Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch

Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan), the messianic hero of Dune (1984), has a series of dreams and spice-induced visions that portend his future and the future of the universe. In these visionary experiences Paul passively observes several different images—the planet Dune, the monstrous worms that dwell in its sands, a beautiful young woman, a pool of water, his enemies the Harkonnens. As Paul’s story unfolds (in a grandly epic fashion—there are no Mulholland Drive-like narrative twists here, and it may not be a coincidence that Dune was Lynch’s only big-budget studio film and was, by his own reckoning, his biggest failure as a filmmaker), his dreams become prophetic heralds of his future as the savior of the Fremen, the mysterious folk who live in the deepest deserts of Dune.

When FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) comes to the Northwest lumber town of Twin Peaks (1990-91) to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), a beautiful, much beloved, but deeply secretive high school girl, he has a remarkable dream that becomes a primary resource in his investigation. Agent Cooper’s dream occurs in the second episode of the series, and is referred to throughout the remaining episodes. It involves several striking images, the most prominent being Agent Cooper sitting in “The Red Room” with a strangely deformed midget (“The Man From Another Place” (Michael J. Anderson)) and Laura Palmer herself, alive and as beautiful as ever. Cooper finds himself much older, with deeply wrinkled skin, and he listens to the strange little man tell him several enigmatic bits of information in a bizarrely distorted voice. After the strange midget dances a jazzy little jig out of the room, Laura comes over to Agent Cooper, leans over, and kisses him. She whispers something in his ear, and then he wakes up. He immediately calls the Twin Peaks Sheriff on the phone and announces, “I know who killed Laura Palmer.”

These three dream scenes are all quite different, both in their cinematic form and their emotional content. Fred’s dream in Lost Highway is a dark, frightening revelation of sexual rage and spiritual despair. It draws viewers deeper and deeper into the seething passions of Fred’s soul, without any hope of escape—even “waking up” can’t be trusted, because you can never know for sure if you’ve fully escaped the nightmare. By contrast, Paul’s visionary experiences in Dune are mystical openings into the future, and they reflect the grandly epic tone of the story as a whole. Paul’s dreams remind me of the dreams ascribed to the kings and priests of Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, and Sumeria, as reported by A. Leo Oppenheim in his The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (Oppenheim, 1956). The majority of these kingly dreams are prophetic revelations in which the dreamer passively receives messages and sees symbolic images relating to the king’s future glory and success. Given that Dune is set on a desert planet that has many social, religious, and geographic similarities to the ancient Near East, the prophetic quality of Paul’s dreams is very much in keeping with the overall tone of the film. Very different from those dreams is Agent Cooper’s dream of The Red Room, with its vivid characters saying and doing the most bizarre things imaginable. Everything in the dream revolves around Agent Cooper’s investigation of the murder of Laura Palmer, and at the climax of the dream Laura Palmer herself, back from the dead, tells Cooper who killed her (although he admits that when he woke up, he forgot what she said). For viewers with a preexisting interest in dreams and film, the immediate analogy is to the Salvador Dali-designed dream scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), in which John Ballantine (Gregory Peck) has a fantastic, seemingly nonsensical dream that turns out to be the key to solving his role in a mysterious death. Countless mystery stories from around the world have used this same theme of a puzzling dream that is found, thanks to the efforts of a clever sleuth, to hold the answer to an awful crime. Agent Cooper’s dream in Twin Peaks is, in that sense, Lynch’s unique take on that perennial narrative theme.


As dissimilar as they may be in form and content, each of these dream scenes plays a crucial role in its respective story. Fred’s dream offers a brief but vital insight into the truth of what happened to his wife. Paul’s visionary dreams accurately predict his destiny as savior of Dune. Agent Cooper’s dream provides a wealth of clues that help him in his effort to solve the murder of Laura Palmer. In each case both the characters in the film and the viewers outside the film are compelled to pay close attention to the enigmatic dreams as their best hope for understanding what is happening in the story.

Lynch’s use of dream scenes in his films is certainly not unique to him. Many other directors have portrayed characters experiencing dreams in their films, often to good effect. But I would argue that very few directors use dream scenes in as many movies, or give the dream scenes such central aesthetic roles, as Lynch has.

Discussions of Dreams and Dreaming. Beyond scenes of characters actually having dreams, Lynch’s works are replete with characters talking about dreams, singing about them, sharing them, alluding to them, and wondering about them. Some of the comments refer to a character’s own dreams, while other comments rely on dreams and dreaming as deeply evocative metaphorical expressions. The total number of these dream-related comments is quite large, so I have limited my examples to those found in Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and Blue Velvet:

Mulholland Drive

A nervous young man named Dan (Patrick Fischler) meets his friend Herb (Michael Cooke) at the Winkie’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard and tells him of an incredibly frightening dream in which he discovers, in the alley behind that very restaurant, a dark, monstrous man with a horrifying face—“I hope I don’t ever see that face outside a dream.” With Herb’s sober encouragement, Dan goes outside the diner, around to the alley, and comes face to face with the monstrous man.

Twin Peaks

Agent Cooper tells a group of baffled Twin Peaks police officers about a dream he experienced three years earlier relating to the spiritual plight of Tibet, and he describes how he learned to use his dreams as tools in his criminal investigations.

Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), the vivacious 18-year old who has a crush on Agent Cooper, says she is going to help him find Laura Palmer’s killer so he will realize that Audrey is “the girl of his dreams.” Her reluctant confidante Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) dismisses Audrey’s romantic fantasies by saying, “Dream on.”
n Laura’s mom Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie) has visions of a frighteningly bestial man in her house, and Donna says Sarah has always had spooky dreams, just like Laura did.

An audiotape is found in which Laura is heard speaking to her psychiatrist, Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn). In a langorous voice she says “I feel like I’m going to dream tonight. Big, bad ones. The kind you like?”

Hank Jennings (Chris Mulkey), just released from prison and trying to win his way back into the heart of his wife Norma (Peggy Lipton), tells her that while he lay in his jail cell he dreamed about her (another instance of the “prisoner’s dream” theme). She says, rather evasively, “I can’t blame you for dreaming.”

Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the scheming owner of the Twin Peaks Lodge, also turns out to be the owner of One Eyed-Jack’s, the infamous casino and bordello. Exercising his droit du seigneur, Ben enters a bedroom where he will initiate the newest girl to the business. “Close your eyes,” he croons to her, with his own eyes closed, “This is such stuff as dreams are made on.” Waiting in the room is Audrey, his daughter, who has snuck into Jack’s in a misguided attempt to help Agent Cooper’s investigation.
Blue Velvet

Young sweethearts Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) and Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) are out on a date, and with the image of a radiant church behind her Sandy tells Jeffrey “I had a dream. In fact, it was the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark, because there weren’t any robins. And the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness, and all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means there is trouble till the robins come.”(Hughes, 2001). As Sandy finishes describing her dream, organ music from the nearby church swells to a harmonious climax.

A supremely “suave” and well-anesthetized Ben (Dean Stockwell), holding an electrician’s light up to his face, lip-syncs along with Ray Orbison’s song “In Dreams,” while Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), the maniacal uber-villain of the film, stares at Ben and listens to the song with an intense emotional involvement that is gradually transformed into irrepressible rage and hyper-sexualized aggression.

A few scenes later, Frank is viciously pummeling Jeffrey, and as Orbison’s song plays from the car radio Frank says between punches that he’ll always be in Jeffrey’s dreams, always haunting him….

At the conclusion of the film, Jeffrey, Sandy, and her grandmother look out the kitchen window and see a robin with a squirming roach in its mouth. Sandy says it’s just like her dream, and Jeffrey smiles in agreement, although her grandmother is disgusted at the sight of the roach and says, “I don’t know how they eat those things.”
Each of these references to dreams and dreaming comes at a specific moment in its respective story, and each one has shades of mood and meaning relating to that particular narrative context. At the same time, at least two common threads run through nearly all of them. First, they all reflect in differing ways a fundamental sense of dreams as revelations of truth, especially the truth of our deepest passions. From the darkest rage to the brightest hope, from overwhelming horror to lustful desire, dreaming in Lynch’s films is understood as giving voice to the primal wishes, fears, hopes, and aspirations of the human soul.

The second common thread in these various comments relates to the first, in that the revelatory truthfulness of dreaming is continuously contrasted in Lynch’s work with a sense of relentless, agonzing uncertainty about what is real and what is illusion. His characters are constantly questioning who they are and what is happening to them; again and again they find themselves deceived, deluded, and misled by appearances. The “realness” of dreaming only intensifies their uncertainty and confusion about the “realness” of their waking lives.

In my estimation, the best example of this is the “Winkie’s Diner” scene in Mulholland Drive. This scene essentially comes out of nowhere—the preceding narrative has been following Rita from the initial car crash down into the bright lights of L.A. and into the apartment of Betty’s aunt. Rita, her head still bleeding from the accident, finds a hidden place under the kitchen table and goes to sleep. Then all of a sudden the story shifts to a nervous young man named Dan sitting at a table in Winkie’s Diner, telling a slightly older and more mature man named Herb about his dream (which, Dan explains, he’s had twice). Herb is skeptical, but willing to hear what Dan has to say. Dan tells how he was in this very Winkie’s, in a strange half-day/half-night kind of light, and he was very scared. He saw Herb up at the cash register, and Herb was scared, too, which made Dan even more scared. Then he realized there was a man behind the place, doing all of this. Dan could see him through the wall, could see his face—and that was the end of the dream. When Dan is finished, Herb gets up to pay the bill (he finds himself standing at the cash register, just like in Dan’s dream) and then leads Dan outside to the back of the restaurant. Trembling and covered with nervous sweat, Dan comes to the corner of the alley—and suddenly sees a dark, monstrous man flash before him. Dan stumbles backwards, falls to the ground, and passes out, as Herb rushes over to help him. Then there is a quick cut back to the figure of Rita under the kitchen table, still sleeping.

As the film proceeds we leave this scene at Winkie’s behind, and for the next two hours it remains a strange little island in the main currents of the narrative. But at the very end it comes back to the center of the story. Diane (ne Betty) and the hipster hit-man Joe (Mark Pellegrino) are sitting at a table in Winkie’s, making plans to murder Rita (whose name is now Camilla Rhodes). At the very moment when Joe shows her the blue key that will signal when he has successfully killed Camilla, Diane sees Dan standing at the cash register, just like in his dream when he saw Herb standing there. Shaken, Diane asks Joe what the blue key opens, and he just starts to laugh. The scene suddenly shifts to the alley at night, where the monstrous man is sitting in the firelight, surrounded by shadowy refuse. He has the little blue box in his hands, and he places it in an old brown bag on the ground. Out of the blue box come the tiny figures of Diane’s parents, maniacally animated and laughing hysterically, with arms flapping and crazed smiles on their faces. They scamper to Diane’s apartment and she frantically tries to lock them out, but they crawl under her door and chase her into her bedroom, where in a screaming, frenzied panic she lunges for her bedside table, grabs a gun, and shoots herself in the face. As smoke silently envelops her bed, one final image of the monstrous man floats across the screen.

The Winkie’s scene illustrates as well as anything could those twin dream threads of revelatory truth and epistemological uncertainty in Lynch’s films. The monstrous man is the embodiment of Dan’s deepest, darkest fears, a terrifying alien presence with Jungian shadow imagery right out of archetype central casting. Viewers are never sure what exactly happens to Dan when he turns the corner in the alley. Is the monstrous man really there, or is he just a figment of Dan’s fevered imagination? Did Dan’s dream come “true”? Is the monstrous man just a bum, or is he actually controlling everything? At the end of the film, when viewers see the monstrous man again right before and right after Diane kills herself, the sense emerges that his darkly powerful presence lies at the heart of her tragic self-destruction.

7 Replies to “Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch”

  1. Dear Ms Kelly Bulkeley,

    I would like to read more of this article for a presentation I would like to make for my studies at university. (I study American culture and literature. Unfortunately, I do not have access to this journal at my University in Germany and I would really appreciate a copy of it.

    Thank you very much.
    Best regards:

    Viki Lassu

  2. Please ignore my last comment, I found a way to read the whole article. It was just invisible because of the design but by highlighting it one can read it easily. Thanks.

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