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Henry Fuseli, "The Nightmare" , 1781 Oil

Nightmares are ultimately awakenings.  They come to make you aware of something and remember.  They make you Alive, in otherwords, you feel the blood rushing through your veins and your heart pumping fast...upon awakening, you realize that it was just a dream and a sense of relief rushes over you.  Thanks for being alive, for your loved ones being safe...but the dream does not go away, the images stay with you for days, sometimes years...sometimes the dream is recurring and will never go away unless you take a serious look inside.  Nightmares are blessings in disguise, they let you know that now is the time to work on the problem, now is the time to deal with the past trauma or threat knocking on your door.  Like the dark man in many women's nightmares (see "Women Who Run With the Wolves"), nightmares awaken the dreamer to freedom.  Freedom that can be found when the dream is unlocked.
I recently read that nightmares are dreams gone wrong or:
 "... a failed dream, a dream that by not "handling" anxiety, has failed in its role as a guardian of sleep...the underlying process of every nightmare is the same: raw death anxiety has escaped its keepers and exploded into consciousness."
(Yalom, Irvin D. Love's Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy. Basic Books: New York. 1989. p.6)
Do you believe this statement? Yalom is an existential psychotherapist, experienced beyond conprehension. Yet...
He is ultimately stating that every nightmare is about our own fear of death...  The chase, the intruder, the monster lurking, the plane crash or falling dream...
Maybe he's right...
However, generalized statments can ultimately allow a person to miss the intended message that nightmares might be telling us-there are many layers to dreams.  Don't chalk up a nightmare to only a fear of death...just yet!  Indeed, the fear or awareness of Death can make Life so much sweeter...how would we ever appreciate every living thing or person around us if nothing ever died...if life went on forever and there was no rush to finish, succeed, learn, or accomplish?  Death is the trickster and can come in dreams to make us aware of the precious nature of Life and all it's fleeting sweetness.

Nightmares are hard to understand and even harder to dismiss.  What I've found to be helpful is looking into the specific emotions that they evoke: Is the nightmare deeply depressing, terrifying, or maybe humiliating?  Can you relate to this emotion in waking life?  If so, perhaps the dream is a metaphor telling you to work on this emotional problem. 

Having nightmares?
Gestalt workshops allow groups of people to work on dreams together, using play acting and incorporation of dream symbols. 
If you don't have a dream group to work with, here are some techniques that you can do alone:
First, for example in the case of a nightmare, become the monster/villian/scariest object in the dream.  Try and embody the emotions that this "thing" carries; then talk to yourself and explain why you are in the dream.  Here is an example: D = dreamer; M = monster
Dream:  I am lying in bed at night alone; I feel like I am awake in real life in the dream.  Basically the dream feels very real.  Suddenly I hear someone trying to get in my room.  I feel like I am in slow motion and cannot get up fast enough.  I finally get out of bed and reach for my gun but it's not loaded.  I try to load it but the man is getting closer and is now at my bedroom door.  Every time I try to load the gun, the bullets fall out.  Now he is at the door and opening it.  I am terrified; the doors opens.  The dream ends.
M = I am the robber, the intruder. I am coming to wake you up and scare you.
D - Why are you here?  I don't need someone to scare me more, I am scared enough in life. 
M = Exactly, you are too damn scared all the time.  It's high time you experience what you fear the most and get it over with.  Wake up and step up to the plate!
D - I don't know what you mean, I've been victimized enough. Why can't I have nice, comforting dreams and heal in that way?
M = You're making me extremely angry-IRATE! Don't you see, you're too scared all the time and I'm going to beat it into you, stop lying around waiting to be jumped.
D - So what part of me is you?  What do you represent in me?  Are you a part of my Shadow, what do I need to learn from you?
M = As the intruder, I am here to intrude on your fear and make it real - make you really feel it to deal with it.  This is the inner scared part of you that's being shoved in the closet.  I am the anger behind the fear.  Time to take action and get MAD-use the anger to get past the fear and DO SOMETHING.
D - Aha! I see, yes.  When I get mad I can move now.  (If I reenter the dream and use the anger I now feel, I can drop the gun and move to the door, enter into the house and fight like a true fighter).
So-becoming a part of the dream and reentering the dream can create epiphanies...huge AHA's.  Enter into the dream symbol or frightening aspect of the dream and feel the emotions.  In this way you will understand that every part of the dream is a part of you.