Nightmare is not a pretty word. When we speak of an event in our lives as having been “a nightmare,” we mean that it was unimaginably bad. And yet, nightmares, however unpleasant they may be are an absolutely necessary part of life.
In art and film, most of us are drawn, perhaps uncannily, to nightmare. Night of the Living Dead still ranks among the most popular films of all time. Zombies, vampires, and psycho killers abound in film, literature, and video games. Which sequel of Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street or Saw are we up to? I’ve lost count.
Part of the attraction to nightmare is the old “it feels so good when it’s over.” How many times have any of us awakened with enormous relief to discover that our most terrifying dream was “only a nightmare.” Theater and film allow us to sit comfortably and safely in our seats watching the most terrible things happen, knowing that they are not really happening to us.
Yet, this is not the complete explanation. i doubt if anyone would choose to dream a nightmare if they could avoid it. Yet we do deliberately seek out nightmare in film and theater. Is it possible that experiencing fear and trembling is something that, on some level, we need, something that excites us, thrills us, makes us feel more or live?
And beyond the excitement, is there meaning as well? Do we learn something from nightmare? You don’t have to believe Sigmund Freud to sense that our nightmares remind us of elements of our lives — dangers, repressed desires, anxieties, and so on — that we may try our best to keep out of our minds most of the time. Perhaps we are often all too successful in keeping them out of our minds with the result that we deprive ourselves of the human experience, of ourselves. Our “modern” solutions to anxieties and depressions is to pop a Xanax, Lexapro, Ativan, Zoloft or Prozac, alleviating some symptoms but, perhaps, driving our fears yet deeper down inside us.
Having recently participated in one nightmarish theatrical production, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I’m now at the center of another nightmare: Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with the spirit world in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (in the Vermont Theater Company’s production of Jay Gelter’s adaptation of the tale, directed by Jessica Gelter). Scrooge desperately wants to dismiss what he sees, to push it back into the unreality of the dreamworld, to experience as a nightmare to be forgotten, not as a message that he must hear if he is to regain his humanity.
Like any nightmare, Scrooge’s encounter is claustrophobic. He cannot shut his eyes, but neither can he open them and awaken to what had been reality to him. Like any nightmare, as soon as he leaves one horrifying scene, he finds himself in yet another. Also like many a nightmare, things may seem fine at first, tolerable, perhaps even a bit wonderful, but soon turn on him, forcing him to face realities he does not want to face. As anyone caught in a nightmare, he is continually disoriented. He has no control, no solid footing, but is caught like a leaf in a wind as he is drawn from experiences of his past, present, and future.
In Scrooge’s case, he is extremely lucky. He desperately needs his nightmare in order to awaken from the anti-human life he has chosen to lead. He is lucky also because his nightmare is crystal clear — there can be no mistaking how he must change if he is to share the joy and grief of his fellow humans. The spirits he encounters could not be more clear about how he has gone wrong in his life and what he must do and be going forward.
It is a tale, of course, couched in profoundly Christian trappings, but its message is universal and, sadly, as relevant today — if not more so — than in Dickens’ time: Focusing one’s energies on one’s own aggrandizement, financial in this case but it could be any form of greed, means crushing the hopes and needs of others. Scrooge’s “nightmare” teaches him that he must change, and, he indeed does. Would that everyone be able to see the consequences of their avarice and change their ways, the world would be a very different place!