From Nightmares to Artwork
How can we meaningfully engage with our nightmares to reclaim our power and creative spirit?
Part of my academic quest this semester in my doctoral program has been to put this question into practice by researching, reflecting, and drawing about my nightmares.
Realm of Darkness: Back-to-Back Demonic Nightmares
Some dreams stay with us long after the encounter. These kinds of dreams are known as impactful dreams. These big dreams can arrive as spiritual messages, profound encounters that shift our ways of being. But impactful dreams are not exclusively uplifting. Sometimes they arrive as nightmares. The following are a couple nightmare accounts that occurred back-to-back in the early hours of September 11 and 12, 2018.
The Black Demon with Gold Horns
I am in my bedroom in my condo with someone. She (I don’t know who she is) looks out on the hallway toward the entrance of my office where she can see a demon standing in the doorway. Then Essie [one of my cats] starts walking on her hind legs and says in a human voice that she too can see the demon. She says, “He is standing right here. He is tall.” She holds up one of her front legs above her head as if illustrating the demon’s height. I look through my cat’s eyes and can now see a frightening black figure with gold horns. I quickly approach it and yell at it to leave—that this is a place of love and light. I pull out my tuning forks and begin consecrating the space with its divine resonating sound, trying to cast out the demon that has now become invisible, but its presence is still quite palpable.
Hideous Demon in the Window
I am in my old house that looks like my house in New Jersey, but not identical. I can sense the demon approaching from outside, so I duck to the right of my bed on the floor. I can hear him wrestling with the window, and as I rise up slightly from the floor, he pops his hideous reddish-brown demonic face through the window, staring at me and snarling. I try to scream for my mom—I am young, about 10—but no sound is coming out of my mouth. I am so terrified that I awake instantly, gasping for air.
Sleep researcher Ernest Hartmann (1984) defined nightmare as “waking up from sleep terrified (with or without an external cause) or something from inside that awakens a person with a scared feeling” (p. 10). Merriam Webster defines nightmare in the following ways:
an evil spirit formerly thought to oppress people during sleep
a frightening dream that usually awakens the sleeper
something (such as an experience, situation, or object) having the monstrous character of a nightmare or producing a feeling of anxiety or terror (Merriam Webster, 1991, p. 798).
The word nightmare stems as far back as the tenth century in Western European culture. The word mare in Old and Middle English means evil spirit. Similarly, mara in Old High German and Old Norse means incubus (i.e. an evil spirit that copulates with women).
Nightmares vs. Night Terrors
Although easy to confuse, nightmares and night terrors are not exactly the same thing. Physiologically speaking, nightmares happen during D-sleep (i.e., desynchronized or REM sleep), Most dreams that we recall happen during REM sleep. Night terrors occur during stages 3 and 4 of sleep, also known as NREM, synchronized and deep-wave sleep. These nocturnal occurrences most commonly occur during the early part of sleep. Similar to nightmares, night terrors cause similar physiological reactions in the dreamer (e.g., gasping, screaming, perspiring, rapid heartbeat) but unlike nightmares, the dreamer is frequently unable to recall the dream.
Exploring dream research through the lens of the paranormal, transcendent and creative qualities alter my relationship with these dark dreams in a manner that embraces these experiences as real and meaningful as physical reality.
Multidimensional Dreamwork for Demonic Dreams
I have had many “demonic” dreams for as long as I can remember. This semester, while taking a dream course, I became interested in creatively and spiritually exploring these and other demonic nightmares. By engaging in this manner with my dreams (i.e., writing and drawing), I developed a new kind of engagement with these terrifying dreams.
The dreamwork approach that I implemented was Integral Dream Practice (IDP). This kind of dreamwork honors the multidimensional aspects of dreaming, allowing the dreamer to make sense of the experience in her own way. IDP also celebrates a creative synthesis to dreaming through writing, movement, drawing, etc. According to Bogzaran and Deslauriers (2013), dreams are phenomenological in that they “arise within our individual consciousness [as well as] unfold of their own accord” (p. 107).
My Artistic Process of Dream Art
I have been exploring and researching the topic of nightmares this semester as a way to have a deeper understanding of these dark nocturnal experiences. By creatively engaging with my nightmares, I am able to work through these disturbing encounters, reframing the experiences through a series of surreal drawings that juxtapose various art and fashion styles including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Edwardian and Victorian.
Although these beings do not resemble my compositions per se, these drawings are a creative expression of honoring the encounters with these beings and other realities.
By combining different objects together in unexpected ways, the shapes manifest into strange angels and otherworldly realms. Exploring dream research through the lens of the paranormal, transcendent and creative qualities alter my relationship with these dark dreams in a manner that embraces these experiences as real and meaningful as physical reality.
The series of drawings that I have created are a visual transcript of the many places and beings that visit me during the night. Although these beings do not resemble my compositions per se, these drawings are a creative expression of honoring the encounters with these beings and other realities.
I prefer to engage with these beings as co-creator of our shared reality—receptive to their stories.
The process of collaging ordinary objects to create strange symbolic and archetypal representations of my multidimensional experiences is perhaps the best instrument at my disposal to execute in a visual narrative with such realities. Engaging in this manner also renders the encounter less frightening. Instead of running away by waking myself up, I pause, observe, and interact with these beings.
I learned years ago when encountering spirits in the material world that fear is counterproductive. I prefer to engage with these beings as a co-creator of our shared reality—receptive to their stories. Like the soldier ghosts that hung around with me for nearly three years as I completed my illustrated novel, I learned that their roles served as an instrument for getting to know my spirit guide, Hans, as well as processing our past lives in Germany.
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Bogzaran, F., & Deslauriers, D. (2013). Integral dreaming: A holistic approach to dreams. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Bulkeley, K. (2000). Transforming dreams: Learning spiritual lessons from the dreams you never forget. New York, NY: Wiley.
Bulkeley, K. (2016). Big dreams: The science of dreaming and the origins of religion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bulkeley, K., & Hartmann, E. (2011). Big dreams: An analysis using central image intensity, content analysis, and word searches. Dreaming, 21(3), 157–167. http://dx.doi.org.tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/a0024087
Busink, R., & Kuiken, D. (1996). Identifying types of impactful dreams: A replication. Dreaming, 6(2), 97–119. http://dx.doi.org.tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/h0094449
Hartmann, E. (1985). Nightmare. New York: Basic Books.
Hartmann, E. (2000). Dreams and Nightmares: The Origin and Meaning of Dreams. Cambridge, Mass: Basic Books.
Jung, C. G. (1974). Dreams. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (F First Edition Used edition). New York: Mjf Books.
Kuiken, D., & Sikora, S. (1993). The impact of dreams. In Moffitt, A., Kramer, M., & Hoffmann, R. (Eds.). The Functions of Dreaming. (419-476). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Morris, J. (2002). The Dream Workbook: Discover the Knowledge and Power Hidden in Your Dreams. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.