With the dawn of the Enlightenment, the idea that dreams might originate from outside the sleeper faded. But, as the Romantics were to discover, this did nothing to lessen their power — particularly frightening ones. Nightmare imagery stalks gothic fiction and ignites the art of the time, as the 1781 painting The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli shows: a swarthy goblin squats on an erotically supine sleeper as a mad-eyed mare looms out of the darkness behind.
Coleridge was plagued by nightmares so powerful he would routinely wake screaming. Why, he asks, in his 1803 poem The Pains of Sleep, were his dreams poisoned with “desire and loathing” and visions of an “unfathomable hell within?” Men whose lives were “stained with sin” might expect as much. But, he demands, palpably afraid, “wherefore, wherefore fall on me?”
In a sense, it was in answer to this that Sigmund Freud, a century later, began his investigations into dreams. Freud’s radical claim was that all our dreams — even the most terrifying — are wishes. The more difficult or dangerous our desires seem to our conscious selves, the more peculiar or terrifying their nocturnal expression will be. His sexually charged theories propelled dreams to the center of 20th-century culture. The wildly expressive art of Dali, Miro and Magritte, and the writings of the surrealists, used dream imagery in a bid to access and unleash authentic human experience.