Terror at the heart of sleep – Night terrors, Nancy, and Phenomenology

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Sleep is soothing, silent, and serene, until it is not. Sleep is often troubled, disturbed, or even “disordered” as the medical literature describes it. This paper begins from an extreme form of such disturbance—terrified sleep. Night terrors (pavor nocturnus), in which sleep is violently interrupted, offer important insights into sleep and the methods by which it is studied. The sanitising nature of the medical classification of night terrors as part of a continuum with sleepwalking and yet strikingly distinct from nightmares, leads us into the arms of a more traditional, first-person, phenomenological investigation of night terrors. Without denying the power of both approaches, this paper offers a deconstructive alternative reading of this troubling of sleep through Jean-Luc Nancy’s rethinking of the body, its suffering and materiality. Nancy, and Derrida, help us tarry with the body terrified and trembling in night terrors. First the paper explores the medical incisions within sleep that carve out night terrors, as a delimited phenomenon. This is followed by a consideration of what phenomenology can, and crucially cannot, add to our understanding of night terrors. Next a deconstructive critique of the phenomenological concepts of Leib and Körper is utilised to return to the material body gripped by the night terror. This in turn leads to an alternative account of this parasomnia through a post-Nancean phenomenology of terror as distinct from fear and Angst. The paper closes by drawing out several conclusions about the body, sleep, and phenomenology’s limits when approaching the somnolent.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-63
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 Apr 2023


  • Nancy
  • night terrors
  • phenomenology
  • sleep
  • the body

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


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