Parasomnias in the arts

03 Oct Parasomnias in the arts

In the middle of the night she woke up dreaming of huge white heads like turnips that came trailing after her, at the end of interminable necks, and with vast black eyes. But being a sensible woman, she subdued her terrors and turned over and went to sleep again. H. G Wells. The invisible Man


Sleep and dreams have had a mystical connotation and big influence in our lives. Many artists have included this in their paintings and literature master pieces.  Some artists have shown interest in sleep disorders such as somnambulism, insomnia and nightmares. One could argue that these artists may have suffered from these conditions themselves.

The word parasomnia represents all the atypical things that can occur to people while they are sleeping. Parasomnias are known by undesirable physical or verbal behaviours, such as walking, talking during sleep, nightmares, sleep paralysis, REM sleep behaviour disorder and other movement disorders (sleep aggression, sleep sex – sexsomnia). Some of these disorders can be frightening for those sleeping and for those around them.

By way of example, in Literature, Shakespeare describes sleepwalking and sleep talking of Lady Macbeth. In Macbeth the gentlewoman says: “Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon‘t, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep.” Furthermore, the gentlewoman shows the doctor the actual act of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking: “Lo you, here she comes! This is her very guise, and, upon my life, fast asleep.” The Doctor comments, “You see, her eyes are open.” And the gentle-woman answers, “Ay, but their sense is shut”.

Kryger et al. have described how some famous paintings depict sleep in diverse ways, in mythology, in religion and often showing the relationship between sleep and dreams or danger and death. Kryger et al. discuss some of these masterpieces and explore their depiction of nightmares and sleep paralysis. For example, Francisco Goya, in The Sleep of Reason Brings Monsters (ca. 1799) (Fig. 1), shows that dreams can be distressing, with attack of “monsters” while the man is dreaming. Heinrich Füssli and his painting The Nightmare (ca. 1781) has become a symbol for the phenomenon of sleep paralysis (Fig. 2). In the picture the girl has visions of a devil-like creature on her abdomen and a horse’s head peering at her from the left, but she cannot move.


Sleep is such an important part of our lives and can be quite fascinating at times. I am sure most of us have had a strange dream at some point, or have heard of someone’s strange behaviour during sleep. So it is not all that surprising that that writers and painters have also been fascinated by sleep.


It is thought that perhaps the description of these disorders by artists actually may have led to the first detection of these disorders in medicine. Today, some people may be reluctant to declare their parasomnias, even in clinical environments. Let’s hope that the “art of sleep” can help normalise sleep disorders as precisely that, a sleep disorder.


George R. R Martin “Sleep is good, and books are better.”



  • Depiction of parasomnia in the arts. Available from: [accessed Mar 29, 2017].
  • Kryger M, Avidan A, Berry R. Atlas of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2nd Edition, Elsevier, 2014.
  • Kryger M, Sleep in Art and Literature. The Huffington Post. Available from:
  • Alex Iranzo, Joan Santamaria, Martín de Riquer. Sleep and sleep disorders in Don Quixote. Sleep Medicine, Volume 5, Issue 1, January 2004, Pages 97-100