Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Nightmares, Creativity, and Art

[Excerpts from David R. Saliba,  A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), pp.50-51.]

Thus far I have attempted to show that the elements of dreams and nightmares parallel those of the mechanics of fear. The nightmare becomes itself a complete defense mechanism for the self-preservation of the dreamer, and as such it has a paradoxical nature and a practical function. There is a correlation between nightmares and creativity, and Poe's tales are excellent examples of simulated nightmares [24].
Historically nightmares and unexplainable dreams have often been sources for art. A most famous example, whether literally accurate or not, is Coleridge's explanation for "Kubla Khan" as having arisen from a dream. Mack theorizes that when especially terrifying dreams are the impetus for art, what is really happening is that the conscious, artistic mind is attempting to resolve, through the work of art, whatever emotional conflicts are too painful and complex to be completely resolved in the dream. "Nightmares," he explains, "are in certain respects unsuccessful efforts to deal with the conflicts" [25]. It is apparent that a dream aura surrounds the fiction of a writer like Poe, and the sense of powerlessness, doom and sudden fear runs consistently through his tales of horror.
It is hardly necessary to attempt to persuade a reader of Poe that the greater portion of his works is heavily influenced by the imagery that is associated with nightmares. What is necessary, however, is to prove the extent to which the elements of dreams and nightmares influence his writings: "dreaming, with its vivid and powerful emotional elements, its rich and flexible use of symbols, its reliance on concrete sense perception, and its access to unconscious mental content, has made use of the very psychological mechanisms that are essential to creative activity" [26]. The same can be said about Poe's fiction. In creating his works of art Poe draws on the vast tradition of gothic art for his settings, on psychology and the machinations of fear for his content, and on the nightmare for his literary form....
Poe's best art is an attempt to bring the nightmare out of the sleeper's mind and extend it into the waking hours for the conscious and rational mind to experience....Perhaps nightmares, especially in view of their universality, are innate mechanisms that periodically attempt to communicate the same message to us, constantly trying to prepare us for the final and inevitable moment of death. The problem is that no matter how often the sleeper has experienced a life-threatening nightmare, he cannot entirely resolve his conflicts during sleep. Resolution of a genuinely terrifying nightmare can be achieved only during consciousness, and this fact gives writers and artists the raw material they need to work with.
 - David R. Saliba