The Sandman: Is encephalitis lethargica (sleepy sickness) a real thing?

The Sandman. Sandra James-Young as Unity Kincaid in episode 107 of The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
The Sandman. Sandra James-Young as Unity Kincaid in episode 107 of The Sandman. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022 /

The day has finally come that fans of the fantasy genre have been counting down. The Netflix adaptation of The Sandman, based on the comic book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, was released in the early hours this morning and will surely have viewers hooked. The show follows protagonist Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), the lord of dreams of the Endless, also known as Dream.

After being captured for over 100 years, Dream returns to his realm to find that a lot has changed. He embarks on a journey to regain his possessions before something almost unimaginable happens — he has to stop a Vortex from destroying the world.

Spoilers ahead for The Sandman on Netflix.

The Vortex, which is someone who can travel through people’s dreams and both create and destroy entire worlds, is a young woman named Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai). At 21 years old, Rose has no idea what powers she has until she meets Dream. He explains to her what she is and how dangerous she can be, and with so much at stake, they don’t have a lot of time.

When we meet Rose, she’s getting ready for a trip to London, England to take part in some type of foundation. She doesn’t have all the details, but once she’s out there and meets a woman named Unity (Sandra James-Young), she starts to learn what’s really going on. Unity explains that she had been asleep for nearly 80 years. She was one of the many who suffered from encephalitis lethargica, or “sleepy sickness,” while Dream was captured. And she’s the only one who actually woke up when he returned.

What is encephalitis lethargica in The Sandman?

If you’re curious to learn more about encephalitis lethargica, you might be surprised to find out that it is a real sickness! According to Science Direct, this was an epidemic that effected people between the years 1915 and 1926 (though other sources say 1916 to 1930). This condition could lead to comas and death, and those who survived experienced behavioral issues in some cases. As reported by Neurology Live, the cause of this sleepy sickness is still a mystery.

Though the real encephalitis lethargica is certainly unusual, it does not have to do with the fictional character Dream in real life, of course. There’s an explanation for the sickness in The Sandman, but not one in real life.

You can now stream all 10 episodes of The Sandman on Netflix.

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