The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams
According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the primary meaning of the word “nightmare” is a “female monster supposed to settle upon people and animals in their sleep producing a feeling of suffocation,” and it only secondarily refers to “a bad dream producing these or similar sensations.” It is, in fact, a word that harks back to the largely lost world of evil spirits, demons, incubi, and succubi, when dreams were not, as they are now, products of our own mental processes but were portents, threats, visions, and visitations from another world.
Something of its former horror and glamour still, however, surrounds the word “nightmare.” Many people still believe that there is some specific nocturnal experience, an encounter with a real nightmare, which they may one day have, or, more soberly, that there is one specific kind of dream, distinct from all others, which alone merits the designation “nightmare.”
Ernest Jones seems to have been one of the last people to believe in nightmares, and in his On the Nightmare (1951), which is still in print, he asserted that there are such things as true nightmares and that they have three cardinal features: agonizing dread, a sense of oppression and weight upon the chest leading to difficulty in breathing, and a conviction of helpless paralysis; features that would indeed be present if one were being overlaid by a female monster. However, Jones, being a psychoanalyst, did not, of course, believe in the real existence of visiting monsters; he asserted that nightmares are “morbid phenomena” with a specific pathology, being “an expression of a violent conflict between a certain unconscious sexual desire and intense fear,” the certain unconscious desire being in both sexes “the feminine or masochistic component of the sexual instinct.” In other words, Jones maintained that there are such things as true nightmares, which closely resemble the visions that medieval man blamed on intrusive monsters, incubi, and devils, and that in men they are the result of repressed homosexual wishes and in women the result of repressed heterosexual ones.
There is, however, something very peculiar about Jones’s thesis. He claims that it is based on his own clinical experience as a psychoanalyst, which would lead one to expect that he would be able to cite twentieth-century examples of true nightmares, but in fact all the examples he gives date from the eighteenth century or even earlier.
True or classical nightmares seem in fact to be something of a myth or at least a rarity, and twentieth-century Europeans and Americans do not, it seems, often have the kind of dream that led their medieval ancestors to believe in intrusive monsters, succubi, and incubi. In an earlier work, Sleep and Dreaming (Little, Brown, 1970), Ernest Hartmann reported that true incubus nightmares had only very rarely been reported by subjects sleeping in dream laboratories, while “very frightening” dreams were “not quite so rare.” In his present work, The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams, he in effect undermines the…
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