by Elise McArdle
Roman Emperor Caligula famously dreamt of standing before the throne of Jupiter. Jupiter, whom Caligula believed to be the king of all gods, kicked Caligula and sent him falling from Olympus back to Earth. Distraught, Caligula interpreted this dream as a metaphor for hubris. Fearing death, he perceived himself as having been rejected by the gods. The next day he was assassinated, and another emperor took his place.
Historically, dreams have held great significance in mythology, religion, literature and even politics. Ancient cultures believed dreams were sent by gods and goddesses, to warn their recipients, offer advice, or predict the future. Both mysterious and highly personal, dreams were regarded as divine communication from deities. Dream interpretation has existed since the dawn of culture.
Jesika told me the scariest dream she ever had.
“It was a house with many rooms,” she told me, “a house like an old Victorian. And I crawled through the rooms to get to the top of the house, but there were, like, eight floors.”
We were standing in the noisy hallway between classes, urgently talking under our breath, as was our norm. The endless flood of girls parted around us.
“As I climbed the floors, I grew more terrified,” she said, leaning towards me. “But all I knew was I had to keep climbing. I had to.” Her voice was urgent, but all of our conversations were characterized by a degree of urgency. “When I got to the final room, I opened the door and
looked in,” she said. “I have no idea what I saw. But all I knew was, it wasn’t human. It repeated in my mind: It isn’t human. It isn’t human. And I was blind with terror. I woke up.” She smiled.
Jesika was the smartest girl in our school, a valedictorian and creative genius who now does research at Berkeley. Her flushed face and auburn hair were bundled into a large gray scarf that she’d remove when class started, so as not to violate the uniform code. The class bell rang and I handed Jesika a book. She tucked it into her enormous purse and hustled to class, uniform skirt swishing and vodka sloshing in her Rosary Girl’s School water bottle.
Jesika stole me many books from the library. Her taste was impeccable. It gave me a small shock of satisfaction to note the little library jacket on the inside of my latest gift, a blank space where they usually stamp the due date. A lifelong cardholder, I didn’t need books stolen; but I think we both liked the secret illicit implications, innocent as they were, that charged our hallway interactions.
Today’s book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I didn’t understand it.
In intro to psychology, they teach a bit of Freud. Class materials include a grain of salt, though you haven’t yet reached his crueler or more sexist propositions. Despite his shortcomings, Freud’s theories on dreams are one of the foremost resources on the topic. Freud asserted that dreams were primarily “wish-fulfillment,” the subconscious mind’s way of experiencing longed-for events in a safe environment. Dreams could be rich with metaphor and hidden meaning, as the brain changed repressed material into sequences the individual could process without tripping on the roadblock of guilt. The dream’s latent content was its deeper meaning, the real-life cause of the emotions felt within the dream. Its manifest content was the
“plot” of the dream: what the dreamer remembered upon waking. Through dream interpretation, Freud believed we could learn about ourselves; our underlying fears and desires.
I had an odd sleep schedule my junior year of high school. At six a.m., I went to band practice at our brother school. I took the bus to Rosary, stayed the day then carpooled home. At five p.m., I went to my job at the movie theater. Most nights, I made popcorn and swept said popcorn as late as two a.m. The result was that I supplemented the short night’s sleep with nearly constant naps.
My schedule allowed for consistent naps on the bus, in art class, study hall, lunch hour, and after school. If it was an especially tired day, I skipped a class to sleep in the nurse’s office, a dimly lit and quiet room hosting two cots and some dismal, scratchy blankets. Sometimes another girl, presumably actually sick, was sleeping on the opposite cot. I was guiltless. Rosary had a way of making me feel I owed them nothing, that it was they who were indebted for the vital periods of my adolescence spent in uniform and church.
Frequent naps are quite conducive to dream remembrance. The portions of our sleep which do not involve dreams are where the recent ones are lost. Shorter sleep periods make you more likely to interrupt a dream upon waking, or to awake just moments from its ending. Many times, I was woken by the class bell and felt the shreds of a dream slipping away from me as I gathered my books.
I reached a point of remembering about four dreams a day. It turned into a hobby, then an obsession. I kept a dream journal, where I wrote the details of each dream while they were fresh on my mind. I began to remember a weird recurring dream that I had occasionally. In this dream, I was walking down a river. The river itself and its appearance varied, but it was always large with a flowing current. As I walked along this river, it began to change. Whirlpools and water
falls appeared, small at first then larger as I continued downstream. I grew aware of increasing amounts of pollution and trash littering the river and ground around it. The air grew suffocating, and breathing became difficult. A sense of danger began to pervade the dream. Eventually, the setting became so bad that it was difficult to continue, but I always kept going until I woke up.
Around this time, Jesika got a boyfriend. Ben was tall and muscular, with a confident smirk and pretentious demeanor. His head was shaved, and his arms were crisscrossed with self-inflicted burn marks. They led a path to his chest, where they spelled the word, “Valor.” He was partial to suspenders and combat boots. Our personalities clashed horribly, much to Jesika’s amusement. Ben was good with words, and we could tease each other caustically for long bouts at a time. Maybe Jesika found it funny, maybe she was flattered we fought for her attention. I don’t think she sensed the deep and real mutual hatred lying under the surface of my interactions with Ben.
Here is how to lucid dream.
First: Write all your dreams down, every morning. You can train your mind to remember more each night. The average person has three to five dreams per sleep period, but you can actually have up to seven.
Next: Be hyper-aware of your surroundings. Learn to constantly look around and ask, “Does this make sense?” Make note of who you’re with and what you’re doing. Know where your body is in space and time.
Then: Perform reality checks. Look at your hands. In a dream, your mind has trouble nailing little details like your correct number of fingers. If you can keep your cool and not wake up, the missing or extra digits will alert you that you’re in a dream.
Last: As you fall asleep, tell yourself that you will lucid dream. If/when it happens, just relax; and most important of all, don’t wake up.
Jesika’s mom had a great little apartment. She worked in Chicago and was rarely home. We had free reign as long we kept red wine off the carpet. The apartment had many amenities, but the couch was its best feature. It was a huge fluffy white thing that looked to be straight out of the seventies. It was our favorite place to curl up and talk. I felt lucky when we got the time around my job, her academics and Ben’s insidious presence. It was there she first explained to me his charges.
Ben was up for three cases of sexual assault for three different girls. “Jealous exes,” said Jesika. Jungian archetypes crept through my dismayed brain. The Witch, the Whore, the Sage, the Martyr. I knew which ones he wanted to be associated with.
Despite my gut reaction, I did believe that Ben had some intense enemies. Crazy people have crazy exes, right? I almost bought it. Instead, I felt ill. I wondered how someone with Jesika’s intellect could be so nearsighted, stuck inside a dream.
As my journaling continued, I began to remember nightmares so graphic that they read like horror movies. There was almost always a beginning, a suspenseful buildup, and a bizarre climactic revelation. I felt like my imagination was working against me. More than once I woke up with tears on my face. My waking self was shocked at how sick and scared my subconscious apparently was. These nightmares occurred most commonly between two and six a.m. The only time I slept was when it was dark out.
What’s the scariest dream you’ve ever had? It’s astonishing how many people know it off the top of their head. If you desire emotional intimacy with a total stranger, I recommend this topic as a quick and easy shortcut.
You/me: “What’s the scariest dream you’ve ever had?”
Eric at the Eighth Note: “Oh, wow. Yeah, I know it. Well, it’s from a while ago, from when I was younger. I was in an attic; I want to say it was my grandma’s house. There were these stairs. They were carpeted, but in the dream the carpet and the wood were gone, and only the frame was there. I was crawling around on them, and I kept falling, then I’d get caught by the next step. So that was scary, the constant falling. But then I also remember my dad being there, and we had just recently had puppies, and uh, we didn’t really know what to do with them. So my dad was like, yelling at the dogs, and was like, ‘We don’t have the resources to have puppies,’ and he started like, throwing them down the stairs. He was just tossing them. And I was trying to catch them. But I was falling too.”
One day in winter, I skipped class for a nap in the nurse’s office. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a lipsticked mouth grinning at me from the other cot. Jesika was skipping at the same time, by coincidence. The whole school was asleep as she climbed over to my cot. She had a way of making me feel comfortable, even in the starched skirts and itchy vests we wore. I watched her curl up next to me, made even lovelier by the dim light’s chiaroscuro. We hadn’t been so close in a while, but it felt just like it always had.
After the bell, we walked to her locker and she gave me a book. It was The Elephant Vanishes, a book of Murakami’s surrealistic short stories. We both adored it, but disagreed on
the best stories. My favorite was “Sleep,” about a woman who never did. Hers was “The Second Bakery Attack,” about a hungry couple who stick up a McDonald’s. Flipping through the stories, I noticed she’d forgotten her bookmark. It was a Victoria’s Secret receipt. I chewed my fingers till they bled and read it during class (Christian Scriptures).
As upsetting as they were to experience, I never wanted to hide from my dreams. I had come to value remembering them. It was worse to imagine experiencing subconscious terrors I could not remember, the old terror of being under anesthesia that paralyzes without numbing. I believed, and still do, that our dream experiences have meaning. At very least for self-discovery, but what else is there? The human experience is emotionally rich, and each of us leads amazingly complex inner lives. The fear felt in a nightmare is real fear: if I could conquer it, I should never be afraid again.
The most common reported dream in America is falling. The second most is teeth crumbling. I’ve had my share of self-explanatory falling dreams, but the teeth one is just interesting. It’s so specific, especially considering that teeth don’t often simply crumble. Popular theories include: teeth symbolize beauty and self-presentation. Teeth symbolize self-sufficiency, the ability to bite and eat. Since teeth decay with age, crumbling teeth symbolize fear of death. Personally, I’ve heard that primates flash teeth as a sign of dominance, and that it’s the reason humans smile at each other. Just a thought.
Carl Jung wrote of a collective unconscious. Informed by deep instinct, the collective unconscious is a stratum that all humans are born with. It includes figures such as the Mother, the Shadow, the Tree of Life, the Storm. (The Teeth?) Jung believed these images transcend cultures and individuals to communicate abstract concepts shared by all humans. Like Freud,
Jung believed our dream projections are informed by our desires for sex, food and power. Unlike Freud, he believed they are also informed by innate desires for unity, knowledge, expression, and love.
After months of writing in my dream journal and obsessing at my hands, I had my first lucid dream. Fittingly, it occurred in the river dream. I was walking downstream, as usual, when I saw a figure in the distance. When I got closer, I recognized my supervisor at the cinema. As I approached him a strong wind swirled, threatening to blow us into the river. He handed me a package, and I flipped it over to check the date, as I often did for food at work.
“I think this is expired,” he said.
The dates stamped on the box sped by before my eyes. Like the changing time on a digital clock, the numbers moved faster and faster until they were a blur. Suddenly they stopped on 5/3/12. That was the day’s real date.
“This is a dream,” I said.
The next night, I remembered five dreams. A snake that bit my palm. A pool with a fish that was dying. A picnic in the library of my childhood. A church with a roof that opened to the sky. And a dream of fire and war, and hiding behind barricades, until a synapse fired inside my sleeping brain and my dream-self lifted to the sky— electrified and weightless in the smoke clouds as I watched my enemies burn a wall.