What Was the Russian Sleep Experiment?

It's the most shocking story you may have never heard: a group of five men deemed enemies of the state are imprisoned in a secret Soviet military research facility in 1947, where they are exposed to a sleep-inhibiting stimulant.

The authorities promise to free the prisoners after 30 days if they complete the experiment, but on day 15, they turn off the stimulant and open the locked chamber only to find a scene of carnage; one prisoner is dead and the others have suffered various forms of extreme self-mutilation, including disembowelment. The survivors have also developed an inhuman strength and a resistance to drugs and sedatives, which causes them to murder one of the soldiers who attempts to remove them from the room.

Despite the gruesome details, which have been shared online by some readers who believe it is a true story, the "Russian Sleep Experiment" is actually a creepypasta, a form of horror-themed folk story that has been spread on the internet for the past two decades; the genre evolved from the terms "creepy" and copypasta, an expression meaning copy and pasted text that originated on 4chan around 2007, according to the New York Times and the website Know Your Meme. The Russian tale was even made into a short film in 2015.

Former East German Stasi Headquarters
A photo from the offices of the Stasi, the former East German State Security Service; The Stasi and other domestic intelligence agencies in Eastern European countries were accused of torture, including sleep deprivation. Getty

Like other forms of creepypasta, but unlike traditional urban legends, the Russian Sleep Experiment can be traced to a particular source on the Creepypasta Wiki page, according to Dr. Joe Stubbersfield, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester who studies cognitive biases and the propagation of misinformation, including urban legends.

What creepypasta and urban legends have in common, he told Newsweek, is the fact that "they are told as true, even if people don't actually believe them. That's part of the theater of them."

Why the Story Resonates

In the case of the Russian Sleep Experiment, the story rings true because it fits with common knowledge about unethical experiments on human beings in the 1940s, including during World War II, as well as later CIA experiments with sleep deprivation, Stubbersfield said. He recalled a visit to a museum in Budapest in the former offices of the Communist government's secret police headquarters, where a basement exhibit recreates cells in which people could only stand up.

"If you keep people awake for a long time, they become more suggestable," he added. "The sleep deprivation element, the human suggestion, rings all sorts of bells about all of these things in the past. It helps the question about whether there may be an element of truth to it."

The supernatural element of the tale—especially the extent to which the victims are able to inflict wounds on themselves and remain alive—merely enhances its appeal.

Research on urban legends demonstrates the psychological concept that humans are biased towards minimally counterintuitive concepts, Stubbersfield said.

"The most successful stories, fairy tales or urban legends are the ones that have small amounts of counterintuitive elements within a broader concept of something that is intuitive or normal," he said. "If it is too full of elements that counter our expectations of how the world works, it becomes less appealing and less memorable."

The Line Between Urban Legend and Conspiracy Theory

Patient rejects doctor's vaccine in office
Stock photo of patient rejecting a vaccine offered by a doctor. Health-related conspiracy theories, such as widely spread rumors that vaccines are harmful or cause infertility, represent a different kind of threat than those of the urban legends. Getty Images

Stubbersfield's research has increasingly taken him in the direction of looking at the popularity of conspiracy theories, which have the same aspect of counterintuitiveness, but also usually involve some concept of threat to individuals as well, he said.

Whether they contain health-related theories—such as widely spread rumors that vaccines are harmful or cause infertility—or threats to liberty, conspiracy theories tend to represent a different kind of threat than those of the urban legends, which often center around much more unimaginable dangers, such as serial killers.

"With urban legends, they don't tend to be an important part of someone's world views," Stubbersfield said. "Conspiracy theories can be. They provide an explanation about how the world works in a way that urban legends or creepy pasta don't."

Storytelling can be adapted to local environments and perceived local threats, he added, using the example of Pakistan's polio vaccine campaign, in which conspiracy theorists suggested that the CIA was pushing the vaccines in order to sterilize the Muslim population in the country.

One interesting change, Stubbersfield said, is the extent to which the growth of online versions of legends has altered the role of biases in transmission. While in the past, the more memorable an urban legend was the more likely it was to be transmitted, the existence of electronic communication today means the sender doesn't need to remember the story at all.