Tea’s Weird Week: Peter Tripp’s Wake-A-Thon Freak Out of 1959
The Tea’s Weird Week podcast is on “vacation” as we’re trying to catch up on ideas for future podcast episodes as well as getting our Patreon rolling– check it out, lots of very cool perks at a number of affordable levels: www.patreon.com/teasweirdweek
This week I just thought I’d share a pretty crazy story I ran into while doing some light research. Like other authors, I always have a few irons in the fire– I’m working on developing a couple of non-fiction book ideas, as well as a couple of fiction ones. I’m not sure what is going to be completed first (if completed at all) or what might roll out when, but one of these fiction manuscripts is a horror novel that includes a plot involving sleep paralysis and sleep deprivation.
I was looking into the latter when I found the story of Peter Tripp, a top 40 DJ who decided to be involved with a publicity stunt. He agreed to DJ live on WMGM (where he had a show called “Your Hits of the Week”) for 200 hours (a little over 8 days) straight without sleep from a glass DJ booth in Times Square (so people could go and see him, like a sleep deprived fish in an aquarium) as a fundraiser for March of Dimes. This “Wake-A-Thon” was in late January, 1959.
It was somewhere around 120 hours into the “Wake-A-Thon” that Tripp went from extremely drowsy to beginning to lose his damn mind. He suffered from hallucinations– at one point he began to see spiders crawling out of his shoes and mice and kittens scurrying around his feet inside the studio. He had a hotel room next door where he could freshen up and there he hallucinated flames shooting out of a dresser drawer. In another instance he believed a scientist sent to observe him was an undertaker after his body, so he ran out of the studio into Times Square and had to wrangled back in. He grew paranoid of the scientists who were observing him and thought they were in league against him, trying to poison him. He had difficulty reciting the alphabet.
The scientists monitored Tripp’s brain waves and found that his hallucination freak outs mirrored the 90 minute REM cycles he brain would experience if he was asleep, so his brain was dreaming while he was awake. The last 60 hours or so were only maintained by an administered stimulant. After he hit 200 hours, he crashed out– he reportedly slept 13 hours, 13 minutes.
Like any bad idea, the “Wake-a-Thon” craze spread to other DJs looking to duplicate Tripp’s publicity. Dozens of DJs attempted to beat Tripp’s record in 1959 and into the 60s.
Poor Peter Tripp! As one report notes, “it is often reported that the sleep-deprivation marathon had a long-term effect on his personality.” Tripp view himself as an “imposter,” what I’m interpreting to mean something like a Twin Peaks doppelganger. His marriage (one of four) fell apart shortly after the Wake-a-Thon. The next year, he was also hit for being part of the “payola” scandal, where DJs received money for playing certain songs to make them a hit. His radio DJ career drifted around California and ended up in Ohio before he quit the biz in 1967. He died in 2000 at age 73.
Now I think I’ll go take a nap.
Inglis-Arkell, Esther. “The Sleep Deprivation Publicity Stunt That Drove One Man Crazy,” Gizmodo.com.
tenwatts.blogspot.com, “DJ Marathon Stay-Awake Records.”
Rolls, Geoff. “The Men Who Didn’t Sleep: Peter Tripp and Eric Gardner,” chapter from Classic Case Studies in Psychology.
And this short doc:
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