Somnambulism is a bizarre, rather creepy condition where a person sleep walks or performs other actions during sleep, such as sitting, standing or talking. It is a parasomnia disorder . The most common parasomnia disorder is sleep terror. considered to be a dissociative state since the sleepwalker is deeply asleep and unaware of his or her actions. Upon awakening the next day, sometimes the sleepwalker has little or no recollection of her or his actions the night before. Somnambulism is a hereditary condition: 80% of sleep-walkers have a family history of somnambulism. Only 2 – 5% of adults have somnambulism.
Of the 4 stages of sleep, somnambulism occurs predominantly in stages 3 and 4, known as NREM sleep. In a fully functional brain, the skeletal muscles are completely paralyzed and the body doesn’t move. The sleepwalker is completely asleep but the brain has full access to motor skills we use when awake. During a sleepwalking episode, the brain experiences activity in the anterior singular cortex. This part of the brain is associated with emotionally associative behaviours. The prefrontal cortex maintains the same full awareness as a non-sleepwalker. These findings are consistent with the dissociative hypothesis. The most heinous crimes tend to occur in non-REM parasomnias.
SP is also known as REM atonia or muscle atonia. It occurs during the deepest stage of sleep, stage 4, when the sleeper is dreaming. However sleep paralysis doesn’t occur in people with somnambulism, making it possible for these sleepers to get out of bed, move around, and commit actions that appear normal to people who are awake, such as having a lucid conversation that they cannot remember upon awakening.
Kenneth Parks Homicidal Somnambulism Case
Parks had suffered from somnambulism since childhood. There was a long history of somnambulism in his family, including his father and grandfather. Parks’ grandfather was known to get out of bed late at night and while completely asleep, cook a meal on the stove, sometimes eating and sometimes leaving the food on the stove to burn, then returning to bed. The entire time Parks’ grandfather made grunting noises in an effort to talk to people he believed were present.
In 1987 Parks, his wife and 5-month-old daughter lived in Pickering, a subdivision of Toronto, Ontario. Parks had developed a severe gambling problem. To cover his losses, he took funds from his family’s savings and then began to embezzle at work. Eventually, in March 1987, his actions were discovered, and he was fired from his job. Parks began attending Gamblers Anonymous. He made plans to tell his grandmother the following Saturday (May 23) and his in-laws on Sunday (May 24) about his gambling problems and financial difficulties. On May 23, 1987, Parks reportedly got up (not awoke) from his sleep, drove roughly 23 km to his in-laws’ home and broke in, attempted to strangle his father-in-law and stabbed his mother-in-law to death. After all this, he managed to drive himself to the police station. The next thing he could recall was being at the police station asking for help, saying “I think I have killed some people…my hands.”
Parks was arrested for first degree murder and the attempted murder of his father-in-law. Parks’ only defense was that he was asleep during the entire incident and was not aware of what he was doing .Parks’ EEG readings were highly irregular even for a parasomniac. He was amazingly consistent in his stories for more than seven interviews despite repeated attempts of trying to lead him astray, that the timing of the events fit perfectly with the proposed explanation, Also, there was no way to fake EEG results. It is really a denial-of-proof – the defendant is asserting that the offence is not made out. The prosecution does not have to disprove the defence as sometime erroneously reported. Automatism is a defence even against strict liability crimes like dangerous driving, where no intent is necessary. Ultimately a jury acquitted Parks of the murder of his mother-in-law and the attempted murder of his father-in-law. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the acquittal in the 1992 decision R. v. Parks. His marriage however failed within 4 years after the acquittal.
Violent Crime, Sleepwalkers and Manslaughter
In another rare condition mostly seen in the elderly, REM behavior disorder, sleepers can react in direct response to a dream and hurt their bedmates. Some researchers say it is an early precursor to Parkinson’s disease. “In one case an elderly man would sit up in bed abruptly, telling his wife he thought there was an anaconda in his bed… “he told her, ‘I’ll grab the head, you grab the tail.’ He thought he was protecting her.”
In 2007, Nick Walker, 26-year-old British Air Force mechanic whose military nickname was “night walker,” for his sleepwalking habits, was found not guilty of raping a 15-year-old during one horrific sleepwalking bout. In this case sexsomnia may be attributed to Walker’s actions. Among the activities were vulgar talking, violent masturbation, and rape. Those at greatest risk generally suffered from other parasomnias, too, such as sleepwalking or sleep terror.
Senior RAF Aircraftsman Kenneth Ecott, 26, was arrested for the rape of a 15-year-old girl. They had been at a party in the same house, and, during the night, several guests staying over had bedded down on air mattresses. Ecott and the victim were next to each other. He had drunk a considerable amount of vodka before falling asleep, and, when he woke up, he found himself standing in the garden outside, naked. He claimed he had no memory of anything in between, but the girl said she had woken up in the night to find him on top of her, raping her. He had taken off the trousers he’d worn to bed and removed her underwear. She screamed, and he told her to “be quiet,” and then got up and walked away as if in a trance. Ecott admitted to her family that he had committed the rape and apologized, but they called the police.
In Parks’ case, Parks’s actions were the result of many circumstances converging: he had plans to fix his in-laws’ furnace, he was used to the route he would take to get to their house, and he was restless from stress and anxious about his upcoming embezzlement trial. Something spurred him to take care of the favor, and when he went in to fix the furnace, he was startled by his in-laws, triggering his violent reaction.
An alternate outcome occurred, though, in the case of William Wade in Bolton, Ontario, according to the Toronto Star. His wife asked him for a divorce and, coincidentally enough, he claimed he had a sleepwalking episode that resulted in stabbing her, chasing her outside and repeatedly banging her head against a curb, killing her. He said he recalled none of it, but the jury was unconvinced. They convicted him.
Police in Scottsdale, Arizona, received a call in 1981 from Steven Steinberg reporting that an intruder had murdered his wife, Elena, stabbing her 26 times with a kitchen knife from the house during a botched burglary. Terrible as that seemed, police found no evidence of an intruder. They arrested Steinberg, who admitted that he’d done it, although he claimed no memory of the incident. He argued that he had been sleepwalking. At Steinberg’s trial, defense attorney Bob Hirsh described Elena as a demanding “Jewish American Princess” who had driven Steinberg crazy. Hirsh argued that Elena overspent and nagged incessantly; Steinberg had finally had a violent reaction. Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, testified that Steinberg had experienced a short-term, stress-related dissociative reaction. Although he’d fabricated a story about intruders, hardly a symptom of automatism – the jury found him not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity, so he left court a free man.
Rita Graveline (gotta love the irony) claimed that her husband had abused her for some thirty years. In August 1999, she shot and killed him while he slept, but at her trial she claimed she had done it in a trance. Thus, she had no awareness of what she was doing, and no control. It was a reaction. Charged with second-degree murder, she went to trial. Her attorney employed two psychiatrists who testified that Rita had been sleepwalking at the time of the incident and could not be considered responsible. She had suppressed reactive rage over the years, but during an episode of sleepwalking she had expended it all. The jury, made up of ten women and one man, acquitted her of murder.
Patricia Lawrence was acquitted of murdering her husband in their South London home. She said he had been choking her and she stabbed him, but recalled nothing about the act. The jury decided it was self-defense, whether she had known it or not.
These sleepwalkers do something peculiar, like go into the kitchen and make crazy food combinations that they would never eat when awake, like a “cold bacon and chocolate bar sandwich.” One of the misconceptions about sleepwalking is that somnambulists stumble and fall, but they have all their motor skills. They are very good at navigating space. Somnambulists can go up and down stairs and drive a car. They can navigate in the world, but the face recognition is off. This is the reason sleepwalkers are capable of killing their cat or spouse.
Automatism and Non-Fatal Violent Crime – Sexsomnia
There are eleven different types of sleep disorders that are labeled sexsomnia. Sexsomnia is a rare but diagnosable form of automatism in which people carry out sexual acts in their sleep. One woman in Australia would walk out of her house while asleep and repeatedly have sex with strangers. Her husband finally caught her in the act.
Scott Falater Case
Scott Falater was a devout Mormon and electrician who was married to his high school sweetheart. They had two children. On January 16, 1997, Falater retired to bed at 10:00 p.m., leaving his wife on the couch watching television. It was the last time he saw her alive. Hours later, the police woke him up and arrested for the murder of his wife. Falater learned he had stabbed his wife 44 times, then drowned her in their pool. He had been trying to fix a faulty swimming pool pump, and defense lawyers suggested his wife may have interrupted him while he was trying again to fix the pump in his sleep, triggering a violent reaction. Eventually he pled not guilty to the crime of murder in the first degree not based on insanity, but based on automatism. The public believed that if Falater wasn’t convicted, his case was another O.J. Simpson verdict. However prosecutors had no motive for the murder. Motive doesn’t need to be proven in a criminal case, but it assists prosecutors in convincing juries about a defendant’s guilt. Jurors found Falater guilty of murder. They considered automatism to be a “twinkie” defence.
night terrors are typically found in children and most outgrow them at the latest by 15-years-old. Some adults however suffer night terrors all of their lives. Night terrors are another parasomnia disorder in which the sleeper is able to act out a dream. The difference between somnambulism and night terrors is that the latter always consists of horrific dreams, terrorizing the dreamer and making a violent reaction quite feasible when an attempt is made to wake the dreamer.
Sedatives, anti-depresssants, and hypnosis have been used successfully to treat somnambulism. There is no definitive cure. The National Sleep Foundation offers suggestions for control over sleepwalking behaviours and facts, as well as an online support group for sufferers of somnambulism.