A Not So Fun Sandman Fact Check

A Not So Fun Sandman Fact Check

This post contains a mild spoiler about the Netflix series “The Sandman,” which we just started watching. If you don’t want a spoiler, don’t read any further! Stop now while there’s hope!

First I’ll just say that The Sandman on Netflix does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Neil Gaiman’s comics, though I’m recalling that spirit through a very hazy fog of memory, since I read the comics decades ago. I am thoroughly enjoying the dark fantasy aesthetic of this new TV series, as well as the signature Gaiman storytelling style, which I would describe as forgivably clichéd.

While watching the first episode, I had a curious moment of synchronicity. One element of the story is the outbreak of “sleepy sickness,” or encephalitis lethargica, which occurred from roughly 1917-1927. In the fantasy show it is attributed to the imprisonment of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. Basically, if you mess with the immortal power behind sleep and dreams, you’re going to mess with people’s sleep cycles pretty hard.

My synchronicity experience was that I had literally just read an academic paper about this outbreak, earlier that same day. This article was examining historical evidence for sequelae (abnormal conditions resulting from a previous disease) to earlier pandemics which are similar to long COVID.

Here is a relevant quote:

The Spanish Flu Pandemic (1918-1919) and Encephalitis Lethargica

The long-term neurological effects of the Spanish flu pandemic
of 1918 and 1919 included Parkinsonism, catatonia, and
“encephalitis lethargica”. The term encephalitis lethargica
was first used by the Austrian neurologist Constantin von
Economo in 1917 after he identified an increased number of
patients in Vienna with meningitis and delirium during the winters
of 1916 and 1917. In 1918, disorders that were similar
to encephalitis lethargica were reported elsewhere in Europe
and the United States, with a peak in cases in 1923 and a decline
over the course of the decade. Ravenholt and Foege
showed that in Seattle, Washington, clusters of deaths from
encephalitis lethargica significantly increased a year after the
winters of 1918 to 1922. Importantly, they also showed that
in American Samoa, which largely escaped the 1918 and 1919
influenza pandemic, there were very few cases of encephalitis
lethargica. In comparison, in Samoa (formerly known
as Western Samoa), where 8000 influenza deaths occurred,
there were 79 deaths due to encephalitis lethargica between
1919 and 1922.


In other words, sleepy sickness wasn’t the result of a supernatural mishap. It was “long Spanish influenza!”

It is understandable for this fantasy story to associate sleepy sickness with its main character’s fate, since there is such a strong thematic connection. But in reality, the disease is likely an effect of viral infection or exposure, a more mundane explanation but also one that is very relevant to us in these pandemic times.

There seems to be a wish or urge to put the COVID pandemic behind us, even though the virus is still circulating and still killing. The lesson of past pandemic sequelae is that the effects of COVID will be with us for years to come.

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