Aberystwyth academic sheds light on night terrors in “remarkable” debut

Dr Alice Vernon

Dr Alice Vernon

06 October 2022

Our fascinating and occasionally bizarre beliefs about sleep disorders are chronicled in a spine-tingling new book by an Aberystwyth academic.

‘Night Terrors: Troubled Sleep and the Stories We Tell About It’is the work of Dr Alice Vernon, Lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

While published today, the book has already been subject to glowing reviews. The Sunday Times called it “curious, lively, humble, utterly genuine” and “a remarkable debut”.

The non-fiction narrative draws on Dr Vernon’s own extraordinary and often terrifying nocturnal experiences, personal accounts from others, and representations of sleep disorders in literature and culture.

Her research encompasses sleep disorders such as night terrors, sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, lucid dreams and sleep-related hallucinations – all examples of phenomena known as parasomnias.  

Parasomnias are surprisingly common and will be experienced by as many as 70% of people at some point in our lives.

Dr Vernon said:  “Over the centuries, parasomnias have had a profound effect on the human imagination, shaping both art and literature. Famous novels such as ‘Dracula’, ‘Jane Eyre’ and the Brother Cadfael mysteries all make reference to parasomnias, as does Shakespeare’s‘Macbeth’.

“My research took me into the realms of supernatural and paranormal interpretations, superstition and witchcraft, alien abduction and post-traumatic shock disorder, and, perhaps most disturbingly, even murders being committed by sleeping perpetrators.”

Parasomnias have also been the subject of extensive scientific investigations with many medical theories and treatments recommended over the centuries.

Dr Vernon added: “One of the most astonishing theories I discovered during my research was one doctor’s peculiar assertion that night terrors were caused by a person thinking about arithmetic when drifting off to sleep.  Historical accounts also reveal some particularly odd cures, such as magical ‘mare-stanes’ which were circular eroded rocks occasionally embedded with human teeth, said to prevent sleep paralysis.”

The book encourages us all to change the way that we talk about sleep, arguing that there are many benefits to exchanging sleep stories – socially, culturally and in terms of our wellbeing. 

Dr Vernon said: “In finding examples and case studies from history, as well as being rather brutally honest about my own troubled sleep, I’m hoping to encourage conversations about parasomnias—and for us all to realise that our strange sleep experiences aren’t quite so strange after all.”

Dr Alice Vernon works in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, where she teaches students the fundamentals of storytelling and researches representations of sleep in science and culture.

‘Night Terrors: Troubled Sleep and the Stories We Tell About It’ is released on 6 October 2022 by Icon books.

Dr Alice Vernon

Dr Alice Vernon completed her PhD, investigating representations of insomnia in fiction, in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University under the supervision of Dr Jacqueline Yallop.  She is now a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Creative Writing in the department, teaching students the fundamentals of storytelling.  Her research primarily involves the history of medicine, with a focus on Renaissance anatomy and Victorian parapsychology. She is particularly interested in the cultural and scientific depictions of sleep disorders such as sleep paralysis, lucid dreams, and hypnopompic hallucinations.