In slumber, anything goes
. In the past year alone I have ridden a roller coaster naked, started a fist fight at Disney World
, married Clark Cable
, got car-jacked in the parking lot
of an elementary school, and made out with George Clooney
. Of course all of this occurred without me rising out of my bed even once. Dreams illustrate the sundrous subject
matter we’ve dealt with in a day as well as present stresses and afore concealed thoughts and desires
. Dreams upholster
our perpetually driving minds with plush images and rich colors, and for many people feel so powerful and so real they often kick themselves for waking up— or scream themselves out of slumber
and switch on the lamp light— simply to make sure that the creature is gone. Dreams, especially those lovely little nighttime jewels
we call nightmares, can make each of us feel more than just “one acquainted with the night
“Oh I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space… were it not that I had bad dreams.” Eloquent words from Hamlet, derived from the emotions everyone feels when the sheep we are counting grow fangs. For years I have studied my dreams because I find them incredibly powerful and sometimes overwhelming. Especially nightmares. Captivated and perplexed by the dreaming process, I marvel that a dream can begin fairly ordinary and within seconds turn into a plausible plot line for a David Lynch film. To envisage myself as a heroin addict experiencing withdrawal or as someone caught in a world of dinosaurs is disturbing, dream or not. Our subconscious is a bizarre portion of our brain, and instead of waking up in the morning and scoffing with, “Oh, it was just a bad dream,” by analyzing our nightmares I believe we can learn more about ourselves.
First of all, there has been a change of meaning in the term “nightmare.” Originally this referred to actual demons that frightened a sleeper during the night, better known as incubus (male demons) and succubus (female demons.) “Mara” originally meant demon to the Anglo Saxons. Dreams at this time were considered very intriguing; the Egyptians tried to interpret their dreams and Aristotle believed they suggested illness. But it wasn’t until the twentieth century that real studies about dreams were finally done. Freud believed that dreams were full of “latent content,” which meant that everything within a dream was somehow symbolic of sexual desire. These ideas were eventually dropped and replaced with new theories from people such as Carl Jung, who believed that dreams were full of symbols and underlying meaning, but that it was not necessarily sexual.
More recently new theories have been introduced. Psychologist Irving Yalom says that the emotions an individual experiences from a dream are what is important and not the actual content. Jenny Katz, a clinical psychology graduate student at The University of Georgia, told me that nightmares are different in a child than in an adult. “Nightmares without any special meaning are usually present in kids,” she said. “In adults, nightmares are the brains attempt to process an experience you can’t do or incorporate well on a conscious level.”
Generally, people tend to have only a couple of nightmares a year, but those who are especially sensitive can have them much more often. However, on the positive side, nightmares have turned out to be incredibly useful when it comes to artistic creativity. Writers such as Henry James, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Louis Stevenson are said to have been greatly inspired by their nightmares. Russian writer Dostoevsky made ample usage of his dreams and nightmares in famous novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov. Goya’s famous paintings of cannibalism, where mythic men were gruesomely depicted eating their children, were inspired by the nightmares he had during a severe illness. But on the other hand, nightmares have recently have been traced to signs of pathology as well, according to psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann.
Recurring nightmares in adults can often relate to horrifying events in someone’s past, according to Katz. “Nightmares like these usually relate to symptoms linked to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” she said. “These are often victims of abuse and rape, or bad things the individual just can’t face in reality.”
I wondered if the idea that physical objects in dreams were symbolic of future events had any validity. Katz told me they were not true, but then I wondered why books upon books with names such as Dreams and Their Symbols line the shelves of libraries and bookstores? I decided to look up the word “tornado” in one of these books, because images of tornadoes wreaking havoc on me and my family and friends is a common nightmare I have. Working my way through the libraries’ shelves of books about dreaming, I found a small but thick “Dream Symbol” book and looked it up. Tornado: You will be filled with disappointment and perplexity over the miscarriage of studied plans for swift attainment of fortune. Okay. We’ll see.
But I think I’m more prone to believe that these nightmares come from a simple fact: I have an abominable fear of tornadoes.
Battling This Heart of Darkness
What can we do to relieve ourselves of nightmares? There are ways of relieving them and helping those of us who suffer from them on a regular basis sleep easier. To further analyze my specific problems, I want to examine a specific type of nightmare I’ve been having for over a decade now. Maybe five times a year, I have disturbing dreams about Armageddon. None of the nightmares are the same; sometimes I’ll dream about the apocalyptic ending suggested in the bible where Jesus returns, and sometimes I might dream of an annihilating nuclear war. Virtually every time I dream about the world ending, I awake with a terrible emotion of helplessness and hopelessness.
Since Yalom said that emotions are the most important thing about a dream, I want to understand why I have this particular type of nightmare so often, and also why they leave me feeling so terrible. In order to deconstruct a particular dream, here is an example of one I wrote down in February of 1997:
In this dream we (me and my friends) were all on the highest floor of a business building in the city, and we looked out a huge window to see the sky turning all these crazy colors and everyone in the streets running around like mad. Something came out of the sky and we all realized that it was supposed to be Jesus. He was coming to lead people into heaven. He flew into our building, took the hands of an elderly couple, and began to leave. I suddenly became distressed and asked if he would take me as well. He smiled and took my hand. But when he was about to take off, he turned to me (reading my past through my hand) and said that I could not yet go. This made me very upset and I just watched him fly back into the clouds.
In this particular dream I think it shows that I was primarily concerned with my death, and what will become of me in the afterlife. Thinking more about it, I realized that I could trace these fears to the religious pressures I’ve had from some family members while growing up, because the fact that I don’t attend church often makes me feel somewhat guilty— especially on a subconscious level. Perhaps it also shows my guilt over my past as well, and my worries of what the consequences of it might bring. And above all else, I think this dream as well as most of my Armageddon nightmares demonstrate my deeply imbedded fear of lack of control. After all, who can control the end of the world? I think the fear of tornadoes fits in quite well here, too. I’ve discovered that my nightmares about tornadoes tend to be most prevalent during times of great stress in my life. Tornadoes are a great symbol for lack of control- and when I feel I have little control over what’s going on in my life, the fear takes on a funnel shape in my sleep.
Since nightmares can be most prominent during times of stress, relaxing before sleep may help tremendously. I talked to Jenny Katz about another type of nightmare I often have. I used to have a terrible step-mother who treated me and my sister very cruelly while we were growing up. She is no longer in our lives, but occasionally she shows up in my slumber and ruins the night. Katz said that it can often help someone to confront a person they are having difficulties with in a dream, if possible, but when it comes to facing my ex-stepmother in reality today, that’s just not going to happen. Ultimately it all depends on each person whether or not they should confront someone about something that is bothering them. As for myself, I plan on trying to confront that former step-mother only in my dreams- in the real world I wouldn’t want to step foot in the same county she is in, much less speak to her.
There are other ways of dealing with nightmares. One good idea is to confront all of your general fears before going to sleep. While in bed, go over in your mind any current problems you might be dealing with, acknowledge any basic phobias or worries you are aware of, and then tell yourself to have happy dreams. Several friends of mine I have discussed the topic with do this, and I’ve found it helpful over the years also.
Some people who can actually control their dreams while they are experiencing them. A “lucid dreamer” can turn any sort of bad situation into a good one. Lucid dreaming came about in order to aid in combating nightmares, and today there are even supposed cults of lucid dreamers around the world. Virtually anyone can learn how to lucid dream with practice, although some people are just better at it then others. I’ve been able to do it a few times myself, but with only minimal results. However, sometimes a strange thing will happen to me when I try to dream lucidly. I’ll be in a nightmare and I’ll attempt to conjure up something good, but my own fear of being out of control takes over and winds up bringing in the complete opposite of what I wished for. For example, if I tried to conjure up a sweet little rabbit, a gargantuan rabbit with enormous bloody claws will arrive instead.
There are also myths about dreaming as well. Many claim that eating certain foods such as bananas or chocolate before bed can induce nightmares. This is not true. However, alcohol and other drugs have been known to cause nightmares or to disturb the entire sleep pattern in general.
Till Human Voices Wake Us…
With television and movies as they exist today, complete with incredible graphics and technology, we have come a long way in our conscious imaginations. But I think we have evolved in our dreams as well. I’ve done no studies of my own, but I believe that our dreams (and nightmares) today reflect our rising culture by expanding visually, and I think our creative spark is driven by that unfathomable section of our mind we call the subconscious. There is an abyss here that we will never get to the bottom to, but by examining what rises to the surface we can recognize the full power of the dreaming process. Seeing as there is an abundance of information out there about our dreams and our nightmares, known and unknown, I’m sure I could write about all of this plenty more. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.
Taken from an article I wrote for a magazine writing class in 1998.