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.

Tech Dreams By Mike Boland Forbes 2001

The Jung and the Sleepless: Techno-geeks talk about their dreams

We’ve always known those working in tech to be a bit different. Now it’s evident that even their dreams have taken on new forms- crashed servers, homicidal venture capitalists and man-eating cell phones to name a few.

Some even dream in graphic user interfaces complete with windows and pull-down menus. Just think: When they have that classic dream where they’re naked in front of a classroom, they can just reach up to the command toolbar floating above their head and hit Format>Body> Pants. Problem solved. Isn’t technology great?

Though different and sometimes admittedly bizarre, these tech dreams represent the same archetypal emotions that we have had for centuries according to our resident dream expert, Kelly Bulkeley, a Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and author of Transforming Dreams, who has graciously agreed to provide a little commentary.

Nightmares

Rob Kelly, CEO of Mojam, an online provider of live music event listings and ticket sales:

“Back in the beginning stages of the Internet shakeout, I had a venture capitalist who I really thought was going to physically harm me. He was out of control. He had a lot going on. His net worth had just gone down about 50%, and I was just one small piece but he took it out on me. So I actually had this nightmare, which was right out of an episode of the Mafia show The Sopranos. ‘Pussy’ is the name of one of the characters and I took his place in the dream. The mob members, including my VC, who took the part of Tony Soprano, took me out on a fishing trip. At one point everyone in the boat, led by my VC, confronted me, shot me, and I ended up at the bottom of the East River with cement shoes.”

Daniel Duerr, founder and president of Grey Zone, which provides web-site management tools and software platforms for network integration:

“When I was a kid, I had these consistent patterns of not only dreaming but talking in my sleep. I got woken up so many times by my mom telling me to shut up because I was yelling out ‘syntax error!’ or ‘byte zero non existent!’ I’d be yelling code out like I was speaking in tongues or something.

“Nowadays I don’t get to do any programming because I am busy running the company so my dreams are more about adult responsibility. One involves my inability to get rid of my cell phone. Sometimes it chases me and it won’t stop ringing and I can’t get away from it. In real life I have actually tossed 2 cell phones. I hate cell phones. I threw one off of a sailboat and I smashed one on the floor.”

Mike Mussog, CEO of Handyman Online, an online contractor referral service:

“In my dream, I’m alone in our offices. The team of IT technicians we’ve hired to implement our new multimillion dollar system has just left. Suddenly, there’s a rush of incoming calls and email requests. I can hear our customers over the PA system saying, ‘Hello*? Hello*?’ while an automated voice puts them on hold. Emails are pouring in all over the office. I keep trying to pick up phone lines and access computers, but to no avail the system won’t let me in.

“I try to log onto our Web site and nothing appears but a blue screen. Meanwhile, the phone system begins patching customers directly through to our competitors and their conversations can be heard throughout the office. I’m utterly helpless and no one is around to lend a hand.

“Next thing I know, our investors are coming through the front door for a board meeting. It’s as if they can’t hear or see any of the chaos happening in the office. They keep asking me how the latest numbers are looking and about forecasts for future growth. I try to tell them to call our IT team and that we are in the middle of an emergency, but no sound comes from my mouth. We carry on an entire meeting with pandemonium happening all around us. Finally, I’m able to lean over and ask one of our major investors if he’s ever seen technology problems like this before. He just smiles, tells me not to worry and that it will all work itself out.

“Suddenly, the office goes silent except for the hum of computers shutting down. The investor turns to me and says, ‘Didn’t I tell you it would all work out?’ As they pack up to leave, I keep demanding, ‘But where did our customers go? Where are our customers?’ But they don’t answer, and I wake up feeling as if I never slept in the first place.”

Greg Baszucki, president and cofounder of InvoiceDealers.com, which provides instant price-quote comparisons for car buyers:

“I have been having a reoccurring dream that reflects a scene from Glenngary Glenn Ross, a movie about real estate managers who put the squeeze on their sales team amidst a struggling economy. The scene of Alec Baldwin threatening a salesman happens in each dream, except I am the one being threatened.

“‘The leads are weak? The fucking leads are weak? You’re weak!’ Baldwin screams at me.”

“Our company is a car buying Web site that generates revenue by selling sales leads to car dealers. This particular dream haunted me during a critical time in which we needed to turn a profit or we would not survive. Now that we are profitable, the dream happens less frequently.”

Michael Becce, president of Red Bank New Jersey-based MRB Public Relations:

“A client of mine took me to see a fiber-optics draw tower and watch it in action. A draw tower is a tremendous piece of equipment that is used to make fiber-optic cables. Melted glass is delicately poured (or drawn) so that it forms a tiny strand of glass as it hardens on the way down. Ever since witnessing the machine at work, I’ve been having dreams that are not alike in any way, except for the same odd occurrence. During my dreams I end up eating something and whatever I eat seems to have fiber-optics strands inside. I tend to wake up as I chew broken fragments of glass between my teeth.”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkeley: “Capitalism involves a great deal of what’s called adaptive fear. Dreams like this scare the dreamer into maintaining a vigilant anxiety, looking around for threats or competitors or improving a certain type of behavior while awake. Thousands of years ago, on the African Savannah, people dreamt of the possibility that a lion could eat them at any moment; today in Silicon Valley, people dream of the threat of a bigger company destroying their business at any moment. Different settings, but same gut-level fears. These dreams also show us how technology may appeal to our rational minds but may terrify us on a visceral level. Michael Becce’s dream is a good example of this. Dreams of having noxious substances in the mouth are a classic way of expressing a fear that something is unhealthy, poisonous, or threatening”

Sweet Dreams

Mika Salmi, founder and CEO of Atomfilms, an online entertainment company:

“Quite a few years back I had a dream where I could see a much broader part of the light spectrum. Basically I could see everything from infrared to radio waves to microwaves. Depending on the frequency, they had different colors and characteristics. Obviously, the air was very full and incredibly active. It wasn’t a frightening dream-I found it fascinating and just observed all the interactions.”

Timothy Ferris, science and technology writer.

“Recently I had this dream that I was on a space shuttle. We were climbing up through these clouds and it was sunrise. It was just astonishingly beautiful. There were these beautiful lavender cloud banks going on for hundreds of miles. And then I became aware that something was wrong, that an awful lot of time was going by without our passing through these clouds and reaching the dark skies of space. And indeed it was confirmed that although the engines were still firing they were not providing enough thrust. We weren’t going to make it, and we had in fact passed the point of any safe landing. We were going to die. The strange thing was I felt that it was worth it anyway¯that what we were seeing was so beautiful that somehow I didn’t mind that we were going to die.

“In 1986 I was in the Journalist in Space, which aimed to put a journalist on the next shuttle mission. I made the first cut and was selected as a semifinalist. However, before they made the next cut, the project crossed President Reagan’s desk. Reagan who never had much fondness for journalists, decided he wanted a teacher to accompany the mission instead. The next space shuttle launch included a teacher. It was the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded seconds after launch.”

Don Tapscott, chairman of Digital 4Sight, a new economy think tank and strategy consulting company, and author of seven business books:

“After a long and lively dinner party around 1995, I had a dream about creating the ultimate killer application-life after death. In the dream it was called ‘perpetual presence’ – an electronic communicating gravestone. You sign up with PP Inc. at birth and then digital videos of you are shot throughout your life creating a real-time animation database. After your death interested people can still communicate with you from the screen or hologram at your grave or on the Net from any other device. You can be plugged into various news wires and other sources so that your presence is kept fresh. If you had a really interesting life, people could pay to access you – a source of revenue eliminating the need for life insurance to support your family. The virtual you could live forever. I woke up thinking that I should watch what I eat and drink at dinner parties.”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkeley: “These dreams express a spiritual awe and wonder of technology’s potential. The amazing light in Mike Salmi’s dream is exactly the same as the brilliant illumination described in the revelatory dreams of mystics and visionaries throughout history. Tim Ferris’s dream is a remarkable comment on the yearning we have to experience the transcendent, a yearning that technology can help to fulfill even if it costs us our lives. The willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a momentary vision of transcendent beauty is another theme found in the world’s mystical traditions.”

Sleeping on the Job

Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple computer:

“Dreaming was my modus operandi from about the middle of high school on. I’d sometimes wake up with solutions to math and electronic design problems in my head. I must have been dreaming about them, or at least solving them in my sleep. One or two times I’d wake up and couldn’t remember my ‘dream’ solution. That was disconcerting, so from then on I’d write a couple of quick notes when I woke up with an idea. I’d go back to sleep and then work on the solutions in the morning. I didn’t do this once in a while. I did it all the time.”

Michael Barnsley, Mathematics professor, Georgia Institute of Technology and cofounder of Iterated Systems, which develops digital imaging software for online media:

“I had founded a company in 1987 and was professoring away at Georgia Tech. I was working on a big problem, which was how to make fractal formulas for real pictures. A file that represents a picture takes up a huge amount of space and a fractal formula could be the key to the digital image compression necessary for efficient and large-scale digital image storage.

“At this time I had a dream that was a variation of a dream I had been having since I was introduced to mathematics as a young child. In this dream there is a vision of an old-fashion switchboard with these messy masses of wires and pegboards. On this particular night the whole mess of wires and little squares where the wires went to and came from, became tidy and organized. It all related to knowing how to solve my fractal problem. I woke up in a feverish state of excitement and began writing out the formulas and algorithms.

“I called my partner Allen Sloan and described the answer. He wrote his resignation letter to Georgia Tech that day and I left shortly afterwards and Iterated Systems was born. The image compression technology became the gold standard for digital image storage for software products in the early ’90s and we sold it to Microsoft for their 1992 release of Encarta.

Pradeep Khurana, founder and chairman of Surebridge, an application service provider (ASP):

“We’re an ASP whose customers pay a flat fee for us to create and manage their applications. About a year ago I was really struggling with the question of what’s the best way to improve our service and measure our performance. I was kind of pondering this in the back of my mind for about a week and it was kind of a tricky problem.

“One night I went to sleep and I remember dreaming about it. When I woke up the next morning, I had a fuzzy memory of getting up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. When I came to work the next day and opened my notebook, the answer to the problem was written inside. At home, my notebook had been sitting on the kitchen counter with my briefcase. The night before, I must have scribbled the answer while sleepwalking. The answer was perfect. In fact, it was put in place immediately and our efficiency has since gone up about 200% and customer satisfaction has also gone up about 15%.”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkeley: “These dreams are the visual representation of the mind continuing to work after we fall asleep. The classic example is the discovery of the Benzene molecule by Freidrich August Kekule von Stradonitz who dreamt of a snake biting its own tail, which, in essence was the same circular structure of the molecule. The basic explanation is that dreaming allows for a more flexible and wide ranging mode of thinking than is ordinarily possible in waking consciousness.”

Visions

Henry Fiallo, president of Enterasys Networks, which provides global corporations with communications equipment and solutions:

“I have a recurring dream where I wake up and the ‘picture frame’ across the room, which had been displaying a tranquil seashore with waves washing on the beach and a full moon in the sky, suddenly switches its image to give me the news, weather, and an agenda for the day, plus information I had asked for the night before. The same ‘picture’ appears throughout the house, in my car, and in the office. It’s my own virtual assistant.”

John Harcharek, creative director of Graftica Interactive, a Chester New Jersey-based ad agency:

“My dreams resemble a Mac interface where you can go from one place to the next via pop up windows on the computer screen. In the dreams I can reach up to touch the window shade bar above my head and a window will either pop down if I’m hopping into a new place or it will disappear if I’m jumping out of one. For example, when bad guys are chasing me, I can just touch above my head and suddenly there is a new place to enter.”

“Other times I will dream in those scrolling ticker messages that appear on some Web sites. These scrolling messages usually are gibberish but sometimes I’ll come up with products¯the dumbest products in the world. For example I had a dream for a dog food product¯we don’t even have a dog food client. The headline kept going across this electronic scrolling message, ” Dog food with flower seeds*Dog food with flower seeds.” And the only thing I can figure is it’s some kind of thing where the dog eats the food and then when he passes it, he plants little flowers.”

“But these kind of dreams get aggravating because I want to have dreams that relate to real clients and real ideas not nonsense ones. Even more, I want to have dreams that don’t relate to work at all. It’s the kind of thing where you wake up and say, ‘Wait, this is my time!'”

The Analysis, Kelly Bulkley: “These dreams, particularly John Harcharek’s, show how deeply technology can affect us, literally reformatting the inner workings of our unconscious. They are one piece of evidence that computer technology is truly shaping the human mind-brain system, reorganizing our deepest sense of self.”

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.