It was a dark and stormy night when a teenage Mary Shelley developed her idea to write Frankenstein. Her tale was fueled by a nightmare: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together,” she writes of her dream. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy half-vital motion1.” The popularization of the horror genre itself may be owed to teenage Mary Shelley’s nightmares, as Frankenstein has sold between 80 and 100 million copies and generated countless monster movies.
If Shelley’s story shows us anything, it is that our nightmares fuel the genre, and they could be our best asset for writing horror. Horror novels such as Stephen King’s Miseryand Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde were also inspired by nightmares.
King describes falling asleep on an airplane and having a nightmare about a crazed fan abducting her favorite author. The dream had given him the framework, and King filled in the gory details writing the first fifty pages of Misery while still on the plane. His novel Dreamcatcher was also based on one of King’s dreams2.
Stevenson finished his first draft in the ten days following his nightmare of a doctor with split personalities. His wife, finding him thrashing in his sleep, woke him to which he replied: “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale3.” The nightmare-fueled novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies, has its own musical, and was even the inspiration for The Incredible Hulk.
Studies conducted at Harvard have shown that writing down nightmares can actually be helpful in overcoming them. “In this form of cognitive therapy,” science writer Scott Edwards explains, “individuals, especially those who repeatedly experience a given type of nightmare, are asked to recall and write down their nightmares, then asked to rewrite the nightmare and give it a positive ending4.” Claiming the nightmare as one’s own story, adding different details and devices, can be very beneficial (though, keep in mind other treatments if your nightmares are too scary).
Next time you wake in a cold-sweat because of your monster dream, try reaching for your dream journal and taking notes. You may just write the next Frankenstein!
- Mary Shelley,Frankenstein, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm, Accessed 23 October 2018.
- Writers Dreaming: 26 Writers Talk About Their Dreams and the Creative Process, Naomi Epel, 1994.