The painting’s dreamlike and haunting erotic evocation of infatuation and obsession was a huge popular success. After its first exhibition, at the 1782 Royal Academy of London, critics and patrons reacted with horrified fascination and the work became widely popular, to the extent that it was parodied in political satire and an engraved version was widely distributed. In response, Fuseli produced at least three other versions.
Interpretations vary. The canvas seems to portray simultaneously a dreaming woman and the content of her nightmare. The incubus and horse’s head refer to contemporary belief and folklore about nightmares, but have been ascribed more specific meanings by some theorists. Contemporary critics were taken aback by the overt sexuality of the painting, since interpreted by some scholars as anticipating Jungian ideas about the unconscious.