"Like there were androids coming up through the floor-boards," said Susan. "ANDROIDS. They had corkscrews where their eyes should be, and they had three nostrils in each nose, and they breathed green smoke and it kind of scorched my feet, and I ran into the kitchen and they were coming out of the ice-maker, and I ran and they were slicing at my heels, and I thought, this is a dream, I have to wake up. And there was this gang of hoods in black jackets jumping off the window-sills and they had knives and hooks and there was blood all over the floor, and I was screaming but the screams couldn't get out of my throat. And this time I really woke up, but it was a long time before I was sure I was back in bed. And I can still see those hooks, I can still see them."
Susan is a volunteer in a sleep laboratory, a place where people spend the night lying in hospital beds while technicians attach wires to their skulls to measure the intensity and duration of the activity going on in their brain cells during sleep, and wake them at strategic intervals to record their dreams. The androids had come to visit Susan in the period between 4 and 7 in the morning; these are the hours when Man's old enemy the Nightmare prefers to ride.
The nightmare has gone galloping through the minds of men and women since mankind began, and probably through the minds of our protohuman ancestors before that, awakening dread, stirring superstitious fears. The "mare" part of its name, though often imagined as a death-pale horse, was originally not a horse at all. In Anglo-Saxon it meant "demon." And for most of human history the nightmare has been taken as an unfriendly visitor from beyond, an incubus, a malign spirit sent to torment us.
Of course incubi went out of fashion during the Age of Reason in the 18th century. Philosophers in the 19th preferred to blame nightmares on gastric upsets caused by too much rich food. In our century we are convinced that they come from upheavals in the unconscious mind, that they are the shapes taken by suppressed terror, guilt, fear and shame emerging, once the reasoning light of day has faded, from the dark holes where we try to keep them buried.
Wherever they come from, all nightmares are in essence identical to Susan's. They are, of course, dreams - though dreams of a very special kind - and like all dreams they seem to fuse recent events of waking life with the complex of remembered events and images which form the substratum of our minds. All human beings dream, and all, more or less often, have bad dreams, dreams of nightmarish anxiety and frustration. The professor dreams he has arrived in class not only without his lecture notes but with no knowledge at all of the subject he is supposed to lecture about. The athlete dreams he has wandered off for a Coke at halftime and the can't get back into the stadium and they are about to kick off without him. The lady of high degree advances through her stately hall to meet her distinguished guests and only notices too late that she is stark naked.
Such dreams can be excruciatingly embarrassing. They only rise, or fall, to the level of the nightmare when they are overlaid with a sense of utter helplessness, powerlessness, in the face of looming all-embracing uncontrollable violence. The nightmare roars with malevolent energy at its victim, who can do nothing about it, he is in the fix of the hero of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," bound and helpless, watching the razor-sharp blade swinging above him with a steady remorseless beat ever closer to his bare breast.
In ordinary dreams there is room for an infinite variety of moods and attitudes, from sheer terror to sheer delight. But in the nightmare, though the surface phenomena and the cast of characters may change continually, the structure and the tone remain appallingly the same.
In Susan's case, it is easy to derive the nightmare androids from the science fiction movies she likes to go to, and the hoods from a real-life episode in which she went walking through a bad part of town at midnight and got mugged.
But the terror she felt, the pervasive dread, was the same that had been closing in on her in sleep since she was a little girl.
The intensity of nightmares comes from the almost unbearable sense of reality that infuses them. Theoreticians of modern art have told us that the way to reach the innermost most primitive recesses of the psyche is through the use of abstract forms in odd conjunction, but the mysterious dreamsmith who fashions nightmares follows a different method. By current aesthetic standards nightmares must be regarded as masterpieces of kitsch. They are garishly illusionistic, three- dimensional, sickeningly material. "Dreams with me," wrote Coleridge, who had constant nightmares, "are no Shadows, but the very Substances and foot-thick Calamities of my life."
My life, he was careful to say. Nightmares are, almost always, uncompromisingly egotistical. As Robert Louis Stevenson said of the "brownies" who provided him in dreams with material for his fiction (Mr. Hyde in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came straight out of one of his nightmares), they "have not a rudiment of what we call conscience." In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment , on the night when Raskolnikov determines to murder the old woman, he dreams of a drunken peasant who beats his poor suffering mare across the eyes, beating her to death because she is too weak to pull his cart. It is a powerful literary device, but as a nightmare it is somewhat suspect. In real-life nightmares, there is rarely time or inclination to worry about poor suffering mares or anyone but ourselves. There are reports of mothers having altruistic nightmares involving threats to their children, but in the overwhelming majority of recorded cases nightmares provide no room for concern about the outside world. It is me, me, me in an agony of fear who is being chased, lashed, flayed, eaten alive by giant prehistoric rats or four-footed sharks. Nothing else can possibly matter.
This feeling of solitary helplessness lends support to the theory that nightmares go back to a very primitive period of mankind's mental life, to a time when we were indeed helpless, alone, and surround by incomprehensible but very close and vivid dangers. According to Jung and his followers, this could be a racial memory implanted in our genes a million years ago by remote ancestors waking panicky in the cold blackness of a cave to become aware of the snorting stinking presence of a bear right beside them, Most authorities these days think it is more likely that our memory goes no farther back than our own infancy. A time when we had no idea of who we were or what the outside world was all about. Babies in the cradle are continually being assaulted by strange looming shapes, and they do not have the power to make rational judgments about which mean them good and which mean them harm. Particularly sensitive babies may take fright at anything, even a teddy bear, and the most solicitous parents cannot shield them all the time from unpleasant shocks.
Sentimental literature of the last two hundred years has popularized the illusion that childhood dreams are pure innocence - the little angels lie peacefully in their cradles or cribs as if in Abraham's bosom while visions of butterflies and intimations of immortality waft through their heads. The real life of infants is far more hectic, just as their waking life is far more challenging and hazardous than their parents like to think. A contemporary psychiatrist describes early childhood, accurately enough, as "a time of stress, worry and intra psychic friction." Born with eyes that have not learned to focus, confronted every day with new faces, new relationships, a bewildering array of novelties, unexplained noises and bounces and faces and rules of behavior, the human child has to struggle heroically to get things squared away. In the first year of life, babies spend 9 hours of every 24 in what is called D-sleep or REM sleep - the kind of sleep during which dreams and nightmares arrive.
The D in D-sleep stand for desynchronized, or dreaming, sleep. Research has shown that the brains of all humans (and of most mammals for that matter, with very few exceptions like the spiny ant-eater, a very primitive beast indeed) go through a series of cycles during sleep. In humans, there are five or six such cycles every night. They start with what is called S, or synchronized, sleep, divided into four stages in which electroencephalograms show a steady reduction of electrical activity in the brain cells while the gradually relaxing body loses the tensions of its waking hours. This lasts for an hour or two, and before it begins again it is succeed by a very different phenomenon, the 10 to 40 minutes of D-sleep.
D-sleep is also called REM (for "rapid-eye movement") sleep because of the fluttering of the eyeballs produced in the sleeper. It is also referred to as paradoxical sleep (as opposed to orthodox S-sleep) because at first glance REM sleep doesn't make sense. On the one hand it is the deepest form of sleep we know, the hardest to wake up from, it is the blessed time when the muscles of the body most thoroughly relax. Horses can remain standing through S-sleep, but when D-sleep starts their legs will not hold them up.
On the other hand, the onset of D-sleep is marked by a quickening of the pulse and a rise in blood pressure, and sporadic movements in small muscle groups. The electrical currents flowing from cell to cell in the brain pick up speed and intensity. The brain, in fact, is very active during D-sleep, sometimes more so than when we are awake. This is the same brain that keeps us going about our business during waking hours, deciding in ore or less orderly fashion what we will have for lunch, how we will vote in the next election, what we will say to the possible sex partner down the hall. But in sleep the brain works under different rules, with a different language, the language of dreams. In the earlier periods of D-sleep, these dreams tend to concentrate on recent events. In the later ones, memories come flooding out of the distant past, and they do not appear to follow any set pattern..
No one knows for sure why we dream, or why we sleep for that matter. Sleep, which takes up a third or more of an animal's life and deprives it of the ability to eat or mate or defend itself in all that time, may seem like a mistake in the evolutionary process, as if it were a kind of vermiform appendix that has somehow managed to get itself attached to the otherwise purposeful life of mammals and birds, even, in a rudimentary form, of reptiles and fish.
The more the sleep process is studied, the more complicated it seems to be - from every point of view, chemical as well as psychological. But most scientists today would probably agree with Shakespeare's commonsense line about "sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care." S-sleep appears to provide relief from physical fatigue accumulated during waking hours. D-sleep seems to let the psyche absorb the events of those hours and fit them into patterns that help us make some sense out of life.
People have always been fascinated by dreams. But until recently all their interest was concentrated on what the dreams might mean, not on what was actually occurring in the brain. The patriarch Joseph won high honors for giving meteorological interpretations of the dreams of his Pharaoh. Freudian analysts today make a comfortable living explaining how dreams reveal the working of the unconscious mind, including the incestuous and murderous desires we are said to have had at infancy and spent years learning to repress.
Not until the 1950s did anyone think of taking dreams into the laboratory. Then researchers began wiring the skulls of sleeping volunteers like Susan to measure the electrical activity in their brains while they slept, waking them at intervals to check on the presence or absence of dreams. .
Such studies have proliferated in recent years, and a beginning has been made at least in identifying the different stages of sleep and the chemical changes in the brain that accompany them. The study of nightmares, however, has been comparatively neglected.
Freud, for instance, had little to say about them. Early on, he tried to include them in his general theories about dreams and the subconscious, but they didn't completely fit in and he rarely mentioned them again in his later writings.
There are a few books on nightmares, but the knowledge they have to impart is highly unsystematic. Instead one finds descriptions of nightmares reported to have occurred in the sleep of famous people from Nebuchadrezzar to Mark Twain, many of them fascinating, few necessarily accurate. And books exist on the clinical aspects, i.e., the nightmare as symptom.
It is true that nightmares can be symptoms of psychotic states, as they can be symptoms of the onset of epilepsy and other diseases. Ernest Jones, the disciple and biographer of Freud, concluded on the basis of his studies of a number of his patients that nightmares rise from guilt feelings over repressed incestuous desire. Even assuming he was right about those particular patients, this would leave unanswered the question of why some people have nightmares and others, who presumably have the same urges, do not. Or why some people who have nightmares find it necessary to look for psychiatric help while many more appear to get along reasonably well without it. For ordinary experience, confirmed by recent statistical studies, assures us that most people who have occasional or even frequent nightmares have nothing drastically wrong with them, they lead what most people would regard as reasonably normal waking lives.
It is natural for any one who has had a nightmare, or shared a bed or a room with someone who has had a nightmare, to assume that it is a traumatic event of overwhelming importance. Still, it is well to reflect that it is not the end of the world, there are worse things in life than androids in the floor-boards.
The psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, who spent five years in Nazi concentration camps, recalls a night when, after the prisoners' nightly ritual of examining one another's naked bodies looking for lice and silently calculating how long the other had to live before exhaustion and undernourishment would carry him off to the crematorium, he climbed up to the wooden bunk he shared with four or five other prisoners and found himself lying next to a man having a nightmare. It was the worst nightmare he had seen in all his career as a doctor, a thrashing groaning howling nightmare. His every instinct as a man and as a doctor told him to wake the man up, to give him at least temporary relief from his torments. But at the moment of grabbing his flailing limbs, he suddenly reflected that what he would be waking this man, this friend, this neighbor, up to was the daily real life of Auschwitz and that was ten times worse than anything a mere human brain could create by itself in the narrow confines of a single human skull. So he reluctantly let go, and let the nightmare gallop on till it was exhausted and the soft arms of S-sleep could take over and provide at least an illusion of peace.
Only recently have there been serious efforts to find out how many people in the general population actually have nightmares. The results are inconclusive, but it seems fair to say that a very large number of people, perhaps as much as half of the adult population, have occasional nightmares (more than once a year) and a very small number (less than five percent) have them regularly and often (more than once a week).
Why do some people have nightmares and others do not? Some hints can be derived from studies at the University of Toronto, which showed that out of the 314 students involved, art majors were three times as likely to have nightmares as were physical-education majors. Such statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt, since all they perhaps prove is that nightmares are considered rather fashionable in artistic circles, while athletes may consider it unmanly to admit being scared out of their wits by a mental event like a dream. It seems legitimate, though, to conclude that certain types of personalities may be more nightmare-prone than others.
Since 1977 Professor Ernest Hartman, director of a sleep research laboratory in Boston has done several intensive studies of a substantial number of frequent and longtime nightmare sufferers, subjecting them to batteries of tests, interviewing their families and comparing them to control groups. In the process he has helped to overthrow many of the old beliefs about nightmares.
For one thing, researchers now decisively separate two phenomena that in previous literature were confounded under the one heading of Nightmare. On the one hand you have the true nightmare, which is a dream, often a long and complicated one, details of which may remain terribly vivid to the dreamer long after waking. On the other hand is the "night terror" from which the sleeper suddenly wakes in great fright, often screaming and sometimes going off in a sleepwalking trance.
Night terrors are fairly common in childhood, and they can continue on into adult life. Unlike true nightmares, they occur usually in the first two hours of sleep. Unlike the rich texture of the nightmare, they are bare: no story is connected with them, no fangs dripping blood. The sleeper once awaked remembers nothing at all, or at the very most a single frightening impression on the order of, "Something is sitting on me." Many researchers hold that such night terrors should not be classified as dreams at all, they are merely anomalies in the process of waking up; for some reason, instead of proceeding with the normal smoothness, the awakening sleeper gets an unexpected unpleasant jolt which temporarily disorients him .
Whatever they may be, night terrors are seldom of serious consequence, no matter how horrifying they may appear to solicitous parents. Outside of taking commonsense precautions - like making sure a sleepwalking child does not go to bed near an open window or an empty swimming-pool or on a balcony - there is nothing much to do about them. As for adolescents and adults, stress can increase the incidence of night terrors; a sudden flare-up may be the result of too much alcohol or drugs.
Night terrors of children (most frequent between the ages of 3 and 8) can be cut down or eliminated by seeing that a child is on a consistent sleep schedule and doesn't get too tired. In most cases, the last thing such children need is fluttering concern or medication. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein recommended in 1926 that every child who wakes up screaming should be subjected to analysis and play therapy so that the "ground would be cut away from under the neurosis." Since close to half of all children have such frights now and then, and since the average analysis lasts at least two years, such a proposal if adopted would create a class of millionaire analysts and turn half the world's parents into gibbering idiots.
After weeding out night terrors, Hartman was left with what he could accept as true nightmares. He acquired the population he needed for his studies by putting ads in the Boston papers, asking people who had suffered frequent nightmares through much of their lives to volunteer for a medical psychological study. Many of those who volunteered turned out to be graduate students, musicians, actors and craftspersons - people who did work of a creative nature. It might be thought that sleeping on a hospital bed in a laboratory surrounded by personnel in white uniforms and all kinds of mysterious wires and dials and blinking lights would create a nightmare situation of its own. Actually, it was found that the volunteers had fewer nightmares when they were being observed than when they were alone. Apparently the uniforms and the medical apparatus gave them a certain sense of security they needed..
All nightmares involve terror, but Hartman, like other researchers, thinks it may come in two different forms. The standard nightmare, the one that goes back to distant childhood, rarely repeats itself in the details. The shape, the size, the very identity of the menacing enemy can change from night to night and from year to year. Fragments of recent experience can work their way in. Books and television help change the setting. The child who was once attacked by Nazis or by gangster is now waylaid by extraterrestrials.
There is, however, another category of nightmare, one in which everything remains the same, the scene of horror is repeated over and over again in remorselessly identical detail. Known as post-traumatic nightmares, they are created by real and devastating events in the outside world that the dreamer has lived through and is unable to forget. The event may be an automobile accident, a fire, a rape; it may be torture and degradation in a concentration camp, or the death of your best friend fighting beside you in a war. It is an experience too horrible for the mind to accept. Such nightmares do not need the deep repose of D-sleep to force their way to the surface, they can turn up in any stage of sleep, they can even turn up as hallucinations, or "daymares," in broad daylight.
In most cases the mind begins little by little to accept the horror and it eventually goes the way of other experiences, providing material for other dreams. But sometimes such horrors refuse to go away, creating a crippling sense of guilt and helplessness. The best thing to do with a post-traumatic nightmare is to talk it out, preferably in the early stages. It will not go away but it will begin somehow to fit into the pattern of a world we never made.
Some people in the modern world have a peculiarly horrible and recurring vision. They are lying bound and helpless and naked on a table while masked figures in white gowns holding sharp knives peer grimly down at them and then plunge the knives into their helpless flesh, without there being any way for them to do anything to stop them. They may think they are going crazy. If so, it does them some good to learn that they are not acting out a scene from a horror film, that this is exactly what did happen to them. They were in a hospital, waiting for an operation, anaesthetized, but owing to some miscalculation the anaesthetic partly wore off during the surgical procedure, leaving their muscles paralyzed but their senses marginally alert, so that they could see the sharp steel coming down and even feel some of the pain as it cut them open, without being able to lift a finger or way a word. Hospitals don't like to admit that such things happen, but they do from time to time, and it may save the sanity of the patient to know that he is not having hallucinations, he is a reliable witness.
On the other hand, nightmares apparently set off by a terrible event in adult life may in fact have roots deep back in the childish past. A classic case is that of the World War II veteran who had a recurrent nightmare of a human head lying in the middle of a road. It seemed logical to assume that this was a reminiscence of some experience he would prefer to forget, of a day in the Battle of the Bulge when heads or limbs might come flying through the air at any moment and drop at his feet. But then one day another memory came floating up into his consciousness, a memory of something which had devastated his early childhood. He had been passionately devoted to a pet guinea pig. One day it was gone, he searched everywhere but could not find it, he was heartbroken. A few days later there was a treat at dinner, a meat sauce on the family's spaghetti, and there in the sauce was the head of the guinea pig which his frugal mother had thrown into the pot to avoid the expense of going to the butcher shop that day.,
Horrible experiences like this can happen to any one. Yet not everyone who has endured a horror recreates it in nightmares. Why? Hartman's studies suggest that people who suffer very frequent nightmares (at least once a week) do tend to form a group apart. Unlike sufferers from night terrors, who score like a cross section of the general population on the standard tests that psychologists use to classify personality traits, Hartman's sample showed significant differences from the norm. "As a group," he writes, "they were persons living in society, working to support themselves, or in school." But many saw themselves as rebels and some of them actively rejected society or saw themselves as rejected by it. Most felt from childhood that they were a little different from other people.
Hartman thinks the difference can be defined in terms of what he calls boundaries. In order to live at all, we have to compartmentalize, to divide up our experience is certain ways. But we all do it in different ways. For some people the compartments are airtight. Everything is in its place, clearly delineated, with a firm protective boundary around it. Such people rarely have nightmares. At the other extreme are people whose sense of boundary is soft and undefined.
They find it difficult to keep fantasy and reality separate. Even when they are awake they may find themselves drifting off into daydreams that they find hard to keep separate from the physical world around them. They do not have a firm clear idea of their own identity.
When we normal people dream we are aware of ourselves at the center of the dream, we keep the same identity papers throughout. But the frequent nightmare-dreamer is capable, out of sheer terror, into abruptly changing into somebody else, even into an animal, as the hero of Kafka's Metamorphosis changed into a giant bug.
Even when wide awake, frequent nightmare victims may be less aware than the rest of us of the hard-and-fast rules regulating human behavior. They find it easy, sometimes alarmingly so, to put themselves in someone else's skin and feel what their neighbors are feeling. They may see themselves as being attuned to an extrasensory force, which the duller senses of the rest of mankind cannot respond to at all. Their memory goes back further in tie that of most people, they can often recall incidents that happened to them before the age of 3, or even 2. (Samuel Beckett could remember events inside his mother's womb.) If they take batteries of psychological tests they may come out tagged with some of the characteristics of schizophrenia.
But Hartman insists his studies show the bulk of these people can and do live in the world as well as anyone else. "They could be called 'a little unusual,'" he says, "in that they are so open, empathetic, sensitive or artistic, but are certainly not headed for a life of constant or intermittent hospitalization for mental illness." He believes that their openness, their ability to ignore or transcend conventional boundaries, can be a positive help in careers like teaching or therapy or the arts, that require intuition and understanding of others.
What do you do if you are repeatedly wracked by painful nightmares?
Since they come more often in times of stress, the best therapy is to live as calmly as possible. But as we all know, that is not always an available choice. For extreme cases there are medications which inhibit REM sleep and thus deprive the nightmares of a field to ride around in; unfortunately these medications can have unpleasant side effects. It is known that drugs like L-DOPA, which stimulates the production of dopamine in the brain and is used to treat Parkinson's disease, tend to cause galloping nightmares. It is known that people who go on alcoholic binges lose much of their D-sleep and have to make up for it when they stop drinking, thus opening the door to a full dose of unpleasant dreams which can turn into full-fledged bloody nightmares - what used to be called the screaming meemies. All this miscellaneous information may eventually coalesce with new research and allow physicians to bridle and tame the nightmare. But for the moment they can do little but let the beast run wild.
There are a few consolations. Nightmares tend to diminish as we get older. In the course of time, the mind can become capable of absorbing and digesting memories that were once too painful to face directly, and nightmares can then quiet down into ordinary dreams. One of Hartman's patients used to dream regularly of shark-like monsters that came out of the sea to bite her. When she had worked out some of the problems in her personal life, things quieted down. She had a last shark dream, but this time the creature came out of her swimming pool and curled up at her feet, waiting to be scratched.
It may be, too, that nightmares have a certain therapeutic function. It can do us all good to be reminded from time to time that the world is not the orderly commonsensical place we like to think it to be. The complacent rational mind needs to be reminded that, in Robert Bridges' quaint phrase, it "herits in / A haunted house," a house full of dark unexplored terrifying corners, where androids at any moment may start coming up through the floor-boards. .
© 1989 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine August 1989