Before we developed a better understanding of nightmares, superstitions reigned supreme. Every culture had its own beliefs about bad dreams — what they meant, where they came from and, most importantly, how to prevent them from happening at all. Some used physical deterrents to ward off dream-corrupting spirits, while others relied on customs and rituals to keep the evil away. Although we now know more about the machinations of bad dreams, many cultures still employ these tactics. Because getting extra help to sleep soundly doesn't hurt.
1. Speaking into a Worry Doll
The worry doll is a small, colorful character (like Miley Cyrus) that can help keep negative thoughts and nightmares at bay (unlike Miley Cyrus). According to Guatemalan legend, if a person (usually a child) expresses concerns directly to the worry doll before bedtime, the doll will worry in their place so the sleeper can doze peacefully.
2. Lighting Some Sage
You can usually use Febreeze to cleanse a bedroom of evil. But, if your room is packing a particularly nasty spirit or feeling, many believe burning sage will do the trick. Everyone from Native Americans to Celtic druids have used sage to cleanse a person, group or space of negativity. For your bedroom, burning sage is most effective in the doorway and windows, as that’s where unwanted spirits can get in.
3. Drawing the Baku
Japanese culture tells of the “baku” — a supernatural being that devours nightmares. It was originally a Chinese legend, adopted by Japanese folklore around the 15th century. By the 17th century, the baku had evolved into a chimera, and was believed to be summoned when a sleeper drew a picture of it before falling asleep. In early iterations, a baku could be invoked by calling out to it during a bad dream. However, conjuring the spirit was done sparingly: In addition to nightmares, a hungry baku could also eat hopes and dreams.
4. Placing Betony Beneath Your Pillow
Its name comes from Celtic roots — specifically the word bewton, which means “good for the head." A common European herb in the mint family, betony was thought to cure just about every disease in Ancient Rome and was widely used to vanquish nightmares, evil sprits and despair. To prevent bad dreams, the herb can be kept beneath a pillow. Or, you can burn it and jump through its smoke. Just don’t mix the two.
5. Hanging a Dreamcatcher
These woven totems are perhaps the most popular bad-dream deterrent. They stem from an ancient legend of the Ojibwe people, which states that the Spider Woman, Asibikaashi, watched over the people and, when the land became too large for her to guard completely, mothers and grandmothers would weave dreamcatchers to protect the children. Their nets “catch” bad dreams and let good dreams slither through.
6. Setting Sharp Knives Beneath Your Head
A Laotian superstition claims that sleeping with sharp blades beneath your pillow will keep bad spirits away. The Maltese specify the evil spirit as that of the haddiela — paranormal entities similar to poltergeists. The presence of a knife under the pillow is enough to scare them away.
7. Blocking the Bedroom Door’s Keyhole
To ward off alps — evil spirits who steal horses and cause general nightmare havoc — Germanic peoples would plug the keyholes of their bedroom doors. This would prevent the dexterous creatures from getting through. In addition, placing one’s shoes with the toes facing the door and then getting into bed backwards was said to protect against nightmares, as was placing something made from steel in the bed straw.
8. Sucking on Your Thumbs or Toes
The Batibat — a Philippine folklore demon who takes the form of an old, fat woman and is associated with sleep paralysis — usually haunts someone whose house is built with wood from the tree where the Batibat once lived. The demon forbids humans from sleeping near the felled wood and, if they do, jumps on their chests and attacks in the form of a nightmare. According to legend, the only way to ward her off was to bite your thumb or wiggle your toes, effectively waking you up and scaring her away.