Ask Me: What About Nightmares? Part 9: Scary Dreams and Trauma

In this final article about “kinds” of fear provoked in our dreams, let’s look to dreams that frighten us that seem unrelated to our experiences, our lives, what we know.

Terrifying Dreams Unrelated to Our Waking Life Experiences

In our last article, part of what we explored was how a scary dream about traumatic experiences may not be, necessarily, a kind of re-enactment of the experiences [though they can be that, too, of course]. Sometimes a dream about our scary past experiences is created to evoke the fear we are already carrying, that we have never felt safe to release, by putting us in dream situations that evoke the fear but through a different narrative, a different story. One that reflects more our inner experience. 

For example, my recurring dream as a child where I threw myself into an open, empty casket thinking it was the safest place for me. I did not do this in waking life, but the inner response to my outer world experiences is that I was burying myself over and over again.

The “kind” of scary dream we explore now is related to this idea. We may have a dream that comes out of nowhere, that feels unrelated to us but that is, in fact, our very deep and real experience. There is overlap.

And, there are dreams that seem so extreme, so out of our realm and even our felt experience that they are confounding, terrifying and can leave us utterly bewildered.

When I consider my recurring dream that had no narrative parallel in my waking life [I had not even been to a funeral when I had the dream], I can feel a truth in it. I have the felt sense, even when I was experiencing the dream, that there was something true to my life. 

Then there are the dreams that do not carry such a deep resonance to our felt experiences. 


Sometimes these kinds of dreams will come as dreams based in times past. Many of the dreamers I have worked with have dreamt of entirely different time eras – European medieval times, early 20th Century cultures in the Americas, 1700s Japan, ancient cities in countries in southern Africa, indigenous civilizations from all over the world. 

Sometimes these kinds of dreams will come as places out of any human historical narrative we may have. 

For the ones that seem to come from some human historical narrative, there may be many reasons these come. For some, they may hold information from the dreamer’s “past lives” – meaning that the soul returns to the human condition and experiences many lifetimes. In this possibility, the dreams may be pieces of memories from that kind of past.

Not everyone believes in this narrative for the human soul, of course. Another possibility is that these kinds of scary dreams from “the past” come from the memories of our ancestors. We do know that memories – especially traumatic ones – are passed through the generations through RNA code. These memories are sometimes simply felt memories, but some believe the dreams bring pieces of the real memories, too.

In both of these cases, the dreams still have a connection to the dreamer – it is still part of the felt experience, even if the experience was not from our memory but from another life or from our ancestors. The dreams bring them for the same reason they bring the scary dreams reflecting our felt experiences from our lives – because we are carrying something that needs to be worked with, released, brought to consciousness.

For example, I had a dream many years back about being in village from long ago where there was a great deal of prejudice against people from the Roma culture. In the dream, the village elders were furious at the very presence of a group of Roma people who were traveling through that they committed great violence against them. I was a young woman in the dream from the village, but I had fallen in love with a Roma man.

As far as I know, I am not of Roma ancestry on either side of my bloodlines. I could be though, since part of my family is from Italy. The question becomes – why have a dream about it? 

Because there has been some part of me that has feared either falling in love or going against my “family”. I was raised in a particular political belief system which was presented as the only absolute way to be in my country. When I became a woman, I realized I did not believe the same things – not just about economic politics, but gender/sexuality etc. politics. 

And it was truly scary for me to follow my own heart. I did have an irrational fear that something terrible would happen to me or to people I loved if I followed my own beliefs. Many folks in my family disagreed with me, yes. But they were not physically violent toward me, nor did they threaten violence.

We can take it a step further – for it may even impact my childhood recurring dream. The feeling of needing to bury myself, bury the girl in me, to keep her safe may have been influenced not just by what I was experiencing in my family but also by these resonant memories. Better to buried than to have violence triggered. 


And then there are the dreams that seem either outside it all or only part of our experience [personal, ancestral or otherwise]. That feel to be bigger than us – that are almost like we are being shown something beyond our own narratives.

Not all these kinds of dreams are scary, of course, but many are.

Vision by Joseph Vogel [1939]

I think of Carl Jung’s “famous” dream/vision of seeing a flood turn from yellow to blood that was carrying the debris of “civilization”. He had this dream before the onset of World War I. 

Many of us have dreams in this same vein. Dreams that are more about what is happening in the world around us in not necessarily a cohesive, human narrative, but on a felt layer. 

I turn to my own work again. I once had a dream where I was led deep underground and shown how so many parts of culture in the world had been built upon people who had been considered not fully human and therefore disposable. It was a horrifying vision [which I do not need to repeat here] that came years after my initial work with my own personal trauma. 

I did not, at first, understand the terrifying images of the dream.

Sometimes, our dreams will show us not just how we are experiencing the world and our own experiences, but a vision of what is actually happening or what has happened in the past. We are being asked to both feel the felt reality we are being shown and to bear witness.

At the time of the dream, I knew, of course, how my culture in my country was built upon this reality – enslaved people, women without rights, genocide of indigenous humans. I had not, however, considered the breadth and depth of it. Had not considered how this has been true in most of human history. 

It widened my horror and it also widened my heart. 

The dream, even in its visionary-ness, was still very much for me. It came in part, I believe, to offer context, to offer widen my knowing. It, like all the other dreams I have had and will have, came to teach me about my experience and my place in the world.

To do this, the dream gave me a wider view of the world. 

When we learn history, we are taught about war, conquest. We are given heroic stories and some terrible ones, too. But this level of history is often not deeply taught. When I was Catholic and learning about being Catholic, I was not taught how the wealth and power of the church was built this way. When I was learning American history, I was not taught how this country was truly built this way. When I was taught even the history of literature, I was not taught about literature and literature that has been considered valuable or narratives considered worth being told and heard has also been built this way. 

The dream changed me. Broke my heart and also widened it at the same time. It wanted to teach me to not be that kind of person in any way. It wanted to teach me about working with others and narratives they carry that are different from my own [personal and ancestral]. It wanted to teach me, a writer, about the importance of story and who gets to tell their story. 

The dream was not just about my own narrative, but the human narrative. Terrifying and hopeful. For me, more terrifying if we do not remember, if we do not reconcile it all. Even if others forget, I can remember. 

And, I also believe, I had some of this knowing, had let some of it in under the heroic storytellings of my culture, of the past. I carried the fear and horror, in some way. But I had not let it all the way in. Without letting it all the way in, I was on my way to becoming an even bigger part of the blindness and even perpetrator-ness of it. 


These dreams, even in their most frightening, are important. If we turn away from our ancestral terrible memories, if we turn away from the horrors of human history [our own ancestral ones included especially], then we do more than risk repeating them in different ways. We do more than perpetuate. 

We also turn away from hope and resilience and wisdom of our ancestral memories. We also turn away from being with ourselves and the world with our magic and possibility. For when we turn away from such large parts of our selves, our ancestors, our world, we turn away from all of it. Including the wonderful, the marvelous, the truly heroic, the magic. Of our own soul and the soul of being human.