This feature originally appeared in She magazine in the UK

Darkness, and the sounds of danger .. then something touches you obscenely. You run through a door and shut it, but it isn’t strong enough to keep the thing at bay. You scream, then wake cold and shaking. Thank God – it’s only a dream.

Where do the fears come from which haunt us in our dreams? I remember a night when I woke screaming from the strangling grip of hands round my throat – hands of a corpse which had risen from the tomb, its face a mess of peeling flesh, and its eyes glazed over.

We all have our own particular terrors in sleep. Is yours a ghost or a rampaging thing, dangerous and insane, which hunts you through the night? Or is it an apparently ordinary person or place causing an unexplained, all pervading sense of threat and fear? Perhaps you see your children killed as you watch helplessly – or know the world is ending, that there is no safety anywhere. See Masters of Nightmares


The prize fighter Sugar Ray Robinson, on the eve of his title fight with Jimmy Doyle in 1947, woke from a nightmare in which Doyle died from a punch. As he woke he could remember hearing the crowd shouting: “He’s dead, he’s dead!” He was so upset by the dream Robinson asked Adkins, his trainer and promoter, to call off the fight. Adkins told him, “Dreams don’t come true. If they did I’d be a millionaire.” In the eighth round Doyle went down from a left hook to the jaw. He never got up, and died the next day.

Sugar Ray’s nightmare was about the truth, albeit in the future tense. Although only a tiny percentage of dream contain predictions, all night mares are real, not fiction. They portray a reality about ourselves of which we aren’t consciously aware.

A woman in her 50s told me that she had been troubled since childhood by a recurring nightmare. She would be walking down a street she’d known as a child, and pass some railings. There was nothing obviously awful in the dream, yet she always woke up crying and fearful. When she was in her early 40s she told her sister about the dream. Her sister said that when the dreamer was about three they’d both been attacked by a group of boys while near those railings. To stop them, the sister had said not to hurt them because their mother was dead. At this the boys had left them alone, but the dreamer had been badly shocked.

The nightmare stopped as soon as she learnt about the childhood incident from her sister. This suggests that her troublesome dreams were an attempt to make her aware of a part of her past that held unconscious pain or fear. As soon as her conscious mind knew the full facts, the nightmares were redundant. The nightmare was an attempt to integrate what she unconsciously sensed, but may never have defined or put into words. This description applies in general to all of our dreams. They are a link between our deep unconscious biological functions, our memories and intentions, and our conscious everyday social selves. In particular, nightmares are, as in the example, attempts to bring to consciousness powerfully felt events which led us to reactions which might have been relevant at the time, but negatively influence our present life, and need re-assessment. An event may have led us not to trust people for instance, or as with the woman, have powerful anxiety in connection with external objects – such as the railings. When understood, a nightmare brings the strength of the emotions and the original cause to our attention, so we can understand the connections and perhaps change our reactions.

A Nightmare

However accurate this theory is however, it doesn’t explain the depths of horror and emotion in which nightmares involve us. If a nightmare contains a truth, just what unsuspected message is shown by our own particular dream monsters? Let us take one person’s nightmare apart piece by piece to see if we can find any answers.


Last night I had a dream which shook me somewhat, and I wonder what you make of it. I am a mature 40 year -old, don’t normally dream, and am not unduly fanciful, but this dream has really shaken me. It felt like death. In the dream, my husband and I are at some sort of social club. The people there are ex-workmates of mine and I am having a wonderful time and am very popular. My husband is enjoying my enjoyment. Then he and I are travelling down a country lane in an open horse-drawn carriage. It is very dark and is in the area we used to live in. We come to a hump-backed-bridge, and as we arrive at the brow of the bridge a voice says, ‘Fair lady, come to me.’ My body is suddenly lying flat and starts to rise. I float and everything is black, warm and peaceful. Then great fear comes over me and I cry out my husband’s name over and over. I get colder and slip in and out of the blackness. Then I start to wake up. It takes a tremendous effort, as my body is very heavy. I am extremely cold and absolutely terrified, with a feeling of horror. There seems to be something evil here. I force myself to get up in the dark and go downstairs. Even with the light on I feel the presence of great evil.”

The first part of this woman’s dream and what she says of herself shows her as an outgoing person, with a happy disposition. She likes people, and they like her; she is probably good looking, and healthy. She feels herself successful at what she has worked, and has left having acquired friends. The relationship she has with her husband is also depicted as one in which pleasure can be allowed within caring independence. Her dream image of herself is therefore created out of her own confidence. Dreams frequently summarise the quality of ones life and the ‘story so far’ in their first scene.

The second scene is made up of several parts – the journey, the woman’s relationship with her husband, the force of nature symbolised by the horses and the countryside, and the unknown seen as the bridge and the voice. To understand what this reveals of the dreamer, look at the vital clues: what she has said about herself and what she felt in the dream. If you strip away images to see what attitudes or emotions are exposed, you can see the forces behind the dream plot. The most poignant statement she makes is in saying, “It felt like death.”

If we consider the central image of the dream, the hump-backed bridge, in relation to what she says about her age, the feelings of death’s approach make sense. When you approach a hump-backed bridge you climb, but at the very brow, the descent begins. Isn’t that a powerful symbol of life? In our younger years our strength, sexuality and ability to meet life with resourcefulness and independence increase, until middle age, when the decline sets in. You cross over – as this woman crosses the bridge – from one type of experience or view of life to another. The passage of time is seen here as the horses pulling her carriage inexorably towards the change.

But the dream’s beauty, its depth and drama, are in the voice, and in the discovery of how death ‘feels’. They tell us something about women’s inner lives, PLURAL. They reveal how, in her prime, a woman confronts change and the view of death in a way few men do. “Fair lady” the voice of change calls, “come to me.” And it beckons the dreamer towards a hefty mid-life crisis, asking her to exchange her sexual peak, her firm body, her fertility, for the different perspective of post-menopause.

Many women – men too of course – gain their sense of value as a person from their ‘attractiveness’. Losing whatever it is that makes them sexually desirable and socially popular – or fearing that they are losing it – will lead to a significant change in their way of life and their feelings about themselves. This is what makes the dreamer call for her husband. This is what produces the feeling of isolation and terror. A woman needs reassurance and love at this point in her life. She may behave indecisively and deflect the advances of her man through a lack of self-esteem.

Fortunately the human personality is resilient. Even though we are reared to identify ourselves with what our body looks like, what it can do, what sex it is, what age it is, and how others react to it, we CAN grow to mature independence without constant reassurance.

Some people create these nocturnal horror movies when leaving school or sitting exams. But middle age is just another phase of life, with as much potential for growth and love as any other phase – and as much room for failure. This woman fears what she imagines middle age will do to her. The dream isn’t an intuition of her future.


Nightmares can arise out of any aspect of our past, present or future about which we have strong feelings such as anxiety, pain or conflict. For instance a male reporter who was interviewing my wife and I about our work ended by asking us about the meaning of a nightmare he experienced the previous night. In it he was walking arm-in-arm with his wife across fields, followed by his four year old son. Looking back he saw his son fall into a small but deep hole. He ran to help, but the child had disappeared under water in the pit, and he was tormented by the decision of whether to jump in himself – he might be killed by the fall. Then his son was out of the hole, his heart faint but still beating.

The man was deeply anxious in case the dream predicted the death of his child. This may seem ridiculous if one has not had such a dream, but the strength of emotions in nightmares tends to create anxiety in even the most rational minds. The original scene, however, depicts marital togetherness, which led us to tell him the dream was about a recent threat to his marriage rather than his child. Astonished he confirmed his marriage had hit a bad time, and he was fearful of the survival of the relationship. “But” he said, “why did I dream about my son?”

The reason is probably because the son represents what has been created by their life together. There may also be the added association of the son being a factor which bonds the marriage, and a threat to the son would mean less mutual bonding. As dream symbols unite an enormous amount of varied information – much as the symbol of the cross does for Christians – the child most likely also refers to the man’s ‘child’ feelings, his dependency and vulnerability which was threatened by the problem in the marriage.

What we found interesting was the way the symbols linked with real events. We told the man that his action of running to help the child showed how deeply he cared for the family unit, and how much of himself he was willing to give to save it. The survival of the child was a demonstration of another function of dreams. From all the information and past experience it holds, our unconscious can shrewdly sum up in a dream the likely outcome of present circumstances. So the dreamer, having explored the most disturbing of his emotions, comes to the conclusion that his marriage will survive, shown by the still beating heart of the child.


Nightmares are a helpful part of a healthy person’s dream life. A woman whose husband was leaving her dreamt she opened a trap door in the floor, and released a stench. At the time she was suffering severe depression. The stench, the cause of her illness, was the emotional pain and the ‘rotten’ feeling about her marriage. Later, as the depression faded, she dreamt she opened the trap door with heart pounding to find all trace of the vile smell gone. Light and warmth had replaced it. She could hear people talking and saw the normal business of a bank going on.

The negative feelings which caused her illness are shown to have been transformed into real assets and energy – the bank. Energy, like money, can be used either destructively or creatively. The dream gave her a clean bill of health, achieved by meeting – opening the trap door – the corrupting emotions and attitudes she had within her.

Just as we learn to swim by gradually facing and overcoming our fear of sinking, so we learn to love, be creative, successful or expressive, by meeting – in dreams and in life – the fears which hold us back: the fear of losing our mother, the fear of being neglected, the fear of being alone, fear of the dark, the fear of ridicule, and the fear of failure. They are all anxieties we conquer to some degree in the process of maturing. But there is no final boundary to our growth.

So if you dare to grow beyond your present maturity, you are bound to have a few nightmares. Try to see what they say about you. You have nothing to lose but your fear.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved