Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares by Kelly BulkeleyPeople who are familiar with the deep patterns of their dreams seem to be having fewer nightmares compared to the general population.

This observation is based on a series of interviews I recently conducted with the participants in two dream research projects, one that began in early 2017 and one that began in December of 2019. It’s remarkable to see the different qualities in their dreams compared to other people’s pandemic-related dreams: less fear, more agency, more problem-solving, more willingness to change, more openness to future possibilities.

For many people, the first wave of dreams relating to the Covid-19 outbreak have been unrelentingly nightmarish. The results of an online survey of 2,477 demographically representative American adults in early April indicated that the predominant emotional themes in their dreams are fear, confusion, and uncertainty about the future. Other researchers using anecdotal sources have found similar results.

Part of the story here is that the stay-at-home conditions of this particular crisis have forced many people into a sudden encounter with their dreaming selves and the shadowy powers of their unconscious. This in itself can be a psychological shock, especially for busy, extraverted people who spend most of their time and energy in the external world. Having little or no familiarity with their inner worlds, they are struggling with an unprecedented surge of crisis-related dreaming. This isn’t really surprising: if you have no experience with the ways of your own sleeping mind, any sudden rise in vivid dreams, whatever their contents, is likely to feel scary and overwhelming.

Not so with the participants in these two research studies. The first is the Dream Mapping Project, a group of international artists who have been sharing dreams with me and creating collaborative art projects for more than three years. I recently spoke with four of the artists (by zoom, of course), located in Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and New York City. I also spoke/zoomed with the participants in the 2020 Dreamers Project, in which nine people with high dream recall agreed to keep a year-long journal of their dreams starting in late December of 2019.

These thirteen individuals (11 women, 2 men) are definitely not representative of the general population. They are unusually intuitive and self-aware, and they have been vivid dreamers from an early age. None of them have been untouched by the pandemic: they, too, are suffering jobs lost, careers upended, families in peril, and local communities in distress. The members of these two groups are not oblivious to the crisis or in denial about it. But at least so far, their dreams have been remarkably adaptive and reassuring, in contrast to the nightmares plaguing so many other people.

In a future post, after more consultation with the group members, I hope to share some of their specific dreams. In the meantime, here are key themes as highlighted by the dreamers themselves:

  • They were dreaming about aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak early, in January and February, anticipating the social disruptions about to hit the world, and beginning to envision possible responses.
  • Their dreams definitely have apocalyptic themes of collective crisis, but not with overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, or vulnerability. Instead, they mostly maintain their emotional balance amid the chaos, observing and witnessing what’s going on, responding as best they can, and helping other people who are struggling.
  • Their dreams also have post-apocalyptic themes, looking beyond the present crisis to envision the new world ahead. How will we navigate through the altered realities of the future?
  • The problem-solving function of dreaming comes to the fore in their experiences. Their dreams view the crisis as a challenge that’s within their power to manage and solve. Their dreaming attitude is, here’s a problem, it’s big but not impossible, let me figure it out how to deal with it.
  • Some of them say they have been preparing for years, in their dreams and waking lives, for major shifts and transformations in global reality. They have long-standing practices in art, yoga, meditation, and dreaming, and these activities have made them less attached to the status quo and more comfortable amid the uncertainties of radical change. The world suddenly turning upside down is perhaps less of a shock to them than to people who have never engaged in such practices.

More research is needed, of course, to gain a better understanding of the full range of people’s dream experiences during this historically tumultuous time. But the results so far raise an interesting and potentially vital question:

Is deep familiarity with dreaming a source of psychological resilience during times of crisis, and if so, should this be included in future disaster preparations?

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 21, 2020.

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyNightmarish themes are plaguing people’s dreams during the Covid-19 crisis. The first wave of dreaming related to the coronavirus pandemic reveals how people are reacting to vivid fears and anxieties coming from all directions. Fears for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for the whole world—all threaten to consume people in their dreams as in their waking lives. A few dreams do show glimmers of hope and positivity for the future, although right now they are the rare green shoots amid a dark and frightening dreamscape for many people.

To be clear, not everyone is having these dreams. According to a new survey I recently commissioned from YouGov, only 7% of the American adult population answered yes when directly asked if they had dreamed within the last month of the Covid-19 crisis. More people ages 18-34 said they had a pandemic-related dream (9%) than people 35-54 (8%) and people 55+ (5%). This is consistent with the findings mentioned in an earlier post discussing results from the same survey: more people in the younger age group reported an increase in overall dream recall in the past month. (Field work for the online survey was conducted on April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.)

Perhaps that figure will grow as time goes on. As it is, 7% of all Americans 18+ amounts to around fourteen million people, a considerable number. For comparison, two surveys I conducted during 2016 asked if people had dreamed of the US presidential campaign, and the responses were 7% (May) and 8% (December). This suggests that within just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has already had as much impact on people’s dreams as a long, hotly-contested presidential race.

The dream reports provided by participants provide a further window into the psychological effects of the crisis. Several patterns immediately stand out (gender and age in parentheses).

Fear of catching the disease. This includes worries about being tested, social distancing, isolation, and infecting others.

Contracting and dying alone. This thing never ending. (F, 59)

Wake up anxious about contracting the virus (F, 52)

Scared im gonna get it (F, 58)

i had a dream i got it and had to isolate myself from everyone. (F, 21)

I dreamt that someone came closer than 6 feet to me without my permission and I freaked out at them. (F, 31)

Fear of family and friends catching it. Many expressions of the frustration and sadness of being separated from loved ones.

My best friend passed it to me, I survived but he died from complications. (F, 18)

That a loved one had it and we had to see them through a window; they died and I was alone. (F, 56)

Scared, looking for family members who were lost. (F, 47)

Hearing that family has it and can’t get treatment or that they didn’t survive it. Like I can’t even wave from outside a window to their room or anything. (F, 30)

Difficulty breathing. This one of the most frightening symptoms of the virus. Difficulties in breathing are commonly found in night terrors and sleep paralysis.

That I woke up and couldn’t breathe. Felt like my lungs were filling up. (F, 36)

I was in a hospital bed, empty white room, I was coughing and stopped breathing. Knew that it wasn’t real whenever I couldn’t feel the bed I was on. Woke myself up. (M, 22)

I was dreaming I could not get enough air (M, 63)

Threats to work. The financial anxieties caused by the pandemic come through clearly in people’s dreams.

Losing my job. (M, 53)

Because of job loss I cannot afford to live. (M, 55)

I dreamed about coworkers and the virtual meetings we have had and their difficulty with caring for their kids in the meetings. I felt sad and overwhelmed. (F, 55)

Apocalypse. The end of the world is a recurrent theme in many religious traditions (e.g. the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Dreams are very sensitive to feelings that the world is fragmenting, falling apart, lapsing into chaos.

About the world crumbling. Things got tough. People suffered. Economy of some nation’s crumble…and lots more. (M, 28)

The virus spread uncontrolled, bodies piled up. Company’s closed down. People becoming desperate and violence increasing. (F, 37)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Cradle of Life. (F, 55)

animals start contracting the virus and then it goes back to humans in which it turns far worse and kills 90% of the worlds population and becomes kind of an apocalypse. (M, 52)

I have dreams of the world ending, people going crazy and in all the turmoil im trying to get my older children home safely and they can’t get home. (F, 50)

I was homeless, hungry and scared. Everyone in the world was sick, it was coronavirus mutated and turned everyone into zombies. They were trying to kill me by touching me. I had no way to survive even if I avoided being touched. Woke up just before I died of hunger sickness. Been having very weird dreams lately. (M, 18)

Normal life? It seems hard to imagine that life will ever again feel calm and normal. Some dreams are peering through the darkness of the present to envision better possibilities in the future.

A normal day in the life, social distancing, no negative emotions. (F, 47)

I had a dream that we were attending a party for a friend’s baby. Instead of all of us going in person, we all had computers set up with some kind of FaceTime app. We celebrated the birthday this way online instead of in person because of the outbreak. (F, 41)

I dreamed I opened a drawer and found a bunch of masks. I was very happy. (F, 61)

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 12, 2020.

Nightmares of a Smart Home

Nightmares of a Smart Home by Kelly BulkeleyDreams from Germans in the 1930’s highlight the danger of new home technologies.

I have always been a strong advocate for the creative potentials of dreaming and its capacity to envision future realities. Now, however, I worry that dreams from an earlier era may have predicted a new technology with frightening potentials for abuse in our world today.

One of the most important books in 20th century dream research was The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt, published in English in 1968. Beradt was a journalist in Germany, and when the Nazis rose to power she, as a Jew, could no longer find work. Instead, from 1933 until 1939, when she and her husband fled Germany to the United States, Beradt collected people’s dreams about the Nazis. She cast a wide net among friends and acquaintances, asking for dreams about their country’s increasingly dire political situation. The resulting book was not only searing testimony of the psychological brutality of the National Socialist regime. It also illustrated how dreams can accurately reflect collective fears during times of social crisis.

Many researchers have been deeply moved by The Third Reich of Dreams and inspired to explore new ways of drawing cultural insights from individual dreams. When I first encountered Beradt’s book in the 1980’s during graduate school, I was struck by the poignant reflections in these dreams of people’s experiences in an increasingly totalitarian environment where “others” were attacked as inhuman, racial purity and blind loyalty were exalted, and no one could escape the pervasive atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.

I was especially intrigued by a type of dream that Beradt described as the ultimate example of political toxicity. These were nightmares in which the oppressive power of the state reached directly into people’s homes and turned their own possessions against them. From a woman described as a housewife, in 1933:

“A Storm Trooper was standing by the large, old-fashioned, blue-tiled Dutch oven that stands in the corner of our living room, where we always sit and talk in the evening. He opened the oven door and it began to talk in a harsh and penetrating voice. It repeated every joke we had told and every word we had said against the government. I thought, ‘Good Lord, what’s it going to tell next—all my little snide remarks about Goebbels [Nazi Minister of Propaganda]?’ But at that moment I realized that one sentence more or less would make no difference—simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known.” (45)

Reading Beradt’s commentary on this dream today sounds eerily prescient, and uncomfortably resonant with current concerns about new home technologies. Remember, she was writing more than fifty years ago, about events that happened thirty years before that:

“Here we see a person in the process of being fashioned by a very elusive and even today not fully understood form of terrorization, a terrorization that consisted not of any constant surveillance over millions of people but rather the sheer uncertainty about how complete this surveillance was…. What dream could better suit the purposes of a totalitarian regime?” (47)

She went on:

“A greengrocer had exactly the same type of dream about a cushion he placed over the telephone when the family gathered in the evening for a cozy chat, a precaution everyone took in those days. The atmosphere of coziness became one of terror: the cushion—a sentimental keepsake cross-stitched by his mother and ordinarily kept in his easy chair, his domestic throne—began to talk. It testified against him and went on and on, repeating family conversations ranging from the price of vegetables and the midday meal to the comment ‘Old Potbelly [Hermann Goering, Nazi Party leader] is getting fatter by the day.’” (49)

Such dreams expressed a catastrophic loss of privacy and safety, even within the personal confines of one’s own home. Objects which used to give people pleasure and comfort now turned against them and became their enemies. She continued:

“I received quite a few reports about similar dreams involving household objects—about a mirror, a desk, a desk clock, an Easter egg. In each of these cases, all that remained in the recollection was the fact that the object concerned would denounce people. The frequency of such dreams may have increased as people became more and more aware of the methods the regime employed.” (49)

Beradt did not rely on any psychological theories in her approach to these dreams. Indeed, she did not try to interpret the dreams at all, at least in a conventional sense. Rather, like the journalist she was trained to be, she focused on reporting the cases that gave the most vivid illustrations of life in a totalitarian society. She used the political ideas of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell (especially his novel 1984) as guides in connecting the personal dream imagery to collective political realities.

“The following singularly grotesque example of this type of dream was dreamt by a young girl: ‘I dreamt I awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the two cherubs that hang over my bed were no longer looking upwards but were instead staring down at me. I was so frightened that I crawled under the bed.’” (50)

These nocturnal visions from another place and time offer an uncanny foreshadowing of present-day anxieties about the dystopian dangers of new household technologies. It takes no great leap of imagination to see connections between Beradt’s haunting collection of dreams and the latest generation of “smart” lamps, appliances, thermostats, and the like. People are inviting into their homes devices that were the stuff of surreal nightmares in Nazi Germany. The marketing for Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri emphasize their power to relieve us of domestic toil, increase our comfort, and save us money. And yet, despite the many benefits of these systems, recent reports (here, here, here, and here) have shown how easily they can be abused in exactly the ways foreseen by Beradt’s dreamers—secretly recording private conversations and revealing embarrassing, immoral, and incriminating behavior.

For people living in Germany in the 1930’s, their futuristic dreams of smart devices reflected a terrifying realization of the intrusive power of the state and its dominance over the most intimate personal aspects of their lives. The challenge today is preventing their nightmares from becoming our realities.

Note: This essay first appeared in Psychology Today on September 12, 2019.

Dreams and Politics 2020: Preparing for New Research

Dreams and Politics 2020: Preparing for New Research by Kelly BulkeleyTo prepare for a new study of dreams during the 2020 U.S. Presidential election campaign, I am doing a brief review of my previous work in this area, to remind myself of what I have learned so far and what seems most important to investigate next.

I have been studying dreams and politics since 1992, and I’ve published several articles and a book documenting my findings up to now. Although I’m not the only scholar looking into these issues, I think it’s fair to say no one else has devoted more research effort towards illuminating the connections between people’s sleep and dream patterns and their political views in waking life. Perhaps everything I have found so far is wrong and misguided; hopefully I have at least clarified some of the right kinds of questions that should be addressed.

Guided by almost thirty years of experience, these are some of the questions I will be asking in 2020:

  •             In what specific ways are political beliefs, concerns, and issues reflected in dreams?
  •             How do people relate to politicians as characters in their dreams?
  •             Do liberals and conservatives sleep and dream differently from each other?
  •             Can dreams help people think more clearly and creatively about politics?
  •             Do dreams have special relevance for political progress on environmental issues?

I have several projects in the works aiming at gathering new data to help answer these questions. Many of these projects are collaborations with other researchers, which will hopefully expand the scope of the studies and open up new perspectives on this relatively unexplored area of dreaming experience. More on these projects soon….

Below is a list of my previous publications on this topic, with brief descriptions of the contents and findings.

 

Attitudes Towards Dreaming: Effects of Socio-Demographic and Religious Variables in an American Sample. (Co-authored with Michael Schredl.) International Journal of Dream Research 12 (1): 75-81.

https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/IJoDR/article/view/54314

Using data from a survey of 5,255 American adults, we looked at correlations between people’s attitudes towards dreaming and numerous demographic variables. We found an especially intriguing link between positive attitudes towards dreaming and high levels of concern about global climate change, one of the most prominent political issues in the world today. People who report little or no concern about climate change also tend to have negative attitudes towards dreaming.

 

Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition (Stanford University Press, 2018)

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=27061

Lucrecia’s story is the most dramatic and well-documented case in history regarding the intersection of dreaming, politics, and prophecy. She was a young, illiterate woman in 16th century Spain whose prophetic dreams accurately foresaw a national catastrophe, and yet King Philip II ordered the Inquisition to arrest her on charges of heresy and treason. A vivid cautionary tale about what can happen when dreamers speak truth to power.

 

Three blog posts about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 election

https://kellybulkeley.org/199-dreams-donald-trump/

https://kellybulkeley.org/dreams-of-hillary-clinton-and-donald-trump/

https://kellybulkeley.org/dreams-of-the-2016-u-s-presidential-election/

These are reports on dreams I was gathering and analyzing during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. Included are some dream reports grouped around thematic categories: friendliness with a candidate, anticipations, political disagreements, opposition to Trump, openness to Trump, and work & place. The study of 199 dreams specifically about Donald Trump involved a statistical analysis of the word usage in the dreams, and a comparison of the results with other kinds of dreams. Here is my conclusion: “To summarize these findings, it seems that when Trump appears as a character in people’s dreams, he does not disrupt the whole process; people continue dreaming more or less the way they typically do. But he does have a tangible and measurable impact on certain aspects of those dreams. A dream about Donald Trump typically involves fewer women and more talking, touching, and references to money and work. Men seem to become pacified around Trump in their dreams, while women seem to become more instinctually primed.”

 

A March 2016 blog post about “The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis”

https://kellybulkeley.org/donald-trump-the-sleep-deprivation-hypothesis/

A response to media discussions about the then-candidate’s admitted lack of sleep, with psychological speculations about his public behavior in light of empirical research about the effects of chronic sleep deprivation.

 

Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey. Dreaming 22(1): 1-9.

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-28147-001

Using data from a survey of 2,992 American adults, the study found a significant difference between political liberals and conservatives on questions of dream recall. People on the political left consistently reported higher recall on all types of dreams than people on the political right.

 

2008 Election Dreams: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain

https://kellybulkeley.org/2008-election-dreams-clinton-obama-mccain/

A collection of blog posts about dreams gathered by Sheli Heti and posted on her metaphysicalpoll.com website. The Obam dreams in particular are notable for their unusually mystical qualities.

 

2008 Dreams Shed Light on Obama’s Values. San Francisco Chronicle (August 17)

https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Dreams-shed-light-on-Obama-s-values-3272948.php

Reflections on the two fascinating dreams then-candidate Barack Obama described in his memoir Dreams From My Father, with psychological speculations about the future potentials of his Presidency.

 

American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else (Beacon Press, 2008)

https://www.beaconbroadside.com/broadside/2008/04/unravelling-mea.html

This is a book-length study of dreams and politics in American society during 2006-2007. A group of ten people from various parts of the country, six of them political conservatives and four liberals, kept a year-long journal of their dreams, which they discussed with me in relation to their political views and the dire situation of the country at that time (Iraq and Afghanistan wars, housing crisis, impending recession). The book offers a summary of the research I had done on this topic so far.

 

Sleep and Dream Patterns of Political Liberals and Conservatives. Dreaming 16(3): 223-235.

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-11853-006

Using data from a collection of detailed surveys from 234 American adults (134 liberals, 100 conservatives), several patterns emerged in relation to their sleep and dream behaviors. Here is what I found: “Conservatives slept somewhat more soundly, with fewer remembered dreams. Liberals were more restless in their sleep and had a more active and varied dream life. In contrast to a previous study, liberals reported a somewhat greater proportion of bad dreams and nightmares. Consistent with earlier research, the dreams of conservatives were more mundane, whereas the dreams of liberals were more bizarre.”

 

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (co-edited with Kate Adams and Patricia M. Davis) (Rutgers University Press, 2009)

https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/dreaming-in-christianity-and-islam/9780813546100

This is an edited book, written in the shadows of 9/11, as an effort to find common ground across religious and national differences. We started the project in the early 2000’s, and it took a long time to pull all the different chapters together. Patricia wrote a brilliant chapter on a significant auditory dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., his “vision in the kitchen” of 1956.

 

Dreaming of War in Iraq: A Preliminary Report. Sleep and Hypnosis 6(1): 19-28.

http://www.sleepandhypnosis.org/ing/Pdf/d2b0fb2ad2c247cab33ccd64a45d737f.pdf

A study of dreams related to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began on March, 19, 2003. The dreams I gathered came from various sources, and I grouped them into several thematic categories: personal symbols, op-ed commentaries, political transformations, empathetic identifications, and fearful anticipations.

 

The Impact of September 11 on Dreaming. (Co-authored with Tracey L. Kahan.) Consciousness and Cognition 17:1248-1256.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810008001141

During the fall quarter of 2001, Prof. Tracey Kahan was teaching a class at Santa Clara University on sleep and dreaming, and she had asked the students to keep a dream journal during the quarter. After the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Tracey and I engaged in a study of the students’ journals. We found that the 9/11 attack appeared in several people’s dreams, both directly and indirectly. We also found that on all the basic measures of people’s cognitive functioning during their dreams, there was no difference between the dreams that did or did not have 9/11-related content. In other words, the terrorist attack impacted what people dreamed about, but not the way they dreamed.

 

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

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1015398822122

I called this a “pilot study,” involving 56 people, divided into four equal groups: liberal males and liberal females, conservative males and conservative females. I had a most recent dream from each person, and a content analysis of the dreams suggested an intriguing difference regarding political ideology: “people on the political right had more nightmares, more dreams in which they lacked personal power, and a greater frequency of “lifelike” dreams; people on the political left had fewer nightmares, more dreams in which they had personal power, and a greater frequency of good fortunes and bizarre elements in their dreams. These findings have plausible correlations to certain features of the political ideologies of people on the left and the right, and merit future investigation in larger-scale studies.”

 

It’s All Just a Bad Dream. San Francisco Chronicle (December 6): A27.

https://m.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/It-s-All-Just-a-Bad-Dream-2723578.php

An Op-Ed article I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about people’s dreams during the agonizing wait to determine who would be the winner of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, Al Gore or George W. Bush. Most of the dream reports I gathered were nightmares from liberals: “Aliens taking over the Earth and turning all humans into slaves; terrorists attacking the country with biological weapons; the dreamer falling into the ocean and being chased by a hungry shark or losing control of a car and driving off a cliff — these are some of the distressing images that are filling Democratic imaginations.”

 

Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society (Editor) (State University of New York Press, 1996)

https://www.sunypress.edu/p-2346-among-all-these-dreamers.aspx

This book gathers the best researchers I could find on the theme of dreams and social justice. Included are chapters on dreams in relation to education, sexual abuse, ecology, crime, race, gender, religion, and cross-cultural conflict. In chapter 10 I present a report on my first direct research project devoted to dreams and politics: “Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election.” The chapter describes several dreams about the 1992 candidates (Ross Perot, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton), the debates, the media coverage, voting, and all the fears, hopes, and disappointments surrounding the election. The goal of this project was to prove Calvin Hall wrong in his claim that dreams “have little or nothing to say about current events in the world of affairs” (The Meaning of Dreams, 1966).

 

Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology (State University of New York Press, 1999)

https://www.sunypress.edu/p-3023-visions-of-the-night.aspx

The final chapter of this book is titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” an essay originally published in the Stanford University alumni magazine. It recounts my waking and dreaming experiences at a conference of dream researchers in Moscow, right in the midst of the failed military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, which precipitated the fall of the Soviet Union.

 

The Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics. Environmental Ethics 13(2): 151-163.

https://www.sunypress.edu/p-3023-visions-of-the-night.aspx

One of the first articles I ever published, this also appears as chapter 5 in Visions of the Night. In response to environmental philosophers who point to Western dualistic thinking as a primary source of our society’s mistreatment of nature, I suggest that dreaming is a psychologically innate and highly effective means of stimulating the transformation of dualist thought and the opening of new conscious awareness towards the environment.

 

Dreaming in a Totalitarian Society: A Reading of Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. Dreaming 4(2): 115-126.

https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1994-43941-001

This was based on a paper I wrote for a graduate seminar at the University of Chicago Divinity School, perhaps in 1988 or 1989. The course was taught by Peter Homans, and it focused on the neo-psychoanalytic theories of D.W. Winnicott and Heinz Kohut. I had been reading The Third Reich of Dreams on my own, and for the final paper of the class I used Winnicott’s ideas about play, transitional space, and the True vs. False Self, to analyze and reflect upon the dreams gathered in Beradt’s book. Here was my core Winnicottian claim: “Dreams are one of the ways that humans, from childhood to adulthood, develop the relationship between their inner psychic reality and external social reality. Beradt suggests that dream studies can be a potent means of studying troubled societies, and of helping those societies overcome their problems.”

Plane Fiction

Plane Fiction by Kelly BulkeleyThe satisfying nightmares of Paula Hawkins’ novel “Into the Water.”

I mean it as high praise when I call a book “perfect for a long plane ride.”  To qualify for this lofty accolade, a book must meet every one of several demanding criteria.  The prose can’t be too dense, conceptual, or experimental; the reading has to feel effortless.  The plot should be driven by an ever-mounting sense of intrigue, mystery, and suspense.  There should be lots of dialogue, action, scene changes, and sudden revelations.  The characters should feel like a living presence in the reader’s mind.  The story must be emotionally intense, but it can’t be relentlessly gross, cruel, or perverse. This is the only time I consider reading contemporary realist fiction, which usually feels boringly mundane.  But for the purpose of totally immersing myself in a vivid literary world when cooped up in a plane for hours on end, this kind of fiction can do the trick.

I have two additional criteria that are probably peculiar to me.  The book should not be too focused on dreams and dreaming, lest I have to find a pen and start underlining passages and taking notes.  That would pull me out of the fictional world for sure.  Yet the book shouldn’t completely ignore dreams, either, because then I’m going to start wondering if the author has an adequate understanding of human nature, consciousness, desire, etc., and I’m pulled out of the story again.

All of which is to say, Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water (2017) is a perfect book for a long plane ride.  The new novel from the writer of The Girl on the Train (2015), Into the Water has everything I’m looking for in this infrequent but high-pressure situation.  Hawkins weaves an emotionally complex narrative about the experiences, memories, and dreams (more often nightmares) of a community of people living, and dying, along the banks of a river in rural England.  I didn’t take notes while reading the book, so I’m not going to quote specific lines, but at several points I remember feeling pleasantly satisfied as a character slipped into a reverie or was consumed by a terrifying dream.  In each instance it seemed just the right time for that character to have that kind non-rational experience.   Authentic moments of dreaming flowed in and out of their waking lives, enhancing the overall sense of enjoyable fictional immersion.

I finished the book about a half hour before landing,  giving me time to ponder the surprise ending and figure out how the story ultimately hangs together.

Exactly what I was looking for!

Note: Thanks to the bearded dude with the Blue Oyster Cult tattoo on his right shoulder working at the Casa del Libro bookstore in San Sebastian, Spain for pointing me and my wife to their small but excellent selection of English-language books.  He also recommended for plane reading the magically engaging Career of Evil (2016) by Robert Galbraith.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in “Oklahoma!”

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly BulkeleyA brilliant exploration of the dark psychological depths of sexual desire appears in an unlikely place—a country musical from the 1940’s.

Oklahoma! was the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the duo who went on to write many of Broadway’s most famous mid-century musicals.  A new production of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival promises to stimulate new interest in this classic theatrical work through innovative casting, staging, and choreography from director Bill Rauch and choreographer Ann Yee.

Oklahoma! offers a surprisingly complex portrait of dreaming, desire, and the unconscious mind, and I plan to write a more detailed appraisal once the OSF production opens in April.  To set the stage, as it were, I wanted to start with an overview of the traditional production, which opened in 1943 and has since been performed in thousands of other venues in the US and around the world.  An Academy Award-winning movie adaptation appeared in 1955.

Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and a Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s friends.

The play both opens and closes with the joyfully optimistic song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and the action unfolds in the space created between those two happy moments of dawning light.

In the very center of the play, at the end of the Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey’s conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.  Other plays and musicals before Oklahoma! had included scenes of dancing framed as dreams, but no one had ever pushed the dream theme into such bold psychological territory, with so much sophistication and artistry in the choreography.  Much of the credit goes to Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, who helped Rogers and Hammerstein craft what became one of the most famous scenes in the play.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly Bulkeley

In the scene just before the ballet, Jud is alone and brooding about his sexual frustration.  The pornographic “postcards” in his room excite his fantasies (“And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head”), but ultimately leave him feeling empty, deceived, and even angrier than before.  He finally declares, “I ain’t gonna dream ‘bout her arms no more!” and sets off to claim Laurey for his own.

Laurey, meanwhile, sits down in the shade of a tree in her yard and drinks a special sleeping potion (“the Elixir of Egypt”) she purchased from Ali Hakim, hoping it will “make up my mind fer me” and help her “to see things clear.”  She slowly nods off, while a group of neighboring girls sing a lullaby about flying from her dreams into the arms of the man she truly loves.  The girls disappear, Laurey falls into a deep sleep, and the dream begins.

Each of the characters in the main love triangle has a kind of dream-world counterpart or avatar, a professional dancer who performs their roles during the 17-minute sequence.  It begins well enough, with Laurey dancing “ecstatically” with Curly.  After many vigorous upward thrusts and arousing leaps through the air, they find themselves at a wedding, walking down the aisle, about to take their vows.  But at the last moment it is Jud, not Curly, who appears in front of her.  Laurey is terrified as Jud and the risqué women from his postcards take over the dream.  Curly has a gun and tries to shoot Jud, but the gun has no effect.  Jud attacks Curly and starts choking him to death.  Laurey begs Jud to stop, and promises to go with him if he will spare Curly’s life.  Jud agrees, and takes Laurey with him, as she bids a “heartbroken” farewell to Curly.

At this moment, Jud walks up to the tree in her yard.  “Wake up, Laurey,” he says, “It’s time to start fer the party.”  Just then Curly walks up to the house, too, hoping she will choose him instead.  Laurey, now fully awake, is seized with panic:

“Remembering the disaster of her recent dream, she avoids its reality by taking Jud’s arm and going with him, looking wistfully back at Curly with the same sad eyes that her ballet counterpart had on her exit. Curly stands alone, puzzled, dejected and defeated, as the curtain falls.”

This marks the end of Act I.

The provocative content and staging of the Dream Ballet was originally envisioned by Hammerstein to be “bizarre, imaginative and amusing, and never heavy.” (Carter 129)  De Mille, however, wanted to shift the tone; she suggested bringing Jud’s postcard girls into the action, and making the whole thing darker and gloomier.  Virtually all musicals try to send their audiences into intermission on a happy, buoyant note; the Dream Ballet of Oklahoma!  has the diametrically opposite effect, which de Mille felt would be entirely appropriate for Laurey’s character and situation at this point in the story.

In a later interview, de Mille said she pushed Hammerstein to make the dream sequence more emotionally realistic, more like the kinds of anxiety dreams that girls and young women actually experience: “Girls don’t dream about the circus. They dream about horrors. And they dream dirty dreams.” (Carter 123)

Thus, the core moment in one of America’s most beloved works of musical theater is a violently realistic sexual nightmare.

The Dream Ballet is an amazing work of art.  It is also a remarkably insightful portrait of the dreaming mind.  For those who study dreams, Oklahoma! raises a number of intriguing questions that can shed new light on the play, its cultural impact, and the dreaming imagination.  I will wait to see the OSF production in late April before saying more, but these are some of the anticipatory questions and ideas dancing through my mind:

Was Agnes de Mille right, as a matter of empirical fact, that girls have a tendency to dream about “horrors” and “dirty” topics?  What might modern research on the dream patterns of young women reveal about the unconscious dynamics of Laurey’s dilemma?

Has Laurey unknowingly performed a ritual of dream incubation?  She drinks the “Elixir of Egypt,” sleeps in a special place, focuses her mind on a particular question as she drifts off, and then has a dream relating to her question.  That’s pretty much the definition of a dream incubation ritual (as per Kimberley Patton.)

Is Laurey’s dream a threat simulation, along the lines of what Antti Revonsuo has proposed?  Revonsuo focused on recurrent chasing nightmares as an instance of dreams that simulate a possible threat and rehearse our response to it, so we’re better prepared in waking life if that threat should actually arise.  Laurey has a dream of Jud threatening to kill Curly, which is indeed a realistic appraisal of the dangers in her waking life.

Is her dream a sexual wish-fulfillment, as Sigmund Freud would say?  In 1940’s New York City, it’s a fair guess the Oklahoma! creative team knew about psychoanalysis and its theories about unconscious sexual desires.  Laurey certainly has a more intense and erotic interaction with Curly in dreaming than she ever does in waking.  The dream’s sexual charge only grows with the appearance of Jud’s postcard girls, who stir up even more libidinal energy, with less romance and more raw carnal desire.  And poor Curly with his limp gun…

Is Jud a shadow symbol for Laurey and the whole Oklahoma community, as Carl Jung might suggest?  From the very beginning of the play Jud is portrayed as dark, crude, rough, hairy, animal-like, stupid, and inarticulate.  He lives alone in a “smokehouse,” seething with unfulfilled instinctual urges.  He could be seen as a radical Other, in the symbolic lineage of Lucifer, Caliban, Gollum, and Darth Vader, the embodiment of all the darkness that is not allowed into the light of conscious awareness, and thus banished to the depths of the unconscious.

Does Laurey misinterpret her dream?  How exactly is her action upon awakening (choosing Jud over Curly) justified by what she has dreamed?  In both fiction and real life, people who instantly interpret their dreams usually get it wrong.  The quick response often overlooks deeper, more important meanings that the conscious mind may be all to ready to move past.  (I call this “the Odyssean fallacy.”)

Does Jud misinterpret his dream?  Same question—why does Jud think the action he takes (aggressively demanding Laurey’s affection) is justified by his arousing yet frustrating dreams of the postcard girls?  What might he be overlooking?

Finally, how will the OSF creative team reimagine this classic work for a new century and a new America?

I can’t wait to see!

 

Reference: Tim Carter, Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical, Yale University Press, 2007.