Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Nightmares are sometimes referred to as "bad" dreams; dreams that cause stress, fear, or dread that menace or disorient the dreamer. People have nightmares about various things, depending on what scares them most personally. The word nightmare is a combination of the forms "night" and "mare": etymologically the suffix "mare" is derived from the proto-Indo European form mer- (to rub away; to harm) via Germanic to the Old English forms mare, maere (goblin or incubus). Folklore has it that women (and men) were visited during sleep by demons capable of copulating with the helpless sleeper. The incubus visited women and the succubus visited men. These demons, or fallen angels (according to Judeo-Christian lore), epitomized the stress, dread, and horror inflicted on innocent sleepers while their Puritanical or Victorian morals were most vulnerable. Nightmares haunted their helpless victims, exonerating them from the moral responsibilities of waking life. And more often than not, nightmares were treated as supernatural events that required spiritual intervention.

In the 20th Century, John E. Mack studied the effects of night terror attacks on children. Through this study Mack discovered that nightmares were a form of sleep disorder with very specific characteristics. Mack elaborated on the nightmare beginning with this assumption: "I would define the nightmare as an anxiety dream in which fear is of such intense degree as to be experienced as overwhelming by the dreamer and to force at least partial awakening" [12]. He then posited the most fundamental characteristic of nightmare as "the intense anxiety of overwhelming proportions, the sense of danger and helplessness, and the occurrence or threat of violent attack, directed especially at the dreamer" [13].

Elements of the Nightmare

[Excerpts from David R. Saliba,  A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), pp.42-44.]

The fundamental and universal characteristics of the nightmare include a sense of impending doom or the panic fear that the dreamer feels as a result of his totally helpless situation in view of the inevitable violence or constant threat of violence aimed at him, and an intense atmosphere of overbearing anxiety that seems on the verge of inevitable explosion--all biologically produced to horrify the dreamer [14]. As far as the physiological basis of dreams is concerned, nightmares have been found to occur both during REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM periods of sleep. Dreams that are usually remembered during waking hours are associated with REM sleep. Some clinical researchers have suggested that nightmares should not even be considered dreams, but rather sleep disorders [15] because of their function to arouse the person from sleep. Another characteristic trait of nightmares is thus the mounting pressure that culminates in the sleeper's awakening. And on awakening, there is very often a brief period of disorientation and hallucination when the person finds himself desperately reality-testing.
As far as the source of nightmares goes Dr. Mack argues, with the support of clinical evidence, that nightmares are not eruptions of stored up libidinal energy, but are rather thoughts that the mind begins to deal with during sleep when its ego defenses are at a low level. That helps to explain the ego's view of itself as vulnerable. The argument runs contrary to an earlier opinion, such as Jung's, that "the sources of dreams are often repressed instincts which have a natural tendency to influence the conscious mind" [16]; especially since Mack offers as evidence to the contrary the findings of H. Dahl and R.H. Holt--that is, that instincts are not repressed but rechannelled into other drives [17].
One thing that is certain about nightmares is that the basic material they use to terrorize the ego stems from "the earliest, most profound, and inescapable anxieties and conflicts to which human beings are subject: those involving destructive aggression, castration, separation and abandonment, devouring and being devoured, and fear regarding loss of identity and fusion with the mother" [18]. Whatever the particular thought or triggering device, the nightmare speaks to us--screams at the ego [19]-- in fundamental symbols. These symbols are remnants from our very first encounters with fear and remain deeply embedded in our memories throughout our lives. Their potential to shock us or horrify us with their original intensity never decreases. Often, though, there is a communications gap between the nightmare's symbolism and the ego's comprehension of exactly what his thoughts during sleep are trying to express. However, the general feeling of dread, depression or apprehension that lingers with the person throughout the day following his nightmare is at least a crude form of communication and an indication that he has been reached by the unconscious.
In nightmares, as in irrational or non-physically based fear, the single most important factor for successful effect is the ego's own perception of helplessness, isolation, and the possibility of its destruction. The nightmare proceeds in a manner analogous to the mechanics of fear in that the dreamer initially perceives a loss of control during sleep which leads him to believe that his existence is seriously threatened. That means, of course, that the ego imagines itself confronted with the possibility of identity dissolution; but because the ego's defenses are low during a nightmare, it finds that in order to survive the terror or torment it must resume complete consciousness.
Once the dreamer is aroused from sleep his problems are not yet completely resolved. He finds for a few seconds, at least, that his world has become disoriented and he cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. This disorientation is a fertile area for additional fear as the ego is faced, for an instant, with mind disintegration. Normally, however, the duration of the period of reality-testing is minimal, and the dreamer can eventually find some comfort in his consciousness and sanity.

Links to Additional Resources

  • "Nightmares? Bad Dreams, or Recurring Dreams? Lucky You!": this article is published by The Dreams Foundation based on this thesis: "Almost everyone has experienced one or more dreams that contain anxiety or outright fear....This type of experience, when unpleasant, is usually associated with lack of progress by the dreamer to recognize and solve related conflicts in life."