What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are terrifying dreams; dreams in which our worst fears are brought to life in fully convincing detail. Whatever horrors you personally believe to be the worst things that could happen—these are the most likely subjects of your nightmares. All people, in every age and culture have suffered from these terrors of the night. People’s understanding of the origins of nightmares has varied as much as their understanding of dreams.

To some cultures, nightmares were the true experiences of the soul as it wandered another world as the body slept. To others, they were the result of the visitation of demons. Indeed, the word nightmare comes from the Anglo-Saxon mare, for goblin or incubus. (An incubus is a demon who comes in the night to steal the sexual favor of ladies, and has its female counterpart, the succubus.)

In Western culture today, most people are content to say of nightmares that they are “only dreams,” meaning they are imaginary and of no consequence. Thus, when a successful business executive awakens with his heart pounding from a dream of being pursued by zombies through the jungle, he is grateful to be able to recite the comforting refrain, “Thank God, it was only a dream,” get a glass of water and return to bed. However, when just a few minutes before the stinking corpses with eyes like pits to hell were breathing down his neck, the executive had no doubts about their reality. The zombies may have been imaginary, but the terror was real. So, to lightly dismiss the real terror of horrific dreams as illusory seems like an error that leaves us with no choice but to submit ourselves again and again to the greatest fear we are likely to ever experience.

What gives nightmares their special terror? In dreams, anything is possible. This limitlessness can be wonderful, since it allows us to experience delights of fantasy and pleasure unachievable in waking life. However, turn over the stone, and anything you can imagine that you would not like to experience, however unlikely in waking, can happen as well.

  I began to try to recognize my dreams as products of my mind, even as I dreamed them. The breakthrough came one night soon after a nightmare. I decided I could not live fully while I let my fears roam about on their own power, so to speak. I entered the dream state determined not to yield. I had read somewhere that a fear could only be dissipated by friendliness and trust. Anger, threats, aggressiveness were out. These reactions were actually fearful reactions. So I made up my mind to be friendly.

  The dream evolved, and I barely had time to remind myself to smile before the nightmare began. This time it was an almost childish nightmare, in which my collective fears took the shape of a large, nebulous but very scary monster. I quailed and almost turned tail, but by sheer will (I was really scared) I stayed and let it approach. I said to myself “it’s my dream, and if I forget this, I’ll have to go through it again,” and I smiled as sincerely as I could. What’s more, I spoke as calmly as I could, a big step since waking or sleeping terror leaves me speechless. I said something like “I’m not afraid. I want to be friends. You’re welcome to my dream!” and almost as soon as I said it, the monster became friendly, delightedly so. I was ecstatic. Needless to say, I awoke quickly, still saying “I did it!” (T.Z., Fresno, California)

  I know that I can change a frightening situation in a lucid dream, so I don’t let myself get scared or panic. I never run away from things or persons in my dreams anymore. And the strange thing is that in waking life I don’t run away either, anymore. I face things head on and don’t drag situations out forever. My lucid dreams have changed the way I look at life. People think I’ve changed through the years, but the fact is that this is the real me coming out. (V.F., Greensboro, North Carolina)

In nightmares we are alone. The terrifying worlds we create in our minds are populated with our fears. We may dream that we are accompanied by friends, but if we doubt them they can just as easily turn into fiends. If we run from an axe- wielding maniac, he can find us no matter where we hide. If we stab a devil with a knife, he may not even notice, or the knife may turn to rubber. Our thoughts betray us; if we think, I only hope he doesn’t have a gun—lo! he has a gun. It is no wonder we are grateful to return from nightmares to the relative sanity and peace of the waking world.

Thus, it is understandable that people in the midst of nightmares who realize they must be dreaming frequently choose to wake up. However, if you become fully lucid in a nightmare, you realize that the nightmare can’t really hurt you, and you don’t need to “escape” it by awakening. You remember that you are already safe in bed. It is better, as we will discuss below, to face and overcome the terror while remaining in the dream.

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