Research Stream


Julian Polain
PhD Candidate at The University of Melbourne

Joy Damousi
The University of Melbourne

Dreaming of the Devil: A History of Nightmare in Australian Culture

Depictions and theories of nightmare, as well as references to it, abound in Australian sources since Federation; importantly, the phenomena to which the term is applied are regarded as unsettling, not simply displeasing. What cultural meanings are attached to concepts of nightmare, and what does this reveal about individual and collective anxieties?

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If nightmare is the inward, melancholic expression of shames, guilts and fears, then I aim to address a specific scholastic lack and its attendant need: the need for the creation of a history of Australian nightmare and its depictions, for work which exposes the shames, guilts and fears which inform and populate Australian nightmares – not only those of Australian individuals, but also those of the Australian cultural collective. This work responds to the recent emergence of the field of 'nightmarology' and to abundant discourse on the forms and functions of dreams and fantasies within Australian culture.

Depictions and theories of nightmare, as well as colloquial, figurative usage of the term, abound in the news media, literature, music and popular culture of Australia since Federation. The term is often applied to phenomena which are deemed not merely displeasing but unsettling and unnatural. Global usage of the term in English-language sources has increased during periods of social and political conflict, and has increased steadily since the early 1960s, reaching unprecedentedly high levels of usage since the 1980s. My work tracks usages and depictions of ‘nightmare’ as a term, concept, pathology and experience in twentieth-century Australia, with the aim of elucidating the cultural meanings attached to it and of identifying the emotional dynamics which it expresses and by which it is informed.

Image: ‘Cricket Nightmares: How’s That, Umpire?’, Star, Sydney, 15 July 1909, p. 14.