In Dreams, Terror Takes the Stage

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For the last week, Kathryn Horton has had the same dream over and over. She is jumping out of a building. Some nights, she watches as others fall. But every night in her sleep, she replays images of horror, by now so familiar, the stuff of nightmares.

“People falling--that’s the only dream I have,” said Horton, 28, a fund-raiser for nonprofit groups in Los Angeles. “When I wake up, it’s still in my head, so I can’t get away from that image.”

In Des Moines, her 6-year-old nephew, Alex Northington, is also troubled by nightmares. He sleeps with a little bag he packed Tuesday after watching the events on TV. It contains some clothes and his favorite Pokemon cards.


He fears someone will come after him, said his mother, Yuki Northington, and he has been sleeping at his mother’s side. “He’s talking in his sleep, saying, ‘No, don’t do that to me,”’ Northington said. “He’s afraid,” but he doesn’t want to talk about his nightmares, she added.

As people struggle to comprehend what they saw last week--images of devastation both physical and psychological--their dreams may be permeated by pictures they are trying to escape.

Some psychologists and psychiatrists believe dreams are a barometer of mental well-being. “Nightmares are normal after a trauma. It’s the brain’s way to accept the unacceptable,” said Patricia Garfield, a retired professor of clinical psychology in Mill Valley, Calif., who has written several books on dreaming. “We often play and replay a trauma as we try to process. It’s a good sign because it means that we are still trying to cope. People who have been severely traumatized often stop dreaming altogether.”

Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, has been supervising counselors at Boston’s Logan Airport, where two of the doomed jets originated. Her 1996 book, “Trauma and Dreams” (Harvard University Press), describes her work with Vietnam veterans and Holocaust and firestorm survivors.

“Often, those who have narrowly escaped disaster are having the most disturbing dreams, tinged with survivor guilt,” Barrett said. “[They dream] that they should have died instead of someone else or that they’ve only temporarily escaped a fated disaster which will return to claim them too.”

Even those not directly effected by the tragedy may have disturbing dreams about the events. “It’s often the people who weren’t really involved that start having dreams straightaway,” Barrett said. Typically, “there will be higher level of anxiety in the dreams,” she said, and the content may reflect the disaster that has provoked the dream.


Not everyone dreams, particularly those who are emotionally drained and exhausted. Some people even try to find ways to avoid dreaming altogether.

Sunne Cope, 50, who was having coffee Saturday at the Los Angeles Farmers Market, said she has taken four sleeping pills every night since Tuesday. She doesn’t want to face the images that have consumed her every waking hour in her sleep, too.

“Sleeping pills do suppress the realm of dreaming sleep,” Barrett said. “As a therapist, I encourage facing the trauma, dealing with it and talking about it, but it’s an understandable and reasonable response for the first days.” There’s no big harm in taking sleeping pills for a couple of nights, she said, but cautioned that overusing them can lead to dependence.

Richard Wilkerson, whose brother escaped the World Trade Center unharmed, has been collecting stories of people’s dreams online since the attack. He plans to publish the collection in “Electric Dreams,” an electronic newsletter.

“The dreams I have collected seem to be a reflection of life, with twists in the plot where imagination breaks into the normal flow of logic and thought,” Wilkerson said. “Generally, they have two aspects--the dreamer connects [the] personal life, and the experience of the national tragedy.” So far, he has collected about 60 stories.

Last week’s postings on the online message group alt.dreams largely concerned the terrorist attacks. Some people claimed to have had dreams foreshadowing the tragedy but most spoke of nightmares that came after.


“I am walking across a field and I look up and see a low-flying plane. It is painted red and blue,” wrote J.B. from Australia. “It flies over me and then rears up in the sky and loops over back toward the ground. As it turns above me I know I must run but can’t work out which way to run. It hits the ground behind me and debris scatters toward me. I finally start running, uphill, with dream-deadened legs. As I run, I am expecting an explosion behind me.”

Members of the Merced-based Assn. for the Study of Dreams have linked articles about trauma and dreams on its Web site,, and have set up a bulletin board for people to discuss their dreams. They are also creating a hotline to help those suffering from nightmares and for parents seeking guidance about how to help children with disturbing dreams. While they had hoped the hotline would be up last week, the project was delayed when the group found that a database for assigning toll-free 800 numbers was housed in the World Trade Center and disappeared with it, Barrett said.