Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Defense Mechanisms and Nightmares

[Excerpts from David R. Saliba,  A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), pp.44-50.]

Low defenses, however, do not entirely preclude ego-defense mechanisms during nightmares. Depending on the individual involved, any of a substantial number of defenses can be attempted during sleep. For example, the ego may attempt to defend itself through regression, which means essentially that it will perceive itself as if at an earlier stage of its development. By regressing, it is seeking the comfort it experienced during the state it regresses to. Because of the nightmare situation this specific defense turns out to be a feeble and paradoxically inappropriate choice for its intended purpose. Instead of protecting the ego during the nightmare, regression intensifies the ego's feelings of weakness and vulnerability, and thereby creates a more intense atmosphere of terror or violence. In addition to the effects on the dream atmosphere itself, regression may also cause the fears that are associated with the specific period to which the ego regresses to resurface and contribute to the already emotionally charged dream atmosphere.
Projection is another defense mechanism the ego may utilize during a nightmare. Wishes and ideas that are hateful or unpalatable to the conscious mind can be attributed to other people, or in the case of dreams, to symbolic representations of mental aspects not associated with the ego. The undesirable wishes are incorporated in the nightmare very often as the main aggressor that seeks to destroy the dreamer. Since projection is a defense, the dreamer is unaware that it is his own emotions that are redounding upon him....
...Many other defenses can be opted for by the ego during terrifying nightmares. Some of these include final and desperate confrontation with the aggressor, fleeing the aggressor even at the risk of self-destruction, and an attempt at self-arousal by screaming, which is a realization by the ego that it is caught up in a dream and wants to force the sleeper into consciousness. In fact, all three of these defenses by the ego will in all probability lead to the waking of the dreamer. The ego is expressing its inability to cope with the nightmare any further and is desperately attempting to surface.
Ego-defense mechanisms obviously play a major role in the survival of the ego from whatever personal ordeal its nightmare might involve. Survival is important not only as an element in the nightmare but also in a much broader scope. Mack credits Freud's later theory of anxiety with the discovery that "small amounts of anxiety under the control of the ego may act as a signal to prevent the development of a traumatic situation, in which there occurs anxiety of overwhelming proportions" [20]. This point provides a basis for viewing nightmares as devices launched by the unconscious for the purpose of preparing the ego for certain strenuous and highly emotionally volatile situations. As proposed earlier, one of the theories of nightmare sources explains that nightmares begin as conscious thoughts that are taken to bed with the dreamer. The thought slips into the unconscious where it takes on its symbolic nature and is subsequently exposed to the ego sometime during the course of sleep. In light of Freud's theory of anxiety we can say that a realistic function of nightmares is to test the preparedness of the ego and give it exercise in dealing with seriously dangerous situations. Consequently, one of the paradoxical functions of a nightmare is to secure a person's sanity, and the entire nightmare itself becomes a defense for self-preservation.
One point that is necessary to stress about ego-defense mechanisms is that they are not consciously or rationally constructed. By nature of the the situation in which they occur--that is, during sleep--dreams and nightmares are also not products of direct conscious control. They could have, perhaps, been seeded or encouraged by a conscious thought; but a distinction must be made between the source and the nature of dreams and nightmares. Jung is well known for his work with dreams and their symbolic language. He explains that "Dreams contain images and thought-associations which we do not create with conscious intent. They arise spontaneously without our assistance and are representatives of a psychic activity withdrawn from our arbitrary will. Therefore the dream is, properly speaking, a highly objective, natural product of the psyche, from which we might expect indications, or at least hints, about certain basic trends in the psychic process" [21]. A strong possibility exists that certain nightmares, especially those that occur frequently with constantly recurring themes, are indications that the dreamer's mind is in need of help. Although many dreamers believe their mortifying nightmares function to drive them insane, their real function is just the opposite. Recurring nightmares are desperate attempts at self-preservation.
Self-preservation, however, entails the problem of the dreamer's own psychological needs. That means that in certain cases self-preservation might require that the person suffer one form of insanity in order to prevent a type more detrimental to his entire well-being. Or perhaps a highly guilt-ridden individual might be better off suffering nightmares periodically than facing up to the source of his guilt, which could prove to be overly traumatic.
Depending on the type of nightmare involved and the needs of the dreamer, the actual function of a nightmare might seem paradoxical in relation to its meaning. For example, a dream in which the dreamer finds himself being violently pursued by menacing figures could be interpreted as a symbolic manifestation of the dreamer's own aggressive wishes toward a loved one. His feelings have been projected onto the symbolic figure which threatens him in his dreams. In this case what the dream means is that the dreamer had an underlying hostility toward someone who he would not consciously consider harming. But the dream's function, on the other hand, might be to cause the dreamer to wake in response to some external, physical threat in order to save the dreamer himself from that unconsciously anticipated danger [22]. Mack relates the possible function of nightmares to rituals of primitive cultures and suggests a further paradox: "The sacrifice of the nightmare victim in order to preserve the object [the object is usually a loved one toward whom the dreamer unconsciously directs destructive desires] could have some connection with the manifestly irrational process of human sacrifice in primitive cultures. Nightmares perhaps function as a kind of symbolic sacrifice in which the helpless subject offers himself for destruction in order to preserve the object or to protect himself from the wrath of its retaliation" [23].