New Welsh Review

Night Terrors: Troubled Sleep and the Stories We Tell about It

Alice Vernon

Leah Larwood is fascinated by a nonfiction title that confronts the author’s own strange and frightening night-time encounters, and the scientific and cultural backdrop of sleep disorders

PUBLISHED ON: 25/01/23

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: Science, creativity, culture, fear, literature, lucid dreaming, neurological, night, nonfiction, parasomnia, sleep, sleep disorder, storytelling, trauma

PUBLISHER: Icon

This post is free to all website visitors

For access to the full New Welsh Review archive, become a subscriber today.

Subscribe

For many, sleep comes easily and is uneventful. For others, it involves involuntary activities or states that can be frightening and upsetting. Ever since Alice Vernon was a child, she has experienced alarming nocturnal episodes. Known as parasomnias, these disruptive sleep-related disorders describe an unusual behaviour, activity or emotional state that occurs either during sleep or upon waking.

In her startling debut, Alice travels down the rabbit hole and examines the history of these night-time disturbances, introducing us to the core parasomnias including nightmares, night terrors, sleep paralysis, somnambulism (sleep walking) and hypnopompic (emerging from sleep) hallucinations.

In her book Night Terrors she reveals:

 

I’ve always had the propensity to experience parasomnias, but it was only when I was a teenager that they took on new forms and a new significance. Since, then, the occasional sleepwalk or bad dream has developed into something a lot more sinister.

 

It’s true, Vernon has experienced some of the more acute sides of parasomnias. She has been woken by hands on her body, the sensation of nails scraping down her back and has even seen a woman and child appear by her bed every night for a week (until one morning when she saw the woman’s head on the pillow beside her).

Vernon is fascinated by the interplay between directly confronting her own strange and frightening encounters and the scientific and cultural backdrop that anchors her stories. She sets out to unpick the history of these haunting experiences, reaching into the night for an answer to these distressing yet fascinating encounters.

Night Terrors is an attempt to give as full an account as possible of the author’s experience living with these sleep disturbances. Her writings, in part, read as a memoir but really the book is more than that. It’s an exquisite personal essay interwoven with first-hand accounts of the mysterious realm of parasomnias.

The author also talks about the hypnogogic (entering sleep), and the hypnopompic (emerging from sleep) states. She describes these everyday experiences as frightening places, featuring ominous hallucinations. However, readers should note that these states, which book-end sleep, can also be wonderous spaces to explore creativity and insights. In fact, Salvador Dalí, Thomas Edison and many modern-day artists and writers use them to mine for ideas.

Night Terrors goes on to tease out some unconventional cures such as magical ‘mare-stones’, combined with present day explorations on how video games might help people rewrite their dreams. Along the way, Vernon also explores the Salem Witch Trials, Victorian ghost stories and soldiers’ experiences of PTSD. No stone is left unturned.

Although the book deftly tells the story of parasomnias through a frank and dark lens, readers will enjoy her light humour throughout, a palate cleanser that juxtaposes the dark, gothic matter of her evocative storytelling.

I imagine that in writing, there was for the author some therapeutic value gained in documenting and sharing these nocturnal occurrences. I wonder whether delving into the subject provided some reassurance, and secondly, whether the sharing of these personal encounters was a cathartic exercise to process her experiences.

The aspect of Night Terrors that might surprise seasoned ‘dream workers’ is the chapter on lucid dreaming. For me, it was more than curious to discover lucid dreaming in a book about night terrors. A lucid dream is the type where you know that you are dreaming and can exert some level of influence over its content. It is often described as a phenomenon but never usually classified as a parasomnia, and certainly not a sleep disorder. Hopefully its inclusion within this troubled or ‘traumatic’ territory won’t raise alarm among those with limited knowledge of parasomnias, because lucid dreaming, in the majority of cases, offers an enlightening state that can lead to empowerment, shadow integration and creative explorations.

Although this book is a fascinating insight into what lies beneath sleep, I was left wanting to hear even more about the alchemy of parasomnias and how they can lead to growth. That said, in a discourse about parasomnias, the author does good service in supporting others’ experiences, and as she says in her book, ‘By examining these stories, and looking inwards to our own experiences, perhaps we’ll get to know our sleep better.’

Ultimately, the book mostly does a terrific job of opening dialogue and normalising parasomnias. Night Terrors offers flashes of sunlight during the dark night of our dreams and allows us to wake up to the notion that our sleeping lives are not dead to the world. The result is a courageous and thoughtful narrative.

It mirrors Vernon’s encroaching ability to ‘make sense of the nocturnal realm’, as at times her determination slips when unravelling what parasomnias might mean to the collective. What strikes one most powerfully, however, is her unrelenting commitment to truth-telling. It’s a gripping debut. Read it with mind open and a night light – only the courageous will read it just before bed, even if a mug of hot chocolate does stand ready to offer comfort.

 

Leah Larwood has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck University London and is a freelance writer for various UK wellbeing and health magazines. She is studying to become a Certified Poetry Therapist (CPT) with the International Federation of Biblio-Poetry Therapy (IFBPT), and also a Gestalt Psychotherapist. Leah has been shortlisted for the National Poetry Competition and her work has been published in various literary publications. She was placed in the Poetry Book Society Mslexia Competition 2019 and the Poetry Society Stanza Competition 2018. She lives in Norfolk.