Famous Painting Tells the Unsettling Origins of the Word "Nightmare"

  By  Kevin Heintz

By Kevin Heintz

The literal definition of nightmare has changed and evolved over time. For centuries, it was darker and more sinister than today’s understanding. Swiss painter Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting, The Nightmare (shown above) perfectly represented how people understood nightmares for ages. Mare refers to a spirit or monster who evokes a feeling of suffocation by sitting on the dreamer’s chest. Night was added, and over many years, the word nightmare evolved into what we now know as a bad dream. Specifically, the mare was an incubus, a creature known for taking advantage of women sexually (incubus is not to be confused with his female counterpart, the succubus). Many people believed that a mare's activities were the literal causes of bad dreams. Fuseli’s painting definitively portrays the historic understanding of nightmares, including both the sinister and discomforting sexual aspects.

 Her posture and white dress indicate her vulnerability.

Her posture and white dress indicate her vulnerability.

In her deep sleep, the woman is helplessly overcome, which makes the situation more disturbing; she is totally powerless and vulnerable to the incubus' advances. Looking angrily, the nasty creature has noticed you, the viewer, because you have disturbed his wiles. 

 The mare maliciously looks at the viewer.

The mare maliciously looks at the viewer.

 The horse looks on with his eerily glowing eyes.

The horse looks on with his eerily glowing eyes.

Peering from the drapes, we see the black horse on which the mare has traveled. Mares were believed to travel on horseback, sometimes stealing a horse if necessary.  Here, its eyes are ghastly glowing orbs, which allude to the milkiness of blind prophets' eyes; the horse’s eyes indicate its supernatural and occult qualities.

Fuseli’s Nightmare has had profound cultural influence. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, immortalized the painting in his poetry. Scholars suggest that it inspired parts of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, whose parents were friends with Fuseli. The painting was so popular, that he later produced additional variations. Plagiarized versions of his painting also circulated throughout Europe.

 Fuseli's 1790-91 variation of  The Nightmare.

Fuseli's 1790-91 variation of The Nightmare.

Fuseli's later version (above) has the mare looking even more sinister, and the woman looking incredibly more helpless. Her dramatically arched posture and prominent breasts refer to the sexual nature of the incubus’ visit.

 Fuseli's  The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth

Fuseli's The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth

Fuseli was fascinated by mythological and occult subjects, with a specific interest in depicting the agony of nightmares. His other paintings include The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, portraying Lady Macbeth's agonizing nightmare when she cannot rid the murderous blood from her hands, as noted by the famous line, “Out damned spot, out I say!” 

Many painters and writers have shaped our understanding of nightmares and other dark subjects. While we now have a more innocuous understanding of nightmares, some cultural beliefs today still attribute nightmares and bouts of sleep paralysis to incubi. To submit suggestions for more eerie histories, follow the Contact Us link, and Finesse Report may feature them throughout the month of October.