The Psychology of Nightmares

Nightmares. We all have them. But what exactly do they mean? Why do we have bad dreams? Is there any psychological meaning behind them? Nightmares are the source of much of the horror we see in stories, myths, movies and games. They are an encounter with the dark side of the unconscious, which often includes facing some of the most painful aspects of who we are. And one does not know what that part of oneself is, until one confronts it.


Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

Nightmares are different from other dreams, both in quantity and in quality. They are relatively infrequent for most dreamers, but their intensity and vividness cause such distress that unlike most dreams, we have difficulty forgetting about them. They arouse fear, anxiety, agony, embarrassment, melancholy, or great displeasure. The word nightmare is also used figuratively to describe any difficult or terrifying situation. Some nightmares are so memorable that they colour the experience of our lives for years, or, in fact, stay with us for a lifetime.

Many psychiatrists have focused on the pathology of nightmares, which are generally considered negative psychological events that torment us and disrupt our sleep, caused by a variety of external and internal factors such as stressful life situations or traumatic memories. The focus is on mitigating their frequency or completely eliminating them through medication. However, the problem is that the emphasis is put on the pathological causes of nightmares, and there is no concern about the purpose of them.

Nightmares occur for a reason. If one focuses on pathology rather than on the symbolic meaning of a nightmare, a valuable opportunity is lost. Nightmares are the most substantial and vitally important dreams, and are of therapeutic value. They wake us up with a cry, as if all our repressed content forms a bubble which expands until it bursts one night, and we experience a nightmare. This built-up of tension in the unconscious can potentially be expressed in prior dreams, there is something that wants to be brought into consciousness.

After waking up from a bad dream, we are forced to acknowledge our unconscious conflicts, but tend to forget about them, and carry on with our daily lives, unaware of the psychological damage we do to ourselves.

Nightmares are the shock therapy nature uses on us when we are too unaware of some psychological danger. They shock us out of deep unconscious sleepiness about some dangerous situation. As if the unconscious says, “Look here, this problem is urgent!” The psyche tells us to “wake up” and face what we have neglected. The majority of nightmares represent opportunities for personal healing through much-needed emotional release.

Dream-Motifs in Nightmares

Book of Urizen Object 21 – William Blake

There are typical dream-motifs related to nightmares or anxiety dreams such as falling down, showing up late or unprepared for a presentation or an exam, missing a flight or forgetting about one’s luggage, going about with insufficient clothing, losing one’s teeth, feeling trapped, unable to move or make any noise, injury or illness, encountering frightening monsters or natural disasters, etc. These motifs are very common but by no means sufficient to confirm the existence of any system in the organisation of a dream.

Lilith: The First Nightmare

Burney Relief / Queen of the Night

One of the first nightmares can be traced back to Lilith, whose name is Hebrew for “night monster” or “night hag”. According to Jewish legend, Adam, before he knew Eve, had a demon-wife called Lilith. She disobeyed Adam, believing that as they were both created from “dust”, she was his equal. Lilith was banished from the Garden of Eden and in revenge changed into a nightmare or lamia (nocturnal spectre). She became known as a dangerous and promiscuous demoness of the night. A legend of later origin maintains that the snake in the Garden of Eden was Lilith, associating her with the devil. Following Adam and Eve’s encounter with the Tree and the Serpent, Adam refrained from, among other things, sexual intercourse as a form of penance. During this time, Lilith had intercourse with Adam, giving birth to a horde of demons that flit about the world. Thus began Lilith’s reign.

Stories of Lilith can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, such as in the poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which there isn’t just one such figure, but various of such female demons who haunt pregnant women, kidnap new-born infants, and engage in wild intercourse with men after pinning them down. Lilith is the origin of the succubus, an evil female spirit thought to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men. The incubus is the masculine counterpart.

The Origin & Folklore of Nightmare

Nightmare – Nicolai Abildgaard

The word mare in “night-mare” comes not from a female horse, but is rather an Anglo-Saxon term for a goblin, old hag, fiend or demon that sits on people’s chests causing them to have bad dreams. In Old Norse it is known as mara. The prefix “night” was added to emphasise that these creatures visited at night. In Danish and Norwegian, nightmare can be translated as “mare-ride”, while in Swedish it is “mare-dream”.

This phenomenon has been reported from antiquity to modernity across the world. Today it is known as sleep paralysis, which is different from a nightmare insofar as it occurs while still being conscious, but unable to move or speak. This can happen as you are waking up or falling asleep. People experience auditory and visual hallucinations, and feel intense terror and anxiety. The person sees threatening entities, and feel pressure on their chests, making it difficult to breathe, causing suffocation.

In the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century, King Vanlandi was a great warrior who travelled far over the land. He promised his wife to come back after three winters, but he came not for ten winters. His wife hired a sorceress to cast a spell to have him come back or be killed. The king longed to go back with his wife, but his friends and advisers forbade it, saying it was the product of witchcraft. Then he became sleepy and said that the mara was treading on him. When the men held the king’s head it “trod on his legs” so that they were almost broken; then the men seized his feet, and the mara pressed down on the king’s head, until he died.

In Germany, this malicious entity is most often called an alp, a word that is etymologically related to elf. In folklore, alps and mares enter into one’s room in the night to induce a nightmare on the dreamer. Even though windows and doors may be tightly closed and locked, they can still get in through the smallest holes (such as a key hole), which they seek out with special pleasure.

In many stories, a man is ridden by a mara every night, and is tormented by it. One morning he decides to drill a hole through the door, plug shut all the cracks, and make a stick that fit exactly into the hole in the door. He knew that maras could get in through even a very small hole, but not out again if all the openings were plugged shut. Then he asked a good friend to sleep with him and that when he moans, that he should put the stick in the hole, because he wanted to capture the mara. In the morning, there was a beautiful naked woman in the room. The man, however, did not know that if you catch a mara, you cannot get rid of her, and so he had to marry her. They had children and lived together quite happily. One day the man told her about the hole she came in from and removed the stick. She immediately flew out through the hole and was never seen again.

There are also several nightmare charms, prayers, or spells used to ward off mares. The use of symbols for protection in sleep are a common thread seen throughout history.

In Japanese mythology, the baku or dream-eater is a spirit which is said to devour nightmares. It is depicted as a chimera, a mythological beast comprised of a variety of parts from other animals. After waking up from a nightmare, the person would summon baku for protection by crying: “Devour, O Baku! Devour my evil dream!” One would also summon it prior to falling asleep at night to avoid nightmares. However, the person had to be cautious, should a baku remain hungry after consuming unwanted nightmares, it would continue to devour a person’s hopes and dreams as well. Thus, the person would live an empty and meaningless life.

Non-REM Sleep (Night Terrors)

Jacob’s Dream – Any de Vois

When we sleep, our brain goes through natural cycles of activity. These are: non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. When we first fall asleep, we experience the first stages of non-REM sleep.

In stage 1 we are in a state of relaxed wakefulness, and start to drift off. People who wake up from this stage often believe that they have been fully awake. It is common to experience hypnic jerks, which resemble the “jump” experienced by a person when startled, sometimes accompanied by a falling sensation. In stage 2, our heart rate decreases, and body temperature drops. We experience light sleep. Stage 3 is known as deep sleep, and it is the most common stage in which one experiences parasomnias, sleep disorders that include sleepwalking and night terrors, among others.

Night terrors are different from nightmares, the latter occurs during REM sleep. Night terrors are episodes of waking up terrified and often screaming, crying, punching, or attempting to flee. The person can experience a rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing, profuse sweating, and incomprehensible speech. More severely, the person may strike others, damage nearby belongings or even run into walls and furniture. The content of the episode is very difficult if not impossible to remember.

REM Sleep (Nightmares)

A Eunuch’s Dream – Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ

After around 70 to 90 minutes, one experiences the first cycle of REM sleep, which occurs when a person moves from deep sleep to lighter sleep. We experience 4 to 6 cycles of REM sleep per night on average, which increase in length as the night progresses. Here, brain activity increases, and the brain paralyses the body so that the mind can dream safely, otherwise the sleeping person would physically walk, move, and act according to the impulses in the dream state. It is during REM sleep when most dreaming and nightmares occur.

The amount of REM sleep decreases as we grow up, typically occupying only 20-25% of total sleep in adults, or about 90 to 120 minutes of a night’s sleep. One way of understanding why children experience more nightmares is because they are closer to the unconscious than adults, as the capacity for rational thought is not fully developed. Children experience monsters in the closest or under the bed, because it is a reality for them.

Nightmare in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment Illustrations – D. Shmarinov.

A well-known nightmare in literature occurs in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The hero Raskolnikov, who is unable to pay for his studies, goes through mental anguish and moral dilemmas. His name appropriately derives from the Russian word for schism or split. Raskolnikov contemplates robbing and murdering Alyona Ivanova, an avaricious and abusive pawnbroker. He decides to “rehearse” the murder, and with a sinking heart and nervous tremor goes to visit the pawnbroker, where he pawns an old watch for a few rubles. Afterwards, he goes to the tavern and meets Marmeladov, a likeable drunk who proceeds to describe the details of his hopeless situation. On helping the drunk man home, the former student witnesses a little boy who has just been beaten by Marmeladov’s wife, who suffers from tuberculosis.

The next day, Raskolnikov receives a lengthy guilt-inducing letter from his long-suffering, self-sacrificing mother. In order to support him in his university studies, his sister has agreed to marry an odious man whom she does not love in hopes that he will assist her brother. Tortured by the letter, Raskolnikov seeks relief in a tavern where he consumes some vodka. On his way home, he becomes drowsy, and finds a place to lie down, immediately falling asleep, and has a dream.

He is a child of about seven walking with his father. There seems to be some festivity going on, peasants are singing and are drunk. A large, heavy cart stands outside the tavern. The little mare is weak and unable to pull the cart. At the invitation of the owner, drunken men pile into the cart, laughing at the owner’s claim that the feeble animal can pull the cart. The owner shouts in reply “I’ll make her gallop!” and begins flogging the mare who, tugging with all her might, can barely move the cart. When others join in to beat her, the child, crying and upset, rushes to the horse to try to stop the cruelty. No one listens.

The brutality escalates when the mare begins feebly kicking in protest. The owner keeps attacking the animal and is furious he cannot kill her. When someone in the crowd shouts “Fetch an axe to kill her! Finish her off!”, the angry and drunken peasants join in, and beat the mare to death. The child runs to the dead mare, puts his arms around and kisses her bleeding head. His father grabs him and carries him out of the crowd. The boy sobs “Father! Why did they kill the poor horse!” “They are drunk… They are brutal… it’s not our business!” the father replies. Sobbing and choking the little boy puts his arms around his father.

Raskolnikov wakes up terrified, gasping for breath, his hair soaked with sweat. “Good God” he cries out, “can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open?” He renounces the accursed nightmare and experiences relief. After hours of anguish, however, Raskolnikov proceeds to murder the pawnbroker.

It is Dostoevsky’s genius of representation that the nightmare feels real and psychologically convincing. If we imagine that Raskolnikov finds his way to the consulting room. We would meet an agitated young man who is in acute psychic distress and is obsessed with thoughts of murder. Given his situation, it is not surprising that he would have a nightmare. There are certainly external “causes”. He is stressed physically – he has not been sleeping well, has had little to eat, and has been drinking alcohol. He is under a good deal of strain because of his financial situation and the alarming news of his sister’s impending marriage. Raskolnikov’s unresolved psychological issues are being replayed and are impacting on his current life situation.

Fever Dreams and Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis illustrated by Rich Johnson

Fever dreams are experienced when one has a fever. These are more vivid, bizarre, and negative than regular dreams – with themes such as spatial distortion, threats and dangers, and illness.

Franz Kafka’s work perfectly illustrates a fever dream atmosphere. In his novel The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. wakes up one morning being arrested without having done anything wrong. He is accused of an unspecified and unknown crime. The supervisor himself does not know anything about the case, other than that he was sent by his superiors. K. is notified by telephone that he has been summoned to the court, and has only been given small details of the location, without knowing the time to attend. He has great trouble in finding the court in a maze-like building, and when he finally finds the place in an obscure corner in the attic, he is scolded for arriving late. K. has to undergo a trial and defend himself against an incomprehensibly complex and faceless bureaucratic system that has taken complete control over his life, and accuses him of charges he does not even know about.

In Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning from uneasy dreams transformed in his bed into a monstruous vermin, depicting one of the most profound forms of alienation, a human imprisoned in a non-human body. The contrast between the extraordinary situation of his transformation and the ordinary terms he uses to describe it (an insect trying to get to work), creates a sense of the absurd. His family is horrified and disgusted, though there is still hope that Gregor’s mind remains intact, as his mother calls him her unfortunate son. Psychologically, we all have a horrible monster within that needs our love.

Post-Traumatic Nightmares and Recurring Nightmares

Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

While most of us experience spontaneous nightmares that are often more imaginative, many also experience nightmares, recurrent recollections, and flashbacks, due to traumatic experiences. This is especially the case for people suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Post-traumatic nightmares are especially painful as the person is reliving a traumatic event, which can be as terrifying as the original event. This psychological scar can worsen and lead to substance abuse and alcoholism. Trauma therapy can support one’s healing process and help resolve some of the everyday challenges such a person faces. Though it may seem paradoxical, encouraging verbalisation and exploration of the trauma can be cathartic. Writing down nightmares is also a version of emotional therapy.

One can also experience recurring nightmares which may or may not be caused by traumatic experiences. These happen particularly in youth, but the recurrence can continue throughout one’s life. They recur because they are trying to integrate something into consciousness which a person lacks. Usually, they stop appearing after one realises what their message is, whether in the dreaming state or in waking life. When our ego attitude changes in response to our dreams, the unconscious responds.

Precognitive Nightmares

Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

Perhaps one of the strangest types of dreams are precognitive or prophetic nightmares. People have experienced terrifying visions which later came to happen in reality, as if they had momentarily gained access to a doorway into the future. These are relatively rare, and can only be verified as such when the recognised event has actually happened.

In his work Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung explores “coincidences” that are connected so meaningfully, that they broke all statistical probabilities. These are called synchronicities or meaningful coincidences, which occur when a content of one’s inner life (dream, vision, mood, etc.) is seen to have a correspondence in the outer life. The inner image has “come true”.

Jung writes of a precognitive vision he experienced:

“I saw yellow waves, swimming rubble and the death of countless thousands… Two weeks passed then the vision returned, still more violent than before, and an inner voice spoke: ‘Look at it, it is completely real, and it will come to pass. You cannot doubt this.’ ”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Many visions continued after this one, including the seas turning red with blood, and his soul asking him if he will accept war and destruction, showing him images of military weapons, human remains, sunken ships, destroyed states, and so on. Shortly after, the First World War broke out.

Carl Jung and The Meaning of Dreams

Fisherman in a Boat – Adolphe Appian

Jung wrote little on the phenomenon of nightmares. It is possible, however, to interpret nightmares in a Jungian lens from his general theory of dreams. He writes:

“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 10: Civilisation in Transition

A fundamental concept in Jung’s dream theory is the compensatory function of dreams. Dreams reveal the inevitable one-sidedness of our conscious life and focus on those aspects that are not sufficiently within our field of awareness.

Jung writes:

“Every interpretation is a hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text. An obscure dream, taken in isolation, can hardly ever be interpreted with any certainty. For this reason, I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. A relative degree of certainty is reached only in the interpretation of a series of dreams, where the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy

Although Jungians attach special significance to the so-called “initial dream” of the patient in therapy, the analyst must be careful not to attach too much importance to isolated dream-images, but also understand prior dreams as well as the dreamer’s conscious attitude, and his or her personal associations.

A dream never says, “you ought” or “this is the truth”. It presents an image in much the same way as nature allows a plant to grow, and it is up to us to draw conclusions. If one has a nightmare, it can mean that one is either too much given to fear or too exempt from it.

Dreams always tell us something we do not know and suggest new ways of dealing with our neurotic impasses. They are not superfluous nor do they like to waste our precious time at rest. This is the psyche’s self-regulatory function, which seeks balance and wholeness. Jung calls this the process of individuation, our progress towards psychological maturation.

“The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself, the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 8: Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

This is the dream’s interpretation on the subjective level, in which every object in the dream corresponds to an element within the individual’s own psyche. Jung calls this the personal unconscious, contents of personal acquisition that have been repressed or forgotten. This is the home of the complexes, emotionally charged groups of ideas or images, which can be positive or negative. People with negative complexes experience more nightmares. They have a knot of unconscious feelings that can be detected through their behaviour and prevents them from achieving psychic wholeness.

The subjective level can be further amplified with the objective level, which Jung calls the collective unconscious, where archetypes reside, instinctual patterns of behaviour that we are all born with. Not only do personal experiences affect dreams, but also archetypal forces that have a mythological structure, which includes the entire spiritual inheritance of humankind’s evolution. These are felt in what Jung simply called “big dreams”. Usually, these dreams have few personal associations and are accompanied by feelings of numinosity, awe, uncanniness, or horror.  Such as an apocalypse, or a theophany (encounter with a deity).

Because dreams contain images that are not created with conscious intent, they provide self-portraits of the psychic life process and can be used for their objective insights into the psyche’s telos, ultimate purpose, goal or function.

A dream can take months or years to interpret. Or one may never really get to the bottom of its meaning. A turn of the spindle moves a thousand threads, and we can only follow one at a time. Indeed, we cannot always do this, because the coarser visible thread ramifies into numerous filaments which at places escape from sight. The difficulty in interpretating dreams leads many of us to project our own ignorance and think that it is all nonsense and superstition.

The dream, however, is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious, and a symbol is the best possible formulation of a relatively unknown psychic content. It is the work of the psychologist whose erudition in symbolism can help guide the patient to discover his or her true potential.

Though Jung could help others to interpret their dreams, and having interpreted around 80.000 dreams in his life, he too had the humility to admit the difficulty in interpreting his own dreams. He writes:

“I do not understand my own dreams any better than any of you, for they are always somewhat beyond my grasp and I have the same trouble with them as anyone who knows nothing about dream interpretation. Knowledge is no advantage when it is a matter of one’s own dreams.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 18: The Symbolic Life

The Shadow and Nightmares

Untitled – Peter Birkhäuser

The nightmare has an “intention”, which seems to be to communicate the acute distress of the psyche in a most dramatic form. Some “corrective” is coming into consciousness and is threatening the ego. This new content can appear as an intruder or attacker as in the following dream:

“It is night and I am home alone. I think I can hear a man trying to break into my house and I am panicked. I can hear him try to open the door, but it is locked. Feeling terror throughout my body, I run to hide under the bed. I realise that he has found a window that is unlocked, I wake up panicked.”

Jane White-Lewis, In Defence of Nightmares (The Dream and the Text)

In this nightmare some unknown aspect of the psyche is threatening the person. Nightmares are especially valuable in giving a clear indication of the ego and its capacity to deal with threatening unconscious contents. In the dream, the person encounters what Jung calls the shadow, which contains our repressed contents, and is chiefly present in the personal unconscious. A frequent theme in nightmares is being chased by a sinister figure or monster, which may be compared to the ancient fear of being chased by a predatory animal.

It frequently happens that when one confronts the shadow, hostility turns into amiability, or a beast turns into a human form, with an important and urgent message to convey as psychological insight. Therefore, one should confront one’s fears, whether in the nightmare itself or in waking life.

We are never able to hide from the shadow. It always seems to know where we are. This is because we are running away from an aspect of ourself. Every human being has a dark side, and by ignoring it, we only give it more power to take control of us, like in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, resulting in psychic dissociation. When we put on a persona that only includes our good side and forget about our negative side, it creates one-sidedness and represses our negative emotions, resulting in neurosis and psychological projection. Thus, we lose the chance of becoming whole. Health comes from following the path that is natural and true to oneself.

Nightmares are typically symbols of neurosis. People who suffer from frequent nightmares may have more psychological conflicts and unresolved issues in their lives.

The Devouring Mother Archetype

Untitled – Peter Birkhäuser

In the archetypal dimension, nightmares are the negative side of the Great Mother archetype, namely, the Terrible or Devouring Mother, which may be the bottom line of all nightmare experience.

Jungian analyst Erich Neumann, writes:

“The symbolism of the Terrible Mother draws its images predominantly from the “inside”; that is to say, the negative elementary character of the Feminine expresses itself in fantastic and chimerical images that do not originate in the outside world. The reason for this is that the Terrible Female is a symbol for the unconscious. And the dark side of the Terrible Mother takes the form of monsters… In the myths and tales of all peoples, ages, and countries – and even in the nightmares of our own nights – witches and vampires, ghouls and spectres, assail us, all terrifyingly alike. The dark half of the black-and-white cosmic egg representing the Archetypal Feminine engenders terrible figures that manifest the black, abysmal side of life and the human psyche. Just as world, life, nature, and soul have been experienced as a generative and nourishing, protecting and warming Femininity, so their opposites are also perceived in the image of the Feminine; death and destruction, danger and distress, hunger and nakedness, appear as helplessness in the presence of the Dark and Terrible Mother.”

Erich Neumann, The Great Mother

Regression for both women and men lead back to the mother’s womb, to helplessness, to nonbeing. However, even here there is the possibility of returning to the surface with new possibilities of life. In a nightmare, a tension exists between a regressive pull back into the womb (the Devouring Mother) and that of a progression towards a greater consciousness and embracing of life (the Great Mother).

It is not easy to find the source of the nightmare, because the unconscious content is, well, unconscious. The content has been repressed and it must be brought into the light of consciousness.

Active Imagination

Philemon. Illustration from the Red Book – Carl Jung

During an intense period of disorientation and inner turmoil, Jung developed a method used for confronting his unconscious contents while being fully awake and conscious during the experience, known as active imagination. He was able to confront his dark night of the soul and gather the treasure hard to attain. The culmination of his experiences is presented in his Red Book. Jung considered active imagination to be the most powerful tool to access unconscious contents. It consists in having a dialogue with different aspects of yourself while being fully awake and conscious, which requires solitude, silence and concentration.

Many times, however, we cannot associate what bothers us with anything specific. Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson writes:

“When this happens, you can go to the unconscious in your imagination and ask the unseen content to personify itself. You can start your Active Imagination by asking: Where is the obsession? Who is obsessed? Where does this feeling come from? Who is the one inside me who feels this way? What is its image? What does he or she look like?”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

In therapy, if the analyst is uncomfortable with these troubling images, ignores, avoids, or gives an overly positive interpretation of them, the patient will sense that the analyst cannot deal with this powerful psychic material, and no progress will be made. If, on the other hand, the therapist pays close attention to the affect-laden images of the nightmare, the patient can progress.

Active imagination also allows you to extend a dream by imagining where it left off. You may effectively continue your dream and interact with it by extending it out. This is especially useful when you are abruptly awakened in the middle of dreaming. Dreams and the imagination come from the same source in the unconscious, thus, one is able to “continue the story”, go through the next step the dream is leading toward, and bring the whole issue to a resolution.

Curiously, Jung found that dreaming decreases dramatically when one does active imagination. The issues that would have been presented in dreams are confronted and worked out. As such, dreams become more focused and concentrated and less repetitious. Jung recommended this method for people who are too overwhelmed by intense, disturbing and frequent nightmares.

Lucid Dreaming

Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

Another technique of engaging with one’s unconscious contents is lucid dreaming, which occurs when we are dreaming and realise that we are in a dream. The oneironaut is able to travel within a dream and even exert control over the environment, engage with his or her dream characters and ask questions of what their purpose is. This can be used to treat nightmares as well.

Lucid dreaming can occur unintentionally when the dreamer notices something “out of place”. There are, however, ways to increase the chance of lucid dreaming. Having a dream journal is essential, in order to write down or record one’s voice as soon as one wakes up. After doing this consistently for an extended period of time, one may notice certain patterns in the dreams that repeat themselves.

A wake-initiated lucid dream or WILD occurs when you directly enter a dream from waking life. This can be achieved by laying down and not moving your body, while your mind stays awake. After some time, you enter a state of being “half-asleep”, until you step into the dream-image. You can also experience hypnagogic hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that seem real while you are moving from wakefulness to sleep. WILD can be accompanied with mnemonic induction of lucid dreams or MILD, which involves repeating some kind of mantra each time such as “When I am dreaming, I will be aware that I am dreaming.”

Testing reality is another way to increase your chances of lucid dreaming. A reality check helps to remind yourself of the state of things in the real world. In dreams, things such as looking at a text, the time, in the mirror, etc., will appear distorted, blurry, or different each time you look. If you pinch your nose, you are still able to breathe; if you push your fingers against the palm, it goes through. It is helpful to choose your own reality check and stick to it, practising it while awake.

Lucid dreaming can provide you a way to explore your creative boundaries, encounter unknown aspects of yourself, and have an opportunity to befriend your shadow, which is a lifelong process.

A woman with a recurring nightmare of being pursued by a terrifying figure learns about lucid dreaming. As the figure starts following her, she realises that the scene seems familiar and becomes aware that she is dreaming. With great courage, she turns around to face her pursuer and screams at him, “You can’t hurt me!” He stops, looking surprised. For the first time she sees his beautiful, loving eyes. “Hurt you?” he says. “I don’t want to hurt you. I’ve been running after you all this time to tell you that I love you!” With that, he holds out his hands, and as she touches them, he dissolves in her. She awakes filled with energy, feeling great for days. Not only has this helped her to better face unpleasant situations, but also at expressing her feelings when needed, whereas before she would usually avoid or run from such situations.

Nightmares and Artists

Lynx – Peter Birkhäuser

Creative people such as musicians, painters, poets, writers, etc., seem to report nightmares more often than other people. Perhaps this is because they experience a “thin boundary” between the unconscious and the exterior world. Their ego (sense of identity) is in a deeper contact with the unconscious. Therefore, they are more influenced and less heavily defended against the influence of unconscious processes. They experience more psychological distress than non-artists. Jung writes:

“[A] person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.”

Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

This does not mean that creative people are more neurotic. On the contrary, they may be much more psychologically whole than non-artists by engaging in such creative tasks, for they are paying great attention to their unconscious.

“Not the artist alone, but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 6: Psychological Types

The artist has to sacrifice his ego in order to become the mouthpiece of the zeitgeist, he is a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of humanity.

“The great work of art is a product of the time, of the whole world in which the artist is living, and of the millions of people who surround him, and of the thousands of currents of thought and the myriad streams of activity which flows around him.”

C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters

Nightmare Artists: Beksiński and Giger

Necronom IV – H.R. Giger

The works of Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński and Swiss artist H.R. Giger, were heavily influenced by their nightmares.

Beksiński was a self-taught artist who wanted to paint in such a manner as if he were photographing dreams. His work depicts what seems to be post-apocalyptic or nightmarish landscapes, with decay, death, skeletons, and deformed figures.  He did not draw inspiration from anyone, apart from listening to classical music and simply painting whatever came in his mind. Beksiński was uninterested in interpretating his artworks and refused to provide titles for any of them. He himself was known as a pleasant person.

Giger’s art is referred to as biomechanical, the combination of human anatomy with machines. This is something that characterises our modern age of technology, the world of machines, that are slowly taking over our life, to the extent that many of us cannot live without technology. We have become entangled in it. Much of Giger’s art comes from unconscious conflicts and dreams, a focused self-exploration that led him to his inner dark abyss. By seeking the source of his own nightmares, Giger discovered the paramount psychological importance of the trauma of biological birth. His art shows the cycle of birth, sexuality, and death. Eros and Thanatos, interwoven. There is a deep connection between these three themes, which can allow us to reunite with the source of our being.

These two men share one thing in common: they have become the artistic voice of what the darkness in us is. They went to the dark recesses of the unconscious and settled down there. Their work is an example of what a confrontation with one’s shadow may look like. What we all apparently flee from, is their home. They show us how these dark repressed realms in our minds can become positive works of transformative art. After going through the darkest places, one finally sees the light shine through one’s life again. Fiction, no matter how surreal, is a response to reality. Fiction sometimes overcomes reality.

“[T]here are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word “happy” would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters

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The Psychology of Nightmares

Nightmares are the most substantial and vitally important dreams, and are of therapeutic value. They wake us up with a cry, as if all our repressed content forms a bubble which expands until it bursts one night, and we experience a nightmare.

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In Pursuit of Meaning. I hope to help as many people as possible who seek to enrich their lives with value and meaning. That is the ultimate purpose of Eternalised.

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