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Unholy Spirits

Facing up to nightmares, monsters, demons, and the fragile self


Illustration by Yuko Shimizu. Patrick McNamara (below). Photo by Vernon Doucette

Patrick McNamara knows nightmares. The neurocognitive scientist and School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and psychiatry spent 10 years researching and writing about them. The result, Nightmares: The Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions During Sleep, was published last year by Praeger. McNamara’s book covers a lot of ground, from cultural interpretations to biology to horror films.

BU Today editors, nervous types themselves, had a few questions for the author, who is also director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at MED and the Veterans Affairs New England Healthcare System.

BU Today: What makes a nightmare a nightmare?
The official criteria define a nightmare as a frightening dream that occurs in REM sleep, causes the dreamer to awaken, and creates emotional distress. Many scientists who study nightmares (me among them) argue that that official criteria need revision. Many nightmares do not cause you to awaken.

Nightmares very often involve supernatural characters that attack or target the dreamer. I mean monsters, creatures, demons, spirits, unusual animals. One interesting aspect of the presence of a supernatural being in a nightmare is that the dreamer cannot read its mind. All we can do is understand that the monster’s intentions are malevolent.

Nightmares also often involve the dreamer, or self. Interestingly, the self responds to the monster with a wide range of feeling, from terror to awe and fascination. The self escapes unscathed only if it refuses to engage the monster. When the self engages, all kinds of ill effects ensue, including, in ancestral cultures, demonic or spirit possession.

You write about the possession theme of nightmares. Why is that particularly disturbing?
There is a danger involved in the encounter with spirit beings; you may not psychically survive. Instead, the malevolent spirit will take up residence in your consciousness and control your actions. You become possessed.

It is an interesting clinical fact that, even today, most cases of involuntary spirit possession across the world occur overnight. The person wakes up possessed. Traditional cultures have developed ways to identify the demon-possessed people. They are usually self-destructive, they have chronic physical pains and physical distress, they are irreverent toward the culture’s religious rituals, they are restless, and they have recurrent nightmares.

We in modern university settings do not realize how widespread spirit possession phenomena are throughout the world and throughout history. It is a universal human experience. For people who encounter a possessed person, it is uncanny, and terrifying if the possessing spirit is demonic.

What time of life are we most likely to have nightmares?
Nightmare frequency is high in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Young girls tend to experience nightmares more frequently than boys. In adults, recurrent nightmares occur in people with so-called thin boundaries, who are especially sensitive to sensory impressions. Creative people, like artists, writers, musicians, and so forth, also report more nightmares. A different form of nightmare, heavily influenced by memory, occurs frequently in people who have experienced trauma.

What about recurrent nightmares? Are they really recurrent, or do we just think they are?
In about 2 percent of the adult population, nightmares occur frequently. They do not recur in the sense that the same scene is replayed night after night, but the individual does experience frequent nightmares. Post-traumatic nightmares, on the other hand, do recur with the same scene, with minor variations, replayed over and over.

If a person feels plagued by nightmares, is there something to do to inhibit their recurrence?
Yes. Scientists have found that various forms of cognitive restructuring of the nightmare’s imagery can reduce the distress. In cognitive restructuring, you take a central image from the nightmare and literally redraw it, on paper or in imagination, so that it is less threatening or frightening. You can also do this with the use of stories. Take the nightmare story and retell it, with less frightening themes and outcome.

What can we learn about ourselves from the details of our nightmares?
The traditional answer is something along the following lines: our dreams and nightmares reflect unconscious conflicts and fears. Examining images and themes of dreams and nightmares can tell us something important about our unconscious fears and conflicts. I doubt this is true.

Instead, nightmares appear to be about the strength of the ego, the “I,” the self. It is always the self that is under attack in a nightmare. It appears that people who suffer frequent nightmares have more fragile egos than the rest of us, but when you look deeper, these people very likely have the strongest egos, or sense of self, on the planet. Nightmare images haunt our awareness for days. Frequent nightmare sufferers cope with this stuff on a regular basis. They are very strong individuals.

How have nightmares influenced culture: visual arts, literature, movies?
The most reliably best-selling novels tend to be horror stories, like those of Stephen King. Visual artists tend to display a profound understanding of nightmares, perhaps because they experience nightmares themselves. You might say that a whole industry has been built on the nightmare.

Art Jahnke can be reached at janhke@bu.edu.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of Bostonia magazine.


3 Comments on Unholy Spirits

  • Anonymous on 04.24.2009 at 10:22 am

    “We in modern university settings do not realize how widespread spirit possession phenomena are throughout the world and throughout history. It is a universal human experience. For people who encounter a possessed person, it is uncanny, and terrifying if the possessing spirit is demonic.”

    How is this any degree not pseudoscience?

  • michael b on 04.24.2009 at 10:52 pm


    “we can infer that it is not merely a pseudoscience because the topic relates respectively to the eschatology of neuroscience as is what the article refers to.”

  • Anonymous on 04.27.2009 at 4:30 pm

    Imagined or Real?

    While not a subject for scientific enquiry, why do we assume that possession is simply a neurophysiological or psychological condition and not real?

    I ask, rhetorically, is every truth provable? Is every neumena clearly expressed as phenomena and subject to empirical methods? I think not.

    It seems that the former is clearly refuted by Goedel. How so much weaker are our empirical methods if we cannot even count on a firm foundation in the purest of sciences: mathematics.

    I do not argue that this is necessarily the case here, only that we should not be so quickly dismissive.


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