Back in the 1940s, a group of unethical Russian scientists performed a sleep deprivation experiment on a group of political dissidents that lead to a horrifying conclusion, or so the story goes. Is the story true or based upon a true story? Is it another object lesson on how a work of fiction can become urban legend? Lets take a look at the story of the Russian Sleep Experiment.
The story of the Russian Sleep Experiment is a work of fiction that can be found on the popular horror microfiction site called CreepyPasta. The particular story can be found here or here. The story relates a tale of a descent into madness for the victims of the experiment, as well as a number of elements which strongly imply paranormal or supernatural influences. Go have a quick read of it.
At the time of this writing, a Google search for “Russian Sleep Experiment” will net several results in which people assert that the story is true or that it is based on a true story. There are also some interesting variants or modifications on the story, for instance the stimulant gas is named in some accounts as “Nikolayev” gas or that the title is sometimes listed as “Orange Soda.” The earliest instance of the story I can find was on the CreepyPasta wiki in December 2010. You can see it here (via the Internet Archive). The archive page shows that the wiki entry was created by “Ovalh3” reportedly from /x/. /x/ is the paranormal section of the 4chan site. Unfortunately, the trail ran cold for me there as 4chan is regularly pruned and not archived (most of the fan archives don’t go back far enough).
There appears to have been a spike in interest and activity in the Russian Sleep Experiment sometime last year (2013). I expect that this is the time at which the story made the jump from a work of fiction to urban legend. Around that time, Snopes created an entry for the story, in which they determine it is false.
Much like the phenomenon of Alexandria’s Genesis, the Russian Sleep Experiment serves as a good example of how fictional work can, given the right context and credulity of reader, jump from a story to perceived fact.
So, how do I know the story isn’t true? Just because it’s on a horror fiction web site doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, right? Sure. There are a number of elements of the story that strongly increase my suspicion that it isn’t true. Spoilers for the story follow, if you are concerned.
The experimental setup doesn’t ring true for a legitimate, even if unethical, experiment. The chamber in which the subjects were housed would be far more observable. There are no control groups. Part of the story hinges on the requirement that the subjects become unobservable for some period of time, so that the reveal of their state can have more impact. If the purpose is to observe the effects of sleep deprivation, why allow the subjects to “hide” for so long? The author had to cover for that by adding in the oxygen consumption meters, so that they could verify the subject’s life and activity.
Medically, very little makes sense or seems consistent with what we know about human physiology. Blood loss alone would have ended the lives of the subjects long before the conclusion of the story. I am highly suspicious of any stimulant, gas or otherwise, that could overcome the desire to sleep. Browsing the literature on sleep deprivation studies (almost all animals) shows that chemical stimulants lose effectiveness over time. The only methods that seem to work involve physical measures, such as the “flower pot” method for rat studies.
The conclusion of the story is where the author tips their hand. It is common among the CreepyPasta-style stories to link in demons, extra-dimensional beings, ghosts, or the like to kick up a story’s horror angle. The closing scenes strongly hint of the paranormal, either through some demonic side of humanity or the use of extreme sleep deprivation as a method to access other worlds. The subjects, by all accounts, become like intelligent, super-strong, zombies, as a result of their ordeal. Or maybe it was that mysterious gas…
Sleep has been, and continues to be, heavily studied. Extreme sleep deprivation in all animal testing has resulted, ultimately, in the deaths of the animals. It has been shown that humans will also die of sleep deprivation, through the rare disorder fatal familial insomnia. According to this article, the longest recorded time without sleep for a human is 449 hours, over 18 days.
Sleep is a fascinating subject and the focus of over a century of study. As a chronic insomniac and as someone with sleep apnea, sleep is a major part of my life. I don’t expect to become a hyper-strong super creepy pseudo-zombie if I miss enough of it.