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by Kyla Ward

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#5, 1990

'If we shadows have offended
think but this, and all is mended
That you have but slumbered here
while these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more the yielding, but a dream.'
          A Midsummer's Night's Dream
          William Shakespeare

The experience of dreaming is constantly undervalued in our culture. It is as though the emotional, and other sorts of mental work, that is done whilst in a state of sleep is somehow intrinsically worthless. Secondary, a mere illusion, without a 'real' cause. What is said to a child woken screaming from night terrors? 'There, there, it's only a dream.' The point overlooked is that yes, it was a dream. But something frightened the child.

Dreams work symbolically. Even the Women's Weekly publishes lists of common symbols and their meanings, so you can 'read' your dreams. This is not entirely folly. Certain images do have certain usual meanings in their culture or origin and context. It is certain that any movie or book of the horror or fantasy genre will draw upon them for part of their effect. But dreams can also draw on experiences of your own life, which will operate as symbols. Dreams, in these senses can hold meaning, though whether they can predict the future is a matter for personal metaphysics. Fortune-telling 'dream books' survive from New Kingdom Egypt, indicating what fate a dream of attacking crocodiles, for instance, foretells and what can be best done about it.

The attraction, for fantasy writing, film and art, of the concept of a state where the information received by the mind does not arise from the 'real' world, but from memory and imagination, should be obvious. Apart from this, it is traditional for fantasy and science fiction to explore what science cannot -- whether yet, or ever. Future World (Paul N. Lazarus, 1976), the sequel to the science-fiction film Westworld (1973) involves a sequence where the heroine is hooked up to a machine that allows others to see her dreams. These images involve a series of subconscious memories that are an important clue to the secret goings on in the park (she recalls a medical examination she underwent while drugged).

Dream sequences used in this way appear in a number of movies and books as reinforcements of their symbolism. They are frequently precognitions of later events, and explain graphically the situation as the hero/ine is not yet prepared to believe it. One of the most effective visions of this sort occurs in Ken Russel's Lair of the White Worm. It is also perhaps one of the most dream-like, as it casts the situation symbolically, into the most unlikely bounds of a small version of the Concord sitting in a misty void. In the airline-sterile interior out young hero finds the protagonists; Lady Sylvia and the local girl with whom he is investigating the disappearance of her parents, as air-hostessess. Also present are her parents themselves, strapped into seats. She, at the front, is going through the motions of demonstrating the use of a life vest, while Lady Sylvia pours black, evil-looking drinks down the throats of the hapless pair, then wheels them out through the curtain at the back. He takes a seat, whereupon his seat-belt slides around and locks him in. The lady approaches, smiling, with another black drink... The lady is, of course, the vampiric snake-creature who has sacrificed the girl's father to the god she serves and turned the mother into a like creature by means of her contaminating venom.

A step further is taken by the fabled Nightmare on Elm Street series. This is, that the reality of dreams is not metaphoric. The reactions to dream information becomes so literal they can kill. In Nightmare I this is brought to the point where what is in the dream-reality can come out. The heroine, in one sequence, is battling Freddy Krueger and grabs his hat just as she wakes -- and finds it in her hand back in the laboratory where she is undergoing observation. There is a particularly effective doubling between the scientific setting with it's professionally concerned doctors and graphs, and the hideous activity of her dreaming which they can only see as a tremendous increase in the reactions they are monitoring.

Nightmare on Elm Street I had a particular logic of dreams. It was the children's own fears and weaknesses that allowed their gruesome nemesis to gain hold. Dreams are, after all, the creation of the mind supplying its own data. The heroine survives Nightmare because she, alone of her friends, confronts Freddy and then turns her back on him. And the spectre fades. If this is a moral, it is one very basic to dreaming and one that informs much children's literature but also much fantasy.

By Nightmare III, however, this logic has been broken by the demand for sequels, and Freddy must be laid by bell, book and candle of the advice of the ghost of a nun. But it is another concept of dreams, to see them as gateways which another entity may use. This is what Nightmare on Elm Street turns into, unfortunately halfway through. One of the best examples of this type of 'dream' is the H. P. Lovecraft short story Dreams in the Witch House. A young physics student becomes so caught up in theories of impossible geometry, which he links to local legends of the witch, Keziah, that it begins to intrude on his sleep. He experiences the same dream, night after night, each time progressing a little further. He sees the witch and her familiar in a corner of his room, crossing the floor closer and closer towards him. By the time he realises that what he has been doing by his arcane experimenting is drawing himself into the witch's realm and under her power, it is irredeemable. The dream state here is taken to being a special type of perception, that allows that which is normally hidden to be revealed. (Kinda (yet again) is also an example of this. Not only is Tegan's dreaming a gateway for the Mara but its actual content is a symbolic representation of her three travelling companions as she sees them. And whilst I'm here, Fright Night II, against all expectation a very good movie, has a twist on the normal dream sequence well worth checking out -- Ed)

What dreams undoubtedly are is a marvellous resource for imaginative narratives. Sometimes the link is even more direct then the provision of a useful structuring device. Anne Radcliffe, the C18th author whose credits include The Castle of Udolpho, is reported to have purposefully eaten bad meat to induce the frightful raw material of her books. Robert Bloch, a Weird Tales contributor in the 50's attributed his classic tale The Headsman (some men collect paintings and objects of art. Others collect stamps, matchbooks, buttons. But these things were not for a connoisseur like Otto Krantz. He collected human heads! [1]) directly to a dream, and of course there is the almost legendary tale of Mary Shelley's creation of Frankenstein. It is hard to give reasons for valuing dreams, or a least respecting them. They cannot be attributed to a single, creative act, as can a painting or suchlike. They often contravene logic. But they are nonetheless a piece of your own mental work, and as such should be appreciated even just for what they tell you about your own knowledge of, and adaption of, symbols. A shadow is always cast by something.


[1] pp. 138-9 A Pictorial History of Horror Stories: Peter Haining, Treasure Press, London, 1985.


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