Synaptic History of Halloween Part 16: Behind the Wall of Sleep, the Nightmare in the Human Experience

“But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me”
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Pains of Sleep

Long before the first monster movie matinees or the terror of the Gothic novel, even before humans first transcribed their greatest fears upon the walls of pre-historic cave dwellings, the most fearsome horror stories of all were played on the screens of our ancestors’ mental movie theaters. These nighttime horror features must have been made up of the fears that are universal among human beings, but they would have also been tailored to the unique consciousness of the those who experienced them. The tales were told in the strange world of sleep that defies human logic and reason. And of course, we continue to experience them today. You may or may not purposely subject yourself to scary movies or ghost stories around the fire, but it is almost certain that you have experienced the involuntary horror film that is the nightmare.

Given the content of much of my writing here, you would probably be unsurprised to learn that my childhood was littered with nightmares. When I was very young I had recurring dreams about a giant spider, bigger than my house who stalked through my neighborhood, looking in the through the windows with its multiple eyes. My mother held me tight in a hiding space on the side of her bureau whispering to me not to move or one of those hideous orbs would turn to me. A few years later, I met a green-skinned man with long claws who chased me through a house with endless hallways and no escape. In another dream, a dreadful old woman watched me from the shadows as I played on the floor with my blue plastic van. Eventually, she tired of watching and reached out to pull me into the darkness. Around the age of ten I had my most frightening nightmare that found me staying on the second floor of a secluded inn. While my family slept around me I went to the window to see the source of a noise outside and caught a glimpse of someone rummaging around in a dilapidated garage. After watching for what seemed like hours, the person turned and walked towards the inn. As she stepped into the moonlight I could see evil in her eyes and a shotgun in her hands. She cocked the slide back and marched towards us just as I woke up stifling a scream. These scenarios may or may not be scary to you, but my arms are covered with goosebumps as I type them. After all, these were horror stories written and directed by my own brain, and no novelist or film director knows better how to craft a scene perfectly tailored to terrify me.

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” etching by Francisco Goya, 1797-1799.

I have often pondered how evolving minds have learned to differentiate the sensations that occur in sleep from those when awake. There was a time before Homo sapiens, the nomadic hunter that conquered the Earth, had not yet learned to use language and thus was unable to define abstract concepts and share them with friends or family. Clearly between the process of transformation from simply a very smart ape to a very smart ape that speaks, dreams were occurring regularly and universally long before human beings had the linguistic tools to define them. This almost certainly left a mark on our history. Pioneering anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor has suggested that the bulk of supernatural religious beliefs were born out of the fact that human beings dream. He was echoed by Herbert Spencer who hypothesized that the idea of a soul that is separate from our bodies must have seemed the only possibility considering the fact that we all take journeys to indescribable alternate worlds when we sleep.

These claims will remain forever hypothetical, but the available evidence does suggest that dreams – and by extension, nightmares – have been at the center of the human drama from the earliest of times. Across the Americas, native peoples believed in some version of a spider spirit or deity that served primarily a protective role. The northern Ojibwe believed in spider grandmother named Asibikaashi who weaved a protective web over humanity to keep out evil magic, witch spells, and nightmares. This legend is the source of the popular dreamcatcher that people continue to hang in their homes in hopes of keeping bad dreams at bay. In the Abenaki creation story, the Great Spirit grew tired of the blackness of the void and got to creating a cosmos to fill in the darkness, only he worked too hard and fell asleep. He had a terrible nightmare about a cosmos full of chaos and disorder, or maybe it was a beautiful dream about an endless variety of creatures and landscapes. Either way, when he awakened he realized he’d dreamt the world into existence, for better or worse.

Most Australian aboriginal peoples shared a creation tale that has come to be known as “The Dreaming”.  The cosmology of native Australians is rich and complex, but to oversimplify a bit, it posited that reality once existed in a void, sort of like The Nothing from The Neverending Story until the land, water, animals and people were all willed into existence by spirit ancestors who dreamed it into being. There is a very rich body of tales set during this formative period that speaks to a vast number of ways of imagining the human condition. That condition being what it is, some of the ancestors dreamed up monsters. The dark nights in the outback of Australia are filled with creatures born of these primordial nightmares; ogres, vampire-like blood-suckers, and vicious cannibals who live under the ground waiting for unlucky victims to stumble into their domains. Nightmares often visited those who slept snuggly in their dwellings because monsters from the wilderness pulled their sleeping spirits into the outback where they might remain forever if they could not find their way home.

Mamu, underground dwelling, shape-shifting cannibals who were born on the dark side of the Dreaming according to Australian folklore. Painting by Nura Rupert, 1933

Many things changed when humans began to build more complex civilizations and to sever ties with the whims of nature. They created cities and systems of writing, new technologies and social hierarchies. They didn’t, however, stop dreaming once they fell asleep. Often, those dreams were scary. The belief in spirits that animated the world didn’t go away either and they continued to haunt people’s slumber.

The people of ancient Mesopotamia saw dreams as vehicles of divine communication from the gods. The Sumerian king, Gudea, rebuilt the temple of Lagash after receiving a message in a dream. Gilgamesh frequently dreams in the epic ancient tale of his adventures, foreseeing for example, a nightmare journey in which he visited the underworld. In this he was not alone, Mesopotamian children had nightmares, too, and given the stakes of the dreamworld in the collective imagination, these could be deadly. The nightmare was not just something that could frighten, it was often considered an attack by demonic spirits called Alû, who might serious harm his victims leaving some in comas and others to never wake again. Echoing the prayer I heard as a child, “Now I lay me down to sleep,”  children in Sumeria petitioned the god Nusku asking for protection from nightmares:

So may the evil (portended by) this dream,
Which was brought to me in the evening, midnight,
or morning watch,
Not overtake me

Charm bowl.jpg
Ceramic incantation bowl from Mesopotamia. The Aramaic inscription is a charm to ward off nightmares, circa 6th-8th century CE.

Dating back five thousand years, ancient Egyptian glyphs highlighted the belief that the aspect of the soul known as Ba could leave the body at night to go on strange journeys. Some of these journeys could be perilous. Amenherkhepshef, the twelfth century BCE Egyptian prince, saw the danger  and kept with him a spell book that included numerous incantations to protect against spirits invading in the form of nightmares. According to an apocryphal, but nonetheless telling belief, the modern word “lullaby” comes from the Hebrew term, “Lilith-Abi” (“Lilith be gone!”) in response to the nighttime demon of Sumerian origin who might creep into the infant’s room at night to steal its soul. Consequently, amulets and other items meant to ward off Lilith and other evil spirits might be found hanging on walls or buried under the home’s foundations. Nightly readings of spells or incantations were common in the ancient world, particularly for children who would not sleep easily. The lullaby then served as part prayer for protection, and part threat to the infant not to awaken the creatures of the nightmare realm. One Babylonian lullaby let’s the baby know:

You have disturbed the household god,
the bison(-monster) has woken, (saying),
‘Who disturbed me? Who startled me?’
The little one disturbed you, the little one startled you.
‘As onto drinkers of wine, as onto tipplers,
Let sleep fall upon him.’

In ancient Chinese tradition, dreams were an important mode of understanding the spirit world and the imperial court retained many officials with ability to interpret dreams who were just as important to the ruler as national security or domestic policy advisers are to a president today. According to traditional Chinese medicine, nightmares could be caused by poor nutrition or internal physical imbalance, but as dream worlds were considered parallel realities, they could also be glimpses into other dimensions, including dark ones. The poet Wang Yen-shou composed a poem in the second century offering incantations to use against dream demons. The Confucian book, “Rites of Zhou” divided dreams into six types, including the emeng, or nightmare and gave dire warnings as how to navigate these treacherous experiences. The Japanese dream creature, baku originated in China and was made of leftover pieces of other animals after creation. Japanese children (and adults) would call out to the baku should they be visited by nightmares and it would come to eat the monsters who haunted them there. One had to be careful though, because the baku could continue to eat even our more beneficial dreams leaving the unlucky among us as soulless husks.

“Baku” by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

The Greek world was steeped in dreams and they played an important role in religious and narrative purposes. The lord of the realm of dreams was the deity Morpheus son of Hypnos the god of sleep. Morpheus could take on any shape as befitting one who crafts an infinite number of fantasies every single night, but his true form was that of a frightening black winged demon. He and his siblings were known as the Oneiroi or “Dreams”. One of his brothers Phobetor, from whom our word “phobia” comes, was the god who brought nightmares. He was also called Icelos which means “semblance” likely due to the fact that he took the guise of any type of monster or dangerous animal he thought most effective for scaring a particular sleeper. His power was irresistible, but those who suffered from nightmares might reduce their power by putting bread under their pillows or if available they might ingest the legendary herb ephialton to heal from chronic nightmares.

Wing-headed statue of Hypnos, the god of sleep and father of Phobetor the bringer of nightmares, circa 350- 200 BCE

Dreams – frightening or not – play a major role in the development of all the largest religious traditions on Earth. The Bible is replete with stories of dreams. Joseph, gained favor with Pharaoh by interpreting the ruler’s dreams and Daniel’s apocalyptic dreams include nightmare visions of terrible monsters arising from the sea to swallow up the entire Earth. Baby Jesus was saved from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents when an angel of God visited Joseph his, er, foster dad in a dream to warn him to flee the carnage. For Buddhists, material existence is something of a nightmare from which they are called to awaken. Their Dharma, or religious path was discovered because the Buddha was able to resist the temptations of Mara, the demon who is dedicated to maintaining our waking nightmare and whose name may be connected linguistically to the creature in Germanic tradition who delivered bad dreams to people (and whom we’ll meet more intimately in short order).

In later western European tradition, dreams were gifts from a mysterious character known as The Sandman who delivered stories to children by sprinkling magic dust in their eyes that brought them pleasant dreams. In Hans Christian Anderson’s short story, “Ole Lukoie” he tells of a Nordic version of the sandman who pours milk into the eyes of children and then sits down to read them tales that become their dreams. Though usually considered a benevolent figure, the great German fantasist, E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1802) presented the legend in a more sinister light in his classic nightmare tale, “The Sandman“. In the story, a young man is tormented by the nighttime figure who is

“a wicked man, who comes to little children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody; and he puts them into a bag and takes them to the half-moon as food for his little ones”

der sandman
“The father welcomes Coppelius (The Sandman)” illustration by E.T.A. Hoffman, 1815

Nightmares could be viewed as many things; as visitations from evil spirits, warnings of danger, punishment for sins, but they could also have very real physical effects as well, both in the imagination and in reality. In Borneo there was a traditional belief that a strange monkey creature brought nightmares, often so bad that they could cause miscarriage. In Indian lore there is a handsome man who might enter dreams and bring the dreamer leprosy upon awaking. According to Filipino tradition sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS) – a fatal condition that strikes people while they sleep – was caused by a creature called a Batibat, a demon who took the form of an obese old woman who sat atop unfortunate dreamers and suffocated them to death. The incubus a male demon who attacks sleeping women and its female counterpart, the succubus were responsible for nighttime attacks that produced erotic dreams. Often there were dire consequences to these; they caused the sufferer to wear down physically or even become pregnant. Unwanted pregnancies were often attributed to these horny devils and in some cases evil people might be conceived as a union between these demons and their unwilling victims.

Probably the most terrifying affects of nightmares is a condition called sleep paralysis, a frightening disorder that occurs during the time either immediately before falling asleep or right after waking. Our muscles naturally relax during sleep an energy saving process called atonia, but on rare instances we remain awake while our brains still have us in sleep mode rendering a sufferer unable to move or speak. Often this is accompanied by hallucinations, dreams of a sort that cross the barrier into the waking world. The 2015 documentary The Nightmare profiled the lives of several people suffering from sleep paralysis along with horrifying reenactments of some of their most vivid experiences. These otherwise normal people reported seeing, hearing, and feeling a malevolent presence in their rooms with them in the form of aliens, demons, and shadowy men while they lie immobilized. Their accounts give a really strong picture of a horror that must seem so real and a condition that no doubt accounts for the folkloric monsters and protective charms and lullabies that people of the past have invented. Frankly, I can imagine how people suffering from this disorder who have no inclination to believe in witches, vampires, or zombies, might easily embrace the existence of some otherworldly entity haunting their sleep.

Recreation of a shadow man that haunts the nightmares of a victim of chronic sleep paralysis from the 2015 documentary, The Nightmare.

Many of the monsters of folklore, particularly those that attacked at night, were undoubtedly born of this condition. In Turkey and other parts of the Muslim world the semi-demonic creatures known as djinn or the fully demonic shaytan (a sort of small “s” Satan) were believed to sit on the chests of dreamers and both paralyze and terrify their victims. In Central Asia and Iran, the same condition was the work of a ghost called a bakhtak  which was very similar to the Thai spirit, Phi Am or Chinese guǐ yā shēn. In parts of India an invisible being called a pasikdhar resides in every home unseen and unnoticed unless the residents fail to adequately attend to their religious obligations in which case the monster will attack them in their sleep. In Spain, a pesanta, a supernaturally large black dog comes to sit on the chest of dreamers.

In many parts of Africa sleep paralysis was the result of black magic and many who suffered from nightmares covered themselves with healing herbs for protection or blocked their doors with a spear to keep out the witch responsible for their affliction. African folklore that traveled to the United States via the slave trade brought with it a similar creature known as the Night Hag, a witch-like spirit who sat upon the sleeper and rode her like a horse through the nightmare realm on what was called a “hag-ride” or “witch-ride”. There were similar ideas that floated around Europe during the years of witch-hunts and in fact much of the evidence used against the accused was based on alleged nighttime visits made to their victims. It’s probably also true that some confessions were made by those who seemed to have genuinely believed that they had taken night journeys to attend witch’s sabbaths and to sign their names in blood on the pages of the devil’s book. It is highly possible that many of the tens of thousands hanged or burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft died as a result of their own or their accusers’ experience of hallucination during bouts of sleep paralysis.

The Erlking, illustration by Albert Sterner, 1910 based on the 1782 poem “Erlkönig” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about an evil nighttime spirit that rides off with an abducted child.

The German answer to the problem of sleep paralysis was a dread creature from which the very word “nightmare” is derived. In traditional lore of the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and other Germanic peoples dreams came in many varieties. There were those that came as divine messages and others that were just plain draumskrok or “dream-nonsense”. There were bad dreams, unsettling sleep experiences that might as likely have been caused by bad food or too much mead as from evil spirits. But nightmares were another category altogether. They came to the unlucky from an invisible demon called a mara (or mare) that sat upon an unfortunate sleeper’s chest and brought with it dreams of utter terror.

Growing up, I took the term nightmare to be a related to the name for a female horse, presumably a black one. This was undoubtedly influenced by my constantly reading Piers Anthony’s pun-laden Xanth fantasy series, particularly the novel entitled Night Mare about, well, a black horse that delivers nightmares. This confusion is understandable given what I’ve already written above about “hag-rides” and that horses were often used in nightmare imagery. In Norse mythology the monster who delivered bad dreams had a horse head and the most important piece of art that popularized the original “bad dream monster” of German folklore was Henry Fussieli’s iconic painting featuring one of these sleep demons entitled, The Nightmare. It just also happens to feature a black horse. The mara did ride the dreamer like a horse and sometimes rode into the dreams of its victims on the back of a supernatural equine of some sort, but the words for “mare” (horse) and “mara” (nightmare demon) are actually etymologically distinct.  As you may remember I wrote earlier that “mara” is related to the Indian god of death and delusion from Buddhist folklore both of which are related to the ancient Indo-European word “mer”, meaning to die or cause harm. In some German-speaking regions, the demon was also known as an “alp” which is related to our word “elf”, a fact that I’ll explore elsewhere that should clue us into the fact that the traditional elves of folklore were not necessarily Tolkienesque nor were they liable to have cute names like “Herbie” or “Buddy”.


Two versions of Henry Fussieli’s painting The Nightmare both of which feature both the demon-creature and a black horse. Top: The 1781 original and Bottom: A second version he painted in 1790.

Whatever its name, the creature slipped in silently through the keyhole of its victim’s bedroom and delivered terrible dreams while draining away the life force of the dreamer. This helped explain the exhaustion felt by the mara’s victim the next morning. In other traditions, the person was wiped out simply due to the fact he or she had taken a long journey through the deepest and darkest parts of dream country. Often the victim would catch a brief glimpse of the monster while awakening, especially if they remained frozen because of sleep paralysis. The mara held on tight while riding, sometimes yanking on the sleeper’s hair which could account for the snarly locks they would encounter in the morning that were sometimes called “mare braids”. Mara could even be sent as a curse from a hostile witch. In the Norse Ynglinga Saga, the Swedish king Vanlandi was killed by a sorceress named Huld who lulled him to sleep and then set a mara upon him to ravage his sleeping body to death.

The appearance of the mara is largely undefined, and probably varied from place to place (and dreamer to dreamer) but in Wendisch-Buchholz region of Germany there was a similar creature called a murraue, who could be disguised as a human. Anyone, male or female, whose eyebrows were connected often drew suspicion, especially if they were born on a Monday. In some traditions, the demon was born into a human family and rode its victims unknown even to itself.  Any family with seven sons or daughters would have a nightmare demon for one of its children. One telltale sign that a mara had visited a home was a nearby tree had been marked by spiky growths called witch-besom that were an indication that the creature had perched there recently.

Frontispiece to the book, Look into the dream and spirit world. Tales and facts of the night side of nature, about dreams, hunches, vampires and the specter of the Alpes by Friedrich Voigt, 1854.

In Northern European lore, sage could be burnt and the hearth kept lit to keep witches out. The ground might be salted to force vampires to count grains and distract them. Crosses would be hung to ward off spirits and werewolves were kept at bay by growing wolf’s bane. The demonic mara, however was harder to keep out. Children sang lullabies at night in hopes of keeping them away and it was wise to block off keyholes and other cracks from which one might enter the room.

People went to great lengths in order to protect themselves from the mara. They tried to eat diets rich in protein or fat, shaved their heads, and even made cuts in their ankles or throats to bleed themselves, presumably to deprive the monster of anything to suckle on. Placing a crucifix or other holy item under a pillow or under the bed might help. As recently as the 1930s, Pennsylvania Dutch antique dealers regularly found hexzettel, charms meant for protection against witches sewn into beds and sofas. More simply, one could hope to confuse the creature by swapping left and right slippers or shoes, or hanging bricks crosswise on the outside of the barn or house or leaving an upside down broom by the door. Nurses were advised to make the sign of a cross when changing a baby, lest the mara claim the child. In a story from Buhl, Germany a cabinetmaker plagued by terrible dreams recruited a friend to watch him as he slept. When a mara snuck into his room disguised as a cat, the friend caught it and nailed its paw to the floor. When he awoke there was a beautiful woman in the cat’s place. He married the mara and it bore him several children.

Hidden incantation found in a barn in Berk’s County, c. 1827. Charms like these were placed around their property by Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants to protect against everything from bad harvests, to witchcraft, to nightmares.

Of all the areas of human life, I have to believe that dreaming is the one that most stubbornly hangs onto its superstitious accretions. Our journeys to the other side of sleep are strange, nonsensical, and often frightening, but for all intents and purposes some part of us has actually experienced them on some level. But we have come along way in discovering the natural explanations for our dreams.

Scientific search for explaining dreams goes back at least to ancient Greece. Plato believed that dreams were a form of wish fulfillment and repressed acts of depravity became nightmares. In his book On Dreams Aristotle theorized that dreaming was caused by movement of sensory organs during sleep, nightmares, he suggested, might be connected to indigestion. Hippocrates compared the causes of seizures to those of nightmares. In both cases, he believed excess blood flowed through the brain to create these undesirable effects. The second century soothsayer. Artemidorus Daldianus wrote a five-volume book Oneirocritica that discussed the meaning of certain nightmare symbols and how best to interpret them in relation to the dreamer. Similar attempts to understand the nature of dreams beyond their almost universal assumption of divine origin were sporadic at best until the eighteenth century when Dr. John Bond’s 1753 “Essay on on the Incubus, or Nightmare” reviewed the mythic history of the various types of “night riders” that were really caused, he believed, by a stagnation of the blood.

Alfred Maury, a nineteenth century physician, took a great interest in dreams from a young age as he had always been a vivid dreamer with an especially strong ability to recall the contents of his nightly sojourns. For Maury, dreams were essentially the brain’s response to external stimuli, especially during hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, that is the brief connector zones we inhabit as we are falling asleep and waking up. He recounted for example, an instance in which a piece from his headboard fell loudly at his side prompting him to dream that he was brought before a French Revolutionary tribunal, found guilty, strapped into a guillotine, and separated from his head. Any of us who has ever dreamt of a ringing phone only to wake up to the sound of a real phone ringing can certainly vouch for at least some validity to Maury’s hypothesis. This wasn’t so different from the ideas presented by ancient Greek thinkers, but Maury systematically studied the issue by having research assistants tickle him with feathers, various sounds, and holding a candle to his toes to see what effects they would have on his dreamland experiences.

Alfred Maury (1817-1892)

Maury influenced the work of Sigmund Freud. Born in Vienna in 1856, the father of psychoanalysis offered the first modern insight into the meaning of our nighttime journeys in his 1900 book The Interpretation of Dreams. In it, he argued that dreams were the mind’s way of enacting repressed desires, particularly sexual ones. He believed that one of the most important ways of viewing the content of the unconscious mind was through examining the contents of a patient’s dreams to see what they revealed about his or her neuroses. Nightmares, then were an extension of this human tendency and pointed to a particularly high level of anxiety that was probably related to – as you may have already guessed – sex.

Freud’s most famous student, Carl Jung, departed from his view of the nature of dreams. For Jung, our individual unconscious is connected to a collective unconscious that contained the vast body of shared human experience in the form of archetypes, i.e. recurring symbols that represent universal human experience. As a result, the world’s similar mythological themes were born out of a collective memory of humanity’s shared dramas. Of course, much of the human narrative is less a drama than a horror, and Jung accounted for this, calling the dark side of our collective experience “the shadow”. It was in this place, the shared mental storage facility for our common fears and hatreds where our nightmares emerged. The undead, the things that haunted our forests and basements, and the malevolent misshapen monsters and devils that live in our folktales and Gothic literature were born in this realm. The lesser known Ernest Jones, another of Freud’s disciples published the extremely influential book On the Nightmare in 1910 in which he argues that our terrifying dreams arise out of an internal civil war between our deepest desires and our instinct to repress them.

The shadow of Count Orlock from the 1922 film, Nosferatu.

In 1953 Eugene Aserinsky published an influential paper describing the phenomenon of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and the implications it had for dreaming. It had been obvious to the most primitive man that a sleeping person whose eyes were moving quickly under their lids was probably dreaming, but Aserinsky’s work opened up a new field of study into the nature of sleep and dreaming, and of course, nightmares. We have since learned that we cycle through a series of sleep stages in which our bodies and brains behave differently. About ninety minutes after we fall asleep, we enter the fourth stage of this cycle in which REM sleep occurs. It is the time in which most of our dreaming occurs and about eighty percent of dream recall happens. In total, each of us spends about two hours each night dreaming. These studies have shifted the focus of dreaming away from the psychoanalytical idea that it is a coherent and meaningful process to the increasingly consensus view among sleep researchers that dreams have more to do with an interplay between sense perception and biochemical processes that we don’t yet fully understand. The narrative and meaning we “find” in our dreams is that which we apply to them, especially as the memory of our sleep-time imagery begins to slip away upon awakening.

On a physiological level, nightmares don’t work differently than dreams in general, but  they occur most frequently on the waking-sleeping cusp and appear to me more prevalent with those under stress and can be triggered by particular medications. Those suffering from PTSD tend to be more susceptible to the effects of nightmares and other medical conditions can increase our tendency to dream and by extension to have more nightmares. Certain medications can cause longer periods of REM sleep as can having a a high body temperature, hence the term “fever dream“.

REM graph.jpg
Graph showing the brain’s movement through stages of sleep. Orange-shaded areas are approximate time we spend dreaming. Source: Introduction to Psychology ,1st Canadian edition by Charles Stangor and Jennifer Walinga,

It is an open question as to whether we dream for a specific purpose, to work out stress or fear for example, or if dreaming is simply an emergent property of complex brains and simply happens as random neural activity continues without the benefit of sense stimuli. Nightmares in particular open a window into this question and recent studies have shown that nightmares might have arisen for a specific evolutionary purpose. The “threat simulation theory” suggests that those who suffer from nightmares, are in some ways strengthening their ability to react to waking-world dangers. Children are much more likely to have nightmares, especially between the ages of three and six and this is an indicator that they might be training to become adults who survive in a dangerous world. Research has shown that children who are experiencing trauma of war, poverty, or abusive households tend to have more nightmares. So yes, that bogeyman haunting your slumber may have come to help you learn how better fight back against saber-tooth tigers and enemy tribes, or maybe to prepare you for that big math exam or the crippling debt hanging over your head.

Whatever science eventually learns about their purpose, history has shown that dreams matter. Without them, Handel would not have finished The Messiah. Beethoven dreamed up many of his sonatas, some say with instruments not yet invented. Without dreams Paul McCartney would not have written “Yesterday” nor would Keith Richards have ever strummed the chords to “Satisfaction”. Einstein claims to have come upon his formula for mass-energy equivalence (popularly known as E=MC²) in a dream and James Watson dreamed of two wound snakes that inspired him to discover the double helix shape of DNA strands. Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the periodic table of elements while sleeping and Otto Loewi first imagined how synapses fired while in slumber. Srinivasa Ramanujan the Indian genius who found answers to the most insoluble mathematical problems with almost no formal training, claimed that his theories were delivered to him in his dreams by the goddess Namagiri. And I would not have any of this information at my fingertips had Google founder, Larry Page not first imagined his search engine while slumbering away.

Nightmares, too, have made contributions to culture, particularly if you are a fan of horror fiction. It’s hard to put a finger on the beginning of horror fiction, but you could do worse than pointing to an early nineteenth century novel about a vengeful reanimated corpse. Mary Shelley wrote in an introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein in which she described the genesis of her story:

When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think… I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…

She included similar dreams as important aspects of the novel’s narrative. Several times Victor Frankenstein experiences terrible dreams of death of loved ones at the hands of the creature he’s created. In his own sleep he is haunted by the consequences of his actions:

“But sleep did not afford me respite from thought and misery; my dreams presented a thousand objects that scared me. Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of night-mare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck, and could not free myself from it”

If Shelley’s creation seems unusually surrounded by nightmares, they were very much a part of the Gothic sensibility that preceded her book and that which was to follow. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft had a very unusual platonic affair with Henry Fuseli the painter who had catapulted the nightmare into the forefront of Gothic literature with his iconic painting that I discussed above.

Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) Frankenstein’s bride to be sleeps uneasily after a waking nightmare encounter with the monster her beloved has created in the 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein.

The wave of Gothic novels that followed Frankenstein helped set the tone for the formation of the modern horror genre. The nineteenth century was a golden age for horror fiction. It was also a similarly important time for opium. During an era when the opium-based painkiller laudanum was in wide use it became known by writers as a dream-inducing agent. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the epic poet most famous for penning Rime of the Ancient Mariner wrestled with both nightmares and a beast of an opium addiction. The poet held these two to be closely related. He claimed to have written his poem Kubla Khan appropriately subtitled, A Vision in a Dream almost entirely under the influence of an opium-induced nightmare. His close friend, Charles Lamb envied his vivid nightmare imagery and the creativity it induced in the essay, “Witches and Other Night-Fears” a tract that looked at the relationship between the imagination and night terrors.

Opium wasn’t the only substance that might inspire writers to dream up terrifying imagery. Ann Radcliffe was said to eat rare pork chops at night before going to bed in hopes that they would inspire her to dream up scary story ideas. Bram Stoker’s son, Irving suggested that Dracula was born “in a nightmarish dream after eating too much dressed crab.” Robert Louis Stevenson found similar inspiration when writing his fiction. One night he had a terrible dream in which he witnessed a man ingest some mysterious white powder that turned him into a monster. His subsequent screaming forced his wife to wake him. Stevenson was angry about the interruption, telling his wife he was “….dreaming a fine bogey tale.” That bogey tale became one of the most influential horror novels of all time just a few months later when the author published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.  Hyde.

Edgar Allen Poe was a notorious opium addict and alcoholic so who can say whether his stories were related to his nightmares, chemically-induced or not. One could argue that there were signs of nocturnal visions in stories like “The Premature Burial“, a scenario that was reportedly one of the author’s recurring nightmares. His story, “The Black Cat” alludes to the fact that the protagonist keeps nodding off, suggesting that perhaps the whole affair was merely a bad dream. He addressed his thoughts on dreams more directly in his poetry than his prose. In a poem entitled “Dream-Land” Poe describes the landscape of our nighttime journeys as one “haunted by ill angels only” and ruled by a phantom called “NIGHT” who sits upon a black throne. Dreams offer a virtually infinitesimal number of moods, and he recognizes that the world is largely shaped by the disposition of the dreamer. But it should be unsurprising that Poe’s depiction of the land in which they originate is one overwhelming distant and lonely, made of misty and barren landscapes and home to mysterious and malevolent ghouls. Other poems with titles that are all very clear about their contents like “A Dream Within A Dream,” “A Dream,” and “Dreams” are not quite as terrifying but they do offer signs of Poe’s depression and bitterness towards a cruel universe.

Gustave Doré’s illustration of the opening stanza of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven”.

In the period before Freud turned our nightmares into internal fantasies about our sexual inadequacies and the field of sleep studies located them in physiological processes, the burgeoning writers of Gothic and weird fiction recognized that they were a powerful literary device for frightening their readers. Ambrose Bierce the nineteenth century author of Civil War stories and ghost tales kept a daily dream diary and wrote that “the greater number of my incursions into dreamland…are attended with the happiest results”. But in his essay, “Visions of the Night” in which he catalogs a few of his darker dreamland journeys, he conveys some that clearly bucked the norm, nightmares of woodlands covered in corpses, an ancient empty hall where he discovers his own body, badly decomposed and a mysterious talking horse that for reasons that may be unclear to the reader is the dream that frightens him most. His most famous tale, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, is an inversion of the nightmare. A man condemned to die enters a sort of dream state at the moment just before his execution. He manages to escape his fate and reunite with his family only to feel an inexplicable sharp blow to his neck that wakes him from his lovely dream into a real-world nightmare. Bierce frequently employed nightmares as a device in his stories, most effectively in “The Death of Halpin Frayser” a ghostly mystery in which a man is murdered by the corpse of his mother while dreaming of a blood-stained wilderness.

The woefully underappreciated ghost story author E.F. Benson frequently employed the nightmare as a device in his stories. His most famous work, “Caterpillars” set in a villa on the the coast of the Italian Riviera is plagued by a gaggle of giant creepy crawlers who appear to the story’s protagonist on his bed in the midst of his nightly slumber. The creatures apparently enter the real world when they inundate the hotel gobbling up a fellow lodger. The whole affair seems to be imaginary and the creatures apparently retreat back to the nightmare world from which they came, but the reader is left to wonder what really happened when their victim succumbs to a mysterious cancer soon thereafter. In more predictable fashion nightmares are omens of characters’ various dooms in stories like “The Room in the Tower” and “The Face“. Other writers of the period followed suit and used nightmare scenarios to great effect. L. P. Hartley’s “A Visitor From Down Under,” Walter de la Mare’s “The Three Friends,” and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Schalken the Painter” all made great use of the terror dream either as a setting or plot device. The most terrifying nightmare story of the pre-Great War period, in my opinion, is Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a collection of imaginatively creepy interlocking tales that should be on everyone’s Halloween reading list.

The Great War that raged in Europe from 1914 to 1918 ushered in the era of industrial warfare with terrible weapons like machine guns, newer massive artillery, and poisonous gas. The trenches and gas masks, the body strewn across no-man’s land did away with many of the Romantic visions of combat that once reigned in Europe and replaced them with a nightmare vision of a world at its end. With the help of modern medicine many injured soldiers survived wounds that would have killed their ancestors and the streets of post-war Europe were populated by men who were horribly disfigured. But not all wounds were visible. Constant shelling by enemy artillery, unprecedented level of carnage, and the stark reality of trench warfare gave the world their first taste of a condition known as shellshock, that we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even after the guns went silent in November 1918, the nightmare continued, not just for veterans of the war, but for the entire civilization that had been ripped apart by its ravages. In the wake of the war, nightmares became a part of the cultural landscape that writers and artists began to use in new ways.

Nightmarish illustration from The Hydra, a poetry magazine, published in November 1917 focusing on “shellshock” among World War I veterans. Artist unknown.

The poet Robert Graves who was nearly killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 wrote the chilling poem “A Child’s Nightmare” describing in vivid detail a dream of terror in which he mistakes his cat for a “nightmare thing”. In the final stanza he imagines himself dying on the field of battle and the last thing he hears is that terror that haunted him in his sleep as a child.

The surrealist movement in art and poetry arose in the wake of the war with the belief that reality had been turned upside down by the four years of war that shattered Europe. Deeply influenced by Freud, the painters, writers, and sculptors of this movement sought to understand human behavior via the unconscious motivations that drove us and these could best be accessed by delving deeply into the content of dreams. Given the shape of their recent history, that often meant exploring our darkest nightmares.

Franz Kafka’s works are seldom spelled out as dreams, though the story “A dream (from: A country doctor)” does so explicitly.  It is a tale of a man walking through an old graveyard until he finds a tombstone upon which he begins to write his own name until the ground pulls him in just before he wakes up. Nonetheless, the tortured author struggled his whole life with terrible dreams so bad that he found sleep to be “more exhausting than wakefulness”. Many of his stories have a nightmarish quality that resemble less the symbolic narrative driven dreams that often occur in horror stories and are more like the disjointed nightmares most of us have, devoid of explanation and haunting in their sense of the profound unease they make us feel. His novels The Metamorphosis and The Trial make little sense when viewed as anything other than recounting of terrifying dreams of this type.

Josef K (Anthony Perkins) tries to open a nightmarishly large door in Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

Modern horror owes its existence in large part to an American writer who delved deeply into the realm of dreams and nightmares in his stories. H.P. Lovecraft struggled with nightmares as a child, a fact that should surprise exactly no one who has read his work. Lovecraft drew heavily on the expanse world of dreams as a setting for an vast secondary world. He did so specifically in his dream cycle, a series of stories that take place within a vast alternative universe that exists within the shared dream space of all humans. Many of these stories are more fantasy in the vain of Lord Dunsany than Lovecraft’s more celebrated horror fare, but there is a chilling element to many of these stories, particularly the tales “What the Moon Brings” and “The Strange High House in the Mist“. His longer pieces set in this realm, “The Dream-Quest of the Unknown Kadath” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” feature epic journeys through the various landscapes of his infinite sleep world and their nightmarish qualities frequently arise.  Among the dream cycle “Celephaïs“, a story about a great king who rules over an immense dreamland kingdom, though who in the waking world is an unemployed drug addict who continually searches for stronger substances to keep him dreaming has always stood as the most poignant. Outside of the dream cycle, Lovecraft made frequent reference to dreams as a means of  delivering terror in “Dreams in the Witch House“, “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” and “Hypnos“.

Roger Zelazney’s novel about dream manipulation, 1966’s The Dream Master is perhaps the first book that posits that human beings can one day use technology to enter into the dream world, or in this case its nightmare version. Incarnate, a 1983 novel by Ramsay Campbell starts out with an experiment that ends up awakening an evil entity from the world of nightmares. André Øvredal’s recent film adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s 1981 anthology of frightening folklore, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark includes a story called “The Pale Lady” (adapted from Schwartz’s “The Dream“) about a girl on an apartment search and a very creepy looking landlord. The 1980s series of novels, Night Warriors by paperback horror legend, Graham Masterson each feature some evil trying to enter the waking world through people’s nightmares and they are opposed by a group of people who find themselves with mysterious and dreamlike powers. The 2007 novel  Nocturnal by Scott Sigler is about a detective who dreams of serial murders before they occur. Dreamfall a 2017 book by Amy Plum plunges a group of unlucky participants in an experiment into comas that leaves them stranded in a shared nightmare world. Lowis Lowery’s Gossamer (2006) is a fantasy novel about a group of creatures called the dream-givers who collect memories and deliver dreams to humans and animals. Those who deliver bad memories are mara-like creatures called “sinisteed”. One of the scariest uses of dreams that I have read was from the Stephen King novel, The Stand. After a devastating plague wipes the earth of more than ninety-nine percent of its human population, survivors begin to have two sets of dreams; one of the benevolent Mother Abigail and another of a anti-Christ figure named Randall Flagg known as the Dark Man. It was one thing to imagine myself left alone in a world filled with corpses. It was something else altogether to think that if I went to sleep in such a place I might be visited by the devil in my dreams.

The Pale Lady from the 1981 book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

To people living at the tail end of the nineteenth century, the new artistic medium of motion pictures must have made it seem as though dreams were being transposed into the waking world. The choppy motions and grainy imagery lent a sense of unreality to the fact that for the first time human eyes witnessed pictures that could move. Early on filmmakers began to adapt tales of horror like Frankenstein and Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde (stories that you’ll recall were both born in the troubled sleep of their authors) into films, the dreamlike became nightmarish. The surrealists, Kafka, and Lovecraft all found interest in films coming out of postwar Germany that delved in consciously unreal imagery that became known as German Expressionism. The buildings and sets in Robert Wiene’s 1920 film about a somnambulist, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are unmistakably dream-like and in fact, the entire story turns out to be a nightmare of sorts. The shadowy figure of the otherworldly Count Orlok in Nosferatu was well-loved by the surrealists for the fact that he was a creature born in the darkest regions of the sleeping human mind who was only vanquished once the sun rose.

When the center of gravity of horror movies moved to Hollywood in 1931, the nightmarish quality that held sway on the European continent gave way to a more purely entertaining form of terror in the Universal films like Dracula and Frankenstein (both released in 1931). But spooky dreams would become a constant feature in films of all genres. The alcohol-induced hallucination in Disney’s 1941 Dumbo had a nightmarish quality that still haunts me more than Gregory Peck’s nightmare sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound.  The 1945 British-produced, Dead of Night adapted several classic horror tales from writers like E.F. Benson and H.G. Wells into perhaps the first horror anthology. The framing story of the film begins when a man wakes from a terrible nightmare only to later find that many of the strangers he later meets at a dinner party were people he’d already seen in his dreams. Hammer Films’ 1964 thriller, appropriately titled Nightmare tells the story of a young girl who is plagued every night by dreams that she is wandering the halls of the asylum that her mother has been locked into since murdering her father.

cabinet of dr caligari.jpg
Cesare the sleepwalking killer in the 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Even when not a central aspect of the story, many iconic horror films used nightmares as important devices for delivering maximum fright to their stories. Roman Polanski’s slow-burning adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby turns the corner from ominous to terrifying after Rosemary is visited by a nightmare in which the Devil finds his way into her bed. It’s hard to imagine movies like An American Werewolf in London without the Nazi Zombie nightmare or Aliens without Ripley’s chest-ripping dream. The very strange 1979 classic, Phantasm, makes use of a device that is all too common in stories ranging from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the series finale of the sitcom, Newhart; the “it-was-all-a-dream” ending. Or was it?

The 1980s gave the world its most iconic personification of the nightmare, but we’ll get to him in a minute. A few months before the guy with the striped sweater and dirty old fedora became a horror celebrity, Dreamscape, a film starring Dennis Quaid was released to lesser fanfare. The movie was about a man with psychic powers who is recruited for an experimental program in which psychics are linked to people suffering from sleep disorders. Alex enters the dreaming mind of a young boy who is plagued by a nightmare about a terrifying snake-man. Things get real serious when the president of the United State (played by Eddy Albert) begins having dreams of nuclear holocaust and Alex must protect the president from a fellow psychic who also happens to be psychotic in a background of frightening apocalyptic dream imagery.

The snake-man from 1984’s Dreamscape.

The legendary horror auteur Wes Craven was inspired to write the script of his most famous film after reading about a family who had survived the killing fields of Cambodia and came to the United States. One of the boys in the family told his parents about a chronic nightmare in which some kind of monster pursued him every night and he was afraid to go to sleep for fear it would finally catch him. They continuously encouraged him to sleep and when he finally did, they awoke to the sound of their child screaming. They ran quickly to his room, but he was dead. Craven became obsessed with the idea that the monster of the boy’s dream had caught up with him.

Freddy Krueger has become a somewhat silly figure in my opinion. Another franchise celebrity monster whose claim to fame is based more on his ability to deliver snappy one-liners before killing off some dimensionless victim or another than it is to actually scare viewers. But looking back at my first experience of watching Craven’s 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street, I can remember feeling genuine terror at the thought of not being safe from Freddy’s horribly burn-scarred face and the long blades protruding from his glove. The film’s backstory, that of a child murderer killed by a group of vigilante parents only to seek his revenge in the dreams of their children was unnerving. The nightmare sequences in the film and its first couple of sequels featuring Freddy appearing in bath tubs, televisions, the dark corners of high schools and even sucking a teenage Johnny Depp into his own mattress turning the bed into a geyser of blood were disturbing to say the least. Freddy’s trickster antics and the surreal landscapes he pulled his victims into offered no escape and I can think of few premises more horrifying.

The modern day mara, himself. Mr. Frederick Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Freddy continued through many sequels (I don’t even care to look up just how many) of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and the success spurned a number of imitators, notably the 1988 film Bad Dreams about a young lady who has awakened from a thirteen year coma induced by a creepy cult leader who ordered his followers to kill themselves by fire when she was just a child. But the monstrous leader follows her into her dreams urging her to commit suicide, helped by some hallucinogenic drugs delivered by a corrupt doctor at the hospital. The 2000 film The Cell follows a similar premise as Dreamscape (and Zelazney’s The Dream Master) of an experimental technique whereby therapists enter the minds of comatose patients. When a serial killer becomes comatose, a social worker and an FBI agent must enter his nightmarish psychic mindscape in order to find the location of one of his victims. Though the acting is sub-par, the amazing cinematography of director Tarsem Singh make it one of the finest visual representations of the nightmare in film history. Inception takes the idea into further territory involving a heist of sorts in which a group of thieves experts at entering dreams to steal valuable information must plunge into the dream of a powerful business mogul in order to plant an idea in the deepest part of his brain. In order to do so they must keep penetrating through multiple levels of dream to increasingly nightmarish worlds of deep consciousness.

It’s entirely possible that the plethora of terrifying imagery that is probably surrounding you in October in the form of your neighbor’s decorations, the horror movie marathons on your TV, and the ghoulish masks hanging in just about every store is playing havoc with your dreams. Nightmares can be unpleasant. They can also be exhilarating and sources of creative inspiration. I think it only fitting to leave you here by bidding you pleasant dreams and thrilling nightmares. Cheers!


Next week’s installment will be the final Halloween essay of 2019. I hope you’ll check in to learn about the history of the Halloween funhouse.

One thought on “Synaptic History of Halloween Part 16: Behind the Wall of Sleep, the Nightmare in the Human Experience

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