This is Henry Fuseli’s 1781 piece called The Nightmare. Obviously I posted this because it’s a great seasonal fit with Halloween but it’s a really fun cornucopia of dream-related folklore, too. In fact, I think that’s really what this painting is about. I'm well aware of far more serious interpretations but they read way too much into it for my taste.
That incubus squatting on her torso is a great place to start. His victim is laid out like a sacrifice with him perched there looking perversely proud of himself. And I love how the only way we notice his pointed ears is by his shadow. A lot of interpreters have seen this as a reference to the long-held notion that witches slept with devilish imps by night. Even if we grant that erotic interpretation, it very well could be something else; something that has to do with the origins of our word ‘nightmare.’ In Middle English, a ‘mare’ was an evil spirit who tormented sleepers by lying directly on top of them. That created the frightening dreams and the feelings of dread, heaviness, hyperventilation, and suffocation that went along with them. It’s likely that the troll’s positioning is a nod to that tradition more than anything else. And what about the horse? It is certainly out of place peering into her bed curtain like that. He’s probably there because in some folk tales mares took the form of horses that, rather than lying on unsuspecting sleepers, trampled them instead. His featureless eyes make this one all the more frightening. She’s alone obviously, and those who slept alone were long thought to be more susceptible to nightmares than those who had a companion at their side. All this is to say that the imagery Fuseli depended on for this painting arose from a complex but interesting milieu.
Most of us no longer believe in spirits that stalk us while we sleep. For us that’s the stuff of myth and legend. But for centuries our ancestors really believed in and genuinely feared them. They even passed down all kinds of traditional remedies and preventatives to protect themselves: climbing into bed backwards, or plugging the keyhole, for example. In Fuseli’s time the position she’s sleeping in was thought to increase the likelihood of nightmares. I don’t say any of this to be dismissive. Even in our modern lives, dreams are still a bit mysterious and often very powerful. And, getting back to her sleeping position, that sprawl and exposed neck of hers make me cringe. Mostly because they remind me of just how vulnerable we are while sleeping. She looks lifeless. She isn’t, but she is defenseless. And it’s a fairly frightening thing to realize that every single night we voluntarily dip into a state of near helplessness. We trust God, luck, or the goodwill of our fellow beings that nothing will come for us. Because if it does, we may not know it until it’s too late.