The word doesn’t mean what you think it does. It’s nothing to do with people who used to do little documentaries about cars and order four racks of lamb in restaurants, then eat it all themselves. Oh because I know, ok? It’s nothing to do with Harry Sodding Potter.
It means what it says, which is nothing to do with the cheery, bluff figure in the films. It means ridden by a hag. Which isn’t much fun. I didn’t know until I read up on it how widespread it is. Hag-ridden is a feature of Icelandic literature, although why that should be I don’t understand. It’s a waking dream, a sleep state, a hallucination. A nightmare. And it’s usually utterly terrifying. I had one last night.
The first time was at university. It happened twice within a month or so, both times in the same room. A woman appeared in the corner of my room, near the door, tiny. She grew bigger as she came towards me. I couldn’t move. I wanted to. I wanted not to be there more than I’d wanted almost anything. But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move as she sat on my chest. I wanted to hurt her, hit her, anything to get her off me because I couldn’t breathe but if I moved I might make her worse and I couldn’t imagine anything worse than her. And most of all, I couldn’t move. I couldn’t twist her off me or raise my arm or cry out. I never can. Then she was gone and I was trying to breath at about double the rate I normally do, pouring sweat, shaking. Terrified. I was nineteen in a hall of residence. I thought it was haunted.
It wasn’t, or perhaps I was. It happened again in another bedroom, then again ten years later. It’s only happened once when another person was there, which is interesting in itself, not least as there is a German tradition that these dreams afflict those who sleep alone. Whether they’re cause or effect is another matter. It isn’t like a dream, where you know it’s a dream. It’s real, or it feels completely real, because the worst thing about it is you feel as if you’re completely awake. Except you can’t move at all. And you can feel the weight of the woman on your bed. On you.
Last night I dealt with it, but it was different, as different as it could possibly be. I’ve been a bit ill. It’s just flu but it’s been going on for a while and I’ve been working on something I needed to do and got sunk into it probably a little too much and my sleep has been shot to pieces. Maybe that’s part of it.
I got to bed about half-past nine. I put the lights out at eleven. I thought I woke about three. My old cat was there. I stroked him under his chin and rubbed his ears, stroked his back, avoided his tummy because he never, ever liked being stroked there. I think he was very, very ticklish. I knew he was dead, but he was alive. It was so, so good to see him, for both of us. I can’t remember waking up feeling so loved and feeling so loving, bathed in warmth, unconditionally. As I played with him I could feel when she came into the room. I didn’t see her. I thought perhaps one of the other cats might have jumped onto the bed, but all of them were always smaller than my big cat, and he wasn’t as big as her. She was there again and again she grew and got heavier. Then heavier and larger.
The last time it happened I managed, just about managed to remember this was a dream. That it wasn’t real. That even though I couldn’t move, that even though her weight was growing and she was getting bigger and bigger, pushing me into the bed in a way I don’t welcome women grinding me into beds, that even though I was starting to feel I couldn’t breathe, I managed to remember this was just a dream. A horrible, frightening dream, but still a dream I was ultimately in charge of, a dream I could control. Above all, a dream where I could decide if I wanted to be frightened or not. Because it was a dream.
I managed it last night. It is not easy. The fear still comes, especially when you start to feel you can’t breath, the weight is there on the bed, growing and you can see all around you, can see nothing has fallen on you, that it isn’t a heavy book you’ve forgotten you were reading when you went to sleep. But I woke up still feeling the love of my old cat, who died eight years ago, the glowing warmth and all-enveloping trust and wanting nothing more than just for that moment to go on for ever, the way it never can. As nothing can. Including nightmares.
According to the unimpeachable source which is Wikipedia, the word nightmare derives from mara, a Scandinavian mythological term referring to a spirit sent to torment or suffocate sleepers.
The painting is Fuseli’s The Nightmare. He painted it in 1781 in several different versions, all of which scandalised polite society at a time when The Rivals was as racy as it got. There were engravings of it, cartoons, satires and downright rip-offs of it. It depicts the imagery of the woman’s dream at the same time as the woman herself. I think this is why it was so successful; it plugs straight into the experience itself, a place where there is no border between waking reality and the neverland of dreaming. This is the realm of faery, the disputed territory between our world and another, where each of us wanders alone and unprotected at night.