Should You Use Your Own Nightmares As Inspiration For Horror Fiction?

But, alas, Scott Cawthon got there first....

But, alas, Scott Cawthon got there first….

The night before I wrote this article, I had a couple of nightmares. Well, that’s not quite true – they were so disturbing that I kept on waking up and falling back asleep at regular intervals. So, it was more like two or three nightmares in ten parts or whatever.

[WARNING: Before I go any further, I should probably point out that since this is an article about nightmares and writing horror fiction, it will contain graphic descriptions of nightmares and it will also include a rather gory splatterpunk scene from an unpublished horror novella I wrote in 2009. As such, the content of this article may be somewhat disturbing, so reader discretion is advised.]

Anyway, since one of the nightmares involved being chased around a giant kitchen by the monsters from a horror game that I’ve never actually played (called “Five Nights At Freddy’s“), it made me think about the connections between the horror genre and the nightmares that we all have occasionally.

The other nightmares were a bit more random, but they still had a surprisingly large number of connections to the horror genre – one involved someone accidentally killing two people with an experimental shrink ray (due to one of the problems with shrinking technology mentioned in this episode of “Doctor Who”) and then pressuring me into covering up the accident for him. A while later, I actually fell asleep within the dream and saw nothing but gory “Silent Hill“-esque images of flayed bodies.

Of course, all of this stuff also raises the question of whether we should use our own nightmares as inspiration for the horror stories that we write. Since this is one of those questions that doesn’t really have any clear “right” or “wrong” answers, this article will just be my opinion on the subject and nothing more.

But, before I go any further, I should point out that you obviously shouldn’t directly use any nightmares based on pre-existing horror movies in your fiction for copyright reasons. If you’re going to use something from a horror movie-based nightmare in your story then be sure to make substantial changes (eg: use completely different characters and/or monsters) and to add a lot of new and original details, so that no-one can accuse you of directly ripping off someone else’s work.

Anyway, the main reason why nightmares can be useful for a horror writer is that they can give us a glimpse into our own fears and anxieties. Whilst some types of nightmares are fairly universal (eg: being chased by monsters, experiencing your own death, nightmares featuring horrific injuries, nightmares based on horror movies etc…), many nightmares are often a lot more specific and are only scary because they tap into your own personal fears.

For example, if you’re afraid of clowns, then a dream set in an old-fashioned circus would be absolutely horrifying. But, if you aren’t, then it would probably just be bizarre and whimsical.

Likewise, if (like me) you don’t exactly like spiders – then a dream about a giant spider/crab creature crawling across your bedroom window would scare you senseless. But, if you aren’t, then it probably wouldn’t.

Nightmares based on personal fears can be invaluable to horror writers because a good horror story should be as scary (if not more) to write as it is to read, but they can also cause a few problems too.

Why? Because not all of your readers will have the same fears and anxieties as you do, so your story probably won’t scare them as much as you might hope it would.

So, if you’re going to write fiction based on your nightmares, then it’s best to focus on the “universal” types of nightmares that I mentioned earlier. Yes, this won’t produce anything stunningly original, but there’s a good chance that the exact details of your nightmare will probably be at least slightly unique. After all, everyone has a subtly different imagination and this will inevitably be expressed in different ways.

For example, one of the strange quirks of my subconscious mind is that most of the nightmares I’ve had that involve me sustaining horrific injuries rarely feature any blood. It’s almost like my body in these nightmares is actually one of Dr Gunther Von Hagens’ “plastinated” bodies. This isn’t too disturbing in the nightmares where, say, I only lose a finger – but it can be downright horrifying and unreal for more serious injuries.

So, this is the kind of thing which would be perfect for a horror story. It taps into a universal fear (eg: serious injury), but at the same time, it contains enough strange and unique details to ensure that even the most jaded fans of the horror genre are shocked and surprised.

In fact, I actually used one of these nightmares in an unpublished horror novella I wrote in 2009 called “Ostenta” (although I’ve edited it for quality here, it was written in just three days – and it shows!) Or, rather, I cruelly inflicted my nightmare on a random character in order to add some melodrama to the story. Here’s the scene in question:

He opened the door of the en-suite bathroom and pressed another light switch, the bathroom bulb flickered several times before coating the coffin-like room in dim light. He walked two steps to the sink and reached for the empty glass beside the taps, not really looking up at the mirror. He filled the glass with cold water and began to drink. As he finished the water, he saw himself in the mirror. He almost dropped the glass.

The skin beneath his right eye seemed scarred and twisted, as if it had been caught in a fire. The skin seemed to be lumpy, parts of it were twisted into tight raised lines. Slowly, he reached up and scratched it. The dull ache disappeared in seconds, replaced by a harsh, stinging agony. He tried to wince but only his left eye closed itself, he could barely see anything through his right eye. He felt a wetness in his hand. He was holding something, sticky and leathery. He dropped it.

Despite the pain, he managed to open his left eye and saw a red blur on the tiled floor. He turned towards the mirror again. The scarred skin below his right eye was gone and he could see every muscle around his eye- red, taut and twitching. He could see the bottom of his eyeball, the dim light above him shining off the white orb. The wound did not bleed. The pain grew more intense. He screamed.

As you can see, this scene taps into some fairly universal fears (eg: mysterious injuries, disease, the human body, blindness etc…) but, at the same time, it includes enough strange and unique dream-like features to make it unpredictable and, therefore, genuinely shocking.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that it’s a great idea to take inspiration from your nightmares when you’re writing horror fiction. However, it is also a good idea to make sure that you only use the nightmares that you know will scare other people too.

Likewise, it can also be a good idea to take strange things from your nightmares and use them in scenes which aren’t directly connected to your nightmares.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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