You’re being chased, but you’re not sure what or who is chasing you. It feels like there’s something truly malevolent behind your back. You better not look over your shoulder. Your legs are turning into jelly, your breathing is heavy. Or maybe you’re actually terribly late and it seems like you’ll never get to your destination, no matter how fast or how far your strides take you. You can’t really make any sense of what’s going on; you just know that stopping is not an option. So you run and you run and you run until your feet can carry you no more.
And then – a jolt.
Thankfully it was just a dream, but you’ll need time to shake off that feeling.
In fact, the dream of being pursued or chased is one of the most common dream themes – along with dreams or falling, sexual experiences, and all kinds of dreams regarding school and studying. Moreover, one study shows the theme of being chased as both the most prevalent dream among participants and the one most often reported as the earliest theme the participants recall from childhood.
These common themes recur often in individuals, and they span across different cultures and geographical backgrounds. What could be standing behind this marvellous mystery of the human mind, and are we even looking at it from the right angle?
Dream theorists generally agree on the psychology-based interpretation of recurring dreams. Certain images, such as the image of being naked in a classroom or running through corridors, serve to contextualize powerful emotions or internal conflicts of the dreamer. Being naked, for example, is associated with feelings of shame and helplessness. Thus, the image could appear from your subconscious as you suppress these feelings in waking life.
This kind of explanation even feels intuitively right for many dreams you experience.
For example, you might often find yourself straight back in the classroom in your dreams, failing an exam, or trying to get out of trouble. And when you think about it, there’s plenty where that could come from. Perhaps you’re still not over the trauma of your school years and the childhood fear of the consequences you might face if you’re not good enough. Maybe you’re going through a stressful time and your subconscious habitually associates stress with the classroom, even though you finished school years ago.
These types of images and experiences from our childhood get buried in our minds so deeply that they become underlying themes in our adult lives, both when we’re awake and asleep. After all, that’s what psychoanalysis has been drilling for decades. However, assigning meaning to these images blurs the line between the mystical and the overly literal, and it’s often misguided.
It’s crucial to understand that there can be no definitive answer – as in, a certain theme might be commonly interpreted to represent something, but our own experiences and personality will give it context. Carl Jung himself suggests that “dreams are doing the work of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives” in a process he calls ‘individuation.’ As such, they don’t need to be interpreted in order to perform their function.
A recurring dream could provide insight to a trauma or issue you need to resolve for the sake of your wellbeing and mental health. But in this quest to better understand ourselves and our subconscious, there are numerous factors standing between us and the clear-cut, cathartic dream interpretation we’d all like to have.
The way we approach our dreams
Looking at the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, we can clearly see how scientific explanations alone fail to provide answers for the mystical world of dream experiences. And the truth is, the same goes for all dreams and nightmares.
From psychology to physiological mechanisms in our sleep, there are many factors that shape our dream experiences. Hence, our perspective on it can’t be one-sided. For example, the commonly shared dream of teeth falling out can have a symbolic interpretation, like it may be connected to your fear of the dentist, or these types of dreams may occur more often among people with bruxism, which would factor in the physiological aspect.
The physiological aspect might sound painfully mundane for something as spiritual and mystical as the world of dreams. But we would miss out on so much if we were to underestimate it (or overestimate it!) because of its prosaicness. For example, each sleeping position impacts your sleep in a different way as pressure is put on different parts of your body and internal organs. Personally, I’ve found myself waking up from nightmares most often when I sleep on my left side. Doing my research, I was delighted to find that there are even studies pointing to the connection between left-side sleeping and terrifying dreams.
However, there’s one more extremely important aspect that’s too often overlooked: the cultural factor.
The shared nightmare
When we talk about the cultural factor, we can’t not mention the nightmare shared worldwide: The Hat Man.
The mysterious shadow with a hat has appeared to many people who have suffered episodes of sleep paralysis. Well, when I say he has appeared to them, I mean it in the broadest and most ambiguous sense. These terrifying episodes where the central figure is the man with a hat coming to harm you when you’re in your most vulnerable state definitely felt as real as anything to the dreamers. So real and gripping that one man haunted by the vision started a blog called The Hat Man Project after doing research and finding others also describing a similar figure during their experiences with sleep paralysis. The blog is now a space where others can share their experiences and thoughts on the terrifying figure.
How is it possible that all these people are dreaming the same taunting person? And if the state of sleep paralysis is like a portal to worlds that exists within our reality, is it really possible that the reality parallel to our own is such an ominous one?
One explanation simply suggests that people faced with the unfamiliar are going to look for the next culturally available explanation, even in their subconscious.
The state of being paralyzed in your sleep is, to say the least, unfamiliar. It’s an extremely vulnerable state where your natural instinct is to panic.
Evil spirits who sit on your chest as you sleep, as this phenomenon was portrayed in art centuries ago, is one viable explanation to craft in your psyche. The hat man, on the other hand, sounds a lot like Freddy Krueger. The Nightmare on Elm Street is a movie based on the experience of sleep paralysis, and Freddy was created as a symbolic representation of the terror. It doesn’t matter what came first, the chicken or the egg. The man with the hat has become very real in the minds of the dreamers.
So, where does that leave us? What is behind your recurring dreams and nightmares?
Most likely, a bit of all of the above, and perhaps something we haven’t even begun to grasp yet.
The world of dreams is a realm we know so little about, and that’s exactly why our minds need to be open to all sorts of possibilities. If we want to understand our dreams and ourselves, we need to tune in to them and gather all the bits and pieces. If we dare to immerse ourselves, the unfamiliar might feel less terrifying. We could be opening the doors to new realities.