Stuff of Nightmares


I seem to have been writing a lot of Horror lately. This may – or may not – have been the result of having just finished wading through a text about the neurology, psychology and purpose of Nightmares.

For most people the peak era of nightmares is toddlerhood. In that sense at least, I am like most people. Some of my nightmares – getting lost in a derelict house inhabited by Something Menacing that I Never Saw, or being pursued through a speeding train, again by SMtINS, I can still remember, along with the typical wading through treacle, or not being able to move at all. My childhood nightmares seem, at least according to the agreed ‘definition’, pretty much the classic formula. Not to be confused with ‘bad dreams’ which are still unpleasant but more mundane and without that nameless, abject terror.

The text delved into related matters: REM sleep, slow-wave sleep, the roughly 90-minute cycles of these and other sleep states in a normal night, and what happens when any of these states are disrupted. It got quite technical – I’m sure the parts of the brain were named by a committee whose remit was ‘make these words as forgettable as possible by people all over Western Europe.’

The part which really puzzled me, though, came next.

The character, constitution and body chemistry that make some people more prone to  nightmares than others are to an extent hereditary. If – after a million or so years of human-racing – nightmares haven’t died out then they must, in some bizarre way, have been useful.

Perhaps they still are.

The theory proposed here was that in prehistoric times those of us who suffered nightmares were held in awe and believed to be privy to esoteric knowledge no-one else could get at. We were considered useful. We were also in a way powerful because in our ‘other life’, in darkness, we had confronted Evil Things and come away unscathed. But to reach all these benefits we had, of course, first to tell other folk what had happened to us in the night…

I can’t quite make sense of this. People are surely more likely to believe the nightmare victim the source – or at least the conduit – of Evil Things rather than their vanquisher. And people who were regarded as having a connection with Evil wouldn’t have lasted long – in a tribe they’d be excommunicated and later, in modern but pre-industrial times, they’d be executed as a witch.

And as if that’s not enough, why toddlers? Why did nightmares come to afflict the very people least able to put their terrifying experiences into words, and thus to benefit from them?

Perhaps we were just supposed to remember them for later, and write Horror stories…


Image By wartburg.eduimage, Public Domain,