Nightmares: Why night hags and videotapes haunt our dreams.

Sep 17, 2018 · 3 min read

Every night billions of dreams play out in the minds of the slumbering. Most are forgotten, wiped clear by a beeping alarm. But sometimes we remember bits and pieces that we share with our friends or analyze with our therapists, and the most memorable ones are the ones that jolt us awake — nightmares that force us into late night reflections.

Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’

We try explaining these subconscious phenomena through things we consciously fear: “the night hag,” a succubus in Sweden who sat heavily on one’s chest during sleep, “the oily man” in Malaysia, a greasy nighttime kidnapper of women, or “the Alp” in Germany, a demonic shape-shifting elf that would twist your dreams into nightmares. Some Americans believe nightmares are residual memories of being abducted by aliens. When we don’t understand something, we tend to believe it is something bad, and it says a lot about the human condition that the bedfellow of the unknown is not joy but fear.

Humans have always conflated the unknown with the terrifying. It’s part of our self-preservation instinct. Without fear, we wouldn’t have anything to inhibit our most reckless actions, but too much fear can also paralyze us, preventing us from taking the necessary risks needed to grow.

Tower Records was a victim of its own reckless expansion, which burdened it with colossal debt that made it unable to invest in digital music. In 2007, John Antioco, then CEO of Blockbuster, proposed a then-risky investment of $400 million in streaming infrastructure, but the board feared to miss short-term earnings goals more than it feared obsolescence. Now the last Blockbusters are dying in the tundra of Alaska as Netflix takes up a third of our nation’s broadband every evening.

These “nightmares” are the result of brands having extreme relationships with fear — too little in the first case and too much in the second, and they’re not the only brands to act this way. Today we know that nightmares are your body’s way of helping you process stress and fear while keeping you safe. But in waking life, sometimes the thing you fear the most is exactly the thing you need to face — but face it with measured action, not unmeasured rashness or caution.

After all, it’s much better to avoid a nightmare altogether than to wake up in one.

This article was part of The Next Page, Chapter’s bi-monthly newsletter that reveals some of the more surprising things that make us human, and gives you a glimpse of life at Chapter.


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