Everybody likes to think they're special little snowflakes, even when it comes to having nightmares. You know, that Rorschach night-sweat stain on the sheets is just so uniquely you. And while many dreams -- both delightful and dark -- are based on personal, individual experiences, there are broad commonalities that haunt our REM sleep. And there have to be. Otherwise dream dictionaries would need to be customized, making them prohibitively expensive for all but the robber barons and teen pregnancy television stars among us.
"Childbirth was totally worth it to find out what Gorilla George Washington was trying to warn me about."
Some collective bad dreams are experiential. John Cheese wrote about the recovering alcoholic's recurring nightmare of falling off the wagon. Soldiers revisit the grimmest and most terrifying moments from the battlefield.
But a few dreams cross all gender, social, and national boundaries. They seem to be fairly universal -- simply human, in fact. While we take many approaches to problem solving in our waking life, the human subconscious is far more consistent. We're all linked back to the same primordial goo, and our nightmares are that goo's psychological coping mechanism.
Dr. Goo, Ph.D.
Debates rage about the interpretation of certain nightmares (with a card catalog of dick-centric opinions available on Yahoo! Answers alone). But while we may not agree on what the dreams and nightmares mean, we're pretty well settled on what the common ones are. Here are five of mankind's bad dream greatest hits, with non-dick-centric theories as to why we have them.
#5. Teeth Falling Out -- We All Fear Our Mortality
In 1958, American Anthropologist published an article titled "The Universality of Typical Dreams: Japanese vs. Americans." While it turned up some differences, the similarities between the respondents' dreams were much more striking, particularly that 20.8 percent of the American and 16.1 percent of the Japanese subjects confirmed that they'd dreamed of their teeth crumbling or tumbling from their mouths. That's a mighty lot of dreamtime chompers lost across the globe.
Instead of a shared fear of becoming scurvy-riddled nickel dancers, this nightmare is thought to stem from our struggle with mortality.
Or, if you're a tooth fairy, job security.
Forget Freud and his fancy-pants dream analysis -- when it comes to understanding what common factors in the human condition could bring about such a Lynchian nightmare, look no further than Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes brought the gavel down on this in his seminal work Leviathan (1651) when he stated that life is inherently "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Frankly, life sucks for everybody, and it could end at any instant. Instead of making the most of our brief tenure on the planet, we're eating varying levels of crap as calendar pages rapidly fall to the ground. Like our teeth. With which we have had to eat all this crap. Or, you know, without teeth, your nourishment will be limited to McDonald's shakes and you'll die.
"Our milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard ... the graveyard."
It doesn't matter if you're doling out cologne in a strip bar bathroom or you're Elizabeth Dole, it's likely you'll be as toothless as Thomas Hobbes at some point in the dead of night.
#4. Unprepared for the Big Test -- We're All Anxious About Stacking Up
You're sitting at a desk, blue book and pencil in hand, armpit-soaked and petrified. There are 15 minutes left on the clock, and your book is blank. Or you realize you missed this class all year -- just flat out didn't show up -- and now the questions on the test are reading like Russian. Oh God, it's Russian 401!
It'd be time to panic, if it weren't a nightmare. After all, you've been banned from entering any institution of higher learning for what -- 10? 20 years? So why freak out about tests when you could be freaking about something more interesting, like how you will ever eat your way out of a giant strawberry pie?
"You are the only one who can do this. You are the chosen one the diabetic elders prophesied."
It's because you've made at least a marginal amount of yourself and you're afraid of losing it. This is a nightmare of anxiety over personal and professional accomplishment, and it tends to plague people who have already done well (e.g., enrolled in Russian and didn't drop it). No matter the success we achieve, we never get rid of the insecurity that one day we won't measure up to expectations. And unless you went to some hippie school, this is one place where everyone's performance or lack thereof was evaluated in writing.
So, if you want to avoid sharing this one with your fellow man, best not have any ambition or goals whatsoever to begin with.
John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Which may explain how hobos can sleep anywhere.
#3. Falling from Incredible Height -- No One Wants to Lose Control
Ting Hoo/Digital Vision/Getty Images
And now you're free-falling, a heart-tightening plunge from a building ledge or cliff, hurtling toward an advancing ground that you never actually hit before waking up in a puddle.
Falling is one of the top reported nightmares and is motivated by a potential for failure that's out of your hands. Things aren't lining up the way you want when you're awake, and there are no proactive steps you can take to fix things, so off the dread-slicked edge you go in Sleepytown.
Contrary to popular belief, you will not die if your terminal velocity comes to a conclusion during a falling dream. Or, at least no one who did die during one of these REM bad times bothered to come back and tell the rest of us about it. But, hey, it's out of our control. We're not the boss of those ghosts.
"No, the falling dream didn't kill me. The Nic Cage go-kart one, on the other hand ..."
The fact that humanity is plagued by this one proves that we need to chill the hell out. Just don't go so far as taking on a full "The Fates will provide" attitude at work. The Fates are not skilled at spreadsheets and coding.