Can Dreams Predict Death?
A controlled study of death-related dreams suggests they can—sort of.
Posted December 3, 2019 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
In December 1975, a woman named Allison awoke from a terrible nightmare in which her 4-year-old daughter Tessa was on a train track. In the dream, Allison had been attempting to get her daughter to safety when Allison herself was struck and killed by a train XE "train." Allison was in tears telling her husband about this terrifying nightmare.
Not more than two weeks later, Allison and her daughter were at a train station seeing off a friend. An object fell onto the tracks, and, in an effort to be helpful, the little girl went to pick it up. Allison saw a train coming and rushed to save her daughter, but they were both hit and killed.
Allison’s husband is the one who reported this experience to dream researcher Dr. David Ryback. The husband was understandably devastated by these events, but he told Ryback that he did take some comfort in the warning he and Allison had had. It “makes me feel close to Allison and Tessa,” he wrote to Ryback in a letter, “because something I don’t understand forewarned her” (Ryback 1988:2).
Stories of dreams that appear to foretell a death are abundant. It’s very likely that you or someone you know has had one. But might these dreams just be coincidences? After all, who’s keeping track of all the death dreams people have that don’t come true?
As it turns out, at least one person has been keeping track.
Dr. Andrew Paquette was himself skeptical of the ability of dreams to tell us anything useful about the future, so he began keeping a detailed dream diary, with the goal of proving that his seemingly “precognitive” dreams were no more than the products of chance and selective memory.
For 25 years from 1989 to 2014, Paquette carefully recorded 11,779 of his dreams. He wrote them down directly upon waking and before any “verification” of them could occur. In 2015, Paquette published an analysis of his dreams that specifically focused on death.
Paquette began his investigation by combing his personal dream database for dreams that suggested the death of one of the people who were in the dream. Specifically, he was looking for dreams that had happened before he had any normal knowledge of the person’s actual death, and where he was subsequently able to verify whether the person was still alive, and if they weren't, the date of their death. He ended up with 87 dreams featuring 50 identifiable people. Twelve out of those 50 people were dead by the time of Paquette’s analysis—24%.
Paquette’s investigation didn’t stop there, however. For the 12 people who were now dead, Paquette went back into his dream database and located all of the dreams he’d had about them, both those related to death and those that had nothing to do with it. He then counted the number of days that had elapsed between each dream and the person’s date of death. He discovered that, for 9 out of the 12 people who had died, his death-related dreams of them occurred, on average, closer to their day of death than did the non-death-related dreams. And, when the statistics for all 12 of the people were combined, it still turned out that the death dreams were on average significantly closer to the date of death than were Paquette’s other dreams about those individuals.
On the other hand, it’s important to point out that the average length of time between one of Paquette's death dreams and the person’s actual death was a whopping 2208 days or 6 years. While this is significantly less than the average length of time between non-death dreams and the person’s death (which was 4297 days, or 12 years), it’s clear that the mere fact that one has a death-related dream about someone can’t be relied upon to pinpoint that person’s date of death with any accuracy. (Keep in mind, too, that 76% of the people whose deaths Paquette dreamed about during those 25 years were still alive at the time of his analysis!)
At the same time, it is noteworthy that one of Paquette’s death dreams happened the very day that the person in question died, even though Paquette had not been in contact with the person or their close acquaintances anytime during the previous year. It is also worth mentioning that, when Paquette awoke from that particular dream, he was “certain” that this person had died, and told his wife and daughter as much. The next day, an email arrived confirming that the person had indeed died on the day of his dream. This case suggests that there may be ways to differentiate between (1) death-related dreams that indicate that the death has only just happened or is immediately impending and (2) dreams that either relate to a death that is some distance in the future or that deal with death in a metaphorical rather than literal sense.
In conclusion, Paquette’s analysis indicates that further investigation of this topic could very well yield interesting results. The challenge is going to be finding enough other people who are willing to diligently record their dreams over the span of many years and make them available for scrutiny.
Paquette, Andrew. (2015). Can death-related dreams predict future deaths? Evidence from a dream journal comprising nearly 12,000 dreams. Journal of Scientific Exploration 29(3): 411-23.
Ryback, David, with Sweitzer, Letitia. (1988). Dreams That Come True: Their Psychic and Transforming Powers. New York: Doubleday.