The Meaning of Nightmares

This Autumn we have been looking at the theme of nightmares. In contrast to dreams, nightmares are always considered to be negative things. They are often seen as showing up our worst fears. But what of their history?

Many thought that a nightmare was caused by evil spirits or demons, which were to be stopped.

Removing a bad dream

Nightmares or bad dreams were something that the Indigenous Americans wanted to purge from their people. The use of “dream catchers” was given the utmost importance. The dream catcher is a crafted web that was hung where someone slept in order to “catch” bad spirits from entering into the dreams of the person.

Other cultures also had a method of preventing or “curing” bad dreams. Sometimes they would sacrifice animals, or humans to stop them. Other less drastic measures included wearing certain jewellery and charms, with magical symbols that were said to stop nightmares.

Changing perceptions

By the 20th Century, the beliefs of the causes of bad dreams drastically changed. Psychologists at this time came to see the nightmare as a residual symptom of a psychological affliction such as Anxiety or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The idea of a nightmare was one of an internal medical problem rather than an external cause such as evil spirits entering the body.

Final thoughts

Much like dreams, nightmares have become seen as similar in their origins, in the way in which they both reflect the mind of a person. This is in contrast to the earlier belief that a separate “evil spirit” was corrupting someone. It is debatable whether we would have the distinction between nightmares and dreams if people didn’t have this earlier understanding of what nightmares were.

Favourite Nightmares

When I think of the word ‘Nightmare’, to me this means more than just a bad dream. A nightmare can be truly terrifying and can be convincingly portrayed across many forms of art, from the haunting Guernica by Picasso, the battlefield art of WW1 and Munch’s The Scream in painting to Victorian Gothic tales from Edgar Allan Poe, Dracula Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Wordsworth Classics) Du Maurier’s Rebecca (VMC) and recent incantations from Marissa Pessl, Susan Hill etc in writing. Film has produced many successful adaptations of nightmares from literature but also explored the subject on its own terms.

A nightmare is anything strange and uneasy, it can be a sudden shock or a realisation that all is not what it seems. Nightmares can be represented in fact and fiction, the Holocaust is often quoted as being a historical nightmare. Any kind of War is a nightmare. Nightmares can be represented in crime fiction through murder, stalking, committing a crime with a guilty conscience. A lost child to a parent is a nightmare. The recent popularity of the psychological thriller genre in literature could represent our ongoing fascination with nightmares. The actual sphere of nightmares is much wider than the horror or ghostly connotations that the word first evokes.
This time of year nearing Halloween the emphasis is on horror and ghost stories which fit in with our nightmare theme and here I explore a few of my favourite titles. For me the true masters of visual nightmares have to be the Japanese in both fiction and filmic interpretation. Ring is a classic (both in novel and film form) and one we have previously discussed but I also loved the film adaptation of Dark Water [2003] [DVD] too which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Stranger Things

Of course lots of people have watched Stranger Things by now on Netflix and I’m such a chicken I haven’t been able to get past episode one which I thought was very good but absolutely terrifying! I have watched some really scary films in the past and am not sure why this has rattled my bones so much but it really has! I’ll have to watch it with a room full of people in bright daylight I think to get past this!

The Others by Alejandro Amenabar

A great film by Alejandro Amenabar, The Others [DVD] is now a modern classic in the haunted house genre. It involves the classic stalwarts of  a creepy séance, new inhabitants of a home and the old ones who don’t want to leave! There is one scene in this that struck with me the macabre tradition of mourning photos of Victorian and Edwardian times featuring deceased relatives!! Thank goodness this is a tradition that is not as widely observed today! Another creepy film that has been praised is The Witch [DVD] [2016] by Robert Eggers. I have seen the trailer for this and it looks spine tingling.

It and Bag of Bones by Stephen King

The scariest ever book I’ve read is It by the ‘Master of Horror Writing,’ Stephen King. ‘It’ is a very apt title due to all this clown scaring going on (not a good idea BTW!!). I actually never finished ‘It’ though due to the truly terrifying-ness of the story! Is absolutely frightening! One other Stephen King book I have managed to finish and would recommend though is Bag of Bones there are some really scary moments in thus and reading it has made sure that I’ll never be able to look at a Felix the cat clock again!

Other Nightmare Tales!

James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall is another great tale and quite scarily fitting into the haunted house subgenre of Gothic tales. I read this book one Christmas whilst staying in Devon as this book is set in the West country. The strange tales in The Haunted Book by Jeremy Dyson are definitely worth a Halloween read as are the earlier Robert Aickman tales they were influenced by the Ringing the Changes in Dark Entries is a particular favourite of mine.

With regards to film and TV nightmares there are so many, the aforementioned Stranger Things and its immense popularity point that this is a genre that will run and run as we as humans have a constant appetite for all things eerie and unexplained and no doubt will continue to do so for many years to come.

Literary Dreams and Fictional Nightmares

I have always been attracted to imaginative writing in book and filmic form and love the genre of magical realism which partly explains my obsession with the work of Haruki Murakami. I also love Paul Auster whose The New York Trilogy contains elements of dreaminess and otherworldly aura. For this post though I wanted to highlight some other works that relate to this theme that I have not already touched on and also look at where my interests in this theme may have begun…

Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

 Marianne Dreams is a book that I read as a child but have also found surprising parallels with when re-reading it as an adult. This story is about a girl called Marianne who is convalescing from an unspecified illness. She dreams of a house that she has drawn and which comes to life in her vivid dream and there she meets a boy called Mark who is also ill and needs her help. The book is sinister at times as she finds that her feverish dreams dictate the story and the house she created is full of danger and malice. The book was made into a later film called Paperhouse [DVD] which I also enjoyed. I think that the whole notion of convalescence is generally something quite rare today amongst many children and adults however, those of us with long term health conditions can find ourselves in these strange states of being at times. I loved the creative idea of something so harmless as a children’s drawing of a house changing in their dreams to become something to be feared (very Gothic!) and a great metaphor for the power of imagination.

Moondial by Helen Cresswell

Moondial (Faber Children’s Classics) is another children’s story that I firstly came across through watching the excellent BBC adaptation in the early Nineties you can get here Moondial [DVD]The story focuses on Minty the main character in the present day who us sent to live with her Aunt for the Summer near a stately home where in the grounds she finds a Sundial (or Moondial) that at night acts as a portal for her to time travel. She goes to two different time periods, the first Victorian to meet and help a servant boy Tom (suffering from TB) and to Georgian times to meet Sarah, a shy child with a birthmark who is treated cruelly by her governess and called a ‘Devil’s Child.’ These childrens’ spirits aren’t at rest and it falls to Minty to make the past wrongs right again. Whilst she is staying with her Aunt, Minty discovers that her mum has had a car crash and is in a coma in hospital so she makes her cassettes of her adventures. About ten years ago, we visited Belton House the National Trust estate was the filming location for the series. Even though this is a classic children’s adaptation there are some scary moments in it too, especially the set piece towards the end at night in Sarah’s time, with the other children wearing extremely disturbing costumes and masks!

 The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

The Night Bookmobile is a Gothic title I recently came across by Audrey Niffenegger. It is displayed in graphic novel form and concerns the life of a book loving woman who comes across a mobile library one night whilst she’s out walking. The strange element is that the stock is comprised of all she has ever read! The bookmobile appears only intermittently throughout moments of her life, it us never there when she seeks it but appears when she is not looking for it! She wants to work there but is rebutted by the sinister looking librarian. It has a surprising and macabre ending but overall this is an inventive tale.

Susan Hill’s Ghost Stories

I’ve recently read the latest of Susan Hill’s ghost stories called The Travelling Bag: And Other Ghostly Stories These series of ghost stories are beautifully presented with gorgeous gilt inlaid covers. As the author of The Woman In Black (one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read) Hill is of course the ‘Grand Dame’ of ghostly horror and ‘The Travelling Bag’ is a great addition to her cache of ghost stories. As well as the titular story this also contains ‘Alice Baker’ and ‘Boy Number Twenty-One,’ my favourite of the collection. Amongst Susan Hill’s ghost stories another personal favourite is The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story (The Susan Hill Collection) about a haunted painting of the Venice carnival, is a stand out tale for me also.

These are just a select few of my choices for this theme, look out for my next post coming soon where I’ll look at what makes a nightmare and select a few more cultural nightmares…

‘Nightmares’ in Gardening

In stark contrast to dreams are of course nightmares. In the horticultural world nightmares can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. In perhaps the most obvious sense a border full of weeds is considered a “nightmare”. However through the use sculpture and  garden ornaments one can create an appearance that seems rather otherworldly.

Conspirator III (Guy Fawkes) – By Gilbert Whyman, Photographed at RHS Hyde Hall

As seen in this statue of Guy Fawkes, with the legs partly made from old lawnmower blades and the body made from old fuel tanks with the addition of gears and a chain, all weathered and rusted it has a rather sinister nightmarish form.

Large terrace of overgrown land in Miranda Do Corvo, central Portugal.

A different kind of “nightmare” in the garden is overgrowth. See the vast swathes of bracken in the picture, in places it is nearly 10 feet tall. Believe it or not a large, flat terrace of land is underneath all this.

At this time of year, what with Halloween this month we can all relate to pumpkins and the Jack-O-Lantern. Some people opt for a classic ‘scary face’ but there are other more creative options to explore.

Various “Jack-O-Lantern” designs from a suburban front garden on Halloween.

So whatever you think of when you contemplate gardening nightmares, perhaps it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad.


The BFG Film Review

As you know dreams are a picture in your mind that you paint while asleep, also you may feel like you are really in them or might dream something like reality. Dreams are very interesting and not everybody can remember them but everybody has them.

For this months blog, I watched a new film at the cinema based on the well-known book The BFG (Dahl Fiction) by Roald Dahl. The book is an excellent read and I would recommend this also.

It was a great film and if you don’t know the story, it’s all about dreams, which is appropriate! One night the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) captures Sophie from her bed in order to help him stop the other Giants (which are evil) from eating children. Sophie also helps the BFG to fight the evil Queen! It is a magical film and some of the dream/dream-catching scenes are very beautiful when the BFG and Sophie go to catch the dreams for the children. The BFG goes up to children’s windows and blows dreams into the rooms and they dream happily. I think that this is a nice idea and you really want the BFG and Sophie to win against the Giants and Evil Queen, but you’ll have to read and/or watch it to find out if they do!