interview by Joe Vaz

Issue 12 (August 2011)


ABOUT TWENTY YEARS AGO, I picked up a copy of Preludes & Nocturnes, a graphic novel compiling the first few issues of Neil Gaiman’s astoundingly brilliant comic series The Sandman (download a sample here: In it, a power-mad Roderick Burgess attempts to trap Death so as to escape it permanently. Instead, he accidentally entraps Dream, or the Sandman. For 70-odd years, Dream is trapped in Burgess’s basement, causing endless chaos out in the world of humans.

Until one day Dream escapes. Once he does, he metes out his punishment – Eternal Waking – to Roderick’s son. The now old man is doomed to spend an eternity in a nightmare, only to wake up and discover he is still in that nightmare and so on, forever.

At the time, I thought this was kinda cool, albeit a little disturbing, until it actually happened to me; a dream within a dream.

It was during my first year at college where afternoon naps were par for the course. I slept, and I dreamed.

In my dream, I was being chased by a strange, ethereal ghost, 11 stories tall, ropey and intangible, like Casper wearing a 300 foot long sheet. To make matters worse, my best friend was chasing me down a corridor waving an axe at me. Just as he was about to embed the axe in my skull, I awoke with a gasp.

Sitting in my room, reading The Eight, by Katherine Neville, was my best friend.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, just had a nightmare that you were chasing me with an axe.”

His face changed slightly and a malevolent grin crossed his lips.

“But it wasn’t a dream,” he said and promptly threw down the book and pulled the axe from behind his back.

Needless to say, I screamed like a little girl and woke up… again.

In my room, was my friend, sitting in the exact same place, reading the exact same book, “You okay?” he asked.

I swallowed and held my breath.

It turned out that this second time was the actual real world, but the event has always stayed with me because it was so damn weird, and seriously disconcerting.

Nightmares generally are.

The medical definition of a nightmare is a dream bad enough to wake you up. The waking you up part is important because that is what constitutes a nightmare, but even if you don’t wake up from it most of our dreams are actually negative in nature, 75% of them, to be precise, according to a recent study.

Bad dreams are a universal experience, hell even my cat has woken up meowing uncontrollably from a nightmare (I’m not kidding, she looked terrified, as much as a cat can look anything). Whatever your background and age, you will most likely at some point have been woken by a nightmare.

So how is it possible that even though every single human being shares this common thing, we know so little about it?

I can tell you the science behind it, that’s easy. You see, what happens is when you’re asleep your limbic system becomes very active, this puts you emotionally on edge as your amygdala and anterior cingulated cortex come online with full force. Psychologist Steven H. Woodward, from the V.A. hospital in Menlo Park, California, calls this the brain’s ”axis of fear.”

So now you’re buzzing and emotionally vulnerable so all that’s left is for your prefrontal cortex, the bedrock of rational thought, to go on holiday to sunnier climes. This is why that twenty-foot octopus wearing your mother’s face seems to make perfect sense to you when you’re dreaming.

What this means, in layman’s terms, is your brain makes you emotionally vulnerable, switches on your fear sensors, removes your sense of logic and reason and then paralyses you “for your own safety”. Brilliant.

So that’s the science, but the real question is, where the hell do dreams come from?

According to surveys and dream diary studies, nightmares tend to begin in children at around the age of five. They peak towards adolescence and then taper off again as we get older.

In a recent paper in Psychological Bulletin, Dr. Tore Nielsen of the University of Montreal and Dr. Ross Levin, a psychologist and sleep researcher at Yeshiva University in New York, suggest that the purpose of dreams is to create what they call “fear extinction memories” – basically your brain’s way of getting you over old fears and bad memories. The way Dr. Nielsen puts it, ‘‘the brain learns quickly what to be afraid of, but if there isn’t a check on the process, we’d fear things in adulthood we feared in childhood.”

So it’s like a fear filter, removing old fears to make way for new more important ones. If you manage to sleep through a bad dream then you have overcome that fear. If you wake up screaming and blithering then you still need to work on that one. I’m not entirely certain why I’m struggling to overcome a fear of flying cucumbers, but then, I’m not a scientist.

That still doesn’t explain where nightmares come from. And that is really the problem with most studies of the human body: we can identify the processes but we can’t explain how they work. We may understand the mechanics, but where do the incredibly vivid, frightening images that plague most of us through our sleep come from?

The fact of the matter is, nothing is more terrifying to us than experiencing a nightmare from which we cannot wake. Total, all encompassing fear where some part of your brain is flashing red warning claxons telling you “it’s just a dream, stupid” but we’re paralysed. I’ve had some particularly nasty ones where I’ve lain in bed, aware that I am dreaming, feeling a presence behind me, a hand on my shoulder slowly gripping me harder and harder but I’m totally unable to move or wake up.

Do our subconscious minds create these terrors as they process they events of the day, or pick through our darkest fears?

I’ve had dreams where my teeth are falling out, but I’m not scared of dentists.

There is no time in which we are more vulnerable, lying prone in our beds, with our eyes closed, totally closed off and alone, and that’s when nightmares strike. I don’t know about you but that seems too much of a coincidence.

Like someone or something is sitting and meticulously handpicking images and events to terrify us when we are at our most defenceless, like they’re out to “get you when you sleep”?


In the Dreamscape of Nightmares, Clues to Why We Dream at All

By NATALIE ANGIER – Published: October 23, 2007 New York Times.

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Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.

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