night·mare Origin Middle English (denoting a female evil spirit thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers): from night + Old English mære ‘incubus.’

I was reading scholarly essays about Fuseli’s famous painting, “The Nightmare”. Anybody who has been visited by this thing know that it is not a product of the imagination. Up until today, I had not realized that “nightmare” literally refers to the hag or imp who sits on people’s chests while sleeping and suffocates them with fear or by choking or crushing. It does not simply mean a bad dream. Why would so many of us have that collective experience?

The imp on Fuseli’s painting is similar to the one who used to visit my friend of 25 years ago. Always, there is some variation. She described the face as bulbous and hideous and the eyes were made of some sort of fake red, faceted jewels that were plasticky and scratched up and cheap looking. Her monster would whisper in her ear, “We aren’t going to let you get away with it Carla.” Mine was of the same general size but more monkey/demon like. He did not have the bulbous face or the red plastic eyes. He hissed and cackled and would whisper in my ear, “It’s not so funny anymore is it?”

Fuseli