements, like the fountain of youth or a radioactive “god-stone” that miraculously cures people. In fact, radioactive elements—also called actinides—are far more likely to cause illness than cure it. David Hahn nearly found that out the hard way when, at age 17, he tried to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard. We’ll learn more about the “Radioactive Boy Scout” next week.


Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in early 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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