DeFlip Side #118: The Stuff of Nightmares


Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

As Halloween approaches, the veil separating us from the spirit world grows thin, and the lengthening fall nights become the province of malignant spirits and entities that many people would call nightmarish. But the fact is, if most people knew what nightmares actually were, they’d probably prefer a horrific phantom or two.

Imagine: you’re in bed and your peaceful sleep is disturbed by a slight but persistent scratching in the walls; you’re slowly roused by a growing inability to breathe; searching for relief you attempt to roll over, but find yourself unable to move, pinned down by an alien weight on your chest; panic snaps you awake, and a pair of baleful eyes meets yours in the darkness; you want to scream, but you can’t; you’re paralyzed in fear by the demon that has invaded your bed, a malignant imp that sits on your chest and gives you dizzying, horrifying visions as it slowly crushes the life out of you.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a nightmare, or more accurately, a night mare—a mare being a specific kind of nocturnal demon. The word is derived from the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon word mara. But it has a ton of regional variations–mahr, mahrt, mårt–and these demons have completely different names in other cultures. Germans call them alps, apparently derived from the word elf; Japanese call them Baku, or dream eaters—weird animal hybrids that can actually eat the bad dreams and turn them into good fortune.

And sometimes they’re not demons at all. The Slavic “mora” is actually the lost soul of a beautiful girl who’s still alive, but unknowingly haunts the night due to uncontrollable circumstances of birth. Born under a bad sign, you might say. And if unwittingly evil nocturnal hotties aren’t your speed, another variation portrays the night visitor as the Old Hag—a tradition especially common in English and North American folklore. And victims of these encounters are often described as being mare-ridden, or hag-ridden—which also synchs with folklore surrounding witches, who are often said to ride people just as readily as they ride brooms.

So how do you ward against such unwelcome nighttime tormentors? Methods for fending off mares run the gamut in weirdness; you can simply cross your arms or legs before going to sleep; you can take a pair of scissors to bed, which I guess means that mares are afraid of either iron or bad haircuts; or you can carry a bottle of your own urine around for three days before throwing it into a stream. You can always go the Godfather route and sleep with a horse’s head in your bed. Mares don’t like horse’s heads for some reason, despite how much we love cozying up to them.

And steer clear of people with unibrows, since some traditions hold that mares spring from the tangled eyebrow hairs of those so follically-blessed. Hey, don’t ask me. I’m just telling you what the research revealed. There’s an almost obsessive connection between tangled things and mares, which are commonly blamed for curling and knotting the hair of their victims. Bed-head by Beelzebub! Some folklore even admonishes against standing under twisted tree branches during a storm, since rain dripping onto your head from these twined twigs is tantamount to an engraved invitation for a mare to come party in your bed.

But what if it’s too late for these commonsense preventatives? What can you do if the mare is already in bed with you? Believe it or not, bribes work well. And fortunately, mares can be bought off on the cheap, especially if you know which unibrowed warlock or old hag is gunning for you. Just call out their name and invite them for a coffee, or tell them that they can borrow something—your snow blower maybe. Who could resist that? The person who sent the mare will then be compelled to show up the next day to claim their reward. Here’s my own tip: poison the coffee. Problem solved.

You can also turn the tables and trap the mare. Mares love entering your room through the smallest cracks, which is why you hear scratching in the walls before they mount and kill you. But they can only leave through the same hole, even if the rest of the room is wide open. So get a buddy to hide in your closet, spy where they mare gets in, and then plug up the entry. As long as that hole is blocked, the mare is trapped and can be bent to your will. The most obvious course of action: order the mare to stop bothering you. But if your mare is one of those babelicious mora, you could have a hot young wife on your hands. Laugh all you want, but a lot of nightmare folktales are of the mare-turned-beautiful-woman-turned-wife variety.

Which brings us to one of the more prominent aspects of mare lore: sex. Hey, we’re talking demons here, so some of them are bound to have more lurid intentions. There are special subsets of mares called incubi and succubi, which are basically demon sex machines. An incubus is a male spirit that assaults sleeping women, and a succubus is a she-demon that jumps sleeping guys. Repeated encounters with these creatures drain your energy and, eventually, your life. Needless to say, there’s a LOT of ancillary incubus and succubus lore unsuitable for the radio.

But whatever your stripe of mare—and attendant dreams, dry or otherwise—the concept of a night-tormenting demon pops up universally, in just about every mythic tradition. It’s as if people everywhere during every era have had harrowing experiences with these nocturnal terrors. Which logically points to something bigger than any one belief system. The likeliest suspect: sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis occurs just as someone is dropping into REM sleep, or when they’re coming out of it. Something in their brain short circuits that allows them to remain aware, even as their body shuts down for sleep, trapping them in a quasi-dream state in which they’re unable to move and prone to vivid hallucinations—waking dreams that seem to exist in the real world.

Sleep paralysis episodes are often accompanied by acute panic, and a terrifying sense of presence—the certainty that someone or something is in the room with you; say a demon sitting on your chest. Or to put a 20th Century twist on it: alien abductors who are studying you like a pinned beetle. Since bad dreams are an ongoing human affliction, it’s only logical that our nightmares evolve to reflect our current cultural boogymen. Red-eyed demons become bug-eyed aliens. Who knows what shape our worst nightmares will assume in the coming centuries?

And speaking of worst nightmares, here’s mine—or at least my most memorable.

It was a gray and drizzly day and my brother and my two cousins and I were hiking up into the woods behind my cousin’s house. Those woods were always wet and dark, and in my dream we tramped through soggy leaves and muddy dimness toward a brightening horizon. We crested the top of the hill, halting beside a huge boulder. A colonial-looking town spread out below. Off in the distance, Big Ben stood out prominently against the grey sky. As it chimed, my brother and cousin started rolling the boulder aside, revealing a black pit underneath. Scared, I told them to stop. But they moved the rock until the entire fissure was open to the sky. We all stood at the lip, staring down into the hole, when out they sprung, the monsters that I knew were lurking in the inky blackness.

Yep. It was Mickey, Mike, Davy and Peter—collectively known as the Monkees—rising out of the darkness dressed in identical double-breasted maroon pirate shirts, pinstriped blue skinny jeans and go-go boots, chasing us in slow motion back into the dark woods. And I wish to hell that I could tell you why, but this is when I woke up screaming. I know a lot of you haters are expecting a bonanza of Monkees-as-nightmare jokes, but the eight-year-old me loved their TV show then, and I remain a huge fan, listening to their music frequently and un-ironically. So I have no idea why they scared the crap out of me so badly.

But I’m glad they did because thinking of this dumb dream always makes me crack up. So I tip my hat to the unique sense of humor of the demon that took up residence on my chest that night. If the thinning veil between our realities permits you to hear me on this All Hallows’ Eve, oh long ago mare, I invite you to drop by for a cup of coffee. And I promise I won’t even poison it.

Happy Halloween!