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At least 1 trillion years before the series, Bill Cipher "liberated" his home dimension by burning it and proceeded to take over the empty Nightmare Realm as his own. He described the Nightmare Realm as "[his] own decaying dimension" in which he had "been trapped for one trillion years" looking for a means to escape, as its lack of constant physics doomed it to self-destruct in the future. When Stanley Pines finally activated the Universe portal in an attempt to save his brother Stanford, it creates an Interdimensional rift. Bill later uses this to create a gateway between Dimension 46'\ and the Nightmare Realm.
The Nightmare Realm, from what is shown, is a somewhat surreal unstable void filled with swirling shades of dark purple, red and yellow almost like a lava lamp. The Realm is littered with asteroids and has a "smell of burnt hair."
The Nightmare Realm has been used as a home for some of the worst criminals of the Multiverse, however, due to it connecting to many other universes, beings from more dimensions have found themselves stuck in the Nightmare Realm with no means of escape.