What’s your nightmare?

by Tess Gerritsen

(Once again, I’ll be on the road when this entry gets posted.  But I’ll read the comments when I get home, and I hope you’ll all chime in and tell us which monsters inhabit your dreams at night.)

As crime writers, we spend a lot of time thinking and writing about what scares us, and many of us probably share the same fears, most of them rational — fear of heights, of pain, of something happening to our kids.  But once we drift off to sleep, our fears take on different, sometimes irrational forms.  It’s those literal nightmares that so fascinate me, because we have no control over them.  They emerge from our subconscious, many of them purely symbolic and posing no real threat.  Yet they cause us to awaken in a cold sweat, hearts pounding.

I’ll bet that most of you reading this have had the familiar nightmare of being out of the house and suddenly realizing you’ve forgotten to get dressed.  Fear of humiliation is obviously what’s at play here.  Which makes me wonder: Do nudists ever have this nightmare?  Does it show up in cultures where people normally run around half-naked?  What’s their equivalent of the humiliation nightmare?

Another common one is the “Oh my God, I never went to class!” nightmare where I’ve got a final exam in French and I know nothing about the subject.  I suspect this nightmare particularly afflicts OCD types like me who are anxious about failing.  The more stressed out I am about work, the more this dream plagues me.  Oddly enough, even though I’ve been a writer for 25 years, I never have nightmares about being late for a deadline. Instead, this nightmare setting doesn’t seem to advance beyond my college years,  

I also have one where my teeth are falling out.  I used to have this one a lot, and I’ve heard from other women who also have it.  I haven’t met any men who’ve had it, which makes me think it’s very much connected to being female.  One theory is that it represents fear of aging.  Others — and I think this is probably closer to the mark — say it represents anxiety over loss of power.  Your jaw is one of the strongest muscles in your body and your teeth are a primitive means of self defense, so losing your teeth equates to feeling powerless.  Which may be why so many women have this dream.  We also seem to dream a lot about being chased.  

While men may also have nightmares of being pursued, several have told me they’ve got a gun with which to fight back.  Which is totally unfair.  Even in our dreams, we women are outgunned.

Then there’s this weirdly eccentric nightmare which seems to be mine alone.  This dream has plagued me since I was very young, and I can’t seem to shake it.  Over the decades, the basic plot has expanded to include members of my family, but it always starts with a view of a clear night sky.  Tiny lights like stars are moving.  Then the stars begin to move in different directions and I realize, to my utter horror, that these are alien spacecraft and the invasion of Earth has begun.  Humankind is about to be massacred.

In a panic, I try to gather up my family, fill the car with food, and head for the wilderness to hide.  I’m very methodical about this in the dream.  I consider which car will go the furthest on a tank of gas.  I consider which food items to pack, how many bottles of water we can carry, which medicines to bring.  I think about sleeping bags and blankets and tents.  But gosh darn it, as usual, I never seem to have a gun.

I know it sounds like the plot of a dozen Hollywood B-movies.  Maybe it was inspired by some horror film I watched as a kid.  Yet all these decades later, it still has the power to make me wake up at night, drenched in sweat.  I don’t know what brings it on.  I haven’t met anyone who’s similarly terrified by alien invader dreams.  But it’s such a powerful fear that even when I’m awake and I look up at a clear night sky, it’s always with a tiny apprehension that this will be the night I see those stars start to move.

And it’ll be time to round up the kids and pack up the car.

So what’s your recurring nightmare?  Is it something peculiar to you, something that no one else seems to have?  What do you think it means?

29 thoughts on “What’s your nightmare?

  1. Barb

    Images of flooding, and drowning, most definitely. My 'favorite' kind of stress dream. It's funny when you think about, all the serial killers of the hundreds of mystery I have read, and disturbing scenes from my own writing have never given me nightmares. Is it kind of sad I feel rather comfortable in that world? Of course, it's because tough gals will eventually save the day.

  2. Matt

    Fun post, Tess. I am… wait, just checking… yes, a man and I have had the losing teeth nightmare for 30 years now on and off. I had tonnes of trouble with my teeth when I was a kid, but think it's more to do with what you say. Power, anxiety and your fate being in other people's hands rather than your own. Hate that feeling and comes out in my sleep subconscious.

    Regularly fall down too from the top of a very high spiral staircase, waking up before I hit the bottom… thank God. Always been fascinated by dreams and work some of it into my film scripts.

    Also used to have a recurring childhood dream of being chased through a corn field by the Incredible Hulk and a thoroughly baffling one-off of me being an overweight seal in Antarctica with a nuclear bomb strapped to my body that was ticking down. Go figure!

  3. Tracey Devlyn

    The two reoccurring nightmares I have are of me running from someone, but my legs are sluggish. I can barely lift them. The other nightmare is of me forgetting my locker combination and being late for class.

    To this day, I hate being late for anything. Makes me really anxious. Not sure what my subconscious is trying to tell me about not being able to get away from someone. Hmm…

  4. Chris

    Hi Tess. Another guy here with that teeth nightmare, though maybe that means I'm in touch with my feminine side? Usually, when my teeth fall out, I run around in my dream trying to find a glass of milk to put them in. But, wouldn't you know it, all I can find is a glass of cola. And so I end up trying to rush to an emergency dentist while all my transport options fail me and my teeth are fizzing away into nothing in that stupid cola glass.

    Really interesting what you say about work deadlines. Now that I think of it, I never have nightmares about those either, but only two nights ago I had that recurring dream about forgetting to revise for a crucial school exam…

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    Though I've never had a real-life personal experience, I have dreams of tornadoes. I have no idea what it means but I equate it with chaos. I have dreams of fire — I have a phobia about fire going back to childhood. Fire dreams to me mean something bad, I have anxiety after them. Also performance dreams – being on stage and not knowing lines. School dreams where I can't find my locker or the room I need to be in. I have recurring dreams of a guy I was in love with but didn't return the emotion but his role in the dreams seems to changing lately.
    I've talked to people about dreams and find it strange that they don't have recurring dreams or themes. I have them all the time. I feel like a repeat channel.

  6. Alafair Burke

    I've been dreaming about losing teeth since I was a kid. I also dream that I'm somehow stuck having to go back to school, or to work one of my old lame jobs, or to be in a failed relationship. And of course there's the classic of being enrolled in a course that I completely forgot to go to until the final exam.

    Now I'm all stressed out!

  7. Vicky

    My recurring nightmare happens at a school or an office building. I enter with no problem, but when I come out I can't find the same exit. Everything is different, the parking lot is not where it was, the street names have changed, i can't find my landmarks. I run around the outside of the building and nothing is familiar. I'm totally lost and in a panic. And then I wake.

  8. TerriMolina

    Some of my nightmares occur after watching movies…like the other day I saw the ending for the zombie movie Doomsday and later made a joke with my neighbor about the 2012 zombie apocolypse (my daughter and her friends talk about this) and that night I had a dream about just that. I did the gathering of family and friends, but in my house then totally realized I'd left my daughter at school (don't tell her that).
    My recurring dream, which I've been having for about twenty years, is about a home invasion. I'm home with the kids and someone breaks in trying to shoot us, but the weird thing is I always have a gun or get hold of a gun to fight back….and I don't even own a gun…have never held a gun, and aside from looking at one in a glass case, have never been up close and personal with a gun. I guess the dream means, I won't go down without a fight! =)

  9. Eika

    I have the 'Overslept' and 'get a test and can't remember it' nightmares, but most of my nightmares have one thing in common: helplessness.

    I vividly remember my nightmares as a kid, where a group of monsters had me tied up and were taking me to their leader. I always woke up before it could happen. Now, it's things like watching something unable to move or help (fire burning down my house with family inside, etc.) or being completely ignored by everyone as I try to warn them or protect them. *shudders*

  10. Debbie

    I have reoccuring dreams but many of those described above I classify as 'loss of control' dreams. When I have one, I consider where in my life things aren't as I'd like them and make a change. Had one two weeks ago and altered my use of FB. That night, same main character but I was helping her. It was that simple for me.
    One that hasn't been mentioned, is driving and the breaks won't work. My best was a house with multiple rooms. Each time I had it, I would have to enter a room and solve something, but I was never able to get where I was destined to end up. The dream reoccured over several years and I finally made it to the last room where the sound that had been drawing me all those years was. It was an electric saw, blade spinning. I unplugged it. Voila!

    Just wanted to add that I see the nude dream as feeling exposed, vulnerable. For me those are usually bathroom dreams where the stalls suddenly disappear and you can't stand. I usually feel my mind coming up with solutions and the subconscious continues to alter and create another barrier. You want really weird? If I say the hell with it and just stand, the dream is gone and I can feel my subconscious irritated at losing.

  11. Connie Keller

    I have the teeth dream too. And the pursuit dream. And the "oops I forgot the final/paper/didn't know that I was registered for the class and now I have to take the final dream" (it's been years and years since college–my daughter gets this dream now.) I also get the "I can't do something that I need to, so let me have a panic attack" dream even though I've never had a panic attack in "real life."

  12. toni mcgee causey

    I've had the teeth one. I really hate the teeth one. The worst one, though, was the "trapped in a house with a criminal intent to do harm" one, but then that one came true.

    I've taught myself to wake slightly and re-route the nightmare. I take it over and edit, like a writer with a story, and make the outcome better. The "being chased / no weapon" dream? I find a weapon in the room, and improvise. Etc.

    Mostly, these are (for me) stress dreams when I feel out of my element or out of control with potential disaster on the horizon. I know that–so I rewire the dreams to deal with them. (That sounds hokey, but it's very do-able, and honestly, made a huge difference.)

    The only ones I haven't been able to re-wire is if I'm angry in the dream. I tend to wake up *furious* and ready to maim something or someone. It usually takes a few minutes to realize that it was just a very bad dream and I don't have to kill anyone today.

  13. Barbie

    Like Toni up above, I'm also able to rewrite my dreams and change the course of it. It really helps. I can't count the times in which I had a bad dream, focused on the "I'm dreaming" part, and created a way out of the bad situation.

    I have nightmares often. I ALWAYS dream of people trying to catch me, often serial killers. It happens all the time. All my dreams are very vivid, whether they're good or bad, and these being chased nightmares usually have a lot of blood and guts. I've dreamed of several killers massacring people in a large field and I'd run around, skipping over the bodies and getting dirty with blood, only to hide in a tiny, dirty bathroom. They're often different nightmares, though, not recurring. Just this morning I had a dream I was being chased, and I did have a gun, but I didn't know how to undo the safety lock. But before I got caught my mom woke me up.

    My recurring dreams are usually about places. They aren't nightmares per se, but some of these places are always dark. There's this water park I've dreamed of several times in my life (and I'm 100% sure I've never been to such place in this lifetime). I don't always dream of the same attractions (sometimes I do, sometimes I don't), but I know it's the same place and it's always, always dark and cold. I'm usually alone or with strangers. There's also a beach with a really high cliff, and it's always dark, too. Most often, the ocean starts to go up and I have to escape it. And, it's interesting, the dreams are weird and stressful, but I always kind of like to return to these places.

    On the other spectrum, I also have recurring dreams about happy places. There's this beautiful, beautiful garden with shiny blue rocks that look like gems that is just the prettiest place in the world. Last time I "was" there was a couple years ago and I was sad because they told me I wasn't going to be able to return for a long time. I haven't since then and always wait for it.

    Now, who's weird? 😛

  14. MJ

    Yeah, get out of my head! I usually nightmare that I (a 40 year old lawyer, not currently in school) accidentally registered for a class and now have a few hours to prepare for the final exam or else (rationally – or what? lose my money? get an incomplete? who cares?).

    I have also had the alien invasion nightmare. It used to be a 747 crashing in my parents backyard and burning down the neighborhood, then it turned into the aliens coming, landing and rounding up the humans as prisoners for the deuterium mines or whatever they use us for. The nightmare ends with the humans on the transport vessel about to be taken away and deciding whether to stage an uprising or take our cyanide capsules. Just a delight, believe me, thought the "OMG I forgot that I registered for a class" nightmare actually leaves me more rattled. Because, you know, failure is worse than death or something like that.

  15. Boyd Morrison

    Because I'm an actor, I have a different version of the "Oh God, I never went to class" dream. In my case I've forgotten to memorize my lines and I'm about to go out on stage. I'm frantically reading the script but I can't seem to make out the words. I never get to the stage before I wake up. It usually happens a week before I have a play open.

    I also used to have a different version of the teeth dream. When I was younger, I would dream that I was going bald, but the baldness pattern was a stripe down the middle of my head, like an inverse Mohawk. However, I stopped having this dream a few years ago, probably because I realized that the baldness wasn't going to happen.

    Another anxiety dream is the slow-motion fight. I'm having a fist-fight with someone, but my arms and legs seem to be stuck in syrup, so my punches land with little effect no matter how much effort I put into them.

  16. Allison Brennan

    I've been about to re-route dreams like Toni, but then they go into a loop of me changing, then ending up in the same place. Hmm, maybe that's the nightmare itself, that no matter what we do we end up where we're supposed to be, like a pre-determination sort of thing (which I don't believe. But maybe my subconscious does . . . )

    When I was little, I had two recurring nightmares. One was about a giant spider terrorizing my town and the only safe place was the library. (Where I spent a lot of time as a kid.) I know I first saw the giant spider on television in black and white on a Sunday afternoon. I still hate spiders. The other dream was of being in a closet hiding under clothes while bad guys searched the house. That dream was so vivid for awhile I believed it really happened.

    Now, my nightmares involve either my kids (after I had my second, I had a recurring nightmare of the car going off a bridge and I had to make the decision which child to save–the 3 year old or the newborn. I HATE that nightmare!) Or, I'm running in a dark narrow alley from something I can't see. (Maybe it's a giant spider.)

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    I've never had a recurring nightmare, fortunately. I have, however, had a recurring dream, and in that dream I can fly. Or more accurately, levitate and hover. It's an exhilarating feeling, I'll tell you, and feels VERY real in the dream. I'm always disappointed when I wake up.

  18. Matt

    Snap, Rob. Only a couple of feet off the ground, but can glide around serenely as well. Hoping the pleasant sensation is replicated in my first sky dive later this year for charity. Haha

  19. Kim C

    For years and years and years I had this reoccurring nightmare where I was driving the longest overpass known to man. It was a maze of steep bridges and severe drop-offs – all over water. After what felt like forever on the twists and turns and up and downs, my car would loose contact with the road and drive off of the bridge. I'd plummet in slow motion into the water below and then I'd have to scramble and fight to get out of the car and maneuver myself atop of it as it sank. I always awoke before it fully sank, sometimes having dragged myself to safety, sometimes still awaiting help. There have been variations on the theme over the years, a few times I lost traction in the middle of winter and ended up in a pond, but the basics have always been the same. Not sure what it means. Probably has something to do with loss of control or the sense of the loss of control, but I've never come up with a satisfactory explanation.

  20. Rochelle Staab

    Does anyone else find it odd that our minds are equipped with the same recurring-dream-brain-file?

    I've had variations of most of the recurring dreams mentioned here – teeth crumbling out of my mouth, walking into a packed Madison Square Garden naked, a test for a class I didn't know about in a classroom I couldn't find. My latest RD has me driving on a freeway and taking the wrong exit onto a steep, mountainous dirt road with no way to turn back or – same dream different variation – speeding on a freeway that loops high into the sky like a roller coaster with no idea how to get home. (I have a feeling both are plotting dreams!)

  21. Alafair Burke

    Toni and Barbie, I took a fluff course in college called Sleep and Dreams, and one of the things I remember is that people can, as you note, learn to rewrite dreams. I seem to recall the trick is to think about the dream and to imagine what you want to have happen instead as you are falling asleep.

    By the way, everyone, I forgot to mention that another bad dream I have is that we all forget to say happy birthday to Cornelia. Happy Birthday, Cornelia!

  22. Debbie

    Cornelia really? Happy Birthday.

    Got yet another: drempt of driving on huge hills where you couldn't see the other side until you got there. The fear factor was that there would be yet another nauseating hill or, that there would be nothing at all. I interpret this symbolically as insecurity perhaps?
    The choice dreams mentioned above (revolt or cyanide, baby or three yr. old): indecision?
    Can't move properly/trapped (in closet, under clothes, driving a single exitless rout…even into sky): Ineffective? Supressed?

    Carl Jung had theries about universal symbolism. Does anybody know if he extended his ideas to cover dream symbols? There is also something called sleep paralysis that occurs during sleep to prevent our bodies from moving. This might be when we have those trapped, unable to move dreams.

    And yeah, I can control my dreams to an extent when in them, and can avoid them by considering the symbolism once awake, and making changes in real life.

  23. Chris Hamilton

    I used to do radio a long time ago, so rather than the naked dream or the "holy crap, I have a test in this class I forgot about" dream, I have the dead air dream, where there's been five minutes of dead air and I suddenly realize it's my fault.

    I rarely remember my dreams any more, but I think I have a lot of vivid falling dreams, where I fall from a building. I'm powerfully scared of heights.

    And now that I'm doing P90X, I don't fear the naked dream. It would be more like…yeah, take a look, I look good, don't I?

    Hey, it's a dream, right? Not reality.

  24. Eve

    I love the flying dream–not flying really but being able to walk on air. It is the most amazing feeling and sometimes in dreams I try to explain how to do it to others. It is so simple. I just lean back slightly and I rise from the ground.

    My nightmare is when something bad has happened, an emergency, something awful, and I have to call 911 or the police and no matter how hard I try I can never dial the number correctly. I hate that one.

  25. KDJames

    I've had many of the same nightmares mentioned — stomping on the brakes yet the car won't stop, something awful and gruesome happening to my kids (especially disturbing since I also tend to have dreams that turn out to be predictive), needing to defend myself and I can't even make a fist let alone hit anyone, an intruder is IN THE HOUSE AT NIGHT WHILE WE'RE SLEEPING.

    But the worst was more just a feeling than anything else. Completly indescribable. Sort of a combination of feeling thick and sort of falling but not really and seeing shapes that weren't really shapes but mostly just feeling absolutely terrified. It was awful and would cause me to wake in a cold sweat and not be able to describe what had happened and couldn't explain to my half-awake parents what was wrong (and so stopped even telling anyone). And of course I couldn't go back to sleep. Then when I was 18-19 I had my wisdom teeth taken out and they gave me gas to "calm me" while they were giving me the big "scary" shots of novocaine (or whatever it's called these days). And it was my nightmare. Exactly. Including the terror and cold sweat. It's a wonder anyone survived the experience. Turns out I had been re-living the experience of being put under from back when I was six and had my tonsils taken out. Helped to understand the origin of my fear, but didn't do much to make it less powerful.

    And as a writer, I have to wonder — since so many of these fears are shared, do any of you consciously tap into these feelings (give these fears to your characters) in your writing? Or are they only powerful while we're asleep and therefore vulnerable?

    Happy Birthday, Cornelia!

  26. Jennifer Woodard

    Interesting post. I have had dreams of my teeth falling out and being chased. I have noticed that I tend to have these dreams more often when I am under stress. I also have quite a few dreams that involve people that I know who are dead, but they are not nightmares. What I find interesting about the dreams with the dead people is that I usually know I my dreams that they are dead. Sometimes I will tell them they are dead, ask then why they are here or tell others in my dream that they are dead. I also have dreams of people trying to kill me, usually they don't come close to killing me but over the last year they have come close to killing me and I will wake up just before I am killed, don't know what that is all about.

    I was thinking that these nightmares would probably be good in books because the nightmare situations are something people can relate to even it is only through a dream they have had.


  27. Reine

    Happy Birthday, Cornelia!

    All those nightmares… I get them all. I don't get the exam one anymore, but that's probably because I graduated. I used to dream I forgot to write my senior paper or the just found out i was enrolled in a class and I had an exam… That one was the worst. The thing is, though, those things did always happen to me. Fortunately my school pretty much had the attitude of, "hey you got in, it must be you're just odd, and something is wrong" and they'd let you do the work.

    Once at another school, I got an A for a class I forgot to write the final paper for. I called the professor to beg, and she said, "Oh, I already gave you an A. I must have figured you'd already proven yourself." She was kind of a nut case. Worse than me. She used to have a dream that the roof blew off her house. One year year it did, and she gave everybody in her class an A, because their papers went with it. Of course, then she found them in the back of her car.

    Debbie, talking about Jung, she (above professor) was a Jungian feminist analyst… Always talked about his archetypes, and yes he did generalize that to all in the universal symbolism in dreams, credited the collective unconscious. Now I have nightmares about running into her somewhere with Jung close behind.

    My worst nightmare ever was of cats chasing me down the street in Boston, I made it to the front entry in our house, and the cats were clawing at the door pulling it open and climbing all over one another and up the side of the house. I could see them through the glass panels around the door. I never have been afraid of cats, so I don't know where that came from. It was kind of like Hitchcock's, The Birds.

  28. Cheryl Schenk

    I feel quite cheated on this one. I seldom remember my dreams. Even when it is a particularly good one and I want to remember, it's gone within seconds of waking up.

    Hmmm! Maybe loss of memory is my nightmare.

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