The Arkansas Sleep Experiments by Nazisharks
To Those Who Sleep
This happened a few years ago. You may have heard rumors if you’re on campus. Some even circulated online. Nobody knew what really happened. Because I’m the only one who knows and I kept quiet. For a multitude of reasons. None of them matter now. Here’s what really happened.
The four of us were handpicked for this experiment by Prof. Richardson because we’d all studied under him, worked under him, and, as much as anyone can, earned his confidence.
He said this one was different. We had to keep it quiet. He wanted to keep details to a minimum. All he would tell us before going in was that he required a month of our lives and that if he succeeded sleep would never again be a necessity.
“Think of it,” he said, “6 to 8 additional hours every day. Your month will be paid back before the year is out.”
If he was right, he’d have a Nobel Prize for sure. It would change the world. We believed in him. Sleep would become a hobby. Imagine that. We felt lucky to be a part of it. We went in with the highest of hopes. We were so excited for a new future for humanity and for ourselves. I was the only one to leave that place.
Prof. Richardson brought us out to the location in his van, explaining along the way what we were to do. For the purposes of the study, we were asked to remain in the ‘compound,’ as he called it. We would be locked in, in fact, and deprived of windows and wifi. Other than endure patiently, we didn’t have to do much of anything.
“My machine does all the work,” he explained. “It uses a complex mélange of soundwaves to disrupt the processes of sleep, evolutionary appendices from the days before civilization. The most immediate side effect you’ll notice is that you won’t dream. ”
Any other effects we noticed we were to catalogue. We were, as he said, “in uncharted territory” and so we had to “map out the dangers.”
The immensity of the project was inspiring enough. Then we saw the compound. The Octagon, as it was known. A concrete, octagonal structure built at the end of a labyrinth of dirt roads somewhere in the backwoods of Searcy, Arkansas. I’ve never been able to find it again. The Prof said it was originally intended as a jail for terrorists, but it was abandoned and never used. It’s virtually impenetrable, invisible to satellites, but for us it had been stocked with all the comforts we’d require for a month of dedication.
I don’t think know if any of us expected to really conquer sleep. We thought, perhaps, a reduction in sleep requirements could be possible. We spent a fair amount of the first two days speculating on how the machine works with its “complex mélange of soundwaves” and whether sleep really is an evolutionary appendix, as the Prof had claimed.
By the third day of only getting three to four hours of sleep, contrary to feeling groggy, we were more awake and full of energy than ever. We were alert and ready to debate these ideas. That’s when the excitement really hit us.
“He really did it,” JT said. JT was a big, ginger-bearded guy, the sort of guy who still has a healthy collection of Magic cards.
“We don’t know that,” James said, always the skeptic. He came from Australia just to study under Richardson, actually. “The machine could be stimulating the adrenal glands to mildly dose us with adrenaline all throughout the day.”
“Even were that so, wouldn’t change the fact that he beat sleep,” I said.
With our extra time, we were getting in tons of reading, played a stupid amount of Call of Duty, and still had plenty of time to sit around and debate.
“I guess I have to admit it’s fucking amazing,” James said.
We all felt it. It was almost euphoric, the excitement we felt for being possibly the first humans to live without the need for sleep. Technically we still needed a few hours each night still, but we decided together that it was more out of habit than necessity.
Then, on the fourth day, Don said, “There’s something wrong.” Don was a serious one. Superserious. He used to be a Franciscan, I’d heard. It showed. He didn’t talk that much and when he did, it was usually worth listening to. This time he put into words something I’d been feeling, but I guess just kinda buried under the excitement.
“With the experiment or…?” That was JT.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a feeling. This constant uneasiness. Like this isn’t going the way it’s supposed to be going or that we’re in the wrong place.”
“No, no,” James said, “I think that’s it: it’s this place. We all knew it was weird when we first saw it. This concrete octagon. But living in it—I think there’s something wrong with this place. Like something terrible happened here.”
“I understood it was never used,” I said.
“Governments always say that about torture prisons,” James said.
“It’s more than that,” JT said. “I feel it, too. I thought it was just from lacking windows at first. But that’s not it. I think it’s the angles. It’s like, the angles in this building don’t add up to what they should.”
“What if everyone’s dead outside?” Don asked.
James jump up so fast his chair clattered to the ground. “Cut that shit out, Don! Why would you even say that?”
“Well, what are you saying?” I asked. “This is a ‘haunted octagon’?”
“Yeah, James,” JT said, “was it built on an octagonal Indian burial ground?”
“Okay, you want to play that?” he said. “I can play. Look, the space around us transforms based on how we perceive it. Take a church. The people who go there perceive it as holy. So they do things, like leave their crutches behind when they force themselves to walk, or light their candles, or whatever. These changes to the space only enhance the perception of holiness and influence future visitors to perceive it in the same way and change it in the same way. Haunted places are the same. For one reason or another, they begin to be perceived as haunted. The more they’re perceived that way, the more they’re imbued with hauntedness. Even if you’ve never seen the place before, you pick up on the subtle clues, if you’re at all sensitive. In a way, it’s true to say it’s a haunted space. It’s true to say the church is holy. Our interaction with that space has made it something more than just wood and sheetrock, or whatever.
“So what I’m saying is, maybe some things happened here and we’re picking up on it. Some bloody awful things. And in that sense, yes, it’s a haunted octagon.”
“No, no, no,” Don said, “places are considered ‘holy’ because an authority telegraphs it to whoever will listen. Just like ‘haunted’ places make a lot of money off dumb tourists.”
“Whatever it is,” I said, “we all agree something isn’t feeling right about our situation. Maybe it’s the machine. I say we write it down as a side-effect.”
On that point, at least, we were all able to agree. It didn’t put any of our uneasiness at rest, but we wrote it down. We somehow agreed upon the phrasing right away, too. “Acute sensations that we’ve entered into something where we aren’t welcome.”
We tried our best to ignore these feelings and carry on like we had been. Those first few days had been some of the best in our adult lives. But we never got back to those happy times.
I realized around then how short-sighted of Richardson it had been to leave us there without any means of contacting the outside world. When I voiced that opinion…
“That’s just what I’d been thinking,” JT said. “Richardson isn’t a dumb guy. You get me? I think he did this on purpose.”
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“For science, of course,” he answered. “It’s one of those meta-studies, where we’re told it’s about one thing but it’s actually about how we react to the experiment. Like the Milgram Experiments.”
“Or it’s not his choice,” James said. “The government is making him do it. And that machine is designed to control us. Or some sort of cult. Scientologists.”
“This is a government-built installation,” JT said, “that actually makes sense. Not the Scientology part, though.”
“Think about it—“ James started, but I interrupted.
“Okay, okay,” I said, “let’s come back down to earth for a second. Best case scenario, Richardson is just a jerk who doesn’t care about our personal well-being. Right?”
“Give it a rest,” Don said, the one I least expected to snap at me. “Stop trying to act like the most rational guy in the room. You don’t know what Richardson’s into. He’s into other things, things he’ll never talk about publicly.”
I looked at the others and saw similar confusion.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve heard a little about this, actually,” James said. “He has some… fringe ideas.”
“Let’s just say he’s not the respected academic he presents himself to be,” Don said. “I’ve read some of the content he doesn’t publish. He thinks, and very seriously believes, that there’s something else, something besides this,” he knocked on the table. “Something more than material stuff.”
“That’s not completely strange,” I said with a shrug. I was expecting worse.
“He put it this way,” Don continued, ignoring me. “Think back to the beginning of existence. There had to be conditions such that the universe’s existence was possible. If the universe wasn’t possible, then it couldn’t have come to exist. Does that stand to reason?”
“Okay, and those conditions cannot be material nor laws of matter, since those came into being with the existence of the universe. So whatever those conditions are, they have to be something other than the basic substance of the universe. Does that make sense?”
“I guess,” I said. “This isn’t turning into an argument for god, is it?”
He shook his head. “It’s an argument for a something that continues to exist. Except we can’t even say that. Because ideas like ‘something’ and ‘exist’ are developed by, for, and within physical reality. This is something pre-physical. Something pre-existence. Whatever it is allowed the universe to spontaneously be. Who knows what else it’s been doing these billions of years?”
“Just asking that question is already violating the stipulations—“ I started saying, my background in philosophy kicking in.
“Yes, yes,” Don said. “But he believes. He thinks it’s the source of free will. Our brains touch it somehow. And so he believes he can reach it, study it, use it. I didn’t get to read much more than that.”
“And if this experiment is something he’s not putting on the books,” James added, “it may have to do with his more peculiar interests.”
“So, instead of eliminating sleep, he’s trying to make us see god?” I asked sarcastically.
“I don’t know, brother,” Don said, “I’m just saying, if he thinks the brain touches another reality, this is just the kind of experiment he’d want to try to prove his theory.”
“You think he has this room bugged?” JT asked.
“I think he might be in here somewhere,” I said, without even thinking of what I was saying.
They looked to me waiting for an explanation and with what looked like fear in their eyes. Strange we should be so afraid of this man we admired less than two weeks ago.
“I sometimes feel someone watching me sleep,” I explained, my voice starting to tremble. “I figured it was one of you at first. I feel it especially when I’m not quite awake, but not quite asleep. Those moments when you wake for a few seconds to adjust your pillow. I could feel and see and hear someone standing over me. Just breathing and watching. And I was too close to unconsciousness to do anything about it. Then I just fell back to sleep.”
I could see the terror filling the others’ eyes while I spoke.
“I’ve been feeling it, too,” Don said, almost in a whisper, like he was scared to be heard. “I thought I was losing it.”
“Me too,” James said.
“Someone else is in here…” I said.
We drew closer together, our eyes darting nervously around the gray concrete room. We were all feeling the same thing, I’m sure. That we were trapped. Trapped inside this horrible building with someone or something else.
“Wait, wait,” JT said, “what would this person be eating? We don’t see our food disappearing. There’s no way out. There isn’t really anywhere to hide. We gotta start being sensible.”
I let out a sigh of relief. Because he was right.
“Okay, let’s think about this,” I said. “Let’s say this is another effect of the machine. Phase 2: Paranoia.”
“Phase 2: Paranoia,” Don said with a consenting nod.
We wrote it down.
The next day, when we all gathered together for breakfast, JT asked, “Have you all had any… dreams?”
We all shook our heads.
“Richardson was right on the money with that one,” I said.
“Mmhmm,” he said, “do you know feral children don’t dream?”
“How do we know that?” James asked.
“They tell us. The few that get socialized. They say dreaming is something that starts only after. When they have language, object permanence, and all that shit.”
“What about dogs?” I asked. “Like, chasing rabbits in their sleep?”
“Maybe language and object permanence impacts only the ability to remember dreams,” James said. “Both are consistent with the superficial data. The onus is on you to prove otherwise.”
“What’s your point, anyway?” Don asked.
“The point is, being dreamless—do you think it’s healthy? I don’t think it’s healthy. I think the machine isn’t making us not need sleep, it’s making us not feel tired. I think all of this might be happening because we aren’t dreaming.”
“We can’t really answer, can we?” James said. “Dreams naturally accompany REM sleep. So we don’t have any studies that differentiate between the effects of not dreaming and of not sleeping.”
“Or maybe we are dreaming and the dreams are just going somewhere else,” JT said.
I didn’t know what he meant by that. Nobody did. But we all stopped talking then and dispersed. Something about it felt too true.
Our gatherings for theoretical discussions became rarer and rarer. We tended to isolate ourselves and eyed each other with suspicion. I still had those feelings of uneasiness and of unwelcomedness every day.
And each night the figure standing over me. I was sleeping even less now. About an hour, tops. So little sleep that I’d started to catch it running away.
The last time, I was awake enough to see where it was going. It’s this one particular corner of my room that always struck me as peculiar. I caught myself staring at it even when I didn’t want to. It’s a point where the angles are strange. My eyes had trouble focusing on it. The figure skulked straight to that point and disappeared into it.
When I woke up fully, I questioned whether I’d hallucinated the whole thing. Perhaps Phase 3: Hallucinations. I went over to that corner and looked at it closely. It smelled strange. Like turpentine. Then the more I stared at it, the more I forced my eyes to focus, I was sure, sure something was moving inside. And it was watching me. I heard this awful, hate-filled sound come from deep in the corner then. I didn’t wait around to understand what made that noise. I left that room for good. I took all my short naps in the library from then on.
While lying in the library, I overheard JT talking to someone in the corridor. He was telling him about the angles again. He said there are more degrees in the building than can possibly be in a standard enclosed shape. 2.7488 degrees more, he said. “Just enough to drive you nuts, but not enough to be obvious.” Whoever he was talking to said something I didn’t understand, something like, “Those are the degrees of ripping.” The voice was distorted somehow, so I can’t be sure. What I was sure of was, I didn’t recognize that voice at all. Whoever JT was talking to wasn’t one of us.
May be silly, but I was scared. I stayed there, pretending to be asleep while JT walked by. And as he did, I felt someone or something come into the room and stand over me. Then it went away.
After a minute or so of telling myself I was being foolish, I went following after JT. I didn’t see him anywhere. I bumped into James and he also said he hadn’t seen JT. “Have you seen or heard anyone who shouldn’t be in here?” I asked him.
James looked at me with a mixture of surprise and terror. “How’d you know?” he asked. “I haven’t told anyone.”
He told me he’d heard his mother calling to him. Not a faint sound that he confused for his mother, but her voice, clear as mine, calling out to him. He almost answered her, he said. Almost. Then he stopped himself. “She’s been dead for a year, man,” he said. “Whatever was calling me—it wasn’t my mother.”
I saw he was shaking and his hands were clenched. I told him to hang in there. It might be aural hallucinations. I’d been hearing things, too. A crying child. So low at first, I thought it was the plumbing.
“We should call a meeting,” he said.
I thought about JT and what I’d heard moments ago. “Let’s just tell Don,” I said.
“As a side-effect of the machine, it makes sense,” Don said after we told him. “The sounds are not supposed to be audible. Yet somehow our brains must be picking up their random patterns and interpreting them as something. The brain assigns a memory to make the pattern meaningful.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“Not for a second,” James said.
But we had a shortage of rational explanations and that was a pretty good one. I’d hoped he was right.
A few days later, I found James in the gym, pounding away at the punching bag. I asked him if he was okay. He ignored me, so I went back to the reading room. A few minutes later he was behind me.
“That voice I’ve been hearing is not my mother,” he said.
“Of course not,” I said. We’d already decided that, after all.
“No, I mean… I don’t know what I mean. It’s just, my mother was a kind person. Even if this voice is trying to sound like her, it’s not like her at all. It’s not kind. It’s not human.”
I put down my book and looked him full on to see if he was serious. He was. Very much so.
“She’s been telling me about all sorts of things,” he said. “She asked me if you remember the shed.”
I couldn’t say anything to that. I was speechless. I never talked about that. For good reason. Took me years to come to terms with what happened. It was a long time ago. I was out playing behind our house in the woods, as I often did. I liked to construct shitty treehouses. I went a little off property and came to this shed. I’d never seen it before. It looked old, though. I remember that. I heard a kid crying inside. Thinking I might have a friend to make treehouses with, I looked through the window. The kid was all chained up and there was a dog bowl on the floor. I wanted to help, but I knew I was trespassing. I looked around. That’s when I saw this man, off about twenty feet into the woods. He was dressed all in black, old-fashioned clothes. Like 19th century clothes. He had to have been watching me the whole time. Expressionless. I went running all the way home.
I was so scared, I didn’t tell me parents about it until I was supposed to go to bed and I had to explain why I was terrified to go to sleep. They had the cops out right away. They found the shed. I heard they found the chains and bowl. But the kid was gone. I've always blamed myself for not helping the kid right away.
“Do you?” James asked.
“Ok, well, she’s been telling me how to get out.”
I looked at him without a word, because he sounded so manic.
“She said there’s a secret exit inside JT. We just have to cut him open to get to it.”
“James,” I said, unsure what else to say at that point.
“Oh, I know,” he said with a gulp. “I know it’s not true. I just had to tell someone.”
“I don’t know what’s going on in this place,” he added. “I’m scared, man.”
So was I. We had to get out of that octagon.
James and I started looking for ways out after that. Since we weren’t sleeping at all now, we had plenty of time to do it. Every time we thought we’d found something, it was a dead end. It was while we were doing this that we saw Don standing alone in the corridor with his back to us.
“What’s going on?” James asked me. Something about it just seemed strange.
“Don, you okay?” I called.
He turned around and with a smile gave us a big wave. “Bye guys,” he said and walked around the corner.
I looked at James to see if he was thinking the same thing as me, that something bad was about to happen, and he was already looking back at me. We took running after him. He was at the end of the next corridor already, getting in the elevator. “Don, no!” we shouted and ran after him, but the doors closed before we got there. He went up.
The thing is, the octagon is a one-floor building. There’s no elevator. Never before or after. I don’t know where Don went or if what I think I saw really happened. But I know I never saw Don ever again.
“I don’t understand,” James said. “What’s happening?”
Before we could take time to think about it, a group of people rounded the corner and were walking toward us.
“I think we should go,” I said.
“Who are they?” he asked.
“James, let’s go,” I said.
“Why are they blurry?”
“I don’t know, but we’re going.”
I grabbed his arm and pulled him with me, then I ran. I ran until I got to the kitchen and hid myself between the wall and the fridge. I was sure James was right behind me. I could hear his footfall the whole way. But when I looked, he was gone.
I stayed there until my body couldn’t really take it anymore. Probably a few hours. When I slipped out, I saw someone peering at me from around the doorway. I was so startled, I backed up against the wall. It was a little boy.
“Hello?” I said.
Then I heard screams. The boy was gone. More screams.
I couldn’t just leave someone in distress. Not again. I ran toward the screams, scared of what might be happening to James. I heard a scream again, but this one choked out. It was coming from JT’s room.
I wished then and still wish I hadn’t opened that door. James was in there. He’d sliced JT open and he was feeling around in his guts. The shocked, agonized expression was frozen on JT’s face.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I have to get out,” James said as he dug through JT’s intestines.
I backed out of the room. I didn’t know what else to do. I just had to find somewhere to hide until Richardson could get us out of there.
Once I was out of the room, I heard James saying, “Mom?” and then, “Oh no, oh no,” and then he screamed. I ran back in. James was gone. The doorway to the room hadn’t left my sight. There’s no way he got out. But he was gone. And noxious, black smoke was coming from JT’s abdomen. It smelled like burning tires.
I went back to the kitchen. I found a supply of candles. Melted some wax onto paper towels. And I stuffed my ears with it. Then I curled up in a corner, with my eyes closed, and waited for sleep to come. I waited a long time, but eventually, it came.
When I woke up, Prof. Richardson was shaking me. He’d already pulled the paper towels out of my ears. I thought he’d come early. I found out later I’d been asleep for several days.
He asked me where the others went. I told him everything. As much as I understood. I tried to take him to JT’s body. But it was gone. Not a trace of blood. He took me to a hospital after that to make sure I was ok.
“I’ll foot the bill,” he said. “Also, you can forget about your student loans.”
“Is that how it is?” I asked.
“I put you in danger,” he said. “So yes, you’ve earned it. If you keep quiet.”
I told him I couldn’t keep quiet, because of what happened to the others.
“You don’t think those things really happened, do you? Would all the laws of the physical universe suspend themselves just for you four? No, those were waking dreams. You weren’t supposed to dream at all. I thought I’d compensated for it. The machine needs tweaking. That’s science. The others are fine. They’ll be laying low for a while, until I publish the results. Please do the same.”
I wanted to believe him. I’ve always considered myself a rational person. I just didn’t believe him. Yes, it all could’ve been a dream. That would be the simplest explanation. But it was no dream. I tried to find the others. I never could. I don’t think they’re fine at all. I tried to tell police about it, but they wanted evidence. I couldn’t even show them the octagon.
James, JT, Don, if you’re out there and read this, let me know you’re ok. And everyone else, let me tell you what I think. I think Prof. Richardson was right about one thing. Sleep really is something we evolved to protect us. Except, not from the creatures that roam the forests at night. It protects us from something much worse, something all around us. It’s not obsolete at all. Thank whatever you believe in that you have sleep and you dream.