Night Terrors: Troubled Sleep and the Stories We Tell About It by Alice Vernon

The two things most of us know about nightmares, according to this fascinating book, are not true. First, they are not caused by indigestion. This pervasive folk belief, Alice Vernon says, was popularized by Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who blamed his ghostly apparitions on “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”.

Nor do we have dreams — either good or bad — in black and white. That idea stems from the era of pre-color films and television when, amazingly, only a minority of people claimed that their dreams had color. Since then it seems we have all gone — or reverted to — full Technicolor.

These myths are busted as part of a rich, immersive study of not just nightmares but the full range of parasomnias—the strange sleep disorders that can afflict us. Vernon is a lecturer in creative writing at Aberystwyth University, and she draws on science, both current and historical, literature and, fascinatingly, her own extraordinary experiences. She sleepwalks. She fights enemies and intruders, thrashing around so violently in bed that she has pulled muscles. She experiences nightmare paralysis—that crushing sensation where you’re the helplessly immobile victim of whatever is pursuing you. She has terrifying nighttime hallucinations. On the plus side, she has lucid dreams—where you can control what you do, up to a point.

All this makes her an extreme case—and an interesting writer—but it does not make her weird. Because about 70 percent of us have experienced at least one parasomnia.

Nightmares are not caused by indigestion.

The problem is our reluctance to talk about it. Vernon ascribes this partly to how parasomnias are culturally entangled with the paranormal. Sleepwalking in particular has been bathed in superstition since it was exploited by the original 18th-century hypnotist, Franz Mesmer, and later spiritualist mediums. Vernon turns up some wild Victorian sleepwalking accounts, including a student doctor on his rounds who was appalled to discover that, the night before, he had ridden to see his patient, in the middle of winter, and handed over some mysterious “powders”.

In another shocking case from 1876, a mother was found not guilty of murdering her child — she cut off the four-month-old’s hand with a table knife, in her sleep. Juries still sometimes acquit today. Vernon describes two recent cases, including a man from south Wales who strangled his wife in a camper van in 2009, and was found not guilty. It is true that science has shown how the part of the sleepwalker’s brain that deals with intentions remains effectively asleep while their movements are directed by memories and reflexes.

Vernon recounts her own somnambulant experiences in a likable way. How she sleep-stole moisturizer from her terrified sister’s bedside table, and whispered to her worried mother, at the top of the stairs, that she was on her way to give a cake to Gwen Stefani. Her parents keep a stair-gate in the house still.

Not all her nocturnal escapades are funny. Vernon has hypnopompic hallucinations. These are dreams you actually see, while awake, and they are mercifully rare. It seems that the dreaming brain’s slow-wave patterns persist even while other parts of the mind wake up, allowing dream images to “slip into the world around you”. And nightmare images: Vernon saw a terrifying, completely realistic Victorian-looking woman and child appear at her bedside every night for a week until, on the last night, she found the woman standing right over her. Soon after, she woke to see a woman’s head on the pillow right next to her — until it split open in a silent scream. If that sounds bad, you won’t want to read about the dream in which she looks at herself in the mirror. I wish I hadn’t.

Alice Vernon saw a terrifying, completely realistic Victorian-looking woman and child appear at her bedside every night for a week until, on the last night, she found the woman standing right over her.

Vernon sometimes fights off her intruders — an example of the potentially dangerous REM Behavior Disorder, whereby the paralysis that usually stops us acting out our dreams fails to engage. Hence her thrashing.

A more common experience — about a quarter of us have had it — is when the distinctive dreaming paralysis persists while we start to wake. This is the original “nightmare”, the term probably coming from “mara”, an Old Norse word for witch — who, it was said, visited in the night and sat on your chest. The scientific explanation is that the waking brain conjures up an explanation for the continuing sensation of dream-immobility.

Vernon’s paralysing visitors feel demonic. Or, sometimes, horribly “handsy”. The morning after such a nightmare, Vernon says, “the hands seem to linger and I wear the experience like a heavy coat”. She can really write. And she can really write about writers. Alongside the science — confidently handled — are insightful readings of literature, mostly Victorian. She calls Dracula “a novel about the anxiety of intrusions”, for instance.

Fear is very much a theme here. Vernon argues persuasively for much more openness around parasomnias. If we understood nightmares better, for instance, fewer people might believe they have been visited by ghosts or abducted by aliens. We might also have less distress, or fear of mental illness — which is unrelated. Vernon reports that one study found that almost three quarters of children reported being afraid at bedtime — although, chillingly, only a third of their parents realized it.

A final chapter offers a possible way to tackle nightmares. In recent years, “lucid dreaming”, in which you wake yourself up just enough so as to be able to rescript the dream narrative, has become something of a cult practice. Vernon learns to do it as a way out of nightmares. “I would drag myself out,” she says, “like walking through thick mud.” Fascinatingly, she cannot do whatever she wants in a lucid dream, but she can “come up with a path for the dream to take”. Stuck in a cemetery, for instance, she draws a door in the otherwise unscalable perimeter wall, and escapes. When she wants to bring a person into a dream, she says their name to herself, and reaches out behind her; when they take her hand, she can bring them into the dream.

This book felt like an extended hand to me. It is curious, lively, humble, utterly genuine — and, if you’re a sufferer too, wonderfully reassuring. It is a remarkable debut.

James McConnachie is a U.K.-based journalist and author of several books, including The Book of Love