From the Yellow Brick Road to Freddy’s Razor Claws: Films, Dreams, and American Society

Based on a Presentation Made at the
1996 Annual Meeting
of the American Academy of Religion

The relationship between films and dreams has received a modest degree of scholarly attention over the past few decades. Some directors have described how they occasionally take images from their dreams and incorporate them into their films.[i] A handful of film critics have noted the dream-like quality of the experience of viewing movies.[ii] Several psychological studies have examined the influences of films on the dream contents of subjects sleeping in a sleep laboratory.[iii] And a number of psychologically-minded scholars have used the dream theories of Freud, Jung, and other to interpret the symbolism in various films.[iv]

In this essay I want to examine each of these dimensions of the complex interplay between films and dreams, focusing on two films in particular: The Wizard of Oz (1939, directed by Victor Fleming) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, directed by Wes Craven). Both of these films portray the dream adventures of an adolescent girl struggling to survive in and make sense of a world filled with danger, evil, and injustice. However, the two films offer strikingly different portraits of adolescent experience, with The Wizard of Oz presenting a grandly staged and highly polished fairy tale, and the low-budget A Nightmare on Elm Street telling a crude, blood-drenched horror story. While both films have enjoyed tremendous and enduring popularity among adolescent audiences, adults have generally praised the former film as a treasure of American cultural heritage, while vilifying the latter film for its corrosive effects on the moral development of our nation’s youth.

Looking at these two dream-oriented films from several different angles–considering their narrative plots, their cinematic artistry, their treatment of religion, their psychological impact on their audiences, and their relations to their social and historical contexts–will give us valuable insights into what may be called “the American unconscious.” By that somewhat mysterious phrase I mean the distinctive cluster of instinctually-rooted desires, fears, hopes, and conflicts which bond the American people together at a deep, though largely unconscious, psychological level. My goal in this essay is to show that a careful exploration of The Wizard of Oz and A Nightmare on Elm Street reveals important features of a certain realm of the American unconscious: namely, the dreams and nightmares of American adolescents.

To begin with, I’d like to look at the influence of dreaming on these two films, and at how the films make narrative use of common themes and patterns in people’s dream experiences. I trust that most readers are familiar with the three-part narrative structure of The Wizard of Oz: The film opens with Dorothy’s waking life experiences in Kansas, then follows her through a long series of fantastic dreaming experiences in Oz, and then finishes with a second, much briefer set of Dorothy’s waking experiences back in Kansas. The basic trajectory of the film’s plot involves Dorothy’s efforts to get out of Oz and return home, and it concludes with her succeeding in these efforts and passionately declaring, “Oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!” The moral of the story, then, seems to be that the waking world of home and family is the best place, the place we should be, the place we should never wish to leave, the place towards which we should always strive to return.

But the film has a second plot trajectory which parallels the first and reverses its moral message. According to this second trajectory, Dorothy temporarily escapes the dry, dusty tedium of waking life Kansas and discovers Oz, a world of dreams, a wonderous, exciting, beautiful world filled with mystery and adventure. The sharp contrast between the utter dreariness of her waking world and the enchanting magic of her dreaming world is established with stunning power by the use of a cinematic technique that will never again be used to such breathtaking effect: the sudden transformation, as Dorothy steps out of her tornado-tossed house, from the black-and-white of Kansas to the lush, vibrant, almost gaudy technicolor of Oz. Paralleling this visual contrast is a moral contrast: in Oz Dorothy finds the justice she could not find in Kansas. In the first, “waking life” section of the movie nothing can stop the cruel and socially powerful Mrs. Gulch (who, we’re told, owns “half the county”) from seizing Dorothy’s beloved pet dog, Toto. Dorothy discovers that the adult social order of the waking world cannot protect her most cherished interests, cannot care for her deepest needs. But in the dreaming world of Oz, she learns that good can triumph over evil; Dorothy and her friends do finally succeed in defeating the Wicked Witch, thereby restoring to preeminence the principles of right and fairness. So the second, more covert moral of Dorothy’s story is that while there may be no place like home, there’s no place like Oz, either: for the dream world of Oz reveals to her visions of sublime beauty and moral justice far surpassing the imperfections of her waking world.

I don’t know if Victor Fleming drew directly upon his own dreams in the making of The Wizard of Oz. But it’s clear that the film deliberately, and very effectively, evokes common features of dreaming experience: e.g., the magical animism of the dream world (e.g., talking trees, flying monkeys), the transformation of people from waking life into dream characters (Mrs. Gulch -> the Wicked Witch, the three farm hands -> the Scare Crow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, the huckster fortune teller -> the Wizard), and the exquisite sense of beauty and wonder which simply can’t be communicated to others (as Dorothy discovers when she awakens at the end of the movie and tries unsuccessfully to describe to everyone what her dream was like). In all these ways, the movie’s many references to common features of our dreams serve to intensify the audience’s emotional immersion in Dorothy’s story.

Very much like The Wizard of Oz, A Nightmare on Elm Street generates its narrative power by tapping into people’s common dream experiences–in this case, the experience of recurrent nightmares. Wes Craven, the film’s director, has acknowledged a fascination with dreams and nightmares, and has said that the basic nightmare theme of being relentlessly pursued by a malevolent antagonist is the backbone of his film’s story.[v]

I imagine that very few readers have ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street, so let me recount the basic story. A nice, average high school girl named Nancy Thompson lives with her parents in a nice, average house on nice, average Elm Street (Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic housewife, her father the stoic chief of police of their nameless middle-American town). Nancy and her teenage friends start having the exact same recurrent nightmares of a horribly disfigured man in a dirty red and green sweater who attacks them with his razor-blade fingers. When two of her friends are found brutally murdered, Nancy desperately tries to tell her father that it’s the fiend from her nightmares who killed them, and that he’s trying to kill her, too. Her police chief father, however, refuses to believe that any such thing could possibly happen. But when Nancy mentions to her mother that she’s learned the nightmare man’s name–Freddy Krueger–her mother realizes what’s been happening. Reluctantly, she tells Nancy that ten years ago their town was terrorized by a sadistic child murderer, who turned out to be a seemingly ordinary neighbor named Fred Krueger. Krueger was caught, but he escaped conviction on a legal technicality. So the outraged parents of their neighborhood (including Nancy’s mother and father) secretly formed a vigilante group, trapped Krueger in an abandoned boiler room, and burned him to death. They all made a vow to keep the truth of what they did to punish Krueger forever hidden. When Nancy hears this story, she decides she must go back into her nightmares; with no help from her father or her boyfriend (who is the fiend’s next victim), she confronts Freddy and declares that she knows his secret now, and she isn’t afraid of him anymore. This courageous assertion finally breaks the power Freddy has had over her, and with a agonized shriek he vanishes as Nancy safely awakens to a bright, sunny morning.

A Nightmare on Elm Street does everything it can to recreate the sensation of being trapped within a recurrent nightmare. Feelings of fear, helplessness, impotence, and vulnerability pervade the film. Nancy and her friends (and we in the audience) are repeatedly startled and disoriented by abrupt shifts from waking to dreaming and back again, and we are relentlessly assaulted by sudden, shocking bursts of violence and bloody physical mutilation. Like Dorothy, Nancy is unable to convince the adults out in the waking world of the reality of what she’s experiencing in her dreams. And also like Dorothy, Nancy ultimately finds in her dreams the deep resources of personal strength to overcome an evil which the adult social world had failed to defeat.

In both films, Christianity plays a small but significant role as an emblem of the impotence of the adult world in helping adolescents fight off evil and injustice. In the first section of The Wizard of Oz, when it becomes clear that nothing will stop Mrs. Gulch from impounding Toto, Aunt Em emotionally declares that she’s been waiting for many years to tell how she really feels about Mrs. Gulch–but “being a Christian woman, I can’t.” In A Nightmare on Elm Street Nancy has a crucifix hung over her bed, which conspicuously fails to protect her from Freddy Kruger’s nightly attacks. Christianity in these two films represents the adult world’s highest ideals–and the failure of those ideals to save adolescents from the dangers that threaten them.

In evoking so powerfully a variety of common dream and nightmare sensations, the two films build upon qualities shared by all movies. Film critics have long recognized the dream-like nature of watching movies: we sit relaxed and motionless in a quiet, darkened space and become immersed in a flow of narrative, allowing vibrant waves of sound and visual imagery to wash over us. In this sense, every film works to simulate the experience of dreaming; every film draws its power from its capacity to recreate the formal experiential qualities of a dream.

This is one reason why films have been used so frequently in experimental dream research. From the earliest days of sleep laboratory examinations of REM sleep, researchers have been using films to examine the impact of waking stimuli on dream content. A number of experiments have involved subjects watching films with especially strong emotional content (e.g., pornographic films, movies showing the autopsy of a human corpse). The subjects are then awakened during their REM sleep the next night to see what impact the films had on their dreams. The basic result of these studies is that material from the films does frequently become incorporated directly or indirectly into the subjects’s dreams, although it remains unclear why some subjects have more film references in their dreams and other subjects less.[vi]

I know of no studies focusing on the impact of these two particular films on people’s dreams. However, my own research and experience suggests the following:

The Wizard of Oz has been the primary source of the American people’s fascination with the question of whether we dream in color or black-and-white. This is a question that could never have arisen in a pre-modern society, without exposure to the technologies of photography and cinema.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has helped to stimulate the capacity of American teenagers to experience lucid dreams (i.e., becoming conscious within the dream state that one is dreaming), beyond what most adults seem to have experienced in their lives. I suspect that this movie has had a huge influence on this generation’s understanding of what dreams are and what is possible within them.

One of the biggest differences between films and dreams, of course, is that while dreams are purely private experiences, films are collective experiences. We have our dreams in the privacy of our own personal imaginations (setting aside, for this chapter’s purposes, the interesting question of whether dreams can be shared), but we usually watch movies with groups of other people. This brings up another interesting feature of the two films under discussion, namely that both films have become the objects of what I would call “ritual viewing practices.” For many decades, in the pre-VCR era, the annual showing of the The Wizard of Oz on network television was an eagerly-anticipated family event. I myself still have glowing memories of getting settled on the couch with my parents and my sister and watching, for the umpteenth time, the wonderful adventures of Dorothy and Toto in the land of Oz. There are also ritual viewing practices associated with A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its half-dozen sequels), but they take a quite different form. This movie is very much a product of the VCR revolution in the viewing, and the making, of contemporary films. Produced with little money and less technical sophistication, A Nightmare on Elm Street had only a brief original run in theaters; and of course it has never been shown on network TV. The film’s spectacular success has depended entirely on the VCR rental market, and more specifically on the phenomenon of teenagers renting the movie again and again and again. I first learned about this from my brother Alex, who’s twelve years younger than I am. He knows of my interest in dreams, and several years ago, when he was in his early teens, he said, “Kelly, you’ve got to check out the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, Dude, they’re all about dreams!” As I talked with Alex about the movies, I discovered that he and his friends had all seen them at least six or seven times each. The usual routine was for everyone to gather at someone’s house on a Saturday night, turn out all the lights, and (with no grown-ups anywhere around) watch yet again Nancy’s terrifying nightmare battles with Freddy Krueger.

I find one especially significant difference between the ritual viewing practices associated with these two films, and that is that the audiences for The Wizard of Oz tend to be intergenerational: parents and children all watching together, as a family. The audiences for A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, are usually composed of adolescents only, and primarily adolescent boys.

I believe this difference in ritual viewing practices gives us some insight into the bottom-line question of what the dreams in The Wizard of Oz and A Nightmare on Elm Street can be said to mean. At the most basic level, the dreams in both films are about the struggles of adolescents in American society: struggles which in our society are conceptualized as a transformation from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence, from innocence to sexuality, from a life of play to a life of work. The dreams in both films work to stimulate profound empathy for and identification with the fears and sufferings of adolescents as they go through this transformation. And the dreams in both films sharply criticize the failure of parents, and of the whole adult social order generally, to protect adolescents from evils, injustices, and threats to their budding sense of emotional and physical integrity.

The Wizard of Oz concludes on a note of stirring hopefulness and optimism. Dorothy ultimately survives her frightening trials in the land of Oz, and at the end of the movie returns, with a newfound sense of devotion and trustfulness, to her home and her family. This is a moral message that naturally makes the film appealing to family audiences. It’s true that this message is clouded somewhat by the fact that Mrs. Gulch is probably still around and thus is likely to continue her vendetta against Toto (unless the tornado managed to get her–a nice possibility, but we never hear one way or the other). And it’s true that what I’ve called the film’s second, covert moral message points Dorothy, and we in the audience, towards the enchanting reality of a very different kind of world. But in the end, the two messages work together to propel Dorothy (and the audience) back into waking life with renewed commitments to her community. Recalling that The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, I think the film can be seen on one level as a response to the challenges facing adolescents of that historical period: overcoming the despair engendered by growing up during the Great Depression, resisting the temptations of escapist fantasizing, and finding the inner strength to confront the mounting danger to the American community posed by World War II.

So I would say the meaning of Dorothy’s dream is this: always remember the beauty, the friendship, and the strength of purpose you experienced in Oz–never forget that. But now it’s time to go back, rejoin your family, and do what you can to help them through their hard times.

The conclusion of A Nightmare on Elm Street is quite different. If The Wizard of Oz ends on a note of hope, A Nightmare on Elm Street ends with a mixed message at best. Yes, Nancy has defeated Freddy Krueger, and yes, she’s back with her mother and father, in their nice suburban house with the white picket fence on Elm Street. But Freddy’s not really gone. Everybody in the audience knows that Freddy is going to come back–it’s simply the nature of recurrent nightmares, and of the low-budget horror movies patterned after them, that the evil fiend will come back. Thus, the reassurance that Nancy and we in the audience receive at the end of the movie is only temporary, only provisional. We’ve got a bit of a breather, but that’s about it.

This moral message–that evil may be defeated, but it’s going to come back–has a special resonance, I believe, for the adolescent boys that tend to be the film’s primary audience. This is because they identify not simply with Nancy and her teenage friends, but with Freddy Krueger: for adolescent boys, Freddy expresses all the terribly urgent sexual desires they feel rising up within themselves. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies are brutally honest about how frightening these desires can be, stimulating fears and fantasies of violent fragmentation and destruction. By watching these horrible movies again and again, in small, furtive, emphatically non-family gatherings, adolescent boys seem to find a small measure of comfort in sharing their inner experiences of trying to come to terms with the Freddy Krueger within each of them.

The importance of this comfort should be evaluated in the context the movie’s distinctive historical period. In 1984, the year the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie was released, the U.S. economy was booming, Wall Street was awash in merger-and-acquisition money, the armed forces were busily building new planes, tanks, and missiles to defend against the “Evil Empire,” and Ronald Reagan was gliding to reelection on the theme that “It’s Morning in America.” Culturally speaking, it was a time of vigorous masculine assertiveness, when vulnerability was scorned and raw power glorified. The challenges facing an adolescent boy growing up in such a culture are portrayed quite starkly A Nightmare on Elm Street: the adults think everything is great, and they don’t want to hear anything about being scared, feeling helpless, or worrying that there’s something very powerful and very dangerous lurking in the dark. So the meaning of the dreams of Nancy and her friends, in my view, is this: there is a real and terribly powerful force of evil haunting our dreams, but the grown-ups can’t, or won’t, acknowledge it; so adolescents have to join together, use their wits, and be prepared to face that evil when it comes again–for it will come again.

Notes

[i].. See Gabbard and Gabbard 1987.

[ii].. See Ebert 1996.

[iii]..See Koulack 1991.

[iv].. This essay was originally presented at a panel titled “Cinema, Psychoanalysis, and the American Unconscious,” sponsored by the Religion and the Social Sciences Section at the 1996 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. The other papers presented at the panel were “From Separation to Merger: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Jews in American Film,” by Fredelle Spiegel; “Euro-American (Christian) Fantasies of Love and Genocide,” by Roy Steinhoff-Smith; “The Marginalization and Destruction of the Female Body in Popular Women’s Films,” by Peggy Schmeiser; and “Terminator 1 and 2: A Cinematic Construction of Religion in Popular Culture,” by Rubina Ramji. Each of these papers drew upon psychoanalytically-oriented theoretical resources to analyze contemporary films.

[v]..Cooper 1987, p. 10.

[vi]..Koulack 1991.

Comments on DreamingNow, 2005

The Dreams We Dream For Each Other

In a lecture Jorge Luis Borges once gave on the subject of dreams and nightmares, he said “dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the earliest aesthetic expression” of our species.[1] Borges’ insight has been abundantly supported by recent studies in history, archeology, and anthropology, all pointing to the universality of dreaming as a primal source of human cultural creativity.[2] Some of the earliest written texts in China, Egypt, and India are catalogs of dream symbols. Myths originating in ancient oral traditions tell of dreams that helped to create the world (e.g., the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime). Shrines and temples around the world are devoted to deities who visit their worshippers in dreams to provide healing, guidance, and inspiration. At least some of the cave paintings of Paleolithic Europe, long celebrated as revolutionary expressions of unprecedented symbolic creativity, are believed to be portrayals of dreams experienced by early homo sapiens engaging in the ancient practice of dream incubation, or seeking a dream.

Dreaming may inspire creative activity, but a dream is not the same as a work of art. The moment we wake up, we leave the pluralistic world of the oneiric imagination behind us, and our minds are quickly restructured and reoriented by the sensory demands of the consensual social world. Given the radical nature of this existential transition (which, significantly, is genetically hardwired into the basic neural functioning of the human brain), any effort to remember and/or communicate our dream experiences is inevitably colored by our waking life interests, desires, fears, and conflicts, not to mention the vastly complex web of cultural traditions shaping our apprehension of the world. Just as we must reject the scientist who claims to capture “pure” specimens of dreaming in the sleep laboratory, so we must reject the artist whose work purports to be a direct transmission of dream experience. In both cases what is forgotten is the inescapable partiality of our waking encounters with dreaming. Again, Borges: “The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams….If we think of the dream as a work of fiction—and I think it is—it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.”[3]

My impression is that most artists do not believe their works are direct replications of dream experience, but rather are carefully crafted transformations of images, moods, and themes from the world of dreaming. To be a dreamer is not necessarily to be an artist; experiencing dreams and knowing how to express them as art are two different things.

Still, the connection between dreaming and aesthetic creativity is not spurious. The powerful inspiration provided by dreaming derives, in my view, from a fundamental impulse in dreams toward communal expression. Dreaming provokes greater consciousness—in both the personal and collective spheres. This wonder-working power is most evident in the vivid memorability of certain dreams that burn themselves into people’s minds and absolutely demand to be acknowledged and expressed in the waking world. Jung used the term “big dreams” to describe such experiences, which he called “the richest jewels in the treasure-house of psychic experience.”[4] Whether by virtue of their hyper-realistic imagery, strong physiological carry-over effects, or revelatory existential insights, certain dreams literally cannot be forgotten; they force their way into waking awareness, prompting an urgent need to share the experience with others—“Listen, I had a dream….”[5]

In many cultures around the world this impulse toward communal expression is celebrated as a valuable resource by which dreaming contributes to collective well-being. Dream-sharing among family members is the norm, and collective decision-making (e.g., about hunting, war, legal disputes) includes dreams as useful sources of information and guidance. Anthropological literature is filled with examples of communities, both historical and contemporary, in which dream-sharing is an integral part of broader social, political, and religious processes. One of my favorite examples comes from the Iroquois people of Northeast America. For hundreds of years they have performed “the Dream-Guessing Rite,” a three-day ceremony held in midwinter, when the nights are long and the opportunities for dreaming abundant. It begins with the members of one moiety house walking over to the cabins of the opposite moiety and asking to have their dreams guessed and fulfilled—with the dreams being proposed to the assembled group in the form of riddles. According to anthropologist Harold Blau, “these riddles are stylized and are clues to the assembly as to the subject of the dream. Clues may be understood more readily if one is familiar with legendary accounts of various societies and spirit forces. Single sentence riddles are proposed: ‘It whistled in the wind’ may refer to a corn husk spirit. Likewise, ‘It has holes, yet it catches’ may refer to a lacrosse stick net.”[6] The groups Blau observed took great pleasure in the guessing process, and once the dream is revealed, the person who made the correct guess promises to present the dreamer with whatever appeared in his or her dream. Then the roles are reversed, until everyone has had the opportunity both to guess someone else’s dreams and share a dream of one’s own. It can easily be imagined, I think, that a community that provides such a stimulating public space for dream expression would benefit from a vastly deeper sense of mutual understanding, respect, and cooperative spirit. Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that the earliest Christian missionaries to visit North America were horrified by the Iroquois’ idolatrous reverence for dreaming, and one young Jesuit wrote a letter to his superiors back in Europe to say he was worried one of the natives might dream about murdering him and might then try acting out the dream in waking life.[7] (Of his own dreams, the young missionary said nothing.)

We are living in something of a golden age in the historical and cross-cultural study of dreams, with several excellent books and articles appearing in the past few years.[8] For our purposes, the key point in these works is the widespread belief that dreaming is not simply a private affair with exclusively personal relevance, but rather an experience rooted in collective realities and potentially relevant to the broader concerns of the community. Contrary to modernist prejudices, humans have long recognized the psychophysiological dimension of dream meaning and the relationship between dream content and the individual’s personal life context. Artemidorus, for example, the 2nd century C.E. Roman dream interpreter, argued that the meanings of dreams can vary depending on the dreamer’s gender, age, health, marital status, social position, etc, while Hindu medical texts analyzed dreams for diagnostic indicators of the individual’s physical health. What current historical and anthropological studies have shown is that many cultures have also recognized collective dimensions of dreaming as well, dimensions by which the dreamer is connected to his or her family, to other people, to the land, to the planet, and to various trans-human powers and realities.

To speak of such collective dimensions of dreaming may sound scandalous to those of us influenced by Western psychological thinking. Freud, as ever the ideological pioneer, claimed that all dreams, no matter how politically relevant they appear on the surface, are in fact nothing more than disguised fulfillments of repressed childhood wishes. In The Interpretation of Dreams he describes one of his own dreams in which he encounters a notoriously reactionary Austrian politician, Count Thun, whom Freud had actually seen that day at the train station. Freud confesses that in waking life he felt “insolent and revolutionary ideas”[9] after seeing Count Thun. But his interpretation of his dream ignores all that and reduces the possible meanings to just one, a symbolic reference to infantile megalomania. Freud dismisses any thought of connecting the political imagery of his dreams to the actual political situation of his community: “This revolutionary fantasy, which was derived from ideas aroused in me by seeing Count Thun, was like the façade of an Italian church in having no organic relation with the structure lying behind it.”[10]

American dream psychologist Calvin Hall endorsed Freud’s individualist/anti-political bias in his influential 1966 work The Meaning of Dreams, rejecting any legitimate interest in the communal dimensions of dreaming and insisting that the only genuine dimension of meaning involved the dreamer’s personal life: “Dreams contain few ideas of a political or economic nature. They have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs.”[11] Unfortunately, things have only gotten worse in recent years. Nowadays prominent neuroscientists debate whether dreams have any meaning at all, individual or collective.[12] Everything that happens in dreams can be explained (so the argument goes) in terms of automatic changes in the chemical and electrical activities of the brain as it passes through the various stages of rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. According to Owen Flanagan, a leading voice in the reincarnated form of sociobiology known as evolutionary psychology, dreams are “spandrels of sleep,” mere epiphenomena that have no meaning, function, or value whatsoever.[13]

This, then, is the current condition of the field of dream studies: At the same time as historians and anthropologists are discovering an incredibly rich variety of dream beliefs and practices from around the world and throughout history, leading Western scientists are denying any functional value for dreaming whatsoever.

This is also the context, or at least one of the contexts, in which the DreamingNow show is appearing. Explicitly dedicated to exploring the social and political potential of dreaming, the show is a direct repudiation of the mainstream Western psychological belief that dreams are either purely personal self-reflections or sheer neural nonsense. I don’t know if the DreamingNow curator Raphaela Platow intended to make a major theoretical statement to the dream research community, and I’m sure the artists’ works have many aesthetic virtues that escape my untrained eye. But to me what’s most interesting about the contributions to DreamingNow is the way the works evoke a vivid awareness of exactly that which is missing in the Western psychological approach—a deeper appreciation for dreaming as a source of collective meaning-making. With that in mind, let me offer some brief reflections on a few particular pieces in the exhibit.

Antonio and Isabel Aquilizan’s Dream Blanket draws the observer into an enclosed but comforting and ultimately transformative space of multiple colors, sounds, and feelings. Their collection of blankets from various cultures around the world reminds us that dreaming occurs in sleep, and sleep is both a culturally-constructed experience (each blanket has a distinctive pattern of color and texture) and a natural bodily process we share with all mammals. The fact that we humans prefer while sleeping to have a blanket to keep us warm is itself a sign of how vulnerable we become for eight or so hours every night. We lie motionless for hours on end, oblivious to the external environment, defenseless and vulnerable, incapable even of preserving our own bodily warmth. Pace Flanagan, something very valuable must happen during sleep for evolution to have preserved such a helpless condition as part of our necessary psychological functioning. The other feature I appreciate in the Aquilizans’ Dream Blanket is their inclusion of so many different dream voices, from people we too rarely have the opportunity to hear. One of the dirty little secrets of dream research is that the majority of empirical studies use mostly white, mostly middle- and upper-class college students as their subjects, with their dreams then presented as the “norms” by which all human dreaming is measured. Needless to say, this leads to a rather narrow view of the subject, with virtually no attention to the dream lives of the people from different economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. Nietzsche once said, “among all these dreamers, I, too, who ‘know,’ am dancing my dance”—that’s the expansive, liberating feeling I get from Dream Blankets.

A very different set of associations come to mind in connection with Chiharu Shiota’s installation, with its numerous single beds literally tied to each other by an intricate, seemingly random web of black thread. The web is a metaphor frequently employed by cognitive scientists to account for the fundamentally social nature of the evolved human mind (i.e., neural networks as vast interweavings of synaptic activity, in constant interaction with the neural networks of other people’s minds), and it is also used by anthropologists in the Geertzian tradition to describe the elaborate symbol systems pervading human cultural experience. Following those ideas, the web can be understood as an expression of ontological relatedness and community, both in waking and dreaming experience. However, the austere, black-and-white composition of Shiota’s installation also calls forth darker feelings, of the dreaming individual as spider’s prey, trapped in a colorless void, a prisoner of sleep, incapable of movement or escape. Shiota’s performance in one of the beds during the exhibit’s opening will undoubtedly add further dimensions of meaning to this powerfully ambivalent dream image/image of dreaming.

David Solow’s work centers on one of the most bizarre features of dreaming—its infinite potential for metamorphosis, the capacity of dreaming to mix and merge people, places, objects, times, and ideas. Morpheus, son of the Roman god of sleep, was well known for his ability to assume the shape of any person, making him ideally suited to bear divine messages in dreams. I take Solow’s work as a revelation of a different kind of divine truth, the truth that in dreaming the ordinary boundaries of selfhood dissolve, opening us to other dimensions of being and other ways of knowing the world. The naked bodies of the dreamers are illuminated in a pool of water (the classic Jungian symbol of the unconscious), and again we are reminded of the brute physicality of sleep. The naked bodies merge in and out of one another, but not sexually—indeed, the effect of the nudity in this work is decidedly unarousing. Perhaps we’ve heard enough already about sex and dreaming from Freud, the Surrealists, and David Lynch, and Solow is now pushing us to consider embodied dimensions of dreaming beyond the biological process of reproduction, beyond the binary opposition of inseminating male and ovulating female, to a place where we recognize the astonishing, glorious mutability of the human body. There is a little Morpheus in all of us, and through Morpheus there is something of you in me, and me in you.

A hint of sexuality can be inferred in Cai Guo Quiang’s work Dream, for the bed used in his installation is a double, rather than the single person-sized beds in the other pieces. Quiang’s bed is bathed in red, which might in other circumstances highlight the erotic passions kindled by two people sleeping together, but which in this case is more ominously a reference to the official color of the Chinese communist government (whose “one-child” policy leads the state to reach into people’s beds and control their procreative activities). The red lanterns suspended above the bed take the shape of weapons, cars, computers, and the omnipresent Chinese star, all forming a web-like snare that constrains the dreaming imagination and seeks to replace free-form creativity with the dominant ideology of the state. In this regard, Quiang’s work echoes the remarkable book of Charlotte Beradt, The Third Reich of Dreams, in which she recounts several hundred dreams gathered from people living in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939.[14] Beradt’s courageous study illustrates the power of a totalitarian political regime to invade and virtually destroy the individual’s capacity to imagine, create, and envision new possibilities. In a similar way, Quiang is calling our attention to the fragility of dreaming, its vulnerability to social manipulation and political aggression. To dream well, we must be safe and free. Quiang, like Beradt, is trying to make us wake up to the oppressive social conditions that constrain our oneiric potentials.

A different kind of external influence is at work in Marina Abramovic’s Dream Bed. Her creation of a carefully structured and unabashedly visible space for sleeping and dreaming is reminiscent of the sleep laboratory, that modern Asklepion where complex technological devices are used to monitor the subjects’ sleep and “catch” their dreams for scientific analysis. Abramovic does not use EEG scalp attachments or rectal thermometers like in the sleep lab, nor does she provide freely roaming snakes on the floor as in the temples of Asklepius. Nevertheless, Dream Bed places the individual in a highly unusual sleeping environment. The rectangular box in which the participants lie is like a coffin without a lid, which perhaps makes sense given the long historical connection between sleeping, dreaming, and death. The puffy body suits (with magnets embedded in the fabric), glowing blue or red lights, obsidian crystal pillow, and exposure to the eyes of curious observers all makes it likely that whatever dreams the participants experience, they will be dramatically different from those they experience at home. From my perspective as a researcher, I’ll be very interested to see what gets recorded in the Dream Book Abramovic is providing for her participants. We already know that the artificial, intrusive, and resolutely unaesthetic conditions of the sleep lab have a homogenizing effect on dreaming, with fewer nightmares, sexual dreams, and bizarre/transcendent dreams in the lab than in a home setting. Will the same be true of the Dream Bed? Or will its explicitly artistic context, combined with the subtle influences of the crystals and magnets, stimulate a greater degree of aesthetic creativity and imaginal freedom in the people’s dreams?

Expanding on that same question, and bringing this essay to a close, I wonder how DreamingNow as a whole will affect the dream lives of the people who observe and participate in the installations. The exhibit itself is a grand incubation experiment—it creates an astonishing, reality-bending liminal space, sanctioned by a reputable cultural institution, in which people may freely explore the farthest reaches of the dreaming imagination. What new dreams will the exhibit inspire? What novel Borgesian ficciones will be woven? What fresh ideas and surprising insights will come to people as they share in the dreams of others, trying like the Iroquois to guess at subtle meanings that stir their deepest desires and speak eloquently to the broader concerns of their community? In a society that has become more sleep-deprived than perhaps any in human history, at a time when the market is booming for pills that suppress the need for sleep, DreamingNow is a necessary affirmation of the transformative power of dreaming. I suspect many of the exhibit’s observers will be pleasurably startled by the exhibit’s multi-dimensional impact on their own dream creations.

Beradt, Charlotte. 1966. The Third Reich of Dreams. Translated by A. Gottwald. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Blau, Harold. 1963. Dream-Guessing: A Comparative Analysis. Ethnohistory 10 (3):233-249.

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1984. Seven Nights. Translated by E. Weinberger. New York: New Directions.

Bulkeley, Kelly. 1995. Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

———. 1996b. Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election. In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1999. Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Winnicottian Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. In Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 1999a. Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2002. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12 (2):61-78.

———. 2003. Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch. Dreaming 13 (1):49-60.

———. 2003. Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

———, ed. 1996a. Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society. Edited by R. V. d. Castle, SUNY Series in Dream Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———, ed. 2001. Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. New York: Palgrave.

Crick, Francis, and Graeme Mitchison. 1983. The Function of Dream Sleep. Nature 304:111-114.

Descola, Phillipe. 1993. The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle. New York: The New Press.

Ewing, Katherine. 1989. The Dream of Spiritual Initiation and the Organization of Self Representations among Pakistani Sufis. American Ethnologist 16:56-74.

Flanagan, Owen. 2000. Dreaming Souls: Sleep, Dreams, and the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1965. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Avon Books.

Gregor, Thomas. 1981. “Far, Far Away My Shadow Wandered….”: The Dream Symbolism and Dream Theories of the Mehinaku Indians of Brazil. American Ethnologist 8 (4):709-729.

Hall, Calvin. 1966. The Meaning of Dreams. New York: McGraw Hill.

Harris, Monford. 1994. Studies in Jewish Dream Interpretation. Northvale: Jason Aronson.

Hobson, J. Allan. 1999. Dreaming as Delirium: How the Brain Goes Out of Its Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hobson, J. Allan, Ed Pace-Schott, and Robert Stickgold. 2000. Dreaming and the Brain: Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of Conscious States. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (6):793-842.

Irwin, Lee. 1994. The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Jung, C.G. 1974. On the Nature of Dreams. In Dreams. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Original edition, 1948.

Kelsey, Morton. 1991. God, Dreams, and Revelation: A Christian Interpretation of Dreams. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing.

Lama, The Dalai. 1997. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Lamoreaux, John C. 2002. The Early Muslim Tradition of Dream Interpretation. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lohmann, Roger. 2001. The Role of Dreams in Religious Enculturation among the Asabano of Papua New Guinea. In Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, edited by K. Bulkeley. New York: Palgrave.

Mageo, Jeannette Marie, ed. 2003. Dreaming and the Self: New Perspectives on Subjectivity, Identity, and Emotion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Miller, Patricia Cox. 1994. Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. 1984. Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pace-Schott, Ed, Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove, and Stevan Harnad, eds. 2003. Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stephen, Michelle. 1995. A’Aisa’s Gifts: A Study of Magic and the Self. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tedlock, Barbara. 2001. The New Anthropology of Dreaming. In Dreams: A Reader in the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, edited by K. Bulkeley. New York: Palgrave.

———, ed. 1987. Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Trompf, G.W. 1990. Melanesian Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Von Grunebaum, G.E., and Roger Callois, eds. 1966. The Dream and Human Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. 1958. Dreams and Wishes of the Soul: A Type of Psychoanalytic Theory among the Seventeenth Century Iroquois. American Anthropologist 60:234-248.

Young, Serinity. 1999. Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery, and Practice. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

1.(Borges 1984).
2. (Borges 1984; Young 1999; Von Grunebaum and Callois 1966; Trompf 1990; Tedlock 1987, 2001; Stephen 1995; O’Flaherty 1984; Miller 1994; Mageo 2003; Lohmann 2001; Lamoreaux 2002; Lama 1997; Kelsey 1991; Irwin 1994; Harris 1994; Gregor 1981; Ewing 1989; Descola 1993; Bulkeley 2001, 1999a, 1995, 1996a)
3. (Borges 1984) Let me take this opportunity to mention a few contemporary artists I know who draw inspiration and guidance from dreaming: poets Betsy Davids, Richard Russo, and Tom Traub; photographer Shelley Lawrence; painters/graphic artists Fariba Bogzaran, Jennie Braman, Emily Anderson, and Tristy Taylor; musician Nancy Grace. For a discussion of the role of dreaming in the filmmaking of David Lynch, see (Bulkeley 2003).
4. (Jung 1974)
5.The likelihood of communicating a powerful dream depends in large part on cultural context. In a Native American community, for example, a big dream would be celebrated as a revelation of the dreamer’s special connection to the spirit world. In the contemporary US, where a significant percentage of people believe dreams are random nonsense, fewer people pay attention to their dreams no matter how powerful the dreams may be.
6. (Blau 1963).
7. (Wallace 1958)
See note 2.
8. (Freud 1965)
9. (Freud 1965)
10. (Hall 1966) This was the comment that spurred my interest in the relationship between dream content and politics 10. 11. (Bulkeley 2002, 2003, 1996b).
12. (Hall 1966; Hobson 1999; Hobson, Pace-Schott, and Stickgold 2000; Flanagan 2000; Pace-Schott et al. 2003; Crick and Mitchison 1983)
13. (Flanagan 2000)
14. (Beradt 1966). For a discussion of Beradt’s work, see (Bulkeley 1999).

Review: The Little Vampire

I don’t know anyone who saw this movie. In fact, I don’t know anyone who even heard of this movie before I mentioned it to them. “The Little Vampire” quietly passed in and out of theaters in the fall of 2000, just before the seasonal onslaught of family-friendly films released between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever kind of marketing campaign the movie’s producers tried to mount, they didn’t succeed in spreading the news of their work very far. That’s too bad, because “The Little Vampire” is one of the best children’s movies I’ve seen in a long while. This is a movie that asks its young viewers to believe vampires can be good guys and scary guys at the same time. Children’s movies rarely ask for that kind of cognitive sophistication from their audiences. Most kid movies (and, as father of three, I’ve seen a distressingly large number of them) prefer to keep their moral distinctions clear, unambiguous, and unthreatening. “The Little Vampire” directly challenges simplistic moral categories by portraying vampires as frightening, ghoulish, dangerous, and worthy of respect, sympathy, and friendship.

For many children, vampires stand at the very top of the bad guy hierarchy. Nothing is scarier than sharp-fanged bloodsuckers who live in coffins, come out only at night, and have the ability to turn into bats. To its great credit, “The Little Vampire” does not downplay these horrifying qualities (with the one exception of not showing any actual drinking of blood). The vampires do not become cuddly, Disney-fied dolls; they are truly the undead–fearsome creatures of the dark. The film maintains a strong sense of the weirdness of vampires, the creepy otherness of the world in which they live. And yet, the film goes on to suggest a connection between humans and vampires is still possible. Even though vampires are really, really, really scary, we who live in the light can still find a way to befriend to them.

The improbable agent of this potential for relationship is an eight-year old boy Tony, played by child actor Rollo Weeks with a mannered cuteness that almost, but not quite, ruins the movie. Tony’s unflagging good cheer enables him to take the initiative in making friends with a slightly older vampire boy named Rudolph, whose delicate features and pallid beauty evokes all the eerie romance of the vampire legend. The development of their friendship is the heart of the movie, and I enjoyed the simple words and gestures through which the two boys slowly come to know and like each other.

I naturally found it intriguing that the original impetus for Tony’s good-hearted and fearless determination to help Rudolph is series of strangely intense nightmares. In these dreams Tony learns of the centuries-old curse laid upon Rudolph’s family and their desperate quest to have the curse lifted. Because of these dreams Tony develops an unshakeable certainty that vampires are real—though of course his parents, teachers, and schoolmates laugh at him in scornful disbelief. Tony’s defiant certainty enables him to stay true to his new friend no matter what happens. In this regard “The Little Vampire” is a classic story of a child learning to trust his own budding intuition and have the courage to take the initiative in befriending those “creatures of darkness” the adult world fears and despises.

The ending of the movie is rather sappy, as is true in most children’s films. Tony’s heroic efforts succeed, the curse on Rudolph’s family is lifted, and all is well again. The happy narrative closure does not, however, dispel the truly haunting, reality-stretching possibilities this film suggests to its young viewers’ imaginations.