Ask Me: What About Nightmares? Part 3: A Study of Wolves

Let’s start with a non-sequitur.


Here is a bit of information I learned this week. 

In 1947, a scientist named Rudolf Schenkel wrote a paper called “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” In this study, he wrote about wolf packs and, in particular, how packs were based on dominant male/female pairs who controlled the pack making the rest of the wolves subordinate to the dominant pair. Schenkel introduced the terms of “alpha” and “omega” and “deputy” and “beta” to describe the different types of wolves in a pack. With the idea that the “alpha” male would often fight to prove his dominance.

Schenkel wrote: “By continously controlling and suppressing all types of competition within the same sex, both ‘alpha animals’ defend their social status.”

In 1968, ecologist David Mech (founder of the International Wolf Center) wrote a book using this theory called “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species”. This book was popular and gave even more credence to the idea of the “alpha” animal in a wolf pack.

And so, the term and idea of “alpha male” and “alpha female” came into being and then, of course, into the consciousness of Western thought.

The idea of the “alpha male” came even more into the forefront.

In business, for example, there are whole schools of thought based on the idea of the “alpha” male and how to acheive that social rank. There are even “how to’s” you can find on how to become that “alpha” at your workplace and “IN YOUR LIFE!”

[Fun Fact: There was even a series of Disney movies based on this idea called “Alpha and Omega” in which the “omega” wolf cannot be with his sweetheart the “alpha” wolf because he is only a lowly “omega” and she is the “alpha”.]


When we come to one of our own scary dreams and we bring cultural/familial/religious beliefs we have been taught, it may be difficult to be with the dream in any way besides wanting it to go away. 

When we are taught that scary dreams may come from demons or some evil place, when we are taught that scary dreams are some indication that there is something wrong with us [i.e. that we are the demon], when we are taught that scary dreams are just from a bad meal, then the idea of just wanting the dreams to go away is more reinforced.

Look up the word “nightmare” and most of the links that come up will be about how to get rid of them.

Isn’t this how we are taught in Western culture to be with what we do not understand? To wish it away, to try to “cure” our “nightmares”, to put peace or calm or some ideal state of “happiness” as the goal. We are not really taught to go toward what is scary. 

We are not really taught to be with what is frightening us. “There, there. It was just a dream!” is what we are taught about scary dreams. To put them aside. To not give weight to our experiences. To not bring curiosity.

The trajectory of a need to “cure nightmares” puts our scary dreams into the same kind of simplistic categories embraced by Jung and other dreamwork teachers, like my old teacher, around issues we face in dreams – like race and like scary dreams. “Scary dreams are bad” is simplistic and a way to not face into something imperative in our inner lives.

It is a way to not be curious, not ask questions.


To bring it to why it matters to us personally is this – when facing a dream in our life [whether from last night or 20 years ago], bringing awarenesses of our own biases around the dream and the contents of the dream can be part of how we can change our trajectory as we move through our life. Bringing awareness to what we are taught about dream and the inherent biases of teachers can be part of how we grow our own autonomy and our curiosity.

Because there are many ways to look at scary dreams – because there are many different kinds of scary dreams. Scary dreams, just like anything else, do not fit into one category [i.e. bad or even good]. 

When we bring curiosity to what makes something scary for us and what we are frightened of and what we carry from our past that was scary, then we can work with our scary dreams in many different ways. Then they are not “bad” or “good”. Just important and wanting our attention.

Next article, then, we will explore some different ways of looking at different scary dreams. i.e.: My scary dream of a tiger may be your thrilling/scary dream of a tiger. 
So, here’s the catch. 

The issue with the “research” done by Schenkel is this – it was based on observations of wolves in captivity in a zoo in Switzerland. 

This is often an issue with animal research – much of the “observational” research around animals was initially done by watching animals in captivity. 

How an animal behaves in captivity is VERY DIFFERENT than how an animal behaves in their natural home. Wolves do not have the kind of hierarchy observed by Schenkel in the zoo. Instead, in most species of wolves, packs consist of family units with the adult parents as the “heads” and the pack working with a division of labor system. 

[Another Fun Fact: Black Widow Spiders! There is a myth that all black widow spiders cannibalize their mates after mating. Not entirely true! This kind of finding also came from observing the spiders in captivity. There are, of course, a species or two where this behavior does happen in natural habitats, but the majority of black widow species do not engage in this behavior as a norm.]

[One More Fun Fact: David Mech has spent years and years debunking his own book and has written extensively on the familial nature of wolves in their natural habitat.]

You may be asking – “What does this have to do with dreams and nightmares? Especially when this article is about nightmares?” Great question.

A short answer is – context.

When working with dreams that are scary to us, one of the ways to begin exploring is by having an awareness of context around the dream. There are many ways to be with context – the context of what is happening in our lives in the moment we have a scary dream; the context of what has happened in our historical lives; the context of what is happening on a cultural level in our waking lives; the context of what is happening to our particular community both currently and historically.

If I am experiencing more hardship and/or fear than usual in my waking life, if I am living in a difficult environment, then a scary dream will come to work with me around the context of those realities. 

If I am not experiencing anything scary [or more scary than usual] in my waking life, then this is also part of the context. Is the scary dream, then, speaking to something from my past? From my ancestral past? 

Context. The men observing the wolves in captivity were observing beings under distress, in survival mode, in small containment. Probably not with family units. Completely out of context to their lives had they been living free. In trauma. Just think about how wolves live in the wild – roaming miles and miles of land, hunting, playing, in relationship to other animals and with the landscape and weather around them. How to do that in a tiny enclosed area?

When we look at dreams that scare us, we often look at them as if they have are not related to our lives or our circumstances or our history. We take them out of context.


We also tend to put all scary dreams into one context, one category – into “nightmares” which automatically gives a certain, often negative, reference.

But another important question to ask is this – what scary thing is the dream addressing? For there is a context to what is scary or horrifying to us at any given time as well. Some scary dreams carry fear around something horrible – some experience, something we witness, something we suffer in a dream. Some dreams carry fear around the unknown, which is a very different kind of scary dream. 

Next article, let’s explore different ways to look at different kinds of dreams that frighten us.