Have you ever seen or met a ghost when you’re fast asleep, that is, in a dream? If you haven’t had a ghost dream so far, there’s every likelihood you may experience one in the future. That’s because dreams that involve contact with a ghost or spirit, generally known as “visitation dreams,” are quite common. What does it mean if you see a ghost in a dream? Is it just a trick of the mind or is there something more to being visited by a ghost in your dream? There are many explanations and many possibilities, some of them scientific, some of them spooky, some of them historical, some of them traditional, some of them supernatural and so on, each one of them equally intriguing.
Dreams are in fact considered one of the most effective ways for the spirit realm to connect to the living. According to American writer and artist Nina Kahn, “perhaps dreams allow a little opening in our consciousness for the mystical realm to slip through—offering us a time to experience enhanced clairvoyance, divine inspiration, and even messages from the dead. Scientists truthfully know so little about dreams or why everyone has them, so, creepy as it may be, it’s worth it to open your mind to the possibility that maybe spirits can visit people in dreams to deliver messages, warnings, and beyond.” Anne Reith, PhD and founder of The Institute for Mediumship, Psychic, Astrological, and Reiki Training explains that it is actually easier for spiritual entities of all kinds e.g., deceased loved ones, guides, angels to communicate with us while we are sleeping, partly because you’re more likely to be receptive to it in a dream than you would be in a waking state.
But how do you know it’s actually a spirit trying to communicate with you through a dream or its just a dream created by our subconscious, maybe after we’ve heard or read or seen some ghostly reference? “Visitation dreams are typically clear, vivid, intense and are experienced as real visits when the dreamer awakens. The dreamer is always changed by the experience,” explained Patrick McNamara, PhD, an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine.
In countries and cultures around the world dreams have been regarded and treated as spiritual experiences since ancient times. Ancient Chinese and Mexican civilisations believed dreams allowed them to communicate with their ancestors. Ancient Greeks and Romans considered dreams to be divine guidance. Brent Swancer, an author and crypto expert, provides more details on such fascinating traditional beliefs. Tales and myths of dream-dwelling entities and apparitions can be found in all cultures, he says, with the descriptions of such mysterious entities varying as much as the people who dream them. Japan has its Baku, also known as “eaters of dreams.”
China has its dream-walking fox spirits. St. Lucia has its creepy dream spirits called the kokoma, which come in the form of babies that beat their victims with furious little fists. In Germany these entities were called the trud or alp, and they were said to come to people or even animals in their dreams to press down on them and in some cases even crush the victims to death, with the German word for “nightmare,” alpdrücke, coming from their name. Medieval Europe had its “old hags,” which were spooky apparitions that similarly invaded dreams to immobilise or hold their prey down, and there were also the incubi and succubi, which were dream demons that sexually assaulted their victims and fed off of sexual energy. In Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse lore these dream demons were called the mårt, or also the mara, mahr, or mare, which is indeed the origin of the English word “nightmare,” which comes from the word nightmårt.
It is interesting, Swanker points out further, that even now in the modern age sleep and dreams remain virtually as mysterious as they always have been. When we dream we might as well be venturing out to the boundaries of the known universe for all we know about them. But do such apparitions exist, manifesting as shadowy but comforting forms or terrifying forms in our dream world? Or, instead of a supernatural explanation, is there some other explanation, such as a “scientific” one for such phenomena? Amongst others, Alice M Gregory, a sleep researcher, wrote last year that certain phenomena such as sleep paralysis provide an alternative to paranormal explanations for such occurrences. “When we sleep, we cycle through different stages. We start the night in non-rapid eye movement or NREM sleep—which gets progressively deeper. We then cycle back until we hit rapid eye movement or REM sleep. During REM sleep we are most likely to have vivid dreams. At this stage we are also paralysed, perhaps as a safety mechanism to stop us acting out our dreams so that we don’t end up attempting to fly.
“But during sleep paralysis, features of REM sleep continue into waking life. Those who experience it will feel awake, yet might experience dream-like hallucinations. This experience is pretty common, occurring in around eight per cent of people, although estimates vary dramatically depending on who we are asking. It’s even possible to induce sleep paralysis in some people, by disrupting their sleep in specific ways. Certain researchers… believe that this explains a huge number of paranormal accounts.”
Gregory herself raises an absorbing question and attempts to answer it: Sleep paralysis aside, how else is sleep researchers helping to explain paranormal experiences? Explosive sounds in our sleep are explained by “exploding head syndrome”, a term coined relatively recently by the neurologist JMS Pearce. When we fall asleep, the reticular formation of the brain stem—a part of our brain involved in consciousness—typically starts to inhibit our ability to move, see and hear things. When we experience a “bang” in our sleep this might be because of a delay in this process. Instead of the reticular formation shutting down the auditory neurons, they might fire at once. Our hope is, Gregory summarises, that scientific explanations of paranormal experiences might help others by lowering anxiety.
However, as has been pointed out repeatedly, scientists attempts to dismiss ghosts in dreams as “misfiring brain chemistry and derailed sleep cycles” is hard to reconcile with many reports from reliable personalities that describe “actual physical symptoms of attack, effects on the real world, or episodes witnessed by other people, complete with inexplicable physical phenomena such as moving objects.”