Dreams in Ghost Lore

Dreams are the most common form of After-Death Communication, and a common medium for experiencing ghosts and nonhuman entities.

Historical Overview

Dreams have always shared a strong connection to the dead and otherworldly realms. Sleep has been called the “little death,” an observation echoed in the Talmud: “Sleep is one-sixtieth part death.”

The ability of the dead to visit the living in dreams has been accepted in many cultures since ancient times. Relationships, especially with family, are seen as continuing after death, with the recognition that the ancestral spirits have the ability to intervene in the lives of the living. Most spiritual traditions around the world accept dream contact with the dead as positive and having a beneficial effect for both the living and the dead. Encountering the dead in dreams is seen as the most powerful way a person can relate to sacred powers.

Among the early Hebrews, dreams often focused on communication between the living and the dead. The Sefer Hasidim note that many recurring dreams dealt with questions of proper burial. The dead were not shy about appearing in dreams to demand better interments. The concern of the dead over their burial is a universal motif in folklore, called the Grateful Dead.

To the ancient Greeks, dreams were not “had” but were “given” by the gods. The dead appeared in dreams, as shades who had passed into the underworld, when they were unhappy. They appeared in dreams to plead for help, impart warnings, prophesy, or dispense grave advice.

The early Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews debated the authenticity of dreams and ways in which a person could determine whether or not a dream was “true.” Scepticism about dreams grew with the spread of Christianity. Saint Augustine drew distinctions between ordinary and “nonordinary” humans when it came to dreaming of the dead. He was well aware that his admired friend, Saint Ambrose, had been visited by the dead saints Gervasius and Protasius. This, Augustine said, was God’s will concerning saints. However, “ordinary” people did not return in dreams—these were delusions.

By the Middle Ages, some theologians said that dreams of the dead were merely masquerades of the devil. Dreams became a way to preach the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. There were many accounts of the dead in purgatory appearing to exhort the living to mind their ways while alive or to pray for the release of the dead from purgatory.

Dreams lost their importance until they received new attention in the development of psychology in the 19th century. However, dreams were regarded as primarily symbolic, not actual experiences in a sleeping state of consciousness. Carl G. Jung’s work expanded views on dreams. Also in the 19th century, psychical researcher William Barrett researched Deathbed Visions, often dream or dreamlike experiences of the terminally ill.

Lay dreamwork gained popularity in the latter part of the 20th century. Research in dying and in the new field of after-death communication (ADC) gave new importance to dreams. When a person loses a loved one, an ADC is most likely to occur in a dream, rather than in a waking experience. In the field of Paranormal Investigation, researchers have found that many people experience unusual dreams in places that are reputed to be haunted. Dreams may be of ghosts, Demons, or other entities.

The following are some of the highlights of dreams involving the dead and other entities.

After-death Communications

When a person dies, a loved one or friend—sometimes an acquaintance—may have vivid, realistic dreams in which they are with the dead person. They are often able to have physical contact; communication may or may not take place telepathically. This is an “encounter dream” and is distinctly different from a person’s “ordinary” dreams. Often, the person wakes up convinced that a real experience, not a “dream,” has taken place. In the field of ADCs, and in the lay dreamwork community, encounter dreams are seen as genuine experiences as real as experiences in waking life. For reasons unknown, the state of dreaming enables the worlds of the living and dead to be bridged.

Encounter dreams fall into three main types. One is “the farewell,” and occurs especially with people who are terminally ill. The dreamer dreams that the person comes to them to say good-bye. The next day, they discover that the person died the night before, or in the early morning hours (when many dreams occur). Farewell encounter dreams also happen in cases of sudden and unexpected death, such as through accident.

A second type of encounter dream is “the reassurance,” in which a recently dead person appears in a dream to reassure someone that everything is all right. It is not unusual for the dead person to be restored in health and youth and radiant with happiness and energy.

A third type of encounter dream is “the gift.” A dead person, not necessarily recently deceased, appears in a dream to impart advice, solutions to problems, creative ideas, or to bestow blessings of love and forgiveness. The gift might simply be their visit. Sometimes a long conversation is shared, the details of which may not be remembered upon awakening.

Themes within these three types of encounter dreams are the eternal bond of love, forgiveness, blessings, assurances, gifts, and information about the Other Side. Sometimes the purpose is to provide a sense of protection and companionship to the living.

Historically, ADC encounter dreams provide a way for the dead to ask for a proper burial, prayers, or alms. One account from the Middle Ages tells about a dead canon who came to a colleague in a dream to complain about his effects being kept. It had been the canon’s policy to donate clothing of the dead to the poor. The next day, the colleague had the canon’s cape given to a beggar. That night, the canon appeared in a dream again, dressed in the cape.

An example of a warning dream comes from Cicero, who in the first century told the story of a man named Simonides, who buried a stranger. Later, as he prepared to sail away on a voyage, the dead man appeared to him in a dream and warned him not to go. Simonides decided against going and later learned that the ship sank and everyone on board drowned.

Whether this story is fact or fiction is not certain. It was an old story even at the time of Cicero. Nonetheless, it contains elements that have continued to appear in dreams through the centuries.

Other unusual dreams involving the dead are the Greenbrier Ghost, in which a dead woman revealed in dreams the truth of her murder, and the Chaffin Will Case, in which a dead man revealed a new will that significantly changed his estate.

Some dreams involving the dead or spirits are Death Omens. In the 18th century, LORD THOMAS LYTTLETON dreamed of a fluttering bird and a woman in white who warned him he would die in three days. Despite his efforts to stay alive, Lyttleton died as predicted.

In modern times, ADC dreams provide a great deal of comfort and closure to the grieving. Most encounter dreams happen soon after a person’s death, but some happen months or even years later.

Dreams by the Dying

Many terminally ill people have dreams that acquaint them with the Afterlife. They may dream increasingly of otherworldly places and of being with the dead or in the company of spiritual beings, such as Angels. Such transitional dreams come close to the time of dying, usually within two weeks or so. Transition symbols include going through gateways, entering beautiful gardens, crossing bridges, climbing mountains, traversing the sea in a boat, or walking through doorways. These dreams often are vivid in colours and permeated with an energy of love and tranquility. They bring profound peace of mind. Dreams may also express fears about dying.

Dreams of Ghosts and Apparitions

Some people who sleep in haunted places have dreams in which they are visited by ghosts associated with the place. Like encounter dreams, dreams of ghosts often have unusual characteristics, including a feeling of being “real” and perhaps with an “intense” atmosphere. The ghost may appear in the dream as a ghost, or as a living person who can be identified from records. The dream ghost may reenact a haunting scene or may seem threatening to the dreamer. Physical sensations can be a part of ghost dreams. Such dreams have the greatest significance when a person does not know that a site is haunted.

Many paranormal investigators inquire about dreams, changes in dreams, and dream histories when researching a reported haunting.

Dreams are a medium for crisis Apparitions, the appearance of a person to another at the moment of passing. Reciprocal apparitions, in which two or more people dream of each other at the same time, also sometimes involve dreams (see Wilmot Apparition). Reciprocal dreaming is also known as mutual dreaming: sharing the same dream landscape simultaneously with others.

Dream Invasion

Unpleasant paranormal dreams involve threatening situations and sexual molestations. In the Old Hag syndrome, documented since ancient times, a person “dreams” or experiences the presence of an unpleasant entity who causes nightmares, fear and terror, paralysis and choking sensations, and sometimes sexual molestation.

In occult lore, it is possible for Demons to assault people via their dreams, causing nightmares and providing a way to sexually molest a victim. In the magical practice of dream-sending, one person can invade the dreams of another for the purpose of control, transmission of messages, harm, and so forth. See also T. C. LETHBRIDGE.


  • Bulkeley, Kelly. Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey. New York/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1995.
  • Finucane, R. C. Appearances of the Dead. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Dreamwork for the Soul. New York: Berkeley Books, 1998.
    ———. The Dreamer’s Way. New York: Berkeley Books, 2005.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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