Horror By the Sub-Genres: Dream Horror

There is an inevitability to sleep that makes it frightening in a way that most real-world fears can never quite match. Sharks can be scary, but you can always stay out of the water, and you’re never required to go camping or participate in a séance with your friends. But sleep… that’s an inevitability to which everyone eventually succumbs.

People sometimes try to escape sleep, like Nancy did in the most well-known of all dream horror films, “A Nightmare On Elm Street”; but it eventually catches up with you, either from the sheer bodily exhaustion that forces you into hibernation, or by the trickery of those around you, medical professionals and caring parents who just want to help you.

More frightening than that is the alternative to dreaming: death. When Wes Craven first started exploring the idea of a dream killer, he based it on a true story about a man who feared falling asleep and being killed. As the story goes, when that man eventually fell asleep, he did indeed die. The truth of the matter is even more terrifying: he was dead either way, because lack of sleep can cause hallucinations, severe health conditions, and eventually death. When your dreams are a threat to you, there is no solution or escape.

Possibly the most disturbing aspect of dreams as a realm for horror is the fact that often in horror films about dreams it is not an invading force that enters your dreams and wishes you harm (as in child-killer Freddy Krueger), but simply a betrayal by your mind itself.

Dreams are a phenomenon within humanity and many higher-level animals that we don’t entirely understand. We know that we do it, and that we need to do it in order to remain sane and alive, but beyond that, much of it still remains shrouded in mystery. It is one of the only biological functions that the body undergoes that science has yet to pinpoint a fully understood reason for its existence.

Whether they are color or black and white, you remember them or not, or you have any level of control within them, dreams are still an unsolvable question to humanity, as close as the back of our hands and as confusing and alien as the bottom of the ocean floor. This psychological mystery gives it an air of menace and threat, a fog-shrouded place in our own heads that waits patiently for sixteen hours a day, until the sun sets and the body is at rest, when it can begin to drag the mind and soul through the most horrifying places imaginable. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.


Predating “A Nightmare On Elm Street” by a few years, and remembered for its surrealistic imagery and its iconic creation of flying silver spheres and the absurdly strong and frightening Tall Man, director Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” is one of the most memorable horror films about dreams, because it takes on not only the structure of a dream, but the logic of it as well: folding in on itself at certain moments, combining or negating certain characters’ existences, and ending with a head-scratching but brilliant final reveal.


Though in the strictest sense not a film about nighttime dreams, Tarsem Singh’s first feature film deals with dreams of another, more disturbing sort: the subconscious desires that lurk within the minds of a serial killer. The sci-fi element of mind-sharing goes to a new level in this film, about a social worker who is brought in by the FBI to search through a comatose serial killer’s subconscious for clues as to where his latest victim is being kept. Tarsem’s signature visuals were on full display here, and “The Cell” is another great example of the dangerous terrain of the human mind.

THE OBSCURE- Paperhouse

One of the more obscure entries in the dream horror genre, directed by “Candyman” helmer Bernard Rose, “Paperhouse” follows young Anna, who finds that she can visit a house in her dreams that she has drawn herself. What starts as a fantasy world becomes a dark nightmarish reality.


To call “Donnie Darko” simply a film about dreams would be to call “Citizen Kane” an expose of the newspaper industry. A film that encompasses insanity, time travel, dream rabbits, and cellar doors (what?), director Richard Kelly came out of the gate on his first film with an audacious, funny, bizarre, and challenging film that even a director’s cut and commentary cannot entirely explain. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay


Chris Vander Kaay and Kathleen Fernandez-Vander Kaay are a husband and wife writing team who agree on almost everything except whether or not 28 Days Later should be considered a zombie movie. After years devoted to interviews, podcasts, and articles in which they championed the idea that the horror film genre should be taken seriously, they hope the idea is finally catching on.