Warning: SPOILERS for The Sandman
In the premiere episode of The Sandman, the capture of Dream of the Endless (Tom Sturridge) causes a global sleeping sickness, which is based on an event that happened in real life. Executive producer Neil Gaiman’s long-awaited adaptation of his beloved DC Comics graphic novels adapts the first two collected volumes, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House. The sleepy sickness happens in the first chapter, which introduces Dream as well as his captor, Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance).
Burgess, the self-styled Magus, is a British warlock who intended to apprehend Dream’s sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and force her to restore his dead son to life as well as grant Roderick immortality. Instead, Burgess’ ritual inadvertently captured Dream in 1916. Robbed of his symbols of office, his ruby, his helmet, and his bag of sand, Dream is imprisoned by the Magus for over a century. However, the disappearance of the lord of dreams wreaked havoc on the waking world and Morpheus’ realm, the Dreaming, which began to collapse as several dreams and nightmares abandoned the dimensional plane. Beyond the Dreaming, in the waking world, a sleeping sickness spread and affected millions of people, who simply fell asleep and didn’t wake up. One of them, Unity Kincaid (Sandra James-Young), was a pivotal victim who was supposed to become the Dream Vortex of her era. Instead, that power passed to her granddaughter, Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai).
Neil Gaiman must have based The Sandman season 1‘s sleeping sickness on a real epidemic that occurred from 1916 (the year Dream was captured by Roderick Burgess) to 1927. Known as lethargic encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, the sleepy sickness struck between 5 and 10 million people worldwide, killing half of them in short order. The virus that caused lethargic encephalitis was never clearly identified. Many of the sleeping-sickness survivors seemed to recover but were incapacitated years later by a paralyzing Parkinson’s-like syndrome. Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote the book “Awakenings,” which the 1990 film starring Robin Williams, was based on, about the sleeping sickness and its victims. Ingeniously, Gaiman tied the real epidemic to The Sandman and blamed the sleeping sickness on the imprisonment of Dream of the Endless.
Why The Sleeping Sickness Ended in 1927
After over a decade, the sleeping sickness epidemic suddenly ended in 1927 for no apparent reason. Thousands of those affected were housed in institutions for decades, alive but trapped within their bodies, just as Unity Kincaid was in The Sandman. Many patients improved dramatically upon treatment but their miraculous recovery turned out to be short-lived. Most patients slipped back into a catatonic state within days or weeks. Although the 1916-1927 encephalitis lethargica epidemic hasn’t occurred since, there have been rare cases, causing doctors to speculate that the encephalitis lethargica virus is only lying dormant.
Of course, in The Sandman, Dream was imprisoned until the modern day and the sleeping sickness continued until Morpheus escaped his confinement at the end of episode 1, “The Sleep of the Just.” While Dream was held captive, even those who weren’t gripped by the sleeping sickness like Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), suffered terrible recurring nightmares. Morpheus’ return to the Dreaming ended the sleeping sickness and set the world right in The Sandman until John Dee (David Thewlis) threatened all of reality by corrupting Dream’s ruby and Morpheus put a stop to him.
The Sandman Season 1 is streaming on Netflix.