Welcome Aboard the Night Terror Express!
Sleepwalking? Try sleep running.

So my last post was about a melancholy dream I had. Luckily, those are few and far between, but it got me thinking about all the other weird dreams that have caused me trouble. Especially the dreaded night terror.

For about ten to fifteen years, what I call night terrors plagued me constantly. Basically, I would have a vivid dream, jump in a daze, and run around yelling, and do crazy stuff.

screaming at a night terror
Guess who wasn’t popular at sleepovers as a kid?

Night terror might be the wrong term. One definition said night terrors are a vivid nightmare that renders the dreamer petrified and unable to move.

But screw it, I’m calling mine night terrors. I mean, why not call the other ones night paralysis? Doesn’t that make more sense? Plus, the Mayo Clinic says that:

“Sleep terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors often are paired with sleepwalking. Like sleepwalking, sleep terrors are considered a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep.

(Yeah, no shit they are.)

So, I’m sticking with the term night terror. Apparently, 40% of children suffer from them, but a far smaller number of adults do. (Guess I’m just lucky.)

Bob and weave! Bob and weave!

Before I get into my version of a night terror, I did have one memorable case of night paralysis. In seventh grade, my teacher, Mrs. T, had us read a story about a young guy who would visit this lady who raised all kinds of deadly snakes. When dealing with cobras, she’d hold her hand stiff, fingers together with her palm outward like she was stopping traffic. The cobra would strike like a jabbing boxer, but not open it’s mouth and just bounce off her palm. Apparently, cobra fangs are short, so it won’t open its mouth if there is nothing to sink its fangs into. At the end of the story, the woman makes a fatal mistake, and one of the snakes bites her on the finger.

So in my dream, I looked down and saw a cobra curled up next to my bed, swaying back and forth, hood opened. As the snake slithered closer, I couldn’t move. I just lay there in terror, paralyzed. Finally, with great effort, I managed to barely move my hand, palm outward, so the snake would box against it, mouth closed. But instead, it sank its fangs into my finger, sending deadly neurotoxins coursing into me.

Waking up, heart pounding, I lay there terrified, afraid to move lest the snake would strike again. Psychosomatically, my finger throbbed.

Cobra with spread hood coiled in a basket
Hold still a moment will ya?

Sleep mobility during night terrors

Okay, what I call a night terror does not involve paralysis. In fact, I had the exact opposite problem. When one hit, I’d freak out and fly out of bed and start running around still half-asleep, hollering as if a bloodthirsty banshee were hot on my heels. (I think other people in the house would have preferred I had the ones involving paralysis).

Anyway, these nightmares took one of three forms.

In the first type, my death was happening at any minute and there was nothing I could do to escape it. Oblivion was on its way, which was the most upsetting part about it. I was about to cease having any meaning in a few seconds. (Not a popular dream at all.)

Night terror - a white barrier
Am I in a milk jug? I’m so confused.

In the second one, everyone would soon know my innermost secrets. I believed I’d blurted out some hidden shame while asleep, and it caused deep anguish. But I never knew what it was. (Come on brain, that’s lazy storytelling.) Plus, a secret group of researchers watched me at night while I slept, and I only knew of their existence when I had my night terrors. Man, those ones totally felt real. Upon waking, I kept finding myself standing in the hallway, panting and frantic, my heart racing, and the watchers had receded to their shadowy realm.

secretive group member in a plague mask from a night terror
We’re watching you and we know everything.

The third and last type usually took place in a known locale, like my bedroom or at work where someone would be after me. Sometimes it was a shadowy figure or sometimes someone I knew. I remember one time I dreamt a coworker from the ASU library hunted me, so I jumped up to escape. Unfortunately, I banged into my bedroom wall because I thought I was in the library and there shouldn’t have been a wall there. Pitch black and I couldn’t find a light switch? Yeah, that freaked me outI remember slapping the wall frantically with my hands.

silhouetted figure
Whaddup?

The Escape Artist

So, it’s the third type of night terror that gave me the most trouble over the years. And contributed to one of my most memorable events.

One night, about fourteen years ago, I dreamt that a shadowy figure stood at the foot of my bed. Suddenly, I realized it was my brother and he meant me harm. I grabbed the pole of my floor lamp and hurled it sending it crashing to the floor. Covers flying, I bounded out of bed. I moved like an Olympian competing in the triple jump, minus the agility and grace. I hit the floor sleep-running and tried to escape the bedroom.

A few problems; first, I was still kind of asleep while on the move. Second, it was so dark I couldn’t see shit. Third, I had a minefield of clothes, shoes, and books on the floor. Fourth, I had a large plastic shoe rack hanging on the back of my bedroom door which prevented it from opening all the way. Stumbling as I barged my way out, the shoe rack turned my door into a springboard. It snapped me back and threw me spine-first against the door jam. Spock’s Vulcan Nerve Pinch would not have been any more effective as I went down like a sack of potatoes with a real case of night-time paralysis.

Spock administering a Vulcan Nerve Pinch to a redshirt
Oh yeah, I can definitely feel a knot.

So, I lay there on the floor in my boxers, still not properly awake, screaming in terror at the top of my lungs, convinced I’d broken my back. I’m not sure if I screamed because of my back or because my brother would be able to catch me now. At that moment, my brother, who had moved temporarily back into my dad’s house burst out of his room to see what the fuck was going on. At this point, I kind of realized he wasn’t out to kill me.

The commotion had woken my dad as well. My back hurt a lot, so I lay on the tile in my boxers, groaning in pain while my family members debated what to do. They finally called an ambulance.

It sucked, lying on the tiled floor clad only in my boxers while paramedics clustered in the hallway. And my dad kept trying to explain I’d had a night terror. ‘Goddamnit, Dad,’ I kept thinking, ‘Just shut up. Tell them I slipped on a banana peel or something.’ I could see the judgment in their eyes — as far as they were concerned, Dad could have just cut to the chase and said: “Yep, he’s a pussy.” At that point, I just wanted to slip into a coma

The paramedics put me on a gurney. The guy lifting the end near my head lost his grip and dropped me and the gurney a few inches onto the floor  (that definitely didn’t help my wrenched back). And that’s how I ended up in a crowded hospital ER on a Saturday morning, lying on a gurney in my skivvies with a sheet barely covering me. I’m a fairly bashful guy, but at a certain point, when you’re in pain, you just don’t give a rat’s ass.

The upside to my accident

While I waited forever for a doctor to see me, the Houseguest (who wasn’t the Houseguest back then), dropped by the hospital to visit me. She happened to be housesitting nearby when I called her to tell her about my exciting morning. (Nowadays she claims I woke her up and she heard “a tiny, whiney, pathetic voice” on the other end of the line — whatever.) Eventually, they x-rayed me. Luckily, I had no fractures or slipped disks, just traumatized soft tissue. So the doctor sent me home with a bottle of muscle relaxers.

Now, my friend Carlos had enlisted me to help him move that day. I had the Houseguest call him to explain why I wouldn’t be showing up. I don’t think Carlos and the others believed me (and fair game, I am the kind to duck out of sight when it comes to moving people) because he and our buddy Doug showed up at the house to “see how I was doing.” I’m pretty sure they were just checking out the veracity of my story to see if I needed to be hassled.

After that incident, I started sleeping with my nightstand lamp on — not because of any fear of the dark. No, I needed to be able to see where I was running in my sleep. Also, I made sure I had a clear pathway to my bedroom door, and I moved my shoe rack elsewhere. No way did I want another $900 one-mile ride to the hospital. (Luckily, my insurance paid a big chunk of it, but seriously — $900 for one mile!?! Is the engine powered by cocaine?)

Anyway, as I said, those dreams plagued me for years, but I haven’t had a night terror in quite some time now (knock on wood). Eventually, after I stopped running around in my sleep, I stopped switching on the lamp. People always ask how I was able to sleep with a light on, but I got used to it quickly, though I read it still has an effect on your ability to achieve a deep level of sleep.

All right, down in the comments let me know if you have any weird sleep habits or have experienced an unusual event.


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19 thoughts on “Welcome Aboard the Night Terror Express!
Sleepwalking? Try sleep running.

  1. Yikes. I’ve had my fair share of memorably nightmares over the years, and can still vividly remember many of them from years and years ago. Some that come to mind – being in elementary school and running into my mom’s bedroom because I was afraid of a ghost, and said ghost morphed into this super-creepy grim reaper creature from her blankets, my sister getting bit by a snake and dying in front of me, having a flying dream and feeling someone tugging on my feet to get me back on the ground, and that tugging feeling staying with me as I woke up. Ugh, I could go on and on. I still dream pretty vividly as an adult. Had one last night that involved catching Koi fish and euthanizing dogs. So weird.
    I have a cousin who had night terrors that apparently got pretty creepy. My aunt and uncle describe nights where he appeared to be wide awake and claimed to be talking to the Virgin Mary. Gives me goosebumps just typing it. He also had episodes where he’d punch holes in walls and break windows while he was sleep-walking and wake up the next day not remembering any of it. Apparently there were also nights were he’d be halfway out the front door in his pajamas and his parents had to physically restrain him from leaving. He’d wake up hours later with no recollection. So weird.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Dang, your cousin had it rough! My brother was a heavy sleeper as a kid and my parents had to get him up to use the restroom so he wouldn’t wet the bed. One night, from my bed, I could see my dad guiding him out of the restroom and my brother’s eyes were closed. Suddenly, like a gazelle, he bolted down the hallway with my dad giving chase. I could hear him trying to open the front door. Then, my dad guided him back to our shared bedroom. His eyes were still closed. Next morning he had no memory of it.

      It’s so weird what we dream about. The euthanizing dogs would be upsetting.

  2. That’s was quite a read. I didn’t know the percentage in children was that high on night terrors! Well sometimes as a kid I did have scary dreams, but I wouldn’t quality them as terrors. I do remember I had worst of those dreams if id watched a horror movie😆… Guess I still don’t prefer any of the horror stuff 😂
    Informative post🙏

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Yeah, I didn’t realize it was that high in kids either. I don’t recall having night terrors as a kdi — i did have scary dreams that would send me running to my parents bedroom, but I was awake at that point. I’m not a fan of horror movies either 🙂 And thank you for reading, Gunjan!

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Back then? I’m not sure. It was so long ago. Now, I tend not to. I also tend to have a more relaxed look on my existence now.

      I slept with a light on for many years but stopped doing so a couple of years ago. I only recall having one night terror during that time period where I woke up standing in the hall, but I had no idea what sent me there.

      1. Sean D. Layton

        Maybe not coincidental that it’s love-hate for me when it comes to Lynch’s work.

      2. Sean D. Layton

        As a side note, my old roommate in L.A., my goddaughter’s father, collaborated on a project with David Lynch and Nikki Six (of Motely Crue fame). I believe it ended in acrimony and none payment. But my goddaughter got to go to Nikki Six’s mansion for a BBQ when she was ten. Of course, I never got to do anything cool like that when I lived briefly in L.A.

  3. Lisa Porter Cordovana

    This is great, Sean. My little brother (also Sean) had night terrors for several years. He was tormented. I felt so awful for him. I hope this is over for you now.

  4. Nikki S Hunter

    Ug! I don’t get terrors, but I’m a vivid dreamer and have nightmares often. I’ve had dreadful, gory dreams since childhood and remember a number of them – heck, I could use them to write for Criminal Minds… I don’t sleepwalk but I’ll wake myself up ‘in action’ – trying to literally kick someone, so my poor hubby occasionally takes a hit. Apparently I also talk a lot in my sleep…with lots of curse words, lol.

    1. Sean D. Layton

      Lol I come from a long line of sleep talkers. We would hear my dad, a military guy, giving orders and saying ‘Yes, sir! No, sir!’ And one creepy time after my grandfather died, my grandmother started singing nursery rhymes in her sleep in a weird quavering voice ‘Olllllld Kiiiiing Cole was a meeerrrrrry oooooold soooouuul’ She live in an old house in the middle of nowhere and we kids were terrified.

  5. I have learned so much from this post! I’m glad you’re okay and that you haven’t had any night terrors lately. I have woken up from a nightmare before–and tried to scream, but I was absolutely unable to make a sound–even while semi awake, which was strange. My mouth was moving and everything, but I could only get air through–not a sound.

  6. Sean D. Layton

    Wow, that is weird. I don’t think I’ve ever been unable to speak — I think that would be just as frightening.

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