The word nightmare is derived from the Old English word mare. But in this case, we’re not talking about a horse. In Germanic and Slavic folklore, a mare is a hideous creature that sits on people’s chests while they sleep causing them to have horrific dreams. In Germany, people were so afraid of the mare that they used to recite a charm before going to sleep in order to keep this terrifying creature from invading their dreams.
Here I am lying down to sleep;
No mare of night shall plague me
until they have swam through all the waters
that flow upon the earth,
and counted all the stars
that appear in the sky.
In Polish folklore, the mare is known as the mara. Rather than being a paranormal entity, it is the soul of a living person that leaves their body at night, and it appears in the guise of a moth, or as gossamer-thin wisps of hair or spiderwebs. In Czech folklore, the mara is known as the night-butterfly, a large moth-like creature that lands on unsuspecting sleepers causing them to have nightmares.
Russian legends paint the mara as an invisible spirit who sometimes has the ability to show herself in the form of a woman with long flowing hair. In other traditions, the mara is a succubus-like creature who seduces men in their dreams, then has sex with them. But as pleasurable as the experience may be for the dreamer, this demonic sexual encounter ultimately leads to their death. In Serbian folklore, the mara is a spirit who slips quietly through a keyhole at night, then strangles you while you sleep.
The mare is synonymous with another folk tradition known as the night hag or old hag – a creature associated with sleep paralysis. During sleep paralysis, a person wakes in the middle of the night totally immobilized. They can see and hear perfectly, but they’re unable to move even the slightest bit. Accompanying the paralysis is a feeling that a malevolent being is sitting on their chests or lurking at the foot of their bed.
Traditional tales about mares, night hags, and the terrifying experience of nightmares and sleep paralysis can be found in almost every culture. In Scandinavian folklore, the mare is a cursed woman whose body is mysteriously transported while she’s asleep. In this trance-like state she visits people in her village at night and sits on their rib cages causing them to have nightmares.
In Fiji, sleep paralysis is referred to as kana tevoro, which roughly translates as being eaten by a demon. Although it’s called a demon, it’s actually the ghost of a recently dead relative who has returned because of some unfinished business, or to communicate important news to the living. The person who finds themselves in this paralyzed state can chase away the spirit simply by telling it to go away, or by cursing at it.
In Turkish folklore, sleep paralysis and nightmares are attributed to a visitation by a supernatural being known as a jinn. The jinn are said to be created by God from fire before the creation of mankind. This invisible creature comes to the victim's room at night, immobilizes them by holding them down, then starts to strangle them. It’s said that to get rid of the jinn, one needs to pray to Allah by reading special passages from the Qur'an. In some versions of the story, the jinn wears a wide hat during these visitations. If the person is courageous enough to take its hat, the djinn will become his slave.
Interestingly, these hat-wearing jinns are very similar to people’s descriptions of shadow people. A shadow person is a solid black figure that often appears at night, and is accompanied by a feeling of dread. Many shadow people are described as wearing hats, so the dark specter is sometimes referred to as the hat man.
Descriptions of shadowy, human-like figures who show up at night have appeared in folklore across cultures. One example comes from the Native American Choctaw tribe’s mythology which tells of a being known as the Nalusa Chito. This shadowy creature is so feared that many will not even utter its name for fear that doing so will summon the spirit. And there’s a good reason to be afraid of this dark nocturnal visitor. The Nalusa Chito not only appears in the night as a solid black figure, looming over the beds of its victims – it also eats their souls if they allow evil thoughts or depression to enter their minds.
While most of us try to forget our bad dreams, many authors have used their nightmares as material for their writings. Stephen King used a childhood nightmare as the inspiration for his first book, Salem’s Lot. He said, “It was a dream where I came up a hill and there was a gallows on top of this hill with birds all flying around it. There was a hanged man there. He had died, not by having his neck broken, but by strangulation. I could tell because his face was all puffy and purple. And as I came close to him he opened his eyes, reached his hands out and grabbed me.”
Another example of a nightmare used as the inspiration for a literary work comes from Mary Shelly who attributed her inspiration for the novel Frankenstein to a particularly gruesome nightmare. In the book’s preface she wrote, “I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out. And then, on the working of some powerful engine, it showed signs of life and stirred with an uneasy, half-vital motion…”
In the fall of 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson was a very sick man. The author of Treasure Island had suffered from poor health ever since he was a child, but this most recent battle with a severe bronchial ailment left him barely able to leave his home. One night, he had a terrifying dream. He cried out in his sleep and tossed and turned so much that his wife woke him up. But instead of being grateful to be rescued from this terrible nightmare, he scolded her saying, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” Immediately upon waking, he already had three scenes sketched out for a new book. That book would eventually become the classic horror novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Psychologists have always been fascinated by dreams and nightmares. Famed psychoanalysis Carl Jung theorized that dreams are a glimpse into the unconscious mind, and that nightmares are symbolic manifestations of something he called the shadow. Jung said that everyone has two types of shadows. The personal shadow is made of repressed experiences from childhood which we deem unacceptable due to conditioning by adults. These experiences include fantasies, desires, sadness, and sexual curiosity. The collective shadow contains all of the terrors and struggles that humans have faced since their primal beginnings, as well as our primitive instincts associated with survival, such as sexual desire.
According to Jung, nightmares are a reflection of things we unconsciously struggle to accept about ourselves – aspects of our shadow self. By facing our nightmares head on, we can begin to embrace these repressed feelings and desires so they’ll have less of a detrimental effect on our emotional lives.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could actually control our dreams? To change our nightmares into ones that aren’t scary at all? Well, believe it or not, some people can do just that. It’s called lucid dreaming. During a lucid dream, the dreamer becomes aware that they are dreaming, and they gain control over the dream’s characters, narrative, or environment.
The idea of lucid dreaming has been around for ages. In 350 BC, Aristotle wrote his treatise 'On Dreams'. In it, he said that “one can sometimes be aware while dreaming that one is dreaming.” The ancient Egyptians believed that everyone had the ability to lucid dream. They thought that a person’s soul left their body at night, and that dreams were symbolic of the soul’s travels. And since the creator of the dream is our own soul, we can shape our dreams any way we want at will. The Egyptians even built special temples where people would sleep in order to help attain this lucid dreaming state.
Dreams of the death of loved ones, natural disasters, or violence and murder are common nightmare themes. But apart from the terror and strong emotions that such dreams leave in their wake, there is another thing we fear when we have a nightmare – that it might come true. Unfortunately, some nightmares actually do.
Precognitive dreams are those that predict a negative event such as a natural or man-made disaster, or the death of a loved one. They may be a type of warning signal left over from the time of our primitive ancestors. Back then, dreaming of wild animal attacks, sudden severe weather, or war with a neighboring tribe served as a way to prepare for these events. Some believe the ability to see into the future through our dreams lies dormant in modern man, only surfacing when a particularly horrific or personal tragedy is about to occur.
Many people have reported having dreams or nightmares that actually came true. One example comes from a man considered by many to be the greatest American writer of all time, Mark Twain.
Twain’s given name was Samuel Clemens, and before he became a writer he was a riverboat pilot in Mississippi. In 1858, Sam and his younger brother Henry were working together on a boat named the Pennsylvania.
One night, Sam had a terrible dream in which he saw his brother Henry laying dead in a coffin. It wasn’t a typical wooden casket, but one made of metal. Henry was wearing a suit that belonged to Sam, and on his chest was a huge bouquet of white roses with a single red rose at the center.
Sam woke up in horror, convinced that his brother’s body actually was laid out in the next room. He tried to convince himself that the dream was not real, and he ended up walking around outside for hours to try to erase this horrific nightmare from his mind.
The dream haunted Sam for days, and he related the details of it to various family members. They brushed it off as being just a bad dream and told him to forget about it. Sam agreed to try to put the dream out of his mind, but the memory of it continued to hang over him.
The pilot of the Pennsylvania, William Brown, had a violent temper, and during a voyage downriver Sam got into a full-blown fight with him. This led to Sam being transferred to another boat while Henry remained on the Pennsylvania.
The following day, the Pennsylvania’s boiler exploded and the ship caught fire. Henry was badly burned in the disaster. He survived, but died at a hospital in Memphis a few days later. Although his body was badly burned, his handsome face was untouched. The female volunteers who were helping tend to the victims of the tragedy were so struck by his beauty that they gave him the best coffin available.
When Sam entered the room where his brother was laid out, he was stricken with horror as the exact details of his dream played out before his eyes. His dead brother was laying a metal casket, wearing the same borrowed suit he had seen in his dream. The only thing missing from the scene was the floral bouquet. But as Sam sat in the room, mourning the loss of his brother, a woman came in with a bouquet of white roses. She laid it on Henry’s chest. The white bouquet had a single red rose in the center.
For the rest of his life, Mark Twain would tell the story of how he dreamed of his brother’s death. The experience affected him so much that he was one of the first to join the Society for Psychical Research in the hope that he might better understand how precognitive dreams worked. But he could never escape the thought that he might have been able to prevent his brother's death had he warned him after having that terrible nightmare.
By far, the most frightening type of nightmare is one that, thankfully, few ever experience. These are the nightmares that are caused by demons and other dark entities.
There are four stages to demonic possession – Infestation, oppression, obsession, and finally possession. During the oppression stage, those who are being attacked by a demon almost always experience horrific, perverse, and violent nightmares.
As a paranormal investigator, I've had first-hand encounters with people who were in various stages of possession. One case in particular stands out in my mind because of the terrible nightmares that accompanied the demonic infestation.
The case involved two sisters. Out of respect for their privacy, I’ll refer to them as Melanie and Beth. Both were intelligent, professional women in their 50’s. One was a psychologist, the other a nurse. They lived together in a large apartment in Upstate New York, and never experienced anything unusual until one night Melanie had a terrifying dream of a black hooded figure standing over her bed. When she woke up, the figure was actually in the room with her standing right next to her bed. After about 20 seconds, this mysterious dark figure faded away.
The next morning, Beth came down to breakfast. Before Melanie had a chance to tell of her strange dream, Beth started talking about the nightmare she had had that night. The dream she told was the exact same dream Melanie had, right down to the black figure appearing in the room.
Night after night the sisters had horrifying nightmares, and the dreams became more violent and perverse. Some involved dead bodies that were horribly mutilated or riddled with bullets lying on the floor of their rooms, or sitting in chairs. Others centered around visitations by grotesque creatures that seemed to be made up of a conglomerate of different animals. One had the trunk of an elephant and a mouth full of sharp protruding teeth. Each time the sisters would have a dream, the creatures in the dream would appear in the room with them upon awakening. And every morning the sisters would compare notes only to find that they always had the exact same dreams.
I’ve never met a nightmare I didn’t love. Whether it’s an insane knife-wielding nun chasing me through a cornfield, or the bloated rotting corpse of Mickey Rooney emerging from my closet holding a dozen helium balloons, the truth is, I love them all. Of course, like everyone else in the world, I’m initially afraid when I wake up from these little nocturnal insanities. But the truth is, they're mine. My creation. The children of my psyche. The way I look at nightmares is that they’re calling to me, begging me to understand them, or at least to try. Because it’s only after we come to terms with the fiends that haunt us at night that we’ll someday find ourselves holding hands with them, laughing about some long forgotten joke, and saying to one another, “You know, you’re not so bad after all.”
Books inspired by nightmares