Nightmare Utilization by Successful Artists: A Case Report Series

Special Article - Dream Anxiety Disorders

Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2017; 4(2): 1063.

Nightmare Utilization by Successful Artists: A Case Report Series

Pagel JF*

Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine, USA

*Corresponding author: Pagel JF, Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine, PO Box 6, Arroyo Seco, NM 87514, USA

Received: June 29, 2017; Accepted: July 20, 2017; Published: July 27, 2017


Many successful artists use their nightmares in their work. This series of case reports (N=14) is a series of in-depth interviews with such artists, including an assessment of nightmare use in their work, any experience of trauma that may have contributed to their nightmares, and an assessment as to any past and current symptoms of PTSD. While some of these artists were best classified diagnostically as having Nightmare Disorder, a majority (11/14) of these successful artists had histories of significant trauma, and met DSM-V diagnostic criteria for PTSD. There is some evidence that these individuals did their best creative work after their experiences of trauma. These findings suggest that for the artist, nightmare expression rather than suppression (the objective of most PTSD therapies) might be a reasonable therapeutic option.


Artists ranging from Goya, to Fusili and Picasso have used their nightmares in their work [1]. In our Sundance filmmaker work with dream use in creativity, we discovered significantly elevated levels of dream and nightmare recall and use when compared to clinical sleep and medical practice groupings, and the working/professional film making groups [2]. Sleep lab subjects reporting levels of creative interest and/or creative process were also found to report a higher incidence of nightmares than those reporting no creative interests [3]. These studies suggested the possibility that the report of nightmares might be a signifier or a marker for interest and involvement in the process of creativity. In a study of non-dreamers (a sleep laboratory grouping (N = 17) reporting no dream or nightmare recall by history or after multiple lab awakenings) the one documentable behavioral difference between this group and a grouping with minimal dream recall was a lack of interest and involvement in creative process [4]. This current study includes a series of fourteen in-depth interviews with successful visual artists who do creative work based at least in part on their nightmares. The interviews were minimally directed in order to obtain information as to recurrent nightmare content, any description of associated trauma, and any reported use of nightmares in their work. Due to the small group size, this is primarily a descriptive study designed to obtain answers to the following for this sample: 1) age, gender, and trauma exposure; 2) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptom incidence; 3) characteristic nightmare content; and 4) incidence for the successful use of nightmares in artistic production.


More than 70% of individuals being evaluated in the sleep lab report having nightmares more than once a month [4-6] (Table 1). Unlike other dreams, nightmares can be consistently defined by content that features agonizing dread, a sense of oppression, and the conviction of helpless paralysis [7]. Today, this classic definition for the nightmare has been both expanded and contracted, specifying that a nightmare is a disturbing mental experience generally occurring during REM sleep that often results in awakening [8].

Citation: Pagel JF. Nightmare Utilization by Successful Artists: A Case Report Series. Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2017; 4(2): 1063.