“The most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of observing resemblances.” Aristotle, On Prophesying by Dreams

International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD)
DREAMWORK ETHICS STATEMENT

IASD celebrates the many benefits of dreamwork, yet recognizes that there are potential risks. IASD supports an approach to dreamwork and dream sharing that respects the dreamer’s dignity and integrity, and which recognizes the dreamer as the decision-maker regarding the significance of the dream. Systems of dreamwork that assign authority or knowledge of the dream’s meanings to someone other than the dreamer can be misleading, incorrect, and harmful. Ethical dreamwork helps the dreamer work with his/her own dream images, feelings, and associations, and guides the dreamer to more fully experience, appreciate, and understand the dream. Every dream may have multiple meanings, and different techniques may be reasonably employed to touch these multiple layers of significance.

A dreamer’s decision to share or discontinue sharing a dream should always be respected and honored. The dreamer should be forewarned that unexpected issues or emotions may arise in the course of the dreamwork. Information and mutual agreement about the degree of privacy and confidentiality are essential ingredients in creating a safe atmosphere for dream sharing.

Dreamwork outside a clinical setting is not a substitute for psychotherapy, or other professional treatment, and should not be used as such.

IASD recognizes and respects that there are many valid and time-honored dreamwork traditions. We invite and welcome the participation of dreamers from all cultures. There are social, cultural, and transpersonal aspects to dream experience. In this statement we do not mean to imply that the only valid approach to dreamwork focuses on the dreamer’s personal life. Our purpose is to honor and respect the person of the dreamer as well as the dream itself, regardless of how the relationship between the two may be understood.

Prepared by Carol Warner
International Association for the Study of Dreams
Spring, 1997

Is Dream Interpretation a Sin?” (article)

Penelope as Dreamer: The Perils of Interpretation” (conference presentation)

Dreaming Beyond Death: A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions (book)

Dreaming Beyond Death – Newsweek 2005

Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope (book)

Transforming Dreams: Learning Spiritual Lessons from the Dreams You Never Forget (book).

Links


Sacred Sleep: Scientific Contributions to the Study of Religiously Significant Dreaming” (book chapter)

The Origins of Dreaming: Perspectives from Science and Religion” (book chapter)

Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History” (book)

“Dialogue with a Skeptic: A Conversation with Frederick Crews” (book chapter)

The Varieties of Religious Dream Experience” (introduction to Visions of the Night)

Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam” (article)

Snakes” (chapter 2 from Spiritual Dreaming)

Is Dream Interpretation a Sin?” (article)

Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (edited book)

Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, Psychology (book)

Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey (book)

The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Dimensions of Dreams in Modern Western Culture (book)

Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History

Main findings: overview

Back cover description

Blurbs

Table of contents

Publisher’s Weekly review

Dream Institute events in fall of 2008

Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions

Other writings on dreams and religious studies

Celeste Newbrough, poet and indexer extraordinaire

Main findings: overview

1. Dreams have strongly influenced the beliefs and practices of religious traditions all over the world, throughout history.

2. Dreams and reason are not mutually antagonistic.

3. Dreaming is a primal wellspring of religious experience.

4. The pan-human prototypes of dreaming are rooted in the brain, the body, and the evolutionary history of our species.

1. Dreams have strongly influenced the beliefs and practices of religious traditions all over the world, throughout history.

Each of the ten chapters of the book is devoted to a different religious tradition (or family of traditions) and its historical teachings about dreams, including Hinduism, Chinese religions, Buddhism, religions of the Fertile Crescent, Greek and Roman religions, Christianity, Islam, and the indigenous cultures of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. In every case, dreams appear as a powerful medium of transpersonal guidance offering the opportunity to communicate with divine beings, gain wisdom and power, heal suffering, and explore new realms of existence.

2. Dreams and reason are not mutually antagonistic.

Voices of critical questioning and naturalistic analysis have risen up wherever and whenever humans have explored their dreams. It might be a surprise to those who assume that modern scientists were the first to explain dreaming as the mental by-products of sleep, but many ancient traditions recognized exactly the same psychophysiological dynamics at work in people’s dreams. The skeptical perspective did not come after religious perspective, nor even before it. Historically speaking, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. They have coexisted from the start. The prototypical experiences of dreaming have provoked not only religious and spiritual experience but also a deeply human capacity for rational thought and critical reflection. Dreams have stimulated the power of reason to become increasingly aware of deceptive appearances, hidden connections, subtle perceptions, and cognitively impactful emotions.

3. Dreaming is a primal wellspring of religious experience.

This means that dreams, by virtue of their natural emergence out of the immensely complex, internally-generated activities of the mammalian brain during sleep, offer all human beings a potential source of visionary insight, creative inspiration, and expanded self-awareness. The abundant evidence of cross-cultural history proves that we are indeed a dreaming species. Through dreams humans have discovered the deepest realms of their psyches and grown in awareness of the powerful relational bonds that connect them to their families, communities, natural environments, religious traditions, and ultimately the cosmos itself. Whether dreaming came before religion or religion came before dreaming is an impossible question to answer. But we now have evidence strongly suggesting that the natural rootedness of dreaming in the human brain-mind system makes it a universally available source of experiential awareness of precisely those powers that people have historically associated with religion. To accept that evidence does not mean abandoning science or pledging faith to some religious creed or dogma. Rather, it means acknowledging the reality of an autonomous visionary capacity within the human brain-mind system, a capacity driven by an unconscious intelligence deeply rooted in our biological nature yet continuously striving for transcendent understanding and insight.

4. The pan-human prototypes of dreaming are rooted in the brain, the body, and the evolutionary history of our species.

In almost every known cultural tradition, people have described certain types of intensified, highly memorable dreams (e.g., flying, falling, being chased or attacked, meeting a dead relative, having sex), and I refer to them collectively as prototypical dreams Prototypical dreams are not universal in the sense that every single person experiences all of them. Rather, they are latent forms of dreaming potential. They reflect innate predispositions to dream in certain ways that, when actualized, make unusually strong impressions on waking awareness. In contrast to the vast majority of sleep experiences that fade into oblivion, prototypical dreams are actually quite easy to remember. Some of them are literally impossible to forget, remaining a vivid presence in people’s memories for the rest of their lives.

My basic argument in the book is that highly memorable prototypical dreams have played a powerfully creative role in virtually all the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. The consciousness-provoking impact of dreaming has not been sufficiently recognized by scientists or religious studies scholars, and my hope is to present a compelling case for taking dream experiences more fully into account in the comparative study of religion.

Each of the four prototypes I discuss is clearly associated with a distinct kind of carry-over effect of dreaming experience into the waking state. With sexual dreams the carry-over is a physical orgasm, of both the male and female varieties. With aggressive dreams it’s the hyper-activation of the fight/flight response—extreme fear, racing heart, rapid breathing, and full-body sweat. With gravitational dreams it’s the horribly realistic sensation of falling and waking up with a sudden gasping start. With mystical dreams it’s the blissful, ultra-realistic sensation of flying or the profound joy of being reunited with a deceased loved one. These kinds of direct emotional and bodily continuations of the dreaming experience into the person’s waking life are perhaps the strongest and most easily observed instances of the deeply rooted interplay of dreaming and waking consciousness. The palpable carry-over effects associated with prototypical dreams are clues to the specific processes by which dreaming contributes to healthy brain-mind functioning. Aggressive dreams reflect an adaptive concern with identifying and responding to threats in the waking world. Although emotionally disturbing, such nightmares have the beneficial effect (in survival terms) of stimulating greater waking-world vigilance toward similar threats. The evolutionary logic is simple: the more often and more intensely you dream of various kinds of threatening situations, the better prepared you’ll be to react effectively to those situations if and when they occur in waking life. Likewise with gravitational dreams, which accurately reflect and simulate the existential dangers of entropic destruction. The intense fear and horror generated by these dreams activates the fundamental instincts of self-preservation that must always be ready to respond immediately should a comparable danger arise in the waking world, whether it be falling off something high, getting in a car crash, or losing physical mobility. Sexual dreams prompt the reproductive system and envision a variety of possible ways of satisfying its desires. Their stimulating and taboo-defying effect on the erotic imagination is, I suspect, self-evident to most readers. The impact of mystical dreams is less directly tied to evolutionary biology, and more to the emerging spirit of human creativity. Dreams of the mystical prototype have the effect of enlarging people’s sense of life’s possibilities, expanding their awareness from a narrow fixation on what is to a broader consideration of what might be. Such dreams stretch the mind by pushing it to become more conscious of its own powers and the realities that extend beyond what is immediately present in normal perceptions of the waking world.

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Back cover description

From Biblical stories of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams in Egypt to prayers against bad dreams in the Hindu Rg Veda, cultures all over the world have seen their dreams first and foremost as religiously meaningful experiences. Dreaming in the World’s Religions provides an authoritative and engaging one-volume resource for the study of dreaming and religion. It tells the story of how dreaming has shaped the religious history of humankind, from the conception dream of Buddha’s mother to the sexually tempting nightmares of St. Augustine, and from the Ojibwa vision quest to Australian Aboriginal journeys in the Dreamtime. Dreaming in the World’s Religions offers a carefully researched, accessibly written portrait of dreaming as a powerful, unpredictable, often iconoclastic force in human religious life.

Kelly Bulkeley is a Visiting Scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and is a former President of the Association for the Study of Dreams. His books include The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Meanings of Dreams in Modern Western Culture, An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming, Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology, and The Wondering Brain: Thinking about Religion with and beyond Cognitive Neuroscience.

New York University Press
July 2008

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Blurbs

“A pleasure to read, well written and full of fascinating examples. It combines a sensitive and sympathetic understanding of the religious meanings of dreams with a state-of-the-art treatment of the insights that cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology bring to our understanding of them.” –Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago, and author of Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities

“Offers a sophisticated, yet easily accessible and engaging discussion of how and in what way dreams and a broad range of the world’s religions have enjoyed mutual influence throughout history. . . . This book is unique in that is provides a valuable resource for the serious scholar of religion, yet has equal potential for non-specialists interested in exploring how their own dreams may find relevance for their own lives, religious or otherwise.” –Nina P. Azari, Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopaedia of Sciences and Religions

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Contents

Introduction
Dreaming
Religions
Histories
Dream Science

1. Hinduism
The Vedas
Fiction and Reality
The Upanishads
Mythic Literature
Modern Spiritual Movements

2. Chinese Religions
Shamanic Origins
Founding Empires
Confucian Teachings
Butterflies
The Golden Age
Dreaming in Modern China

3. Buddhism
Queen Maya’s Conception Dream
Dreams of the Awakening One
The Questions of King Milinda
Buddhism Becomes Chinese
Japanese Dream Diaries
Tantric Buddhism in Tibet

4. Religions of the Fertile Crescent
The Rise of Civilization in Mesopotamia
Gilgamesh the King
Royal Divination
The Ancient Egyptians
Jewish Interpreters

5. Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome
Myth and History
Classical Philosophy
Dreaming in the Polis
Asclepius, God of Healing
Dreaming and Empire
Oneirocritica

6. Christianity
Novum Testamentum
Converts and Martyrs
Fathers of the Church
Theology Contra Dreaming
Popular Piety

7. Islam
The Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an
The Hadiths
Classical Typologies and Interpretation Manuals
Istikhara
Sufi Visions
Dreams in Contemporary Islam

8. Religions of Africa
King Shabaka’s Paradoxical Interpretation
The Dark Continent
Diviners and Ancestors
Conversion
African Independent Churches

9. Religions of Oceania
Age of Exploration
Tjukurrpa, or Dreamtime
Soul Journeys
Christianization
Cargo Cults
The Changing Pacific

10. Religions of the Americas
Missionary Encounters
Cultures of Dreaming
Vision Quest
Dreamer Religions
Manifest Dreaming

Conclusion
Comparing Religious and Scientific Evidence on Dreaming
Dream Books

Acknowledgments

Notes

Bibliography

Index

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Publishers Weekly review

Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History
Kelly Bulkeley. NYU, $23 paper (320p)
ISBN 978-0-8147-9957-4

Arguing that “dreaming is a primal wellspring of religious experience,” dream researcher Bulkeley delves into original sacred texts and stories to trace the ways dreams have been regarded, interpreted and acted upon across human history. He defines his terms carefully, then draws out both common themes and cultural differences in religious traditions originating in Africa, Oceania and the Americas as well as from the Fertile Crescent, South Asia, China and the Mediterranean. Providing ample evidence that doubt about the reliability of dream information was common in ancient times, Bulkeley examines such intriguing phenomena as prophetic and prototypical dreams, paradoxical dream interpretation and dream incubation techniques. Each chapter starts with a provocative idea related to the religious tradition to be discussed and ends with a helpful summary of key themes. The scope of Bulkeley’s knowledge is impressive, as is his skill at synthesizing ideas from a variety of source material. The author makes a persuasive case that “[t]he study of dreams is… a necessary source of insight for our knowledge of what it means to be human.” (July)

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Dream Institute events in fall of 2008

This fall the Dream Institute of Northern California will host two events involving discussions of Dreaming in the World’s Religions, one on Friday evening, September 19 and the other on Saturday afternoon, October 4. The Dream Institute, founded by Meredith Sabini, is located at 1672 University Avenue, Berkeley, California. For more information, call 510-845-1767.

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For more on research involving religion and science, see the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions, edited by Nina Azari and published by Springer Verlag. http://refworks.springer.com/SciencesReligions

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Other writings on dreams and religious studies

Sacred Sleep: Scientific Contributions to the Study of Religiously Significant Dreaming” (book chapter)

“The Origins of Dreaming: Perspectives from Science and Religion” (book chapter)

Dialogue with a Skeptic: A Conversation with Frederick Crews (book chapter)

The Varieties of Religious Dream Experience” (introduction to Visions of the Night)

Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam” (article)

Snakes” (chapter 2 from Spiritual Dreaming)

Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (edited book)

Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, Psychology (book)

Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey (book)

The Wilderness of Dreams: Exploring the Religious Dimensions of Dreams in Modern Western Culture (book)

Celeste Newbrough, poet and indexer extraordinaire

The index of the book was created by Celeste Newbrough of Academic Indexing Service ), and I highly recommend her services. She is also an accomplished poet, and a sampling of her works may be found here.

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Home Research Interpretation Links About KB Books

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.