Jeff, it is always a pleasure to visit with you. This interview is about your book, The Nightmare Encyclopedia: Your Darkest Dreams Interpreted. Let me begin by saying that you continue to bring entertaining and informative books to the reading audience, and once again, you have succeeded well with The Nightmare Encyclopedia. Was the research as involved with this book as in your previous writings?
This book was very research intensive, but it was also a fun book to work on. Covering the way nightmares have affected and inspired art, music, literature, and pop culture was of special interest to me. There were some obvious entries that came to mind, like the Nightmare on Elm Street film series and Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare,” but there are a myriad of other great works that owe their existence to a nightmare of their creator. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is just one example.
In coming up with the meaning of nightmare symbols, we looked at some of the old dream dictionaries from centuries past, but, also looked at the great dream work of psychologist Carl Jung and his archetypes. We made every effort to understand the ancient meanings and combine them with our modern understanding of psychology and human behavior to come up with modern meanings.
Which culture or cultures did you discover had the most original approach to the world of dreams and nightmares?
The Hmong people of Laos in southeast Asia had a particular focus on a nocturnal monster they called tsog tsuam, which is very similar to what Westerners would call “Old Hag Syndrome.” With Old Hag Syndrome, dreamers awaken to find they are paralyzed. They may see a dark form coming at them, then they’ll feel a crushing sensation, have difficulty breathing, and then the frightening episode usually ends within a few seconds. Even people who believe the “Old Hag” is a spectral attack will say it could never kill you. But here’s the rub; with the Hmong people, the tsog tsuam can and has killed.
The Hmong have traditionally made regular offerings to their ancestors to keep this monster at bay. In the 1970s, the Vietnam War displaced many Hmong people who started new lives in other countries – countries where ancestor offerings were seen as weird. So the offerings stopped, and some otherwise healthy people were dying in their sleep. Doctors had no explanation – but Hmong folklore did. Those who didn’t make offerings no longer had their ancestors to protect them from the tsog tsuam.
What’s the worst nightmare you have ever had?
When I was around ten years old, I had a very vivid dream that I was in an airplane. I recall where I was sitting in the plane, I recall exactly what the people looked like who were sitting around me, and I recall what the flight attendant looked like. The plane suddenly went into a dive, we broke through heavy clouds, and a large cornfield below us was coming up fast. I woke up petrified. I didn’t step foot on an airplane for about 10 years after that dream. Now I fly somewhat frequently and have gotten over my fear. But I made a deal with myself. If I ever get on an airplane and see those people from my dream around me, I’m getting off!
How was the theme of nightmares handled in your household when you were a child? How did the adults explain your nightmare to you?
When I was very young and had nightmares, my father would come in and make the sign of the cross on my forehead. It was a ritual that I believe protected me for the rest of the night – and I recall it usually working. In my family, we didn’t have deep discussions of dreams and nightmares, but my parents certainly took nightmares seriously when they occurred – they knew they had a frightened child.
In the paranormal world, nightmares can be perceived as omens of something to come. Yet, in contemporary American culture, nightmares are oftentimes seen as the unconscious struggling with repressed conflicts. What is your personal view?
I believe both are possible. How’s that for diplomacy? Some dreams are simply our deeper selves working through issues in our lives. Nightmares likely represent more serious or urgent issues. But there are other dreams and even nightmares that have much deeper meaning for some dreamers. I’ve spoken with several people who discussed a dream that actually came to pass – or what they believed to be a precognitive dream. An example was a woman who dreamt of a faceless baby with a very high fever. The following day she watched her toddler son very closely. Nothing seemed wrong for most of the day, but when she checked on him again in the afternoon, her son was burning with fever. She rushed him to the hospital where doctors were able to treat him. She believes that without the dream, she would not have been checking on her son so often.
In modern times, psychiatrists and psychotherapy have replaced the role of the priest, shaman, medicine man, and holy man. How do you perceive that shift as a reflection on how society confronts social problems on both an individual and group level?
For the most part, I think psychiatrist, psychologist, priest, medicine man, and holy man are simply labels – all of those people have been around forever, and all of those people are still in our lives today. Maybe 200 years ago you didn’t call a particular person “psychologist,” maybe he was simply a stable worker who was always ready to lend a sympathetic ear and offer advice. Even today we may have a “psychologist” in our own lives – though this person has no advanced educational degrees. Maybe it’s your bartender, or hairdresser, or mom. My point is that the roles these people have served have always been around and are still around today. I think science has offered us a lot of advancement, but science has helped to create a culture that must try to explain everything, even the mystical. So we no longer consult oracles or shamen, we consult PhDs and the Internet, but the roles are the same. And I believe there’s still magic in the world, too – it just wears a better disguise than it used to.
When a person dreams of the dead speaking, is that a message from beyond to be recalled upon awakening when possible, or is it part of the nightmare?
Context is everything with understanding dreams. Sometimes dreaming of a dead person may simply mean the end of something, or a dead issue. Something from your past that you’re not letting go of. But some people have had experiences with deceased loved ones in dreams that seemed “too real.” Usually these visitation dreams aren’t described as nightmares – they’re more emotional connections. In the end (or in the morning, if you will) the dreamer will decide what’s “just a dream” and what is actual contact.
Do you see nightmares as terrors of the night, or do you see them as potential guides? Perhaps, a paranormal link?
We can learn from any human experience and that includes nightmares. I’m one of those people who wants to know how things work – especially things that pertain to myself. Dreams and nightmares offer us a way to decode our deeper selves. We may not love everything we find, but better to know than not know.
Do you believe such a thing as Freddy and Nightmare on Elm Street could exist?
If you ask the Hmong people, they would likely tell you that such a creature has been around long before Wes Craven was even born!
Your terms and definitions in your book are splendid examples of well thought-out ideas, presented in a clear, straight-forward manner. How did you achieve the clarity? Did it take many rewrites or did it just happen?
I don’t consider myself all that smart. I need to really absorb a subject, read all I can, chew on it, and then break it down into the simplest form/least common denominator so I can understand it. Once I’ve broken a subject down as far as I can, I usually don’t see a need to fluff it up after that. I don’t revise that much, but I prepare quite a bit before I start writing.
Kirsten Dalley, who was my co-author on this book, also did a fantastic job of research and writing. I can’t take all of the credit!
What group of readers did you have in mind for your Nightmare Encyclopedia?
The Nightmare Encyclopedia is for dreamers — for people who enjoy their dream worlds — and those who pay attention to the imagery and meaning. The book is a study in meaning of the darker side of dreaming and a look at how these wonderfully horrific experiences have altered the political and artistic landscape of our world.
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