It is always night somewhere, and a third of the world is always asleep—submerged in dreams. For the past 15 months I've explored that subconscious realm in 18 countries for my ongoing World Dream Atlas project. I walk up to strangers and ask for dreams, but just as often, I get nightmares. Around the globe, similar themes of horror emerge again and again: the post-apocalyptic wasteland, the faceless stalker, the broken teeth, the cannibal banquet, the sorrowful dead.
In waking life, human culture is built on conflict. Our books and films all feature struggle. In these mediums, we could create scenes of endless happiness where nothing ever goes wrong. Of course, we never do. Bliss is boring, if prolonged. Even our most optimistic narratives require a challenge to be overcome before happiness is attained. In dreams, the outcome is similar. Deprived of stimuli in our sleep, the mind reveals its nature in what it generates. We populate the darkness with aspects of ourselves and call them monsters.
What follows is a selection of nightmares from around the world. In waking life, we dedicate one day a year to the celebration of the macabre. In our dreams, however, every night is Halloween.
"I am 103 years old, so I don't sleep well. But when I do, I see the dead—dead bodies, known and unknown." —Rajouri, India
"There were too many people, so the government poisoned the air. There were dead bodies everywhere." —Tokyo
"When you're coming down off heroin, the dreams are extra vivid. In one, I was floating out in the universe, between the stars and planets. I could see Earth in the distance. For some reason, I had to transfer all of my internal organs to some other place in order to save the world. There was a countdown to when Earth was going to explode if I didn't do it in time. When I woke up, I turned my side, and all of my internal organs were on the bed next to me. I started freaking out. My thought process was, 'The only way I can get my organs back into my body is to shoot up.' So I did, and I felt much, much better." —Tijuana, Mexico
"One of the mines hit a car carrying a family. The mother and father were killed, and the daughter was disfigured. I see her when I close my eyes—a girl with no face." —Horlivka, Ukraine/Donetsk People's Republic
"As a volunteer at Charity Hospital at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, one of the things I learned, unfortunately, is that I can recognize death. I know when it's coming. I don't think it's a blessing. It's more of a curse. So, in the dream, I go to the mirror, and I see death in my own face. I know this look. There's something in the eyes. There's a vacancy there. I'm dying from what I saw thousands of people die from." —New Orleans
“I dreamed that my husband was carrying a gas tank. Suddenly it exploded. I was running around frantically, gathering up all the pieces of him in my arms as I wept.” —Devpur, India
"In grade school, I was walking through my neighborhood with friends. All of a sudden, a motorcycle approached. The rider was a man with a knife. He stabbed all of my friends to death. Only I survived. He didn't even touch me." —Tokyo
"In Afghanistan, one of my friends was killed by his best friend. It was an accidental discharge. Many months later, back in the States, I dreamed that the doorbell rang. My friend was standing there, lit up and happy, with an overnight bag. He had a 48-hour pass from heaven. We spent the entire weekend together—bar hopping, having discussions, and taking my dog, Roxy, to the park. We saw my friend's best friend there. He embraced him and said, 'You will always be my brother. I don't want you to feel guilt in your heart for what happened.' Then I saw my friend holding his neck with blood gushing out. Then he appeared in his casket wearing his dress uniform, deader than a doornail. I was sweating profusely and started to tear up. I awoke to Roxy licking my face." —Columbus, Georgia, USA
"In the dream, I'm always running, holding the hand of my friend. We're being chased by a man—always the same man, whose face I never see. We come to a fork in the road and go our separate ways, thinking that the man can only chase one of us. Just then, a second faceless stranger appears." —Tokyo
"I killed someone, and I'm cooking him. He's a classmate. I don't hate him, but I don't like him either. I cut him up, and I'm frying him on a pan. I'm going to eat him, probably to get rid of the evidence." —Ahmedabad, India
"There was some giant warehouse with a big party going on in there. I wanted to commit a terrorist act. What I did was build these pneumatic stilts under the warehouse. The stilts pushed the warehouse up and flipped it over, with all the people inside. At the time, I thought, 'Why am I doing this? It doesn't make any sense.' But I kept doing it anyway. When I woke up, it was so real that I thought for a moment, 'I'm going to jail.'" —Detroit
"They had to drag me from his coffin. The next day I was googling how to kill myself in the most efficient way. I feel guilty for his death. Maybe if I had been more awake that morning I could have told him that it was raining, so be extra careful. The first thing the doctor said was that he hit a truck. He broke his neck. OK. At least he wasn't shredded. I see my husband's face in dreams. He's always in his uniform. He's come back from somewhere. I feel so relieved. It's like a normal morning again. I try to say something, but I just can't. I begin to feel weak and I know that I'm dying. I'm dying instead of him, and I'm so happy that the last thing I see is his face." —Tokyo
"My sister was murdered—but even before that, I dreamed a lot about getting shot. It's always the same dream. I'm in the back seat of a parked car in LA. I'm just talking and drinking when a guy comes up and asks for my name. As soon as I say, 'Omar,' he pulls out a gun and boom, boom, boom! I can feel the bullets in my body." —Tijuana
"I never met my mother. She left just after I was born. I have never even seen a picture of her. I have a recurring dream in which I'm drunk in bed. The door is half-open. Someone knocks and walks away. I jump up and follow her down the stairs. I call out, but she doesn't turn. I want to see her face, so I reach out and grab her by the hair to turn her head. She has no face. There is only black." —Mumbai, India
"I was in line with my mom. We were waiting to be tortured by this machine that ran on tears. It would squeeze all of the tears out of a person. There was a trough painted red running through the room, and you could see the river of tears running through it. My mom went in before me. When she came out she was still alive, but every bone in her body was broken." —Brooklyn, New York
"I was on a train, and we were approaching a station. The name of the station was 'Happiness.' Instead of stopping, though, the train began to turn around. Finally, we arrived at a graveyard."