A nightmare is essentially like any dream, mixing familiar and unfamiliar imagery, offering non-sequitors, fragmented stories, and replaying scenes of real life. What make a dream a nightmare are simply the feelings and sensations that accompany it. Dreams are compensatory by nature. They help us restore balance to our emotions. Life can be scary and dreams that leave us frightened are part of what helps us wake up and face life again with a clean slate.
A great many of the images that populate children’s nightmares arrive there via the media children experience. This has created the notion that scary movies will “give you nightmares”—and they certainly can. You watch Snow White with your kids and that night they dream about the Wicked Queen. One of your children wakes up in the middle of the night crying; you find out that they were dreaming about the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. This is not a new phenomenon; one can imagine the children a hundred and twenty-five years ago waking from nightmares after having read the latest short story from Edgar Allen Poe. But certainly the images offered to our children these days—both their graphicness and their frequency—cause nightmares of increasing ferocity.
Nightmares often share characteristics. They are all of common breed. Often there is a sense of danger in an otherwise idyllic setting. Sometimes, there is a clear villain and they feel they are in danger of some kind. Often, the sense of terror is what your child remembers without being able to report on any specific imagery. Whatever the case, the power in the nightmare is its ability to represent the scary side of life.
We need this symbolic representation of the dark. Despite our insistence that life should be all ease and goodness, it really shouldn’t be. A world without fear would be a very destructive place for our psyches. Fear teaches us, helps us grow—it is foundational, one of the necessary elements of being alive. The only way to live free of fear’s domination is to possess healthy mechanisms that help you to deal with fear and express it rather than repress it. Nightmares are one such healthy mechanism, allowing us to express fear in a very practical and effective manner.
They do their job well, and can be so effective that they stay with us for a long time. A friend of mine, Emanuel, a forty-one year old man who grew up in New York and Los Angeles, still remembers a nightmare from his childhood. When he was about twelve, he dreamed of being a passenger in his father’s car. They drove through his neighborhood on a cloudy fall day. When he looked out the window, dead people were sprawled on the lawns of the houses they passed. As he shared his dream, a surprising thing happened. Dozens of details flooded his memory. He began to recall more and more of the dream, and was shocked at how much he could actually remember. His unconscious opened up, and poured vivid details back to him. He said he felt as though the dream had just occurred.
He remembered being at a party before leaving in the car with his father. He recalled the layout of the house, its roundness, its large, spiral staircases surrounded by balconies of varying size and shape. After climbing the stairs, he went out onto one of the balconies, where blood began dripping from somewhere above. He remembered running to the floor above, where he found the source of the dripping blood was, in fact, a decapitated head.
After remembering these additional details, Emanuel now had more pieces of the puzzle. He recalled walking through the neighborhood, staring long, gated driveways that led to mansions hidden by hedges and trees. The dead bodies on the lawns were the security guards, and there was no one else around. Alone, he remembered his father had gone up to one of the houses to see if they could find out what was going on. Standing on the street, he saw a woman dressed only in a black negligee ride past on a bicycle. He described her as a prostitute and added that she seemed very out of place.
That’s a lot of detail, all resting in his unconscious for thirty years, waiting for a moment to be let out again. What can we make of this? Well, let’s start with a little interpretation. Without knowing exactly what was going on with Emanuel when he had the dream, we can’t be too precise about what to make of it. But given that he says he was about twelve when he had it, we know that we are talking about the period of time just prior to adolescence. Given that, there are two images that stand out: the decapitated head and the prostitute on the bike. This could very well connect to the intense thoughts that preoccupy most adolescents, sexual feelings exposed and out of place, could be symbolically represented by the bike-riding whore. These thoughts might just be too much to bear, hence the decapitated head.
There are more themes being expressed in this dream as we look at some of the other imagery. Houses often represent our sense of self in dreams, and in this dream, the houses are not visible, conjuring thoughts of not being ready to show one’s self to the world. The security guards protect these homes and have been killed, further emphasizing a sense of vulnerability.
But why did this dream stay with this dreamer for so long? The human mind is still more mystery than mastery, but I can surmise that there is some very important function that dark, scary images provide for us. They give us the hooks on which we hang the coats of our fears and uncertainties, so that we can approach life with confidence and self-assurance. And just like waking life experiences that stay prominent in our memory, so can the traces of long ago dreams last well into adulthood. By staying with him so long, Emanuel was certainly able to gain some insight into his childhood experience by examining this dream several decades after it occurred.
Dr. Michael Lennox