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Slain in Their Sleep

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Jael and Sisera (1787), James Northcote
"Jael went out to Sisera and said to him, 'Come into my tent, sir. Come in. Don't be afraid.' So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. ... But when Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion, Jael quietly crept up to him with a hammer and tent peg in her hand. Then she drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and so he died."
Judges 4:18, 21, The Bible (New Living Translation)
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People are very vulnerable creatures when they're asleep. Their defenses are down, they usually feel like they're in a safe place. Thus when someone is killed in their sleep, it's portrayed as someone being killed when they're at their most defenseless. Doing so is often the modus operandi of the Dirty Coward, who would be afraid to kill someone when they can fight back — though for particularly powerful enemies such as vampires that may well be suicide to take on at their strongest, it may well be the only way to kill them without risking one's life or those of others.

It can also be used as Paranoia Fuel, as everyone has to sleep at some point, thus everyone (even the viewer) is vulnerable at some point. Often subverted by the killer stabbing a Sleeping Dummy.

This trope is often combined with Vorpal Pillow (since it needs the target to be immobile with their face exposed). This may also be done by a Dream Weaver in cases where Your Mind Makes It Real or the person's dream experience in some way influences the body. This is also one of most frequent uses of Animal Assassin, as getting an animal to attack an active moving person is just plain difficult.

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Subtrope of Kick Them While They Are Down.

Compare Coup de Grâce, Dude, She's Like, in a Coma!, Sitting Duck, and Sickbed Slaying (another way of offing someone when they can't fight back). A good reason to Never Sleep Again. The sister trope of Kidnapped While Sleeping.

Not to be confused with its Sister Trope, Passed in Their Sleep, where someone's death during sleep is portrayed as peaceful and one of the best ways to go. Any examples where a character is injured, falls asleep, and dies from the injury while asleep go there. This is for when characters are targeted when they're asleep. Compare Remote, Yet Vulnerable.

Since this is a Death Trope, beware of spoilers. There will be unmarked spoilers on this page.


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Examples

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    Anime and Manga 
  • Case Closed:
    • There is more than one case where the victim is attacked while they're sleeping, e.g. in a case where Ran is the target for being a potential Spanner in the Works, the killer attacks her when she and Conan are sharing the same bed. Conan manages to wake her up right before the murderer chops her with their axe, however.
    • Subverted in another case, where the culprit tried to kill a teenager in the kid's sleep... but they only stabbed a mannequin that the police had placed there, betting that the killer would try finishing their job.
  • One of Goblin Slayer's favorite tactics for killing goblins, which he uses to clear out a goblin nest with the help of two spells from Dwarf Shaman and Priestess. The two spells combined render the goblins defenseless, and thus easy prey for Goblin Slayer, High Elf Archer and Lizard Priest, avoiding what would otherwise be a difficult battle with a high chance of leaving at least one of the party wounded or worse.
  • An early episode of Mobile Suit Gundam Wing has Wufei attack a military academy during a nighttime raid, blowing up the barracks while most of the cadets were asleep. This incenses the remaining crew on the base, considering it a dirty tactic. Ironically, Wufei is one of the most honorable people in the series, but he considered his mission more important than his honor.
  • In an early episode of Noir Kirika and Mireille have taken a contract in an unnamed Middle Eastern country to kill a powerful warlord and Kirika approaches his bed and shoots him while he's asleep. Except the first shot either didn't do the trick or he wasn't actually asleep at the time, and as she turns away he manages to get off a shot that hits her in the side before she pumps several more into him just to be sure, kickstarting the plot of the rest of the episode as they struggle to escape the country with Kirika wounded.
  • In Sword Art Online, it's mentioned that the dueling rules permit Player Killing even in safe zones; one thoroughly vicious trick is to manipulate a sleeping player into agreeing to a duel via the in-game interface and then murdering them with impunity.

    Comic Books 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise, Zuko mentions multiple attempts to assassinate him while he's slept.
  • Hyacinthe in Dungeon: The Early Years slit the throats of all of his enemies in one page when they are sleeping in the fifth tome "Not A Sound". It's the final step of Hyacinthe dropping his ideology of knighthood and accepting his current status of kingpin.
    Hyacinthe: Thank you, but I think I'll settle this the modern way.
  • Satan himself is killed like this in Hellboy. By Hellboy. And he's not even sure why because he can't remember doing it.
  • Carter Blaine in the first volume of Resident Alien was murdered with a knitting needle while he was asleep.
  • Wonder Woman (1942): Cheetah intends to kill Diana Prince while she's in bed, and comes within inches of plunging a knife into her heart while she sleeps but stops at the last minute. The one she's really pissed at is Wonder Woman and she realizes she has everything she needs to frame Wondy for stealing from a charity for war orphans by sticking the funds she herself stole under Di's bed, and doesn't realize Di is Wondy.

    Fan Works 
  • In Heart of Ashes, Andraya sneaks into the bedchamber of King Wilhelm in the disguise of a maid. Murdering him as well as slicing herself with a knife, she alarms the guards and convinces them with the façade of a hysteric maid that Smaug (or "Cail Agonn" as he's known as) is the murderer and escaped through the servant door she left open. This example is subverted in that Andraya actually wakes Wilhelm up by letting inside cold night air and allows him to spot her right before she slices his throat before he can fully awaken and call out an alarm.
  • Both played straight and subverted in The Peace Not Promised when Voldemort instructs Severus Snape to kill his parents to gain access to his mother's inheritance. Eileen Snape, who has merely been neglectful and cold, dies quietly in her sleep. Tobias Snape, however, who is violently abusive, gets woken from his drunken stupor so he can see his son's face and know what's coming to him before he dies.
  • 221B: "Boy" has Watson telling the Irregulars the story of the Speckled Band. One of them interrupts him to ask if the thing supposed to drop on the bed had killed the sleeping person.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hal 9000 does this to three crew members in hibernation by disabling their life support functions.
  • Dreamscape
    • Tommy Ray is a psychic being trained as a dream assassin. He can enter other people's minds while they're asleep and kill them in their dreams, which causes them to die in real life as well. Early in the film he does this to kill a woman he's supposed to be trying to help.
    • At the end of the movie The Hero Alex does the same thing to the Big Bad to end his threat.
  • Grosse Pointe Blank has the main character (a hitman) attempt this via poisoning, but he botches the mission and has to shoot the now awake target.
  • In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), this is how the pod-people claim the population. A pod is placed near a sleeping human and as the pod sends out tendrils to duplicate that person, the original decomposes into a mulch-like pile. Apparently, the pods aren't specific enough when encountering a homeless man who slept next to his dog for warmth. Near the climax of the movie, the heroes encounter a dog with the man's head attached, frightening one of them into screaming (and blowing their cover of not showing emotions).
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Subverted. We see the Nazgul stabbing what seems to be the Hobbits sleeping in their beds to death. But the Hobbits had filled their bed with straw to make it look like they were in bed, and were hiding somewhere safe.
  • The Nightmare on Elm Street series has this "Cause of Death" for Freddy Krueger's victims.
  • Nobody Sleeps In The Woods Tonight: Zosia takes a machete from the twins' basement, and uses it to stab one of them to death while he's asleep in his bed. He came back to life the night after.
  • In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Chancellor Palpatine relates to Anakin Skywalker the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, who had such fine control of the Force that he could use it to influence the midi-chlorians to create life. He taught almost everything he knew to his apprentice, who then killed him in his sleep. (In the Star Wars Expanded Universe and the still-canon StarWars.com encyclopedia, it's explained that Palpatine himself was the apprentice in question.)
    Palpatine: It's ironic. He could save others from death, but not himself.
  • In the film version of You Only Live Twice James Bond's girlfriend Aki is murdered in her sleep by mistake (they were aiming for Bond). An assassin sneaks into the rafters of their bedroom and lowers a string, then puts a drop of poison on the string to drip down into Bond's mouth; but Bond and Aki both turn over, so poor Aki's mouth is where the string is.

    Literature 
  • In Agatha Christie's books:
    • In And Then There Were None, the second victim was Mrs. Ethel Rogers, who died in her sleep from an overdose of chloral hydrate. This is because she showed regret for the crime she and her husband commited in the past, so the culprit decided to kill her painlessly - the husband didn't share such guilt, so he was murdered in a much more bloody manner.
    • And in Curtain Hercule Poirot drugs Stephen Norton with the sleeping pills in his hot chocolate, then carries him to his room in disguise, sets him on his bed, and fatally shoots him in his sleep so that he may never manipulate any more people into killing each other again.
    • Death on the Nile has the victim shot through the head while asleep.
    • The matriarch in Towards Zero is killed while asleep.
  • In An Outcast in Another World, a young Elven boy attempts this on Rob out a misplaced desire for revenge. It fails miserably as Rob saw this trope coming and stayed awake in case of any would-be assassins. He proceeds to send the boy back home with a few admonishments and a bruised ego.
  • Played for Laughs in several Discworld books where "soon we shall all be murdered in our beds" is used to identify the speaker as a petty, xenophobic and narrow-minded citizen (since it usually involves foreigners to Ankh-Morpork). In Jingo, a very old lady uses the variant "when Klatchians will be ravishing us in our beds", to which Carrot of all people responds "those Klatchians are jolly brave".
    • Played slightly less for laughs in Small Gods with the story of how Didactylos came up with a Sleep Learning program for a king who demanded a "royal road to learning", only for the slave who was supposed to be whispering knowledge into his ear to stick a dagger in it instead.
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Defied in one of the Mage Storms books. A major character is a trained assassin. Some other characters think he doesn't sleep much because of a guilty conscience. The real reason is that as a trained assassin, he knows how easy it is to kill a sleeping person.
  • The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal: Hidden in the house of the highwayman Jokul, Thorstein Ketilsson is so impressed by Jokul's size that he does not dare to attack him until he is fast asleep in his bed. He then skewers him with a sword so "that the sword-tip was stuck in the bed."
  • It's mentioned in Sword Art Online that this was a common method of player-killing in SAO; ordinarily players had to agree to any Player Versus Player fights, but PKers would sneak up on someone who was sleeping, challenge them to a duel to the death, then lift the other player's hand to push the menu button to accept the challenge.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: In the Story Within a Story "The Tale of the Three Brothers", the eldest brother is murdered in his sleep after boasting about how his wand, the Elder Wand, is undefeatable. This shows his folly in trusting the Elder Wand since he can still be killed outside of duels.
  • In The Way Of The Tiger Avenger almost does this to Honoric who only survives through divine intervention.
  • The Worm Ouroboros: When general Corsus believes his soldiers plan to mutiny and put Gallandus in his place, he stabs Gallandus to death in his sleep.
  • In the first book of the X-Wing Series, Imperial forces attacking Rogue Squadron's base in the pre-dawn hours when only a few were awake got into a firefight in one of the barracks where one of the Rogue pilots was killed before having a chance to wake up. It was later revealed to be Lujayne Forge, who was becoming something of the group's Team Mom. The Rogues took her death pretty hard, not only because of that, but because they felt she had been murdered in her sleep, rather than killed in honorable combat.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: Alluded to in this exchange after Londo demands to know why a Narn ship at the station won't just open fire on a Centauri ship:
    Garibaldi: It’s the same guarantee I gave that none of the Narns would break into your quarters in the middle of the night and slit your throat.
    Londo: Mr. Garibaldi, you have never given me that promise!
    Garibaldi: You’re right. Sleep tight.
  • One episode of CSI: Miami had the Victim of the Week die in her sleep at the pool of a luxury hotel when the killer hid a silenced pistol in a stack of towels and went down the line dropping them off, except when he got to her, at which point he put a bullet in the back of her skull then went on without anyone nearby realizing what had happened.
  • In The Last Kingdom, Ragnar the Younger and his lover are killed in their tent while sleeping by dirty coward Æthelwold who would never stood a chance with him in an honest fight. It's a major source of drama, angst and mourning for his wife Brida and his Dane/Saxon brother Uhtred, because he didn't die fighting and his stiff body can't even grasp a weapon and as such, he can't enter Valhalla. They however find a way of fulfilling Due to the Dead and with some seriously impressive quest manage to get him there.
  • MythQuest. Mosaku goes to sleep after telling his apprentice about An Ice Person named Yuki-Onna who lives in the woods. While he's asleep, she comes and sucks his life out, and he doesn't wake up.
  • Stargate Atlantis: The team finds an Ancient warship adrift in deep space with a crew that has been in stasis for 10,000 Years. When they board, they find a Wraith has also gotten onboard, killed one of the slumbering crew and taken her place, tapping into the crew's mental network to try and find out what secrets the ship holds.
  • In Star Trek, there's a Klingon saying: "Four-thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man with a knife."
  • Rick's group in The Walking Dead pull a particularly nasty version when they invade The Saviors' compound.
  • The fifth of the Loving murders, that of Cabot and Isabella Alden, had the elderly couple celebrating their 50th anniversary, lighting the candles given to them as a present, going to bed. . .and never waking up, having been fatally poisoned by the vapors released.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • Classical Mythology
    • The giant Argus had one hundred eyes all over his body and it was said only about half of them closed when he was asleep. Hermes lulled him to sleep with his music and songs, until all of his eyes closed, then decapitated him.
    • Perseus decapitated Medusa in her sleep.
  • Norse Mythology:
    • "Reginsmál" in the Poetic Edda specifies that when Fafnir murdered his father Hreidmar because of Andvari's gold, he did so by stabbing him in his sleep.
    • Völsunga saga: Intending to murder Sigurd, Gutthorm sneaks into Sigurd's bed chamber, but backs down twice because Sigurd is not fully asleep. Only when he finds Sigurd sound asleep, he dares to run him through with a sword.
    • The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok: Urged on by his wife Grima, Aki murders their guest Heimir by striking him with an axe while he sleeps.
  • The Bible has the story of Jael from the Book of Judges. The Israelites were at war with King Jabin of Canaan and his top general Sisera. Deborah, the judge and prophetess who advised Barak, the ruler of Israel at the time, had prophesied that the honor of defeating the enemy army would go to a woman. After the nine hundred iron chariots that gave Sisera the advantage against the Israelites were bogged down by rain and mud, the Canaanites were defeated and Sisera fled, soon finding the tent of Heber, whose household was at peace with Jabin. But Jael, Heber's wife, sympathized with the Israelites because of the twenty years of oppression they had suffered at Jabin and Sisera's hands, and after welcoming Sisera into her tent and getting him to sleep, she drove a tent peg into his temple and through his skull with a workman's hammer and killed him, thus fulfilling Deborah's prophecy and delivering the Israelites from Jabin.

    Music 
  • One of the murders committed in The Beatles' song, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", could have been this.
  • Dwight Yoakam: "Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses)," the title track of his 1989 album, is a Murder Ballad about a young man, embittered by his girlfriend betraying him, tracks her down, finds her at a roadside hotel sleeping next to another man she seduced, and – after pointing the gun at her head – shoots her. "She wore red dresses, but now she lay dead" he muses at the end of the song.
  • The Doors' "The End" has the same theme: James Morrison raps on sneaking into his siblings' and parents bedrooms and...
  • Jim Steinman's "Love And Death And An American Guitar" has the narrator boast of killing his parents in their sleep (under the influence of the Guitar).

    Theater 
  • William Shakespeare was fond of this trope in his plays, especially when someone was being assassinated.
    • Macbeth murders King Duncan in his sleep with a dagger (after getting his guards drunk so he can blame them for it). For this, Macbeth is cursed with insomnia.
    • In Hamlet, Claudius murders the old king (his brother) in his sleep by pouring poison down his ear.
    • Antonio and Sebastian attempt to do this to King Alonso and his adviser, Gonzalo, in The Tempest. Gonzalo is awakened by Prospero's spirit, Ariel, and prevents the murder.
  • Many theater adaptations of Dracula have the title vampire slain in his coffin in the daytime, as it is one of the best ways (if not the only way) to make the stake-through-the-heart method of killing a vampire work.

    Video Games 
  • Can be invoked by the player themselves in many Role-Playing Games. If a player is rather overleveled and puts an enemy to sleep, they could easily bypass the "wake up when hit" rule by one-shotting them. Games with a Back Stab feature usually use it when performing a surprise attack on a sleeping character.
  • Call of Duty:
    • In the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare mission "Crew Expendable", some of the soldiers on board the freighter are asleep in the crew's quarters and get unceremoniously shot up by the infiltrating SAS team.
    • The Call of Duty: Black Ops mission "Victor Charlie" provides an opportunity to use your knife on some sleeping Viet Cong soldiers. It's also in this game that Reznov reveals his father met this sort of fate during the Nazi occupation of Stalingrad.
  • The Deadly Reflex mod for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion alters fights by adding several new combat moves. One of them allows you to perform an One-Hit Kill attack on any sleeping NPC if you are sneaking. Doing it on a neutral or friendly NPC is considered as "murder" by the game's stats.
  • Invoked by Helena Chang at the end of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey: while Zoe Castillo is asleep, saving the world with her dreams, Helena injects her with an overdose of hallucinogenic drugs that put her in a coma from which she isn't supposed to awaken. As Dreamfall Chapters shows, however, even that OD couldn't prevent Zoe the Dreamer from waking up.
  • In Dwarf Fortress, attacks made against unconscious targets are always accurate, and hit with maximum solidity. In an exception to the relative randomness of AI attacks, they will always aim for the head when attacking someone that's out cold. Even if the target has a good enough helmet on.
  • In Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth, Harbingers have a skill called Fatal Reap that inflicts modest physical damage with a chance of a One-Hit Kill. The damage and instant-kill chance increase dramatically if used on a sleeping enemy.
  • Fallout:
    • In Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4, the Mister Sandman perk gives you the option of automatically killing sleeping NPCs instead of pickpocketing them. Fallout 4 changes the 50 Experience Points to +15% for every sneak attack with a silenced weapon (meaning guns only, unless you have the Ninja perk) and goes up to +30% at level 17 and +50% at level 30.
    • In Fallout: New Vegas, a female Courier with the "Black Widow" perk can seduce Benny and kill him in bed after having sex to get the Platinum Chip. Also in New Vegas, the Powder Gangers killed Sheriff McBain of Primm and his wife in their sleep.
  • King's Quest:
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows Link to perform a Critical Hit on any sleeping target, which (assuming that he has a decent weapon equipped) is strong enough to take out all but the toughest enemies in a single hit.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty lets you tranquilize guards, putting them to sleep without you being discovered. If you feel extra cruel, you can shoot them in the head while they're sleeping.
  • Mike Shadow: I Paid for It!: Defied. One of the post-round animations has Mike trying to fall asleep next to the vending machine. An unknown hand behind it tries to stab him, but he wakes up just as he's about to get killed and the hand quickly disappears. The animation then repeats.
  • In Monster Hunter, monsters take extra damage from the hit that wakes them up. Since monsters retreat to a predefined resting place and doze off there when low on health, a common strategy is to wait for the monster to go to sleep, and then finish it off with a Large Barrel Bomb or other burst-damage attack.
  • In Overwatch, Overwatch agent Gérard Lacroix was killed in his sleep by his wife Amélie, who had been turned into a Manchurian Agent by the Talon terrorist organization after they abducted her, suppressed her personality and broke her will and then arranged for her to be found by Overwatch agents and returned to her normal life apparently none the worse for the wear. Once her programming activated she returned to Talon and became the assassin Widowmaker.
    • Also can be done with Ana Amari's sleepy dart gun ability
  • Defied by the Reapers of Mass Effect. It's theorized by several parties that the Reapers hibernate in the Dark Space between the Milky Way and other galaxies. They choose this location because there's little chance of being stumbled upon by other species and destroyed while in their most vulnerable state.
  • Many Shin Megami Tensei games have the Sleep status effect. Some of these games also have the spell Eternal Rest, which instantly kills any opponents who are asleep. And yes, this being SMT, there are enemy demons who will exploit this by having both sleep-inducing spells and Eternal Rest.

    Webcomics 
  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: During his time in a vigilante club, Doc and his club members were attacked by assassins after once of them sold them out. Doc fought off the attackers in his sleep. His friend James wasn't so lucky.

    Western Animation 
  • In Gargoyles, this is the most preferable way to destroy the titular creatures. During the day, they are stone statues and effectively sleeping. Unfortunately, stone can easily be smashed to pieces, not to mention statues can't sense what's about to happen to them or move, meaning that gargoyles are extremely vulnerable if they're not in a safe enough place when the sun comes up.
  • In Hey Arnold! episode "Ghost Bride", in the urban legend story, in response to being jilted by her fiancee on her wedding day in favor of her sister, she got a sharp axe and went to her sister's house, where her sister and her husband where asleep. They never saw the terrible event coming.
  • In the Justice League episode "Only a Dream", Dr. Destiny kills his wife in her dreams and then attempts to murder the League. This is shown to be very brutal, as he essentially tortures her in her sleep until her body can't take the strain.
  • In The Legend of Korra Suyin attempted to assassinate Kuvira in her sleep. Unlucky for her it was a trap. Kuvira had seen this coming and used a double. Suyin and her gang end up captured.

 
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Let sleeping goblins die

Through clever use of two spells, Goblin Slayer and his party avoid a difficult battle.

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