On a warm August night in 1950, just months into the Korean War, Ivy Cogdon, a 50-year-old single mother, watched in absolute horror as a small band of North Korean soldiers broke down her front door with the obvious intent of inflicting harm.
Reflexively, Cogdon picked up an axe and began swinging it wildly at the intruders in an effort to protect her 19-year-old sleeping daughter. As one of the soldiers bolted toward her daughter’s room Cogdon rushed after him in a panic. At the precise moment he was at her daughter’s bedside, Cogdon’s axe blade did its work.
But nothing about the intrusion was real. Cogdon had been sleepwalking again, reacting to the threatening dreams her mind had conjured from a mix of what it retained of the day’s news and what ran deeper in her psyche. Incidents like these were becoming a nightly occurrence and escalating in intensity within the four walls of her modest Melbourne, Australia, home — the one that was situated roughly 5400 miles from the frontline action in Korea.
Cogdon soon learned, however, that this night was like none other. As the dream faded and she began to wake, her eyes fell on her precious child, whom she had undoubtedly killed. No future dream could equal the horror of what she had done with that axe.
Although cases of homicidal somnambulism or “sleep killing,” are exceedingly rare, author Leslie Watkins was intrigued enough with recent cases, along with the increasing number of nonlethal sleepwalking violence, to update his acclaimed 1976 book The Sleepwalk Killers: The Nightmare Truth About Violence During Sleep.
Just 70 verified cases of sleep killing are cataloged and cross-referenced in the medical literature with the earliest of these dating to 1846. However, countless other cases involving dangerous and inexplicable sleep wanderings as well as all manner of nonlethal sleep violence and sexsomnia (sleep sex) are currently on the rise due to drug and alcohol use and the worldwide trend toward reduced sleep.
Much of that is addressed in this new edition that contains about “60-70 percent new material,” boasts Watkins, who tried to squeeze as many cases into its pages as possible. He confesses that it’s the unknowns and the philosophical questions associated with the tragic subject that continue to draw his attention.
To be sure, much of what we know about the underlying neurological and psychological reasons that cause some people — victims themselves — to victimize others in their sleep hasn’t advanced far beyond the point when Watkins penned his original book.
We know, for instance, that incidents of sleepwalking occur in roughly 10 percent of the world’s population with a small percentage of that, just 2.6 percent, carrying over into adulthood. And we know, too, that sleepwalking occurs when the electrical impulses that govern approximately six nightly switchovers between sleep phases — rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM — linger in their transition.
But what we don’t know is precisely why this stalling occurs, or how the brain is able to navigate the resulting overlap between reality and artificiality. Think of it this way: Dreaming about zombies chasing you but getting away in a car as you remain safely tucked in bed is quite normal, but continuing to have the zombie dream while actually driving your car down an actual road is oddly remarkable. How does the mind reconcile such competing scenarios and function within them?
Consider the fact that Ivy Cogdon was able to navigate her surroundings, grounded in reality as they were, and even recognize the usefulness, as a defensive weapon, of the very real axe she counted among her possessions, and yet those soldiers, mere figments, seemed equally real to her.
Watkins is too good a storyteller to bog readers down with more than the requisite heavy theorizing from neurologists, psychologists and sleep specialists; and he’s too much the journalist to impose his own conclusions on readers. But what his book lacks in terms of input from the experts in white coats, it more than makes up for in the sheer number of sleepwalk killing cases it presents in fascinating detail and in the style of true crime novels. Where possible the author offers readers actual testimony from several of the ensuing trials and breaks down the court strategies of both the prosecution and defense attorneys.
Watkins was delighted to chat with us about this new book via phone from his home in New Zealand. Here’s what he had to share.
Why revisit the topic of sleep violence so many decades after the publication of your first book?
Leslie Watkins: In the time since the first book’s publication I began to realize that there have been so many other cases of sleepwalk violence, accidents and activities that I thought the subject was worth looking at again. I started digging into it and I was absolutely astonished.
What first attracted you to the subject?
As a journalist, I covered the trial of an American airman, Willis Boshears, who in 1961 was charged with strangling a girl he had met in a pub in Essex near London. They had been in bed together and he was fast asleep at the time. There was a big outcry when he was found not guilty. I thought that this was the most unusual case, but then I discovered there had been earlier cases of people who had been sleepwalking and had committed acts of violence.
So I started digging and discovered the case of Simon Fraser who actually beat his little son to death while dreaming he was fighting a monster. He was also acquitted. So I started researching more and more and eventually the book took shape.
Most of the people charged with sleep killing were acquitted. Do you think such an outcome was correct for most of the cases? Could any of the defendants have been faking it either before or after the crime?
No. I think they were definitely acting in a state of unconsciousness; in other words, not aware of what they were doing at the time. They were genuinely innocent, as many of them were found to be.
Then again, there have been quite a few cases where such people have perhaps been wrongly convicted. But the majority of the cases I’ve looked at strike me as being the result of authentic sleepwalking. That’s not to say they weren’t slightly odd characters to begin with; some of them certainly were, but they weren’t necessarily violent characters.
What does it take to mount such an extraordinary defense in court?
You must have some record of sleepwalking. A lot of these people had been sleepwalkers. Simon Fraser had been sleepwalking since he was 13 and that was well known to his family and friends. If you haven’t got that sort of obvious background, with witness to your sleepwalking, it’s not an easy get out of jail free card.
There was a case in Auckland, New Zealand, where a man tried to use a sleepwalking defense but he had no history of sleepwalking to speak of and was found guilty. People don’t just get away with it. And those who are truly innocent and subsequently acquitted, well, the pain and guilt is a jail sentence all its own.
In each of these cases the prosecution, the press and even the public inevitably raise the question of accountability by making the analogy to drunk driver killings. Is that a fair analogy? I mean, can we convict someone for acting wrongly while under the influence of sleep?
To me that is a legal and philosophical conundrum, but how you navigate it – well, I don’t know. In terms of the Boshears, the previously mentioned American airman who had been drinking and killed a woman in his sleep, there’s no question that if he had been driving a car, it would have been down to drunk driving. And he would have been found guilty.
Do most or even some of the people who commit sleep violence suffer from mental disorders that might have contributed to their actions?
No, not necessarily. There could be an element of that. Look at cases of people suffering from schizophrenia, for instance. You can have a mild case of schizophrenia and be able to fight the impulses that would push you to do something rather naughty. That’s because you are in control when you are awake. But when you are asleep, the control part of your mind is more relaxed.
This could well be one of the reasons for the actions that people get up to when sleepwalking. The defenses of the mind that keep us civilized are switched off.
Fending off intruders — specifically monsters — seems to be a key theme in many of these cases. Why does that link seem to exist?
Monsters are universal, but fairytales and even the Bible may be to blame. The Old Testament is full of quite horrendous creatures — monsters, if you like — who appear during the passages about the end of the world. And if people have taken that in, so to speak, this imagery can make quite an impression even on those who don’t think so when they are awake.
Warnings about waking a sleepwalker can be traced to the ancient myth about a person’s soul, which is said to wander during dreaming, unable to get back to its body before it awakes. What are your thoughts on the dangers of waking sleepwalkers?
It’s a tricky situation, and I don’t think it’s entirely a myth at all – at least not in a practical sense. It is certainly not a good idea to wake a sleepwalker for the simple reason that you don’t know what state their mind is in at that time.
Say I was sleepwalking around the house and you decided to help me by holding my arm. Perhaps, as far as I’m concerned, I’m being attacked. So what am I going to do? I’d probably lash out; and if I lashed out too violently I’d probably hurt you badly. I could even kill you.
What would you like readers to takeaway from your book?
First of all, there’s the curiosity factor. But secondly, that it’s useful for people to have an insight into the sorts of things that could happen and do happen with sleepwalking. Maybe that uncle who is doing the sleepwalking is not so much a nutcase but someone with a real problem that has to be looked after.