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Flashback Friday: Nightmares

You wake up suddenly, hands convulsing, arms rigid, body drenched in sweat. Then you say relax, it was only a dream. Only a bad dream.

Flashback Friday: Nightmares
Illustration by Jill Bauman

Ward Damio uncovers the truth behind nightmares in this April, 1982 feature from High Times magazine, followed by a sidebar titled “From Freud to Flagella,” written by Dean Latimer.


The figure of the sleeper ceased all movement. An absolute and total stillness descended upon the room and the sleeper alike. The sleeper found that still unexplained twilight world of flickering images that fill the mysterious arena that we know as dreams and nightmares…

Suddenly the forest is no longer beautiful. The day seems to darken and an ominous brooding hangs in the air. The woman quickens her pace down the narrow trail. Loud noises crash through the underbrush, looming huge and menacing. Panicked, she runs headlong, on and on, gasping, legs leaden. For miles and miles. The sounds seem to grow nearer and nearer. Suddenly the trail drops out from under her feet and she falls, endlessly falling… until she hits bottom. The woman stands, shaken, bruised. Suddenly it stands over her. Uncontrollably she screams. At the sound, it starts toward her. Still screaming, she turns and runs again, forcing an aching, bruised body on, running wildly over the meadows, the sounds still coming behind her. Finally she sees the house, only a little further. She reaches the door, grabs, pulls, finds the keys in her pockets, turns them. Finally she slams the door behind her and leans wearily shaking, against it. It seems as if she stands there forever, not knowing what to do next.

She hears the sound of breaking glass from the other end of the house. My God, it’s at the back door. She looks around frantically. Then, she races up the stairs and into the bedroom, slamming and locking the door behind her. She runs to the window and looks out. No escape. Then, she stands trembling and paralyzed by the bed as she listens to the sound of it slowly moving through the house… and to the stairs … and then step by step, up. Until she knows it stands outside the door…

Until 1950, sleep was an area of human knowledge little known to scientific research. The use of the electroencephalograph (EEG) shed light on an area that had previously been kept locked within the dark rooms of human knowledge. Now we know that how much we sleep does not affect our life expectancy; that lack of sleep does not give us rings under our eyes and lines in our face; that many happy and energetic people sleep less than four hours a night. We know that every single night we pass through at least five different types of sleep. We know that in the course of an evening we are alternately paralyzed, our breathing and blood pressure increased dramatically; and that we have several sexual arousals.

Sleep is a part of what is called a natural circadian rhythm in our state of consciousness, which is dependent upon the mono-aminergic systems of the brain stem. In mammals, sleep follows the characteristic pattern known as the basic sleep cycle, which is characterized by the presence of rapid eye movement (REM sleep) and by the absence of such movements (NREM sleep). In human NREM sleep, the brain is relatively quiet and the body is alert and conscious. In REM sleep, the brain is extremely active and rapid eye movements occur, but skeletal muscles are inhibited and areflexic. In a normal sleep pattern, there is a regular alternation between REM and NREM sleep. Each alternation lasts from 70 to 120 minutes, averaging about 90 minutes, and is repeated four to six times during a night’s sleep.

In an average sleep cycle, an individual spends a few minutes in the highest phase of sleep, the “half-awake, half-asleep” phase (stage one), before reaching the “medium” kind of sleep (stage two). Later, the subject passes into the deep sleep phases (stages three and four) and then gradually eases into REM sleep. Stages three and four are thought to be the most restorative and recuperative sleep periods. The relative time spent by an average young adult in each of the stages of one cycle may be divided roughly as follows: 5 percent in stage one NREM, 50 percent in stage two NREM, 20 percent in stages three and four NREM, and 25 percent in the REM stage. The REM period of the first cycle is usually the shortest, lasting no more than five minutes; it may even be absent. The later REM periods may last from 30 to 60 minutes. Most NREM sleep occurs during the first third of a night’s sleep while most REM sleep takes place during the last third. When awakened during REM sleep, four out of five individuals will describe a vivid, active dream colored by much imagery and some fantasies. In one sense, REM sleep is the deepest state of sleep; it is more difficult to awaken a sleeping individual from REM sleep than from any of the NREM sleep stages. Frightening nightmare attacks such as feelings of suffocation and overwhelming terror occur, surprisingly, during NREM sleep stage four, not during REM sleep. These phenomena are not thought to be manifestations of dreams.

A nightmare is a troubled dream—but of much greater intensity—characterized by an abrupt awakening. Researchers have divided nightmares roughly into two categories: REM and NREM. In the first category is the reactive nightmare, which clearly seems to be based upon profound disturbances in the daily life of the sleeper. A sense of loss or grief or uncontrollable fear gives rise to related troubled dreams that recur. Another type of nightmare in this first category is the spontaneous nightmare characterized by sudden, fear-filled images with no apparent correlation to the sleeper’s waking life. The second category of nightmare, the horrors or night terrors, occur in the deepest stage of NREM sleep and are characterized by a profound sense of horror or terror which is not accompanied by sounds, sights or images, nor is it connected to waking life or the suppressed wishes or feelings of the sleeper.

Where do nightmares come from? In order of certainty, nightmares come from within the sleeper; from the neural synapses of the lower brain stem; from the experiences of the waking life of the sleeper; from the primal, subconscious and instinctive emotional ties within the racial memory of the human species.

The last 30 years of sleep research have given us some fascinating, illuminating and comforting pieces of information. For instance, many subjects who have been awakened during stage one sleep report that they were actually thinking. Their thoughts ranged from things as practical as “I must remember to feed the cat in the morning” to “Why can’t I fall asleep?” even though they are asleep. Many people swear that they are awake, didn’t sleep or can’t get to sleep when in actuality brain-wave monitoring has shown that they were asleep the entire time. Stage two, the second stage of lighter sleep, is also familiar to most people. This second stage is the level of sleep during which something familiar, such as a regularly scheduled train or even, unfortunately, an inefficient alarm clock, will not disturb the sleeper at all. But something unusual—an object falling or a burglar—can register and immediately arouse the sleeper. It is during stage four that scientists believe we get our needed rest. When experimental subjects experience a below-average amount of stage four sleep, they compensate by remaining in stage four sleep for an above-average amount of time the following night. It is during this deepest level of NREM sleep that the strange phenomena of sleepwalking, nightmares and bed-wetting occur.

The average sleeper will pass from stage one through the deepest level of stage four and then back up to a very light sleep before going into the stage of REM and dreaming. During REM sleep, sexual arousal occurs, not only in adults, but in children as well. Despite the fact that the eyes move rapidly, breathing is often very rapid and blood pressure rises significantly, the major muscles of the body are inhibited from movement by the nervous system. This genuine paralysis could be the body’s way of preventing possibly damaging movements while the sleeper dreams of being physically active.

Psychology is another area in which sleep research has produced radical findings. Dreaming has been traditionally explored and understood through the postulations of Sigmund Freud. One type of nightmare that is of common occurrence involves the phenomenon that Freud called displacement. Freud believed that unacceptable emotions, such as dislike of ourselves, were placed upon other objects or persons to make them acceptable in our dreams.

Freud said that dreams represent material repressed as a result of the moral strictures of society that are superimposed upon the primary needs of the individual. Freud’s Victorian society was very restrictive of sexuality. He postulated that the individual’s need to express the primary sex drive was subjected to constant repression until the social strictures are weakened by the state of sleep. He further believed that our inhibitions would still be strong enough to disguise this forbidden sexual content symbolically. For instance, long pointed objects represent the penis and enclosed spaces such as boxes represent the womb. Despite our much freer sexual attitudes, today’s psychiatrists still follow these basic principles.

This has all been fine and dandy for quite a while, but since the advent of the EEG and the development of sleep research, most if not all of this would appear to be questionable, at the least. Among other things, the EEG has revealed that animals experience dream sleep—including goats, sheep, rats, mice and dogs—none of whom have yet demonstrated repressive moral codes worth mentioning. On a more human level, testing has demonstrated that newborn babies show dream sleep for as much as 80 percent of their sleeping time. The average adult dreams only 25 percent of the time. If infant dreams are based upon infant experiences, we must ask the question of how much opportunity society has had to impose moral restrictions upon a day-old infant.

It would also seem that if Freud was right in assuming that dreams represent repressed material from our waking life, then there would be wide variation in the quantity and elapsed time of dreams between different individuals and in the same individual at different times, depending upon the events of our daily life. In other words, a very repressed individual should experience far more dreams than somebody with a more liberated head. However, dream sleep occupies roughly that same 25 percent of the time most people spend sleeping, regardless of personality, life experience or sexual proclivities.

At McGill University in Montreal, a neurosurgeon named Wilder Penfield has been expanding the frontiers of brain research by using an electrical current to stimulate transmission between synapses in parts of the brain cortex and asking the patient to describe what they experienced. As a result, Penfield has been able to diagram the parts of the cortex in terms of their relationship to other parts of the body. Patients reported experiencing sights, sounds and even the entire range of emotions, just as they do in dreams. This recent work seems to indicate that we maintain a complete file of memories that are accessible to us as either accurate or distorted replicas of real-life experience. These have been and can be evoked by simply activating a critical neuron in the brain electrically. Spontaneous neural activity of this kind seems to originate in the lower brain and very well could account for animal as well as human dreams. Spontaneous impulses cross a length of ascending neuron and jump across the synaptic gap to spark the next higher level of neurons and set off a random pattern of discharges causing the impressions and motions which we label dreams. There is then the possibility that the dream mechanism lies completely outside the dreamer’s responsibility, that the dream expresses no wish, no impulse, no suppressed or unconscious need, but rather a random combination of stored impressions.

Still, the most frightening of the frontiers of sleep has yet to be explained by modern research. What is the mechanism that vitalizes our dreams, charges them with emotion, activates the payload of horror, unleashes the nightmare?

The victims of nightmares are in a position to prevent them. Unknown as it may be, the nightmare is a phenomenon within our system and, therefore, can be dealt with within our individual systems. The first task is to be able to halt the nightmare by awakening yourself. The abilities necessary are first to alert yourself to the start of the nightmare, the portion before the frightening finale, and secondly, to awaken yourself at a signal.

First, to alert yourself to the progress of nightmares, you must ask yourself the following questions: 1. Do your nightmares occur in the same place or setting? Describe it accurately and then decide to awaken whenever you see it during a dream. 2. Do particular people appear in your nightmares? If so, decide to awaken as soon as you meet these people during a dream. 3. Do your nightmares have a particular premonition of emotion, uneasiness, dread, terror, laughter, happiness or joy? It need not be a negative emotion—simply any which immediately precedes your nightmares. If so, identify them and decide to awaken as soon as they appear in your dreams. 4. Are there any special sounds or sights which immediately precede a nightmare? Again, remember and decide to awaken as soon as the sight or sound appears as part of your dreams.

You’ll be very surprised at the result of this exercise. You are simply making yourself aware of the advent of a nightmare and using a natural ability to awaken yourself at your own choice. When you awaken, do not allow yourself to fall back into dream sleep and your aborted nightmare again. Stay awake for at least five minutes—standing, walking or sitting in a chair before returning to bed. The following are a very good set of rules to avoid the occurrence of nightmares at all: 1. Deliberately tire yourself with exercise and physical activity during the day and before sleep. 2. Do not eat, drink, watch television or engage in conversation while in bed. Do not eat or drink anything during the night. 4. Avoid alcohol. 5. Do not use prescribed sleeping medications, or do not use them for more than ten consecutive days if you must use them at all. If you sleep during the day, go to bed later than usual on that particular evening and/or increase your exercise and physical activity.

The combination of physical exercise and a tired body and the avoidance of the various means of distracting or tranquilizing the mind will create a healing process which, day by day, will counterbalance the continuing phenomenon of the nightmares until they disappear.

Recent research into sleep phenomena has revealed illuminating information about those nightmares that do not occur during REM sleep and are not a suppressed need for pleasure or pain. Research shows that NREM nightmares occur during the fourth deepest level of NREM sleep, that stage when the body should be recuperating and the mind restoring itself, a period of physical paralysis, lowered life signs and brain-wave patterns similar to those occurring in a coma.

As all of us know only too well, the principal ingredient of these nightmares is fear. The nightmare contains that haunting primal quality of terror which for most individuals equates to fear of death. The conceptual kinship between sleep and death has always existed in modern mythology. In ancient Greece, the twin brothers Hypno and Thanatos were the gods of sleep and death. In Rome, Somnus ruled sleep while his twin brother, Mor, reigned over the kingdom of death. Primitive societies have always believed that death was a permanent departure of the soul from the body, while sleep represented a temporary absence of the soul. In The Iliad, Homer says: “Sleep and Death/two twins of winged race of matchless swiftness/but of silent pace.”

Perhaps, as has been hypothesized, REM sleep, with its accompanying dreams, establishes the neural muscular coordination necessary for voluntary conjugate eye movements in the young, periodically reinforcing them in the adult. Perhaps, nightmares are a manifestation of the one primordial fear shared by all animals, the consuming fear of the coming, inevitable, unavoidable moment of dying.

From Freud to Flagella

Animals dream. Anyone with a dog or cat or stable of ponies knows that animals dream, and anyway, electroencephalograms from sleeping mammals of all species show the same passages and sequences of dream and nondream that show up from sleeping humans. Birds dream too. Clams probably dream. Imagine the dreams of a duckbilled platypus.

This does not seem to have occurred to Dr. Sigmund Freud when he laid down The Interpretation of Dreams. Does an elk have archetypal oedipal conflicts to work out in sleep? When walruses dream of water, is that a sign of sexual frustration? Is a dream fish for an otter a phallic or yonic symbol? Dreams for Freud were allegorical problems presented for discussion and analysis, intellectual exercises almost. Was he dead wrong in this, and Carl Jung by logical extension absolutely meshugah?

If the PBS technicians who produce the special effects for “Cosmos” and “Nova” were to depict the three-dimensional human brain in sleep, it’d be awfully pretty. As sleep set in, electrical activity in the orbital frontal cortex and the base brain would tone down to ochre shadow, while the limbic region between them kindled prettily, glowing and sparkling from chartreuse to cerise. As REM dreaming sleep set in, beautiful strobing arcs of energy would fly from the limbic system to the forebrain, illuminating it with a pale, flickering fox-fire incandescence, brightened sporadically by lurid neon influxes of deep limbic input. From the base brain, at the nethermost regions of sexual and alimentary being, intermittent pulses of dark opalescent sense flux would be drawn into the limbic process, and projected into the “preconscious” forebrain like photo images into a holographic viewing tube.

This is full dream, where you’re raping and butchering your parents and the Baby Jesus, committing suicide six different ways, smothering in excrement, fucking crocodiles and falling through eternities of space with horrible black shapes soaring after you. This is where you become a panicked electrical blip in a strobing Pong game that lasts forever and forever. And this is where, at the last possible picosecond, your entire mind discorporates like a flock of birds spooked suddenly out of a tree by a hawk, and you’re just not there anymore for a while, until REM sets in again.

The astonishing thing is that sometimes we can remember these dreams, prompted by hypnosis or drugs or crazed religious-conversion experiences. Memory, as far as neurologists can tell, is a function of brain centers between limbic and forebrain. How then should the horrible claustrophobic sex-and-digestion images generated from the dream-enkindled base brain leave such sharp impressions in us, to be conjured up by hypnosis and drugs and religion? It’s called “retrograde input,” and it suggests that human experience is considerably more complicated than an orderly, easily mappable progression of bioelectric impulses proceeding down one-way nerve conduits.

Which rescues Freud and Jung and the idea of the interpretation of dreams. Certainly the images and emotions we experience during sleep are generated fundamentally by random, arbitrary changes in our blood pressure, breathing rate, peristaltic action, body temperature, production of glandular endogenous steroids, and the random sounds and smells of our bedchambers. Those erotic dreams which so provoke certain of us, leaving a foul taste in our minds for hours after awakening—omne anima post coitum triste est—have lots more to do with our bladders being typically full just before awakening than with how many pedophilic older relatives we had about us in our developmental years. But lookee, did your full bladder last night conjure you up a homo or a hetero pornonightmare? Were you subjecting your favorite movie star to strained, agonizing bondage torment, or were you the subject of it yourself? Though this matinal condition of physical rut may be wholly absurd and arbitrary, your subconscious interpretation of it can tell you volumes about who you are and where you’re at on any given morning.

Dreams, then, are themselves interpretations of events even more awful and wonderful than dreams. Imagine the dream of a Madagascan lemur, soaring free-fall through the treetops, one eye intensely interested in the next clingable branch, the other cocked upward in trepidation for the giant black birds with molten eyes and killer talons. We were all lemurs once. Imagine the dream of a lemur of the opposite sex from your sex now.

Imagine the dream of a clam. We were all clams once, and all those dreams are still there, within us and retrievable.

Imagine the dream of a snail. Of a polyp. Of a spirochete. A virus.

Imagine the dream of God.


Featured illustration by Jill Bauman

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Melissa Arres

    May 2, 2020 at 12:33 am

    Follow the rules of quality sleep. Fill your day with pleasant emotions.

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