What Do Our Nightmares Reveal About Ourselves?

I’ve always been a troubled sleeper. For the first few years of my life I never slept through the night. I was a crying, difficult baby. And throughout my childhood and early teens I was tormented with sleepless nights and bad dreams. I was convinced that something awful would happen. When I was asleep I had nightmares of being abducted, and when I was awake my teeth chattered at the slightest creak in the floorboards. It’s a wonder I didn’t jump at the sound of my own terrified farts. My idea was that there was a bad man who would stealthily enter my room through my window and either murder me or carry me off. The fear was so intense I almost found religion. As a kid I attended a small, Anglican school, and I remember meeting with this extremely Christian woman and telling her that I was afraid of “murderers and especially burglars”. For some reason burglars were orders of magnitude worse, because the word itself sounded spooky. The lady told me that Jesus had my back and that every night I should tell myself I was wearing “God’s Armor” and that nothing could get through. Heck, I even tried it on the first night. But after saying it once I realized that God had even less likelihood of showing up at my bedside than the bogeyman I was so scared of. And even at the age of eleven I knew that muttering to myself like a boxcar hobo wasn’t going to help me reach the sweet, uninterrupted, dreamless sleep I had craved my whole life.

Now I’m twenty-four years old and I’ve just woken up from a little nightmare- my second of the week. But they are nothing like the kaleidoscopic, surrealist horrors of my childhood. And it got me thinking about the differences between the nightmares I have now, and the ones that plagued me as a child. As a kid my nightmares were like haunted mansion rides. I was being railroaded from one monstrosity to the next. My bad dreams then were horrifying in a visual way, whereas my bad dreams now are horrifying in a psychological way. Examples! As a kid I had a recurring nightmare about that scene in the 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland where those sentient playing cards start dancing around and Alice is lying face-down on the floor.

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It seemed like Alice was trapped in a nightmare herself. Everything around her was just evil and insane from my point of view, as though Lewis Carrol had deliberately constructed something to be as visually disturbing as possible. I felt like Alice in my dreams- trapped in a never-ending cycle of absolute madness. I remember actually realizing I was in a dream sometimes, and trying to wake myself up. I remember some dreaded murderer coming after me, and being so scared that all I could do was drop to the floor like Alice and keep my head down. It still sends a chill up my spine. Anyway, that’s why I never got into poker.

As a child, I remember asking my dad if grown-ups got nightmares too.

“Yeah, but not as often as children,” he answered. I was hoping that it was something that went away with age. I wanted it to end. I was shocked that someone like my dad could experience night terrors. As a kid my dad represented everything that was calm, strong, reassuring and logical. Everything about him seemed measured and pragmatic, like he knew everything and nothing surprised him.

“What do grown-ups get nightmares about?” I asked him.

“Usually it’s something like leaving a shop and realizing you bought the wrong sweater,” he answered.

So nightmares didn’t go away after all. They just got incredibly boring. I’m reminded of my dad’s words as I think about the nightmares I have had in 2017. There are three recurring bad dreams that I routinely go through, and have done for the past few years:

  1. Travel problems. Missing flights, getting on the wrong train, that sort of thing. Longtime readers of TumbleweedWrites will remember The Time I Got Bon-dangled by Border Patrol. I often suffer these very vivid dreams where I’m either racing through airports trying not to miss a flight to visit Aaron and Anne-Marie, or I’m in the UK with Aaron’s family and getting lost at train stations. What’s interesting is that I always wake up before any conclusion. I never actually miss the plane, but I dream everything up until that point.
  2. Going back to university. For a while now I’ve been having a recurring nightmare where I either decide to undertake a postgraduate degree in the USA or I have to relive my A-Levels but with my current mind and body. A-Levels are taken in the UK when you’re 17 and 18 as a qualification for university. Think of it as if Junior and Senior years of high school were broken off into their own thing. Anyway, in both scenarios I’m completely out of touch and I’ve lost the ability to study. I can’t concentrate and I skip classes out of fear and laziness.
  3. Losing our border collie pup. As many of you know, my American roommates have a little dog I’ve grown quite attached to. In recent months I’ve been having these strange dreams where I’m trusted with the dog for an indefinite period, and my roommates are mysteriously absent. Their presence is there but it’s faint. The nightmare usually has me losing the dog, or her vanishing into thin air, and my memory about how she disappeared becoming so warped that I question whether she existed in the first place. I’ve had further dreams about being trusted with other dogs- ones that don’t exist in real life- and similarly they disappear or go missing. They are always small puppies, no longer than my foot.

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If you compare these dreams to those of my childhood, the terror is quite different. All of them are about dread and doubt, and the threat is almost always my own mind. As a child, it was visual. An external threat- something or someone that wanted to do me in. Why certain things set me off is a mystery to me. As a kid I was mortified by that character in Spyro 2 that you have to follow- Agent Zero. Something about his blank face and unblinking, pit-like eyes made me think he was up to no good. It wasn’t just his haunting face, but the way he walked too. Like he had a dark secret to hide. In my mind he was undoubtedly a serial killer. The way Agent Zero would suddenly turn around and spot you caused me many a sleepless night.

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The other big one that freaked my balls off was the Pokemon Delibird. I’m not sure why exactly but that little bastard sent a current of terror through me like nothing else could. I loved Christmas as a kid, so the idea of something inhuman impersonating Father Christmas and presumably acting as his opposite, spreading violence and fear, really stuck with me.

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When I look back at Agent Zero, Delibird and the playing cards from Alice in Wonderland, I notice that they are all cartoons of a kind. They scared me, I think, the same way a clown might; they’re an imitation of life that just doesn’t look quite right. According to Steve Scholzman, M.D- an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical, clowns are scary to children because of pattern recognition.

“Pattern recognition allows to see when things are recognizable but off just enough to where you take caution. That’s why a little kid can recognize something as being a little bit dangerous without quite knowing why they know it’s dangerous. They recognize it as familiar but not quite the same as what they’re seeing.”

I’ll put a link to the article in which I read this below, in case you are interested in reading further. But is that not why I was so afraid of Delibird? It’s a distortion of what Santa should look like. Agent Zero and the playing cards are similarly corruptions of their accepted forms and the fact they’re so damn happy means you can’t know what they’re truly feeling. Delibird’s true intentions are hidden beneath his bright colors and unsettling, avian attempt at a smile.

What nightmares have dogged you for years? Let me know in the comments!

 

References

Why Are People Scared of Clowns?

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About mjvowles2014