One night, it came to me in my dreams, dripping juice and melted cheddar, the crisp lettuce a mere afterthought. I held it in my hands and took a bite.
Instant horror: I stared at the burger like it was an alien object as the realization that I’m a vegetarian stopped me cold. I woke up deeply disturbed. The mere unconscious thought of taking an eager bite of red meat felt like a personal failure.
I had just had a meatmare. Yes, I found out with just a bit of online research, that’s a real thing. The internet is crawling with accounts of vegans and vegetarians who dream of eating bloody steaks, burgers, bacon, tuna, and pepperoni-tainted pizza.
Although you can find these tales sprinkled across our collective social media consciousness, I couldn’t find any good answer for why they occur. Some people ascribe it to guilt at clean-eating imperfection; others to deeply buried carnivorous cravings.
What, I wondered, would make me dream of eating flesh again after a decade of vegetarianism? I set out to solve this meaty mystery and determine whether there’s a deeper meaning behind it.
No psychologist has clinically studied meatmares, according to a spokesperson at the American Psychological Association. But from what I’ve found, there’s clearly a lot to untangle. I consulted experts in food studies, cultural anthropology, and psychology to help shed light on what meatmares might tell us about social anxiety, guilt, and our culture’s preoccupation with meat.
I had my reasons for giving up meat 10 years ago: environmental concerns, distaste for animal suffering, an unfortunate gob of gristle in a frozen sausage. In my investigation, I met other vegetarians who, like me, have only remembered mid-dream that they don’t eat meat. They wake up feeling guilty, appalled, and ashamed, occasionally even crying or screaming.
“It makes perfect sense to me that there would be meat nightmares, as opposed to broccoli nightmares,” Amy Bentley, a food studies professor at New York University, tells me over the phone. “Broccoli is just not a substance that people are going to have as much tension and anxiety over.”
Meat is often a key component of social events and celebrations: weddings, potlucks, Thanksgiving dinner. Vegetarians and vegans are constantly confronted by the choice of eating meat, and they routinely have to ask for accommodations and explain the rationale behind their diet.
“You’re forced to think about it all the time,” Bentley says. “You can’t forget that you don’t eat meat.”
Anxiety around these encounters, especially when someone first makes the switch to vegetarianism, Bentley says, could explain why meat keeps turning up in dreams, which serve as a mental means for people to replay and work out experiences they had during the day.
Steven Pinker, an author, cognitive scientist, and psychology professor at Harvard, has a different but complementary theory. “People often dream about lapses in self-control or everyday vigilance,” he wrote me in an email. Meatmares, to him, sounded like the “dreamtime version” of a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder called “horrific temptations.”
That’s the fear that, as a perfectly law-abiding and conscientious person, you might push someone off a subway platform. “It’s something that the patient would not do in a million years, but the more they worry about how terrible it would be if they did it, the more they can’t stop thinking about it,” Pinker wrote. “It stands to reason that this would obsess some number of vegetarians and vegans and perhaps invade their dreams.”
This obsession could have roots in…