If you’ve ever doubted the effects of sleep loss on the human mind, the Russian sleep experiment will make you a believer. It will probably also creep you out and make you want to sleep with the lights on tonight. But don’t do that because light stimulates the production of melatonin and will keep you awake. There is even a 28-minute long Russian sleep experiment movie floating around on the internet guaranteed to give you nightmares for at least a few days. Here’s what we know about one of the goriest stories in the history of sleep.
The Russian sleep experiment is rumored to be a horrific sleep experiment gone wrong. It took place in the late 1940’s and involved five prisoners who were kept awake by Soviet researchers using an unidentified experimental gas stimulant. The imprisoned subjects were deemed enemies of the state due to their political views during World War II. They were likely forced into the experiment against their will.
The prisoners were reportedly locked in a sealed chamber where they could be subjected to the experimental gas. Their oxygen levels were monitored to prevent the gas from killing them. The prisoner's closed quarters contained a one-way microphone and a mirrored glass window that was five inches thick to monitor their behavior. The researchers were able to see the prisoners, but the prisoners only saw their own reflection in the mirror. The chamber allegedly included books, a cot for each person to sleep on with no bedding, running water and a toilet, and enough dried food to sustain each prisoner for one month.
For the first few days, the prisoners did not complain as they were falsely promised that they would be freed if they cooperated and stayed awake for 30 days. During the first week, they continued to be monitored through the glass window and microphone. The prisoners reportedly talked about their past traumatic experiences. By day four, their conversations became darker, and they started to complain about the terms of the experiment.
By the fifth consecutive day of no sleep, the prisoners began to experience severe paranoia. They no longer talked to each other. Instead, they started whispering into the microphone and glass window. The prisoners reportedly tried winning the trust of their captors by offering up the other inmates that were in captivity with them. The researchers believed this behavior was due to the effects of the gas.
By day nine, one of the prisoners began to run up and down the length of the chamber while screaming at the top of his lungs. He continued this for three hours straight until he tore his vocal cords and was only able to produce occasional squeaks. The other prisoners didn’t react to the screaming. Instead, they kept whispering into the microphone. A short time later, a second prisoner began to scream. The three remaining inmates who were not screaming walked over to the books and tore them apart. They smeared their own feces on the pages and pasted them to the glass wall so that the researchers could no longer see inside. Shortly after the glass wall was covered, the screaming stopped and the prisoners no longer whispered into the microphone.
After three days, the researchers began to perform hourly tests on the receiver to make sure it worked as they could no longer see the prisoners. The researchers determined all five prisoners to be alive based on the oxygen levels inside the chamber. Interestingly, the oxygen levels measured at an amount that was similar to five people who were doing strenuous exercise.
After the 14th day, the researchers called out to the prisoners on an intercom to see if they would respond. The researchers reportedly thought that the prisoners were dead or in a vegetative state. They told the prisoners they would open the door so the microphone could be tested and ordered them to step away from the door and lay flat on the ground or else they would be shot. They told the prisoners that one of them would be released if they cooperated.
One prisoner responded back in a calm voice that they no longer wanted to be free. The researchers tried talking to the prisoners through the intercom but were not able to get another response. They decided to enter the chamber the next day at midnight with the help of the Russian military.
When the time came, the researchers rid the chamber of the experimental gas and replaced it with fresh air. Three of the prisoners began to speak up and begged for the gas to be turned back on. The researchers opened the chamber and sent soldiers in. The prisoners began to scream. When the soldiers saw what was inside, they began to scream, too.
The soldiers found that the food provided to the inmates had not been touched past the five-day mark. Four of the five prisoners were alive, and chunks of meat from the dead prisoner’s leg and chest had been used to clog the drain located in the middle of the chamber. Four inches of a mixture of water and blood covered the floor. The four living prisoners also had large chunks of meat and muscle torn out of their bodies. Researchers determined that the wounds were self-inflicted by hand and not teeth due to the exposure of bone on their fingertips.
Researchers also discovered that the abdominal organs located below the rib cage had been removed from all four living prisoners. Their lungs, diaphragm, and heart remained intact. Most of the inmate's skin and the muscles attached to the ribs were ripped off. The lungs of each of the four surviving prisoners were exposed. They had ripped out their remaining organs and blood vessels from their body and were being fanned out on the floor next to them, still alive. The digestive tracts of all four prisoners were still working and digesting food. Researchers determined that the inmates were digesting their own flesh that they had ripped off and eaten.
As the chamber opened, the prisoners screamed and demanded that the gas be turned back on because they did not want to fall asleep. The prisoners were surprisingly strong despite their physical state and put up a fight when they were forcibly removed from the chamber. One of the prisoners ripped out the throat of one of the Russian soldiers. Another soldier was injured when his testicles were ripped out, and an artery in his leg was severed off by a prisoner's teeth. Five soldiers committed suicide during the weeks following the incident due to the horrific experience.
During the struggle to get the prisoners out of the chamber, one ruptured his spleen and bled to death. The researchers tried to sedate him by injecting ten times the amount of morphine, but he proved to be too powerful and broke the ribs and arm of one of the researchers. His heart continued to beat for a full two minutes after he bled out and he continued to scream the word “MORE” for another three minutes until he fell silent.
The remaining three prisoners were taken to a medical facility to be examined. The two that had their vocal cords intact continued to beg for the experimental gas to keep them awake. The subject who was injured the most was taken to a treatment facility to be operated on. The researchers prepared the subject to have his organs surgically returned to his body, but he was immune to the sedative they gave him. He fought against the restraints and tore through the four-inch leather strap that had been placed on one wrist even with the weight of a 200-pound soldier holding him down.
He was finally given enough anesthetic to be put under. His eyes fluttered and closed, and his heart stopped. He died right there on the operating table after being put to sleep. The autopsy found that the prisoner had triple the normal amount of oxygen in his blood. He also had nine broken bones, and the muscles that were still attached to his skeleton were torn due to self-inflicted wounds.
The next prisoner could not speak as his vocal cords had been ripped. He shook his head “no” when the researchers tried to give him anesthetic gas. When it was suggested that he be put through the surgery without an anesthetic, he agreed and did not move for the entire six-hour operation that included replacing his organs. The surgeon stated that it was not medically possible for him to be alive. According to one of the nurses in the room, the patient grinned at her several times when their eyes met during the surgery. When the surgery was over, the prisoner looked at the surgeon and tried to speak. The doctor brought over a pen and paper for the prisoner to write and he wrote down the words “keep cutting.”
The two remaining prisoners were given similar surgeries without anesthesia. Because they kept laughing during the operation, they were injected with a substance to paralyze them. Doctors claimed the patient's eyes followed them throughout the entire process. When the paralyzing substance cleared, the prisoners tried to escape and asked for more experimental gas. The researchers decided to ask the prisoners why they had injured themselves and wanted to be put back on the gas. The prisoner's only response was that they needed to remain awake.
After the surgery, the three remaining prisoners were placed back into the chamber while the researchers decided what to do with them. They considered euthanizing the remaining prisoners, but one of the researchers suggested to put them back on the gas to see what happens. They began to seal the chamber again to prepare it for the gas. The prisoners were hooked up to an EEG brainwave monitor and were restrained for permanent confinement.
At this point, all three prisoners were fighting to stay awake, but they stopped struggling when one of the researchers let it slip that they would be put back on the gas. While waiting for the gas to be turned back on, one of the inmates flatlined as his brainwaves transitioned to deep sleep. The only prisoner with his vocal cords intact began screaming to be put back on the gas as his brainwaves indicated that he was also entering deep sleep.
The commander of the military ordered the chamber to be sealed with both prisoners inside as well as three of the researchers. One of the researchers drew his gun and shot the commander in the head. Then he turned and shot the mute subject in the brain, killing him instantly. He pointed his gun at the remaining prisoner, who was the only one that could speak. In terror, the researcher said to him, “What are you?”
The prisoner smiled and said, “We are you.” He further elaborated by saying that he and the other inmates were the “madness that lurks within you all begging to be free in your deepest animal mind (1).” He stated that he was what you hide from in your beds at night and what you sedate into silence. The researcher then aimed his gun at the prisoner and fired into his heart. As he died, the prisoner choked out the words, “So nearly free…”
Although it’s certainly twisted, the Russian sleep experiment is probably not real. At best, it’s an entertaining movie idea for anyone who enjoys a modern twist on an old creepy tale. The story was published on the website Creepypasta in August 2010 in an attempt to scare their readers.
According to the fact-checking website Snopes.com, there is no historical record of the Russian sleep experiment and the tale is purely a supernatural fiction story intended to be entertaining for thrill seekers (2). The story itself may not be real, but there are plenty of scary side effects of sleep loss that are plenty creepy on their own.