Wed
Mar 6 2013 5:00pm

Monster of the Week: The Nightmare

This week’s monster takes a variety of forms, but its modus operandi is always the same. It attacks during the night, a dark and oppressive form that slithers on top of us in bed, crushing our bodies and stealing our precious breath.

The most common English name is of course “nightmare,” stemming from the Anglo-Saxon “mara,” which translates to “crusher.” The fiendish mara looks like a small elf or imp, much like the chest squatter from Henry Fuseli’s famed painting. Other species of nightmare, however, take on wilder forms...

Mahr: According to folk historian Carol Rose, this German subspecies may appear as a long hair, a wisp of straw or an “ugly little shape that vanishes when observed.”

Cauchermar: This French nightmare species poses the typical threats to a good night’s sleep, but also features a few weakness for you to exploit. Try placing iron nails under your mattress, pointing your toes outward at the bedside or sleeping with your head pointed North.

Ephialtes: Translated as “leaper,” this Greek nightmare species also traps a troubled sleeper under its bulk, but mounts its prey with a frog-like leap.

The Old Hag: This variant haunts Newfoundland (where I spent part of my childhood) and appears as an old crone.

And of course cats (particularly those serving as a witch’s familiar) catch a bad rap for this purported behavior as well. Don’t believe it.

The Science of the Maras

What’s it all about? Well, as Oliver Sacks points out in Hallucinations, so many of these nightmare myths (as well as modern alien abduction experiences) boil down to sleep paralysis. See, during REM sleep our skeletal muscles are on lock down to keep us from thrashing around too much during dreams. It’s just a simulation, see? No reason to ACTUALLY throw karate chops. But sometimes this safety feature malfunctions: The brain wakes up, but the body is still paralyzed in this “safe mode.”

If the stats hold true, 20 percent of you know this first hand and don’t need a description. For the rest of you, understand that it’s a very unsettling experience. You wake up in the dark and you can’t move! You panic! It’s as if some force is holding you down or perched upon your chest!  Drag a little of your dream memories into the waking world with you (along with residual sexual arousal) and a magical explanation practically writes itself.

And speaking of sexual arousal, next time we’ll chat about close relatives of the nightmare: incubi and succubi.

Monster of the Week is a — you guessed it — regular look at the denizens of our monster-haunted world. In some of these, we’ll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Other times, we”ll just wax philosophic about the monster’s underlying meaning. After all, the word “monstrosity” originates from the Latin monstrare, which meant to show or illustrate a point.

Image: Nightmare. Paul Bielaczyc. charcoal, 2005. (prints available)

Originally published at HSW: Monster of the Week: The Nightmare


Robert Lamb is a senior writer at HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast and blog. He is also a regular contributor to Discovery News. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. If you’re into that sort of thing.

3 comments
Brian Carlson
1. images8dream
This happened to me as a child. I felt like demons were swooping down on me and beating me. It still happens every now and then and is quite terrifying.

I also read an interesting article on the BBC a while back where they were interviewing a psychologist who specialized in the sleep paraylsis phenomenon. She had interviewed a bunch of people who claimed to be abducted by aliens (which she diagnosed as sleep paralysis) and she found out that while all of them remembered getting abducted before Orsen Wells War of the Worlds broadcast, none of them reported being abudcted by aliens until after the broadcast. She hypothesized that the fear of extraterrestrial life offerred an explanation to these people who had been sufferring sleep paralysis there whole life, and they retrocactively filled in the details. Weird stuff.
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
I always found Lovecraft's toe-tickling Nightgaunts super terrifying because I suffered from night terrors, & because I could easily imagine that Lovecraft did as well, & that they terrified HIM.
alastair chadwin
3. a-j
I've woken with sleep paralysis once but luckily I'd read about it in the Fortean Times not long previously, the phenomenon was not so well known then. If I hadn't known what was going on I would have been deeply terrified, not least by the tall hooded figure standing by my bed.
Definitely sleep paralysis.
Definitely.
For certain.

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