Happy August! I almost let the day get away from me, because I am very much feeling like the subject of today’s entry: ZOMBIES!

I had no idea these were so popular, but zombie dreams ranked right up there with lucid dreaming and insomnia. When I think of zombie dreams, I don’t necessarily think of the “hordes of hungry undead” type zombies. In my dreams, they are certainly in varying states of decay, but I usually only see one, and it’s not inherently threatening. The sight of an animated corpse is just incredibly unnerving, whether it would eat you or just bring you another cup of coffee.

So what came first, zombies or animated corpse nightmares? I’m certain people have been having zombie nightmares for as long as people have been dying and dreaming. It was probably a lot more common when your daily life might involve seeing a corpse. (Those poor cops and morticians! I think it’s bad enough when I have repetitive dreams about filing paperwork. Geez!) How often do you dream that you’re talking to someone you know is dead? One of the major facets of any culture is treatment of the dead, and it’s not surprising to want to bring the dead back to life. We just don’t want them to return to life as their body continues to decay.

As you may or may not be aware, “zombie” comes to us from the West African Vodun tradition. These were revived by a bokor and are essentially mindless servants. It’s a fantastic idea, and one that Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis suggested is inaccurate. Davis proposed that the zombies had never been dead to begin with, they had simply been given a substance that put them into a state of suspended animation, after which they would be revived in a state of psychosis.

So real zombies aren’t much like the movie zombies that have been spreading through pop culture. They went from terrifying speculation to excellent comedy and now they’re just a part of fictional nature, being cartooned onto children’s school supplies, like unicorns and dragons. They begin to lose their scare factor when so many people are prepared for a zombie apocalypse.

…then you have a dream about zombies and remember just how scary they are!

I’m not big on interpreting dream symbols, because symbols seem to vary in meaning from person to person. If a zombie chases you and you are scared, it probably means the same thing as if a clown chases you and you are scared. That said, here is the most commonly copy+pasted snippet I’ve found.

“To see or dream that you are a zombie suggests that you are physically and/or emotionally detached from people and situations that are currently surrounding you. You are feeling out of touch. Alternatively, a zombie means that you are feeling dead inside. You are just going through the motions of daily living.

To dream that you are attacked by zombies indicate that you are feeling overwhelmed by forces beyond your control. You are under tremendous stress in your waking life. Alternatively, the dream represents your fears of being helpless and overpowered.” – dreammoods.com

This gets paraphrased all over the internet. If you’re the zombie, you’re feeling detached. If you’re chased by zombies, you’re feeling overwhelmed. No wonder zombie dreams are so common, that describes the workforce at large.

But what about a dream of a single animated corpse, all sinewy and disgusting? What if it’s not chasing you or in any other way threatening you, but the sight of it still makes your skin crawl? That’s the kind of zombie dreams I have most often. Realistically, something that decayed would barely be able to stand, and maybe it’s that unnatural element that creeps me out.

Have you had a zombie dream/nightmare? Please comment!


Parasomnia: Sleep Paralysis

Parasomnia is a broad term that refers to any sleep disorder (apart from sleep apnea) in which the person experiences abnormal or dangerous movements, behavior, perceptions or emotions. These experiences normally occur during a transition into, between, or out of sleep phases. Common forms include sleepwalking, sleep-related eating disorder (SRED), night terrors, sleep paralysis, REM sleep behavior disorder, sleep aggression, sexsomnia, sleep talking, catathrenia, restless legs syndrome, bruxism, confusional arousal (most common in children), and nocturnal dissociative disorder.

Today I want to talk about sleep paralysis, but first I want to talk about cats (because it’s the internet and all). Have you ever grabbed a cat by the loose skin on the back of their neck and watched them go rigid. This physiological response is vital to many aspects of the feline life cycle from mother cats maintaining control of kittens during relocation to preventing dangerous struggle during mating.

Humans also have a similar mechanism of tonic immobility, but ours isn’t quiet so accessible to the outside world. When we dream, our brains create some wild and often violent scenarios. If our bodies were allowed to react to these scenarios, we would be very dangerous indeed! Kicking and thrashing, punching and…snacking? Yes, there is a parasomnia in which people leave their bed in a dream state, eat and return to bed with no memory of its happening. Ideally, the body safeguards from this behavior by creating a damper to outgoing neural activity by halting the release of monoamines (norepinephrine, serotonin and histamine, which I will discuss at a later date). Your brain can stay active for dreaming and processing information while you remain safely in bed (and safe from predators on an evolutionary level). This is known as REM atonia.

Sleep paralysis is somewhat opposite of sleepwalking. This is what happens when that mechanism remains active while the person is becoming aware of his or her surroundings. The brain is still producing dreamlike brain waves, so the mechanism stays in place to keep the body still. The person will be able to see, hear and feel everything around them as if they are awake, but their mind will still be incorporating imagery from dreams. At this point a person might see some horrifying monster descending upon them and be completely paralyzed. They will be unable to call out for help, even though they feel completely alert. This is where we get the concept of the incubus. Some instances are very short and infrequent (isolated sleep paralysis, more commonly experiencing the incubus scenario), while others can last for up to 30 minutes multiple times in a person’s life (recurrent isolated sleep paralysis, more commonly experiencing out-of-body scenarios). The latter can even happen multiple times the same night. Hypnagogic sleep paralysis occurs as a person is falling asleep. Hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs as one is waking. Both terms originate from the Greek word “hypnos” meaning sleep, and the words “agogos” meaning leading, and “pompe” meaning sending.

There are three types of hallucinations a person may experience during sleep paralysis, one I’ve mentioned already is the incubus, but I will get back to that in a moment. The first type is the intruder. Because of the increased activity in the amygdala during REM sleep, the brain is quick to assess threat. You can blame the human fear of the unknown on evolution as our brains are wired to perceive ambiguous stimuli as dangerous. We’re programmed for caution. If the sleeper finds some strange apparition and experiences the inability to move or call out, he or she might feel vulnerable to attack and panic.

The incubus adds upon this reaction. Panic affects your breathing, but during sleep paralysis, you still have no voluntary control over your breathing which is still very shallow (or in cases of sleep apnea, there is an actual blockage). In these instances, the dreamer may perceive that the intruder is strangling him or sitting on his chest.

Finally, there is the vestibular-motor hallucination, or out-of-body experience. This is not threat related, but instead the brain believes it is receiving external stimuli from movement where none is truly occurring. This is the type commonly experienced in recurring isolated sleep paralysis.

When diagnosing sleep paralysis, doctors commonly check for narcolepsy due to its high co-morbidity and availability of a genetic test. These are heritable disorders, and it is very common if occurring in one identical twin it will be present in the other. Lifestyle indicators also increase the risk of sleep paralysis. If you aren’t getting plenty of rest or aren’t keeping a regular sleep schedule, this could sometimes lead to the overlap of sleep phases when you are able to sleep. Sleeping on your back, which is sometimes recommended for treatment of other disorders, can also leave you susceptible to sleep paralysis, especially the incubus type. Other factors include any type of activity or circumstance that leaves your body exhausted.

There is no way to completely cure sleep paralysis, though it is possible to decrease the frequency through the same means I described earlier for increasing the duration of slow-wave sleep (that is via use of SSRIs). While terrifying, sleep paralysis is not considered dangerous. Narcolepsy, on the other hand, is dangerous, and that treatment takes priority.

Sleep paralysis comes with rich folklore from every part of the world. Demons, witches, shadow people and spirits frequent these tales, and it is also related to the superstition that cats will steal your breath while you sleep. How creative and horrifying the dreaming mind can be!

Dreamscape: I’ve Been Here Before

One of the strangest things I’ve noticed in my dreams is that certain periods in my life bring about dreams that seem to take place in their own special setting. I will go through months to maybe years with numerous dreams occurring in one unique dreamscape. It seems to shift when I have a major life change. Okay pretty much everything changes at once. A new job, a different boyfriend, a big move; it’s like I’m a totally different person.

Maybe the dreamscape is somewhat responsible for my ill feelings in any given real-world situation, or maybe it’s my mind’s way of letting me know there is trouble I’m not handling. I’ve had some absolutely unsettling dreamscapes, like the one with all the cemeteries and the big wooden dining table with preserved arms and legs stowed in drawers beneath it. You might classify that as a nightmare, but it didn’t quite evoke the same emotional response as nightmares I had when I was younger. There didn’t appear to be any immediate danger, just a creepy vibe. After returning to the same setting a number of times, it seemed less important. The roads I traveled still had the same obstacles, but I’d been down them enough to know just how to get where I was going.

There is one dreamscape which involves a trip into the city, and in order to get there, I have to crawl across thin, rusty pipes just a few feet above the water in a vivid green swamp. Once I’ve gotten through that, I’ve got to cross train tracks that are almost always busy before getting to the edge of the city where I can drive. To get where I need to be, I have to drive on what looks like a rollercoaster loop, except it’s just part of the paved road. Finally, I arrive at a large mall with three wings. Many of the stores are closed, but there are some that I can’t help visiting every time I dream it. There is a food court, but it’s built somewhat like a movie theater (there’s one of those too). I’d describe the mall as dark and struggling.

Some dreamscapes are easier to understand, like school. The campus layout may be a bit different, but it’s pretty common to dream you’re back in school again. When I have these kinds of dreams, I’ve always forgotten my schedule and have a feeling I’ve skipped a whole semester of my math class. That seems fair considering math was one of my worst subjects.

What are some of your regular dreamscapes?