Childhood Nightmare-The Reaper

As a preface, I’ve been especially curious about childhood nightmares as I’ve discussed my own nightmares with others and listened to friends discuss theirs to me. There’ a strong case to be made why examination of childhood nightmares possesses a great utility for each of us. Namely, children begin to think in terms of symbols quite early, just after developing motor functions. Piaget’s stages of development underlines how ages 2-7 are marked by symbolic thinking, or using objects to represent themes, emotions, etc. This speaks to how children grow quickly in language at this age and how alive imagination is within these years. Whatever dreams we remember from these ages (and even a few years thereafter as we learn new ways of thinking) are sure to possess some deep and rich messages.

Throughout my writing on dream interpretation, I’ll be borrowing not only from my dreams but dreams that have been confided in me, disguising each name to protect the anonymity of the dreamer, calling all said instances “friends” even if they happen to be strangers, family members, coworkers, etc.

My hope in this endeavor is not merely to unpack the symbols of said dreams/nightmares to provide individual catharsis and direction, but to open the conversation of childhood nightmares to this audience that we may be curious as to the themes that our psyche is screaming at us to pay attention to.

The Grim Reaper

Somewhere around kindergarten and 1st grade, I’d experience a recurring nightmare that followed me even in late elementary school years. The dream itself occurred with less frequency as I grew older but eventually manifested in other ways in college.

The first time I experienced this dream, it was set somewhere in my home, in the late hours of the night. I was walking out from my bedroom towards our living room. The TV light was the only thing illuminating the room and I knew my parents were in the room. They gave the most minimal acknowledgement of seeing me.

And then, an inexplicable feeling of dread happened upon me, and unconsciously I felt a need to do two things: scream and fall to the floor. Both were automatic, almost compulsory.

The more I reflect on my scream, I think of it as an intention to either warn everyone of something I detected or meant to conjure whatever it was that I detected or anticipated, as though to “get it over with”. The scream was always marred with fear. 

After falling automatically flat, in a matter of seconds I’d feel something approach me from behind, scoop me up, and carry me off. I remember feeling or perhaps in my peripheral seeing this figure that scooped me away. It was reminiscent of the dementors of Harry Potter, of the Grim Reaper in its dark, hooded, faceless demeanor (mind you, Harry Potter hadn’t come out then, but when the dementors were described I felt they bore a chilling resemblance to the thing of my nightmare). 

What was always strange about this was knowing this grim figure would carry me off somewhere into the darkness while someone else would look on without any reaction, word, or protest. In the case of my first dream, the grim figure carried me in its arms in front of my parents in order to get to the basement door where we both vanished into the blackness.

Recurrence of the Dream

The dream would repeat itself sometimes in my home but in a different lighting, and sometimes the dream would manifest in other houses or locations. All seemed to be indoor settings. What was common of all these was how sudden and surprising the presence of the grim figure would be, and how an instinct of mine would always compel me to scream and then to drop dead. This nightmare continually caught me off guard though the pattern of screaming, falling, and being carried off all continued.

Later on, particularly in seminary, I found the dream resurface in different homes (the dream setting would be less familiar). The surprise of this grim figure altered from a hooded figure of death into a known presence of evil dwelling within the house or within a particular room. What also changed in the dream was my reaction. I didn’t feel more autonomy in the dream, but something seemed to flip as instead of acknowledging this evil force in a fearful scream, I raised my voice into an indignant shout. My shrill cry became angry barking of prayers almost as though I were exorcising the evil force I knew to be there. I’d finish the dream feeling a sense of victory, feeling the presence leave, feeling the house safe and quiet.

This dream repeated itself for years in my schooling. It was still a fearful dream that I felt could easily become a nightmare, and sometimes they did turn into just that. Overwhelmingly I felt the dream itself evolve, and I do see a kind of continuity between the grim reaper I would collapse before and the evil presence that I would stand to challenge.

Symbols & Interpretation

Photo by cottonbro on

The most obvious figure in this dream is this dreaded force, this grim reaper like character. I’d always given the figure the title of the grim reaper as this is what I saw as the personification of death growing up. There is a temptation here to lean heavily on the theme of death–especially considering that the prospect of death was a conversation I had with my mom in early elementary school and it was not one that filled me with much hope. But the theme of a hooded figure could also be a representation of the literal unknown, a fear of hiddenness, a despising of that which is covert. The figure was dark, hidden, and felt predatory as it came after me, and simply put, we could say my young mind decided to personify evil in this way–evil is shadowy, faceless, and filled with want. All very real possibilities and I’m sure there’s other symbols here one could extrapolate.

What’s also worth noting is that my primary fear was not of death–I actually suffered more nightmares about tornados when I was young, and growing up I had developed a great fear for tornados–and so I am inclined to place the focus of this dream interpretation not on the figure itself, but on the circumstances.

A common element of these dreams is that they all happened indoors, in a home setting. I’m tempted to ignore this detail–home is an easy base for any dream to begin within a atmosphere that is known and comfortable. That being said the home itself can represent safety and as we said “the known”. The implications of finding evil or death in a place I deem safe and knowable has some powerful connotations.

The other common element is the tendency towards screaming. I wouldn’t deem this detail as a natural reaction for a child, especially because the scream itself always seemed to trigger the force to come after me. Rather, I’ve thought of this reaction in tandem with the component of the dream that has to do with onlookers doing nothing as I’m carried off. Do I feel I am suffering alone and that my cries for help go unnoticed? Do I feel alone in my fear, pain, or peril? Or even more simply, do I feel a need to be acknowledged–the scream is meant to perhaps get attention, and the nightmare is made more eerie when nobody seems to react or budge seeing me in the arms of death.

The last notable element is the collapse, the complacency to pretend to be dead. I wouldn’t say this reaction comes from the grim reaper taking away my life force. Instead, I can discern a part of me felt like it was easier to lay down and die rather than to fight, to flee, or to stand my ground. It reminds me of a cat that goes limp in a leash harness–allegedly cats do this as a natural reaction to play dead when they feel they are in the jaws of a predator. This begs the question of whether this reaction of mine is innate and natural or if it speaks to how I deal with opposition or conflict: lay down, let the peril blow over, let it pass.

What To Do With The Dream

There’s a lot of symbols and material to dissect in this dream, though the most powerful reflections I have found helpful in my interpretation of this dream is the scream and the laying down, or rather what those represent: a fear of loneliness and neglect and fatalistic submission

Vainglory has been a passion I’ve struggled against for a long time, though gaining attention as an introvert isn’t so easy. I sometimes think of my days in theater as a manifestation of a safe means of gaining attention, of gaining the spotlight of an anonymous crowd as I myself don the mask of the part I am playing. If I say or do something on stage, it is the part I play that is judged or embraced, while I as a person can still gain the attention I secretly crave. This is just one such example which I think other actors might sympathize with.

The scream speaks to a need to learn how to reach out in a healthy/safe way that can be heard. As my dream demonstrates, there is an underlying fear that as I reach out or seek attention, others will merely stare on while I suffer in front of them. The scream speaks to a need to find healthy ways of being noticed, in ways that are appropriate and normal in relationships. Finally it communicates perhaps a need of feeling heard. However, in order to properly address this need of being heard one ought to also master how to hear/listen to others.

The “falling” in the dream couples well with the later manifestation of the dream. Succumbing to defeat and throwing my hands up when trouble comes my way is a personal struggle I’ve been able to identify in my life. In the past, I’ve given up on stories that become too difficult to write and my mind has a tendency to assume “the end” when a project or environment becomes too overwhelming. Fighting this force would assume a “disagreeable” disposition, would assume confidence to fight against a threat despite the stacked odds. Even fleeing (an alternative to falling in the dream) communicates a hope that one might escape the problem and find refuge elsewhere. In laying down, my psyche is communicating to me a tendency to be a walking mat for my problems and accept a disposition of submission.

Coupled with the other dream, the lying down and standing to exorcise against the evil threat is my psche telling me I have the capacity to grow bold, to assume a different posture. The latter dream communicates that confidence can be held, and that perhaps there is power in my voice. For example, in my nightmare I scream and it triggers something, in my other dream I shout and it subdues the threat. Perhaps my psche is telling me my physical posture and my mental posture is looking take an upright stance and challenge the threats of my life, telling me that my weapon in my fights is not force or cunning, but my own voice and words.

To conclude, this dream encourages me (and perhaps you’ll feel encouraged as well) to do the following:

  • Monitor my need for getting attention; seek out healthy relationships where being heard is valued and reciprocated
  • Assume an upright posture in the face of danger; keep practicing courage even when laying down (my posture, my eyes, my voice) comes easy
  • Use my voice and words to address fear and evil

What about you?

Did you suffer from childhood nightmares?

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