Leave it to the Swiss, with their Army knives, cheese and Nazi gold. Leave it, specifically, to Swiss artist Henry Fuseli whose 1781 oil painting The Nightmare perfectly captures both the horror and helplessness of being embroiled in the muck of a bad dream. And the real genius of bad dreams? They take exterior miseries and make them interior, so parking meters become monsters. And vice versa: Your partner cheats on you in a dream, and they’re catching shade all the next day. So here’s our tribute to nights (and sometimes days) of no peace at all. Sleep tight. Or don’t.
Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large
the horror … the horror
1. Why, Brain, Why?
Your stomach hurts to tell you that eating eight pieces of chocolate cake is not in your best interest. Your lungs will leave you gasping for air when your running distance exceeds your jogging capacity. But what about the brain? If anything can stop the persistent rattle of nightmares, it’s got to be the brain. That’s why researchers called dream engineers are trying to figure out how we can control our dreams, using electrical stimulation or flashing lights to engineer a state of lucid dreaming where we can dictate terms to the monsters.
2. Doesn’t Kill Us. Makes Us Stronger. Unless We’re Wrong …
There’s that old saw, possibly advanced by the Nightmare on Elm Street film franchise, that if you die in your dreams, you’ll die in real life. We have no idea what victims of SUNDS, or sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome, dream before they die. But SUNDS is a nightmare in that it’s responsible for hundreds of unexplained deaths, mostly among Southeast Asians. Victims tend to be men in their 30s who were the primary breadwinner for their families and worked in manual labor for low pay, adding additional stressors.
3. For Every Rhyme, a Reason
Two sleep scientists — a totally different title from a dream engineer — have some ideas about what’s going on with our dreams. Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold’s belief, as spelled out in their just-released book, When Brains Dream, is that the dream state and the dreams are the ways our brains consolidate memories. This theory is derived in part from research on rats who later dream about routes not taken in a maze. Don’t we all.
4. Nightmares vs. Night Terrors
It’s terrifying even for loved ones who are awake to observe them. Night terrors are common among kids, with some 40 percent of children affected, along with a much smaller percentage of adults. These are nightmares that cause kids to sit up as if awake, thrashing, screaming and breathing heavily as their hearts race. But they have no memory of the episode the next day. The good news: Kids typically outgrow night terrors by the time they’re teenagers. The bad news: Then they’re teenagers.
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A study of the dreams of Auschwitz survivors, recorded 30 years after the end of World War II, shows that the face of true horror lasts and extinguishes much in its path. And while these survivors would return to the camp in their dreams multiple times, in these re-creations — or “comeback dreams” — the fear was often not as severe as it had been. In some cases, the dreamers were more confident about reexperiencing Auschwitz or knew it would end soon. In the journal Dreaming, researcher Wojciech Owczarski of the University of Gdansk put forth evidence that, for trauma survivors, nightmares can bring about healing.
2. A Social Nudge
Building on the memory consolidation theory, a new study sets out to show that bad dreams, specifically the ones connected to COVID-19, are much more likely to motivate responsible waking behaviors — wearing a mask, social distancing, etc. Combine that with the aforementioned dream engineering, and we just might beat this pandemic after all.
3. Terrifying Chicken or Horrifying Egg: What Came First?
Bad dreams are often thought of as the way the brain organizes itself around preexisting events and memories that may have been traumatic. The Sleep Foundation, though, has found that trauma may actually be caused by the nightmares themselves. How can you cope with recurring traumatic dreams? One tactic, known as image rehearsal therapy, is to write down the nightmare as if it’s a script. Then rewrite it in a way that resolves the problem and read the story back to yourself before bedtime.
4. Dry Run for Scary
My personal theory, finally signed off on by university researchers in Switzerland (again with the Swiss) and the U.S., is that bad dreams are practice runs for the real thing. Lampros Perogamvros, a researcher in the Sleep and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Geneva, has shown with volunteers and brain-imaging maps that the same sections of the brain are activated in response to fear whether we’re awake or asleep. And after a scary dream, test subjects responded more effectively to real-life fearful situations.
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“See … this is how they get you.” In my house, that phrase is used like punctuation. So when I see that scientists are now figuring out how to communicate with sleeping dreamers, it’s out of my mouth before I can stop it. They’re talking about its uses for learning while asleep and helping with patient nightmares. Yeah, sure. And not even a whisper about how this might be weaponized for Skynet. And they’re working on an app for it too? Sheesh …
2. Pre-Cog, Pre-Crime?
As many as two-thirds of people, depending on the survey, claim some sort of clairvoyance or precognition — knowing about an event before it happens — a number that dwarfs the fortuneteller industry. And most of those alleged precognitive experiences are dreams. That is, dreams that end up coming true. Scientists dismiss this as your brain pulling off some sleep magic. I credit plain ol’ magic.
3. COVID-Cured Nightmares?
The stresses heaped upon us all during the pandemic have amped up the nightmares: Studies show an increase in bad dreams and we are remembering more of them — which is typical for stressful times. There’s also the rise of “coronasomnia,” or lots of sleepless nights from too much anxiety and too little physical activity. So now … you’re protected from sleep and frothing nightmares. Good thing you’re awake … so you can uninterruptedly think about COVID-fueled insomnia and the unfolding climate crisis.
4. Or Is This All One Long Bad Dream?
It was supposed to be temporary, this locked-down, masked-up limbo. But as government leaders continue to stretch out the timeline for when life will be “normal,” the pandemic is starting to feel like a never-ending bad dream — one where we’re chased (a common bad dream trope) by an invisible enemy. Let’s get some dream engineers on that.
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Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall and director Robert Altman understood that movies that were like bad dreams don’t have to be horror movies. And in a weird way, that made them even more horrifying. Calling 3 Women a desert noir undercuts Altman’s 1977 fever dream of a film. Watch it and try controlling your dreams afterward. Try.
Mention Orson Welles and everyone starts blathering about Citizen Kane. Great film but it’s no Touch of Evil. If 3 Women flipped noir on its head by being filmed in the bright sun of the California desert, Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil went for shock value and the result is so dark it’s oily slick. Murder, racism, drugs, rape (implied), lesbians: Welles had asked for the worst script the studio had and he got it. Then he turned it into nightmarish gold.
Called the coldest movie ever made, by the Los Angeles Times, The Servant (1963) brings out all of the heavy hitters: Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, James Fox, playwright Harold Pinter and blacklisted American director Joseph Losey. Do not read any descriptions beyond this one if you’re going to see it. Just see it. No previews, no trailers. Just do it.
David Lynch lost me for a bit. It was the jokey predictability of Wild at Heart. That and too much Nicholas Cage. But with Mulholland Drive in 2001, Lynch stopped screwing around and delivered something mightily nightmarish. My favorite scene? “The Cowboy” in the corral: “You’ll see me one more time, if you do good. You’ll see me two more times if you do bad. Good night.”
5. ‘Dead of Night’
Dreams are the meat and potatoes of this 1945 British film in which four strangers, driven by bad weather, gather at a country resort. To while away the hours, they start recounting their dreams. To greatly curious effect. But, hey, I’m also a sucker for any film with ventriloquists in it. You have been warned.