Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch

(Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams 2003,
vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 49-60)

Abstract: This essay explores the influence of dreams and dreaming on the filmmaking of David Lynch. Focusing particular attention on Mulholland Drive (2001), Lost Highway (1997), Blue Velvet (1986), and the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91), the essay will discuss the multiple dream elements in Lynch’s work and how they have contributed to the broad cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreaming and movies in contemporary American society.

More than perhaps any other contemporary director, Lynch draws upon dream experience as a primal wellspring of his creative energy. Dreams and dreaming suffuse every moment of his approach to filmmaking. The disturbing impact of watching Mulholland Drive and his other works (especially Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and the television series Twin Peaks) derives in large part from his uncanny skill in using cinema as a means of conveying the moods, mysteries, and carnivalesque wildness of our dreams. One of his biographers, Chris Rodley, puts it this way:

“The feelings that excite him most are those that approximate the sensations and emotional traces of dreams: the crucial element of the nightmare that is impossible to communicate simply by describing events. Conventional film narrative, with its demand for logic and legibility, is therefore of little interest to Lynch…. Insecurity, estrangement, and lack of orientation and balance are sometimes so acute in Lynchland that the question becomes one of whether it is ever possible to feel ‘at home’…. If Lynch could be called a Surrealist, it is because of his interest in the ‘defamiliarization’ process and the waking/dream state—not in his frequent use of the absurd or the incongruous.” (Rodley, 1997)

On a first viewing Lynch’s works seem baldly psychoanalytic in their emotional preoccupations, almost to the point where there does not seem to be anything for a latter-day Freudian or Jungian to interpret. All the great passions of the unconscious are right there, out in the open, without any disguise, repression, or arcane symbolism. Although I do believe psychoanalytic film criticism has its uses, that is not the path I want to follow in this essay. My interest here is both more focused and more expansive. First, I want to identify and describe several specific means by which dreaming is woven into Lynch’s approach to filmmaking. These include the use of dreaming as a narrative structuring device, the inclusion of scenes in which characters experience a dream, the inclusion of dialogue in which characters discuss dreams, and the use of Lynch’s own dream experience as an inspirational source for his creative work. After that, I want to reflect on the role these multiple dream elements have played in the broader cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreams and movies in contemporary American society, and at the end of the essay I will suggest the common nickname for Hollywood—the “dream factory”—is not merely a figure of speech but is in fact an accurate description of the profoundly interactive influence of films on dreaming and dreaming on films. It is this mutual interplay of dreams and movies that ultimately interests me, and my hope is that this essay will open a new path toward a better understanding of that dynamic relationship.

Dreams and dreaming play several different roles in Lynch’s filmmaking. The following summary of the most prominent of these roles is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Indeed, a complete accounting of these roles would require a detailed review of Lynch’s whole body of work. But even the limited description I am offering should be sufficient to prove my basic point, which is that dreams and dreaming play an absolutely central role in his filmmaking process. Is there any director who does more than Lynch to integrate dreaming and filmmaking? Perhaps so; I would enjoy hearing someone try to make the case. For the present, I offer the following analysis not to prove Lynch’s superiority to other directors, but rather to illustrate the dream-inspired artistry of one particular director who has made, and is continuing to make, a substantial contribution to contemporary attitudes toward the dream-film connection.

Dreaming as Narrative Structure. For many viewers the most striking feature of Mulholland Drive (2001) is the abrupt rupture in the narrative about two-thirds of the way through the film. Although there are several other story threads woven in and out of Mulholland Drive, the main narrative follows the experiences of Betty (Naomi Watts), a pert young blond who has just arrived in Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress but who instead finds herself caught up in a dangerous mystery involving a dark-haired woman with amnesia (Laura Harring) who adopts the name “Rita” from a movie poster (among other things, Mulholland Drive is a wicked satire of the ultimate emptiness of “Hollywood dreams”). Betty and Rita find a little blue box that matches the strange blue key they found in Rita’s purse, but just when they go to put the key in the box, Betty all of a sudden wakes up—and even though it’s still her, it soon becomes clear that it’s not her, at least not the same person whose life viewers have been following for the past hour and a half. This Betty (now her name is Diane Selwyn) is darker, angrier, and full of bitterness and despair. Likewise, many of the same people from the earlier scenes are still present, but they are different, too, with different names, personalities, and relationships to one another. Confronted with all these sudden changes, viewers are forced into a radical reconsideration of their understanding of all the preceding scenes in the movie. Each new scene that follows this profound shift in the narrative takes on an added layer of meaning in its retrospective revelation of what was happening in the earlier scenes, and this in turn creates a mounting sense of inexplicable foreboding as the story builds to a climax. (A similar narrative rupture occurs in Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director the same year as Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Mulholland Drive. The different use of this narrative device in the two films is a good measure of the difference between mainstream Hollywood movies and Lynch’s distinctive, “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” brand of filmmaking.)

When the film finally ends, with Betty’s/Diane’s horrific suicide, viewers are still left with several open questions about the precise relationship of the various scenes to each other. It is plausible to think of the “second” Betty as the “real” one, who was having a dream that involved the fantasized experiences of the “first” Betty (the image of a red pillow frames both ends of the “first” Betty’s scenes). But even that interpretation does not account for everything (e.g., how exactly does the willful director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) fit into the dreaming/waking interaction?), and in the end it seems contrary to the spirit of the movie to insist on any one explanatory framework.

The film Lost Highway (1997) also involves an unexpected rupture in the narrative. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a musician plagued by the fear that his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is being unfaithful to him. When she is found horribly murdered in their home, Fred is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death, even though he professes his innocence. While Fred is sitting despondently in his prison cell, something strange happens—and suddenly it’s not him any more, but a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) sitting in the cell. The baffled authorities have no choice but to let Pete go, and he returns home to his parents and girlfriend. Viewers are naturally at a loss to explain what has happened, and whatever initial expectations they may have formed about where the story was going have been abruptly dashed. Funny things start happening to Pete, and soon he meets a beautiful, vivacious woman whom viewers immediately recognize as the same woman as Fred’s wife, even though she says her name is Alice Wakefield. Pete and Alice fall in love, but their torrid affair soon leads to violence, betrayal, and death. When Pete’s life has finally collapsed into ruins, when Alice has abandoned him and he realizes that his life has been completely destroyed, he suddenly disappears—and Fred is back. Dazed, Fred gets in his car and speeds away down a dark highway. The police are right behind him with flashing lights and red sirens, and the film ends with Fred becoming consumed by a violent physical frenzy.

So what was happening during the interlude with Pete? Was Fred having a dream? Did Fred really murder his wife (something hinted at by one of his dreams—more on that later), and in his abject despair did he fantasize being an entirely different person? And in the end was the fantasy not strong enough to escape the gravitational pull of the agonies of his “real life?” I am reminded of the famous painting called “The Prisoner’s Dream” in which a downtrodden young man is sleeping in a jail cell, while an ethereal version of himself lifts off from his body and soars through the metal bars at the window, out into the freedom of the air and the light. The painting testifies to the power of dreaming to relieve people’s suffering by imagining different and better lives for themselves. Freud’s notion of dreams as disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes is based on this power, and even though Lynch is reluctant to endorse any psychoanalytic interpretation of his films he does grant that what happens to Fred in Lost Highway could be considered a “psychogenic fugue,” i.e. a form of amnesia involving a flight from reality. He says he had never heard of that mental condition before making the film, but appreciated learning about it later—“it sounds like such a beautiful thing—‘psychogenic fugue.’ It has music and it has a certain force and dreamlike quality. I think it’s beautiful, even if it didn’t mean anything.” (Rodley, 1997)

Does it mean anything, then, that Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive end ambiguously, tantalizing viewers with unanswered questions about the basic narrative structure of the films? If nothing else, this had the perhaps predictable consequence of stimulating widespread criticism from viewers who accused the films of being too hard to understand. In the eyes of many viewers, Lynch had failed a filmmaker’s primary responsibility to tell a coherent story. According to critics, either he didn’t know how to present a comprehensible narrative, or he didn’t want to because he was more interested in self-indulgent artistry than in communicating with an audience.

The modest box office returns for both movies underscores this failure to attract or satisfy a broad public audience. In appraising Lynch’s films it must be noted that they have always earned more critical than commercial success, indicating that the appeal of his work may be very intense for a limited group of people (he has a remarkable number of passionately devoted fans) but does not extend very far into the general population. Although I would grant the criticism that some of his films are more emotionally effective and aesthetically powerful than others (for example, I would argue that Blue Velvet is a better film than Wild at Heart), I believe it misses the point to condemn Lynch’s films for their failure to provide clear, conventional narrative frameworks for their viewers. Movies like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway remind me of certain Hindu myths in which people become so entangled in each other’s dreams and dreams-within-dreams that readers cannot help but feel confused about the basic existential question of what is real. For example, the Yogavasistha, a philosophical treatise written sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries C.E. in Kashmir, tells the story of a hunter meeting a sage in the woods. The sage telling the hunter a story about how the sage once entered the dream of someone else and lived in that person’s world until it was suddenly destroyed by a flood at doomsday; then the sage thinks he wakes up, but another sage comes and tells him they are both characters in someone else’s dream. This makes the first sage wake up again, and he now realizes he needs to get back to his real body. He isn’t sure how to do this, however, and the story ends with no clear-cut resolution to his dilemma. Commenting on this myth, historian of religions Wendy Doniger says

“As the tale progresses, we realize that our confusion is neither our own mistake nor the mistake of the author of the text; it is a device of the narrative, constructed to make us realize how impossible and, finally, how irrelevant it is to attempt to determine the precise level of consciousness at which we are existing. We cannot do it, and it does not matter.” (Doniger, 2001)

The Hindu myths, like Lynch’s films, draw upon the powerful realness of dreaming to frustrate people’s conventional narrative expectations and provoke new reflection and new self-awareness. Their dreamy visions are enticing invitations to explore experiential realms beyond the boundaries of ordinary rational consciousness and personal identity.

Dream Scenes. Many characters in Lynch’s films are shown having experiences that are explicitly identified as dreams. These scenes all include the basic elements of a character going to sleep, dreaming, then waking up and trying to figure out what the dream means. Here are three examples:

Fred in Lost Highway tells his wife Renee about a dream he had in which he comes into their house and hears her calling his name. He sees a fire blazing in the fireplace, and pink smoke coming from the hall. He walks into their bedroom and finds her—“There you were….lying in bed….but it wasn’t you….It looked like you….but it wasn’t.”(Hughes, 2001). Renee looks up at him and suddenly screams, as if being struck by something, and then Fred wakes up. Deeply shaken, he looks across the bed to the “real” Renee for reassurance. But instead of his wife he sees the leering face of “The Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), a demonic figure who haunts Fred throughout the film (In a case of life imitating art, Blake was recently arrested for the murder of his wife). Fred cries out in terror, turns on the light switch, and finds his wife right there, looking at him with concern. He lays back in bed, shaking.

Dreams Within Films, Films Within Dreams

Films Reviewed in this Essay:

“Dreams.” Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Alexander Borodyansky. 1993 (Russia).

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” Directed by Wes Craven. 1994 (United States).

In both “Dreams” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” a young heroine is sudden ly, and frighten ing ly, unable to distinguish her dreams from her waking life. And in both films the audience becomes as disoriented as she is by the abrupt shifts between scenes appearing to portray dreams and scen es appearing to portray the waking lives of the charac ters. By skill fully inter twining the epistemological confu sion experi enced by the charac ters and by the audiences, the two films compel us to reconsider our own conventional perceptions of reality–the films demand in particular that we take a fresh look at the mounting social and cultural troubles of the late 20th century. “Dreams” lays bare the grubby, Western ized decadence of post-Cold War Rus sia, while “Wes Craven’s New Night mare” unmasks the horrors living behind the white fences and green lawns of suburban America. The films thus use the private, psychological experi ence of dreaming as a powerful narrative device to make broader claims about the public, social world of our waking lives.

“Dreams” begins with images of paintings from Tsarist era-Russia, showing beautiful, idyllic country land scapes. We then see a young Countess named Masha Stepanova telling an elderly doctor of her disturb ing, and very sexual, dreams. Masha tells him that she’s been dreaming of the future, of 1993, and of working in a seedy Moscow canteen where the owner has been making passes at her. The prim doctor, flustered by Masha’s forthright refer ences to sexuality, tells her to ignore the dreams and get some rest.

Next we see Masha, dressed as a wait ress, asleep in the grimy kitchen of the canteen.[i] The owner wakes her up and awkwardly asks if she’d like to go and watch a pornographic video with him. She brushes him off and goes to clear the counters. At one counter stands a tall man in an overcoat, who slyly asks if Masha would like to star in a movie he’s making. Intrigued, she listens to him describe the plot: it’s about the August 1991 revolution, when the old guard communists had the democratic resistance surrounded at the White House. In the film, the resistance fighters know that the army is planning an attack, and they need a young woman to go out and seduce the army’s top general into re vealing the time of the attack. As the tall man in the overcoat spins out the tale, Masha is sudden ly in that film; suddenly she’s inside the general’s tent, dressed in an absurdly seductive military outfit, and as the general lustfully embraces her Masha realizes it’s the canteen owner–

Masha the Countess abruptly wakes up, and her husband the Count (who, we now see, is the tall man in the over coat) asks with deep concern if she’s all right. When Masha tells him she had anoth er strange dream, the Count says he’s going to take her on a vaca tion to their dacha in the Crimea, so she can rest her nerves.

If this sounds hard to follow, it is. As the film goes on, Masha’s tangled experiences become more and more ludicrous. In the next scene of her 1993 life, Masha is essentially sold by her hustler husband (the Count) to two Russian govern ment officials. They make her the country’s new Minister of the Economy, so she can meet and seduce an official from the International Monetary Fund, and there by persuade him to give Russia hard currency. Then Masha is suddenly part of a Western-wannabe glam rock band, shaking her barely-clad body to the electric beat while the big-haired lead singer (the Count) growls out dirty, moronic lyrics. And then she’s a contestant in a garish “best bust contest,” in which the emcee (the Count again) compli ments her breasts as superbly “represent ing Russia.” He asks the audience to bid for the privilege of kissing her bust, with the proceeds going to a pentacostal Christian charity.

Back in her Tsarist-era life, Masha tries to convince the incred ulous Count that what she’s seeing in her dreams is true. He, though, refuses to believe that such a chaot ic, corrupt, de bauchery-filled nation (which she says is now called “CIS”, although nobody knows what that means) could possibly exist. But after having a famous hypnotist examine Masha, the Count finally accepts the truth of his wife’s dreams. Feeling it his duty as a “Russian patriot,” he makes an earnest report to the Emper or warning of what the future holds for Russia and detailing the social and eco nomic reforms that must be taken to avert such a catastrophe. The Emperor doesn’t believe him, of course, and the Count leaves the meeting in deep despair. But when Masha hears what he’s done, she’s overjoyed; what matters to her is that he believed her. She leads him by the arm to a carriage, which carries them to their beautiful Crimean dacha.

At this point Masha the canteen waitress is jostled awake by the owner, who tells her it’s closing time and they have to clean up. As she clears the greasy tables, the audience realizes that this is Masha’s reality, this plain, drab 1993 exis tence in the canteen is her true waking life. Back in the kitchen, the canteen owner awkwardly asks if she would like to come with him to visit an old dacha he’s bought out in the country. After a pause, Masha says yes. They drive through the gray city, past the row after row of decaying factories, to the dacha. It’s immense, and almost totally ruined. Thick weeds surround the burned-out, crumbling structure. As Mashsa and the can teen owner walk through the building he tells her of his dreams of rebuild ing it–fixing the roof, repaint ing the walls, clearing the grounds. Masha wanders into what used to be a grand living room and sees on the floor an old, faded portrait, of a Count ess. The face she sees is her own.

“Dreams” develops a wonderful set of identities, con trasts, and mediations between Russian cultures of the late 19th and the late 20th centuries.[ii] The former was an era of glory, of sophistica tion, of elegance; the latter is a time of poverty, shame, and tawdri ness. But, the film reminds us, the Tsarist era suffered from a moral prudish ness that severely inhibited free expression, especially sexual expression. The Russia of 1993, if nothing else, is wide open to spontaneity and bawdy fun.

The key to the film is the concluding scene in which Masha, standing in the decrepit dacha, discovers the old portrait. Masha finds an image of herself–her hopes, ideals, and dreams–lying neglected in those shabby ruins. This is a moment of intense mourning for that which has been lost and for that which Masha will never have. But, as Masha looks into the beautiful eyes of her own reflected face, that very experience becomes a source of vitality, and of hope. The dacha is in terrible shape, but it could be repaired with enough hard work. The canteen owner is not particularly attractive, but he is fairly nice to her, and he does have noble hopes for the future.[iii] At the end of her long ordeal Masha has gained a deep er appreciation for her dreams and a clearer aware ness of her social world. The achieve ment of this mournful integration breaks the spell of passivity that binds her throughout the film, freeing her to become an active agent of her own future.

Like Masha, the heroine of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” finds herself thrown into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where the boundaries between dreams, films, and the waking world disappear. The movie begins with a film crew shooting a scene in which a new set of claws is forged for Freddy Kruger, the demonic villain who haunts teenagers’ dreams in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” mov ies. Heather Langenkamp, the actress who played the charac ter of Nancy in those movies, watches uneasily as the shooting pro ceeds.[iv] Her husband is the special effects technician in charge of creating the new claws, and he works with the crew to adjust the claws’ razor-sharp blades. Suddenly the claws start moving by them selves; a second later they’ve gone wild, brutally killing two crew members and coming straight for Heather’s husband, slicing his hand–and then Heather wakes up and is seized by a new surge of panic as her home violently heaves, shakes, and crashes. It’s the 1994 Northridge earth quake, and she and her husband careen through their wildly bucking house to reach the room of their young son, Dylan. When the quake finally ends and calm returns, Heather gasps in horror: her husband’s hand is covered with blood, sliced just like it was in her dream. He says Heather was probably just half-awake when he cut himself on some glass; dreams are like that, he reas sures her. But then a sharp aftershock hits, and Heather watches as four long cracks rip across the living room wall, as if a huge claw were lunging at their home.

As the movie proceeds, Heather discovers that Freddy is indeed back, and somehow he’s reaching into the “real” world. She refuses to believe it, but when Dylan tells her he’s scared of the “mean old man with the claws” who threatens him in his dreams, and when he shows her the four slashes in his stuffed dinosaur Rex, Heather realizes she has to do something. She goes to the Malibu mansion of Wes Craven, the creator of the “Night mare on Elm Street” series, and asks if he’s been having night­mares of Freddy. Yes, Craven says, he’s actually writing a new script–he has a dream, he writes a scene, he has another dream, he writes another scene. But Freddy’s not real, Heather insists. Craven sits Heather down and says he thinks he knows what’s going on. Freddy is the latest incar nation of an ancient, evil entity which lives for the sole pleasure of “murdering innocence.” That entity has gotten used to the Freddy form, Craven explains. Now it wants out of the films, and into the waking world.

When Heather asks how they can stop Freddy, Craven says the only way to capture that entity is through stories. Stories can bind the evil and hold it, for a time, like a genie in a bottle. Heather suddenly realizes what she has to do. She has to play Nancy again, and make another “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. She glances over at his computer, and sees on the screen a dialogue between herself and Craven–the exact conversation they just had.

So Heather goes to war with Freddy. When Dylan is hospitalized with a mysterious coma, Heather takes a deep breath and descends into Freddy’s hellish nightmare kingdom to fight for the life of her son. The climactic battle between Heather and Freddy is, of course, quite gory. Just as Freddy has Dylan in his grasp, pulling the screaming boy’s head into his horrible, impossibly widened mouth, Heather plunges a butcher’s knife (in the poetic words of the screen play) “deep between Freddy’s legs–her body blocking sight of exactly where, but we all get the idea. She shoves it hard and twists–as the howls of Freddy fill the world”.[v]

Freddy dies in a fiery, shrieking explosion, and Heather and Dylan tumble out of the boy’s bed and collapse onto the floor of his room. Realizing that Freddy is gone for good, Heather hugs her son tightly. Then she sees lying next to them a finished script. Dylan asks, is it a story? Yes, Heather answers, it’s a story. He asks, will you read me some? He snuggles against her as she opens to the first page and reads the scene about the film crew working on the shoot of the new claws.

The tremendous popularity of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies derives from Wes Craven’s brilliant ability to create a sympa thetic bond between his characters and the audi ence. Craven takes a mildly frightening experience we’ve all had (say, a bad dream) and subtly transforms it, in the world of his films, into a terrifying manifestation of true evil. Heather’s experi ences with the nightmares, the cracks in the wall, the strange phone calls and television malfunctions, all have apparently rational, non-mysterious explana tions. Everyone reassures her that there’s nothing to worry about. But Heather knows, and the audi ence knows with her, that no matter what other people say, there is evil afoot. From that increas ingly wide chasm between what society says and what Heather and the audience know, the fear intensifies to almost unbearable degrees, because now we’re totally isolated, and totally vulnerable–the evil is really out there, and we’re facing it all by ourselves.

The most interesting aspect of “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is the way it reflects on the horror movie genre itself. As Craven says to Heather, these movies serve as a means of evok ing, and then containing (for a time), the violent, aggressive impulses that are seething in contempo rary American society. Throughout this film Craven draws parallels between horror movies and fairy tales, and the comparison does have merit. Both portray the experiences and perspectives of children, both have very spare, essen tially mythological narra tive themes, both are filled with blood, brutality, and violence, and both have moments of crude, bawdy humor. Heather’s reading “Hansel and Gretel” to Dylan earlier in the film, and then reading the script to him at the end, makes this equation as plain as possible.[vi]

Craven is suggesting that just as in earlier times fairy tales served to address the psychologi cal and spiri tual needs of children (despite the disapproval of moralizing adults), so today horror movies speak to those same needs felt by children in our society (despite the disapproval of moralizing adults). Fairy tales and horror movies appeal so deeply to children precisely because adult rationality is so incapa ble of truly helping kids in their struggles against the evils surging both in and around them.

“Dreams” and “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” build up multiple nest ings of dreams, films, and waking realities that are every bit as complex as the mind-bending dream-within-dream plots of certain Indian myths.[vii] To summarize, if that’s possible: “Dreams” is a film about Masha Stepanova, a 1993 canteen wait ress, dreaming of being a 19th century Countess, who is dreaming of being a 1993 canteen waitress, who is suddenly thrust into an absurd film about the 1991 revolution. “Wes Craven’s New Night mare” is a film about Heather Langenkamp, the actress from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies, dreaming of Freddy Kruger, the arch-villain from those movies, and having to go into her dreams, and then into his cinematical ly-created nightmare world, in order to save her son and stop Freddy from escaping into her waking world. What are we, as the audience watching these films from the “outside,” to make of all this?

Myself, I first call on Freud’s hermeneutic principle that a dream within a dream is the most direct and uncensored expres­sion of the dreame r’s reality.[viii] Thus, Masha’s film-with in-a-dream-with in-a-dream-within-a-film reveals in comic, exag­gerated, but painfully honest terms something that’s really happening in contemporary Russia: a crass commercial exploitation of the nation’s natural and cultural treasures. Heather’s film-within-a-dream-within-a-film shows, amid all the blood-spattered mayhem, something that’s really happening in contempo rary Ameri ca: a failure by adults to recog nize that children desperately need help in dealing with an in creasingly violent society.

Of course, my feelings about these films are colored by the ways they’ve influenced my own dreams. The night after seeing “Dreams”, I dreamed I was in a film–it was a bad science-fiction movie, just like the 1950’s cult classic “The Amazing Colossal Man.” And the night after seeing “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” I dreamed that Freddy Kruger was chasing after me and Heather, threatening my child (who is named, in my waking life, Dylan). All of which leads me to ask a modern variant of the ancient Hindu question: am I just a character in some Director’s film?

Notes

[i].. The jerky motion of the camera throughout this scene seems intended to suggest that this is a “dream,” in relation to the “waking” scene of Masha in the doctor’s office.

[ii].. In a question and answer session after the showing I attended, one of the directors said the film is “dealing with present difficulties by making fun comparisons between the past and the present.”

[iii].. A feminist critique could easily be made at this point, that in both the past and the present Masha is subjected to the dominance of males; the apparent freedom she gains at the film’s conclusion still depends on the support of a man.

[iv].. Most of the film’s main characters play themselves, which further blurs the lines between film and “reality.”

[v].. Quoted from the 10-26-93 version of the screenplay, p. 98.

[vi].. Although I felt that the film’s one false note was the use of “Hansel and Gretel,” which provides a poor analogy to the story of the film. “Hansel and Gretel” is about a brother and sister dealing with parental abandon ment and hunger, while “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is, in these structural terms, about a mother and son fight ing off pater nal/phallic aggression. “Hansel and Gretel” does, howev er, provide Craven with the themes of the secret trail back home and the villain’s demise in a fiery oven, which he uses to good effect in the film.

[vii].. See Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[viii].. “If a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event–the strongest affirmation of it.” (emphasis in the original). Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (trans. James Strachey) (New York, NY: Avon Books, 1965), p. 374. See also pp. 526-527.

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Review: “In Dreams”

This 1998 thriller is a showcase for the acting talents of Annette Bening. She plays Claire (as in clear-sighted), an artistically inclined New England housewife who has a series of increasingly disturbing dreams that turn out to foretell the kidnapping and murder of her young daughter. After her daughter’s death Claire starts having more bad dreams, and she knows they are signs of worse violence to come, but no one believes her. Everyone-first her husband, then the town police chief, and finally the hospital psychiatrist (played with block-headed condescension by Stephen Rea)–assures Claire that her dreams aren’t real, and she just needs a few sleeping pills and some rest. She of course knows they’re all full of shit, and as she struggles to make sense of her dreams her life becomes a crazed maelstrom of fear and uncertainty, where it’s no longer possible to say what’s real and what’s not. The most intense and emotionally gripping scenes of the movie come when Claire imperceptibly slides from “real” reality into “dream” reality. These scenes are disturbingly effective in conveying a feeling of what it must be like to go insane.

Many of Claire’s dreams and visions center on apples-mounds and mounds of rotting red apples, so mealy and overripe you almost smell their sickly pungence. The apples are a clue to the villain’s identity and whereabouts, and here is where the movie begins to sag. Robert Downey Jr. does a respectable job of playing the ambiguously named Vivian, a creepazoid bad guy with all the demented intelligence, wicked humor, and perverse desire (vivace) you could ask for in a movie psycho killer. But we never really get an explanation of why this homicidal lunatic and an otherwise ordinary housewife are tuning into each other’s dreams. We’re asked simply to accept their strange psychic bond and devote all our attention to the movie’s stunning visual effects. To be sure, there is plenty to admire in this regard. Director of photography Darius Khondji fills the screen with eerie colors and haunting images. Claire’s fits of madness, Vivian’s freakish hideout, the submerged town where Vivian’s craziness began-these and many other images are rendered with a weird, otherworldly beauty. Indeed, the brief set of scenes where an adolescent Vivian cross-dresses as a nurse and slaughters his/her way out of a mental hospital are so powerful they practically jump off the screen.

But the sum of these astonishing images does not add up to a satisfying film. What’s missing? Just this: a true respect for the power of dreaming. “In Dreams” fails to take its own premise seriously. It begins with a strong burst of oneiric potency, but the film either can’t or won’t let the dreams run free, and in the end director Neil Jordan settles for the safety of irony. Claire dies and Vivian is spared the death penalty, but she (apparently in spirit form) gets the poetically just compensation of tormenting him in his dreams for the rest of his presumably miserable life. We in the audience are left with nothing more than a mean-spirited smile on our faces, and we have no deeper, richer sense of the world of dreams than when the movie began.

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.

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———. 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.

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———. 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.

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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).