The Value of Nightmares

A lot of the articles that come up when you google ‘Nightmares’ revolve around how to cure them or stop them from happening. Most people agree that nightmares are an unpleasant experience, and the fewer of them you have the better.

            On one hand, having too many bad dreams can’t be good – especially if it causes insomnia or somniphobia (fear of sleep). Onnneee, two, Freddy’s comin for youuuu… We’ve all been there, right?

            Personally, though, I find I enjoy nightmares in an odd way. Kind of the same way I enjoy cold showers, really: painful while it’s happening, but the aftermath has its rewards. Since I’m a generally happy and optimistic person, I had a hunch that even though I seem to have more nightmares than most people (one or two a week, I’d say), they were doing me more good than harm. Weird as it sounds, I kinda like them. I like how they make me think about them the next day, how they make me appreciate my life more (thank god I’m not being eaten alive by goblins! Hallelujah!), and how they often force me to think about things I wouldn’t otherwise.

            Plus, I’ve always thought that if books are, as Neil Gaiman says, dreams you hold in your hands, doesn’t that make horror books physical nightmares? And if we assume that the mind in some way needs dreams for its health and function (and all science demonstrates that it does), then it follows that nightmares must serve some purpose, must be good for something.

            One study from the university of Geneva revealed that after experiencing nightmares, the brain areas responsible for controlling emotions responded to fear-inducing situations much more effectively. Another recent study found that people who reported being fans of horror media or had a morbid curiosity were more resilient in the face of adversity.

            To tell the truth, I tend to roll my eyes with this type of stuff – not because I don’t think there’s something to it, but because there’s something broken about needing to justify reading fiction for the purpose of self-improvement. It bothers me. It brings to mind an image of some bright teenager being forced to read The Brothers Karamazov because they’re told that reading fiction develops your mind in such and such a way. Even if it does, is that not the worst way to go about it? What about the love? What about the enjoyment of the activity? Why do so many people go on about how many books they’ve ‘devoured’? as though the number of pages consumed is the goal, instead of their content?

            Aaaaanyway, I digress.

            You know who’s really annoying? Relentlessly ‘positive’ people. But why? Why would consistent positivity be annoying? Because it’s dishonest. If you know someone who always has a wide smile pasted on their face and refuses to acknowledge any kind of negative emotions or feeling no matter what because stay positive! They’re probably suppressing a lot of shit. They might be suicidal.

            I’m joking, but also not. The way I see it, one can’t be happy in a meaningful sense unless one fully acknowledges and comes to terms with darkness and misery. Of course, ignorance is bliss, and one has only to look at a pet dog to see the truth in that. Still, I don’t think blissful ignorance is true happiness, any more than injecting heroin is true happiness. And it’s certainly not the kind of happiness an adult can or should aspire to. One cannot will oneself into ignorance, and trying to do so is an act of suppression.

            None of that shit would have flown back in the hunter gatherer days. Imagine walking the savannah with your tribe and trying to pretend Lions didn’t eat people. The real heroes were the men and women who sat around the fire late at night and told everyone else what they’d seen happen. Better yet, those that wove tales about what could happen, especially if you left the comfort of the fire and entered the dark jungle alone. The first horror writers weren’t writers at all but story tellers, and their purpose was as much to caution as it was to entertain.

            Fear, as any soldier or first responder will tell you, is useful. And with fear comes the knowledge of darkness, of what lies beyond the campfire, and what could lie there, and therefore what you should watch for.

            But Ben! You cry. Maybe that was true back then, when people were getting stalked by lions on a daily basis. But how could a book like IT or Dracula or Frankenstein inform anyone or help anyone? What good would it do me to cross the road to avoid sewer gratings in case there are clowns hiding there?

            Well, first of all, if you think horror no longer serves that kind of purpose, I would draw your attention to Black Mirror. Practically every episode of that show is a cautionary tale regarding the future of technology. How about the transcendent horror film Midsomer? You don’t think that’s something of a warning about the nature of cults and their innate appeal? Have you noticed how practically every modern day zombie movie is actually about a man made virus that spreads through human hosts?

            But I’m cherry picking, aren’t I? Let’s use the initial examples – monster movies like IT or Dracula or Frankenstein, to which you could also add most ghost stories. These are certainly more abstract things, more departed from reality than something like Black Mirror. In these cases, I believe the focus is not so much on the lion as it is on the human in question. In other words, where a show like Black Mirror focuses on the external threat – technology/the lion – IT focuses on the behaviour of the Losers – the seven friends who ultimately defeat Pennywise.

When you tell the horror story of the human being hunted by the lion, there are two sides to the tale. The obvious one is that of the lion itself, but no less significant is that of the human. How does he or she react, and why? What are the results? Many of these kinds of tales often end badly for the human element, in part if not in total. You see? these stories say: if you’re getting hunted by a lion and you react this way, you will be eaten alive!’ And the more terrifying you can make that consequence, the more you turn the listener’s mind towards something good, towards avoiding that outcome as best they can. Aha, they think. I know that story: the lion stalks the man, and he freezes in place and is eaten. Now I know if I’m being stalked, I will run as fast as I can back to the tribe, and so stand a chance of survival.

            To return to the story of IT, in which a killer clown feasts on the town of Derry, Maine, we see the point more clearly. IT is a stand-in for the lion, and the focus of the story, despite its title, is not with IT at all but with the children who ultimately face their fears and walk into the lion’s den to eliminate the threat to their village. Not all of them survive, of course, but that is only true to reality: if you face your fear and slay the beast, you’re unlikely to come out unscathed. However, the effort will be worth it.  

            There is a parallel in psychology: the treatment of various fears and PTSD often consists of Exposure therapy, as outlined in this interesting Time Article. Essentially, exposing the person to what they’re afraid of in small, incrementally increasing amounts. Over time, the person develops a resistance to it almost as they would if exposed to small increasing amounts of snake venom.

            This might explain why books like Survivor Song (Paul Tremblay) have become so popular during the covid pandemic. People are self medicating, seeking to give themselves some exposure therapy so that when they have to put on their mask and step outside they’re a little braver for it, have a little more resistance.

            As a disclaimer, I should probably point out that it’s not a direct cause and effect thing. As the Time article from above mentions, too-frequent nightmares can be signs of trauma and depression rather than mental health. And while having an awareness of the suffering and evil of the world may be valuable, having an obsession about these things can quickly sink one in a mire of depression. The underpaid folks who work as content moderators for social media – or literally anyone who’s spent too much time on liveleak – will attest to that. The key, as always, is balance.

            “No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

 – Carl Jung

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: