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Hypnotic Horrors

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On a cold winter’s night in January 2003, a registered nurse from Denver climbed into her car, got into a wreck, and was booked for scuffling with the cops. At first glance, this story appears to be nothing extraordinary. People are arrested every day for traffic violations and disorderly conduct. They drive drunk, fail the Breathalyzer test, and are hauled off to the local tank, and television series like Cops and Dog The Bounty Hunter inundate us with example after inebriated example. But this case is supplemented with a wild twist: the nurse was asleep the entire time.

Crazy as it may sound, the detention of this slumbering RN is just one in a multitude of sleepwalking incidents. Tales of the walking unconscious have involved such actions as talking, driving, eating, and sex. Murders have even been committed by individuals who are in this state of automatism, a state or condition in which all actions are automatic, mechanical, or involuntary. Yes, in October 2003, Jules Lowe savagely beat his father to death in his home near Manchester, England. His lawyer employed the very rare “defense of sleepwalking,” and the presiding jury found Lowe to be not guilty by reason of insanity.

Hearing stories like this can be disturbing. After all, how far off does this sound from Friday the 13th or Halloween? A mindless killer, incapable of reasoning, commits heinous acts without emotion. If the defense’s case holds true, then any one of us could transform by nightfall into an unconscious homicidal maniac, right? The naysayers may wave off this assertion by pointing to genetics and the fact that a handful of people are simply hardwired to experience sleepwalking while most of us are not.

This argument is more or less rock solid – at least, it was until the advent of prescription sleep aids. Over the past few decades, our culture has become a restless one, the speed dial constantly on high. This country is witnessing widespread stress from lack of sleep and hectic lifestyles, and as a result, its sleep-deprived, coffee-and-soda-guzzling citizens have begun to experience insomnia on an unprecedented scale. This developing problem opened the doorway for drug companies to begin investing heavily in research on hypnotics. We now find ourselves bombarded by wave after wave of commercials for sleep aids, from Rozerem to Sonata, Ambien to Lunesta.

Drugs like those have been implicated in a growing number of bizarre cases involving sleepwalking (the registered nurse from Denver was taking Ambien at the time of her arrest). A number of people are currently facing serious legal ramifications as a result of medication-induced automatism. With the advent of such mind-altering medicines, natural inclinations toward sleepwalking become much less relevant. The main reason for this anomalous behavior is no longer genetic predisposition. All one needs now is a busy lifestyle and a doctor’s note. More startling yet, the demand for these pills is alarmingly high. According to naturalnews.com, “In 2005, 26.5 million prescriptions for Ambien were written in the United States alone, totaling $2.2 billion in sales.”

I’ve waged my own wars on the dreamscapes, having had first-hand experience with a jumbled array of sleepwalking, insomnia, and pills. Until I was twelve, my mom and dad would regale me with tales of my outlandish nighttime activities. One of the more peculiar examples sticks with me even now. According to my parents, I shuffled into their bedroom one night, stepped up to the alarm panel, and began banging softly on the wall. My befuddled mother asked what I was doing. Without turning, and as if talking to no one, I muttered quietly, “I’ve got to fix this memory card.”

About Jon Erbar