The Enigma of Dreams

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by dreams. I’m a vivid dreamer and always have been: for me, falling asleep doesn’t mean just blacking out in bed, but entering another dimension – one that’s often strange and grim, even downright disturbing at times – and there have been mornings when I’ve wondered if I wouldn’t prefer to be one of those people who don’t seem to dream. Even now, I can still clearly recall the vibes and visions of countless dreams I had when I was growing up.

What fascinates me in particular is recurring dreams – themes and settings that crop up again and again in dreams, even years apart, giving that other dimension an apparent continuity and cohesion that makes you wonder if it isn’t more than just a reel of eclectic psycho-garbage. Speaking for my own vast backlog, there have been a number of identifiable themes that stem back to my childhood and still manifest every now and again, including:

Spiders. I attribute this largely to the fact that the suburb I grew up in, close to wetlands/rural territory, was riddled with spiders – and we’re talking big hairy fuckers the size of your hand. More than once I fell asleep to the sight of a grisly, eight-legged silhoutte clinging to the flyscreen outside my bedroom window. In my dreams, these huntsmen spiders often lurked in cardboard boxes, with only a couple of legs sticking out of the top, while in one dream that felt more surreal than scary, they were actually able to float through the air, their legs dangling limp like the tentacles of a swimming jellyfish.

Trains. Probably the most repeated theme of all has been railway tracks, stations and trains – always of an old, industrial nature, and often the only animated elements of an otherwise silent and stagnant industrial world. Dream encyclopedias cite train dreams as relating to upcoming/recently-commenced journeys in life, or, conversely, a lack of direction or progress if you miss or are continually waiting for one. Again, my childhood almost definitely had some influence here: as a kid I used to be fascinated by trains, especially the metal pipes, gears and other machinery beneath the carriages, whose heavy, intertwined and rusted appearance these industrial dream-worlds emulate on a grand scale.

Teeth falling out. Probably the most universal theme – everyone’s had the teeth-falling-out dream. I don’t think there’s any mystery as to its meaning: the dream quite clearly symbolizes insecurity. You need your teeth to smile, eat, assert yourself (by gritting or baring, like animals do), so the loss of them is inevitably traumatic and leaves you feeling extremely vulnerable… not to mention hugely relieved when you wake up to realize they’re still firmly locked into their cavities!

Supermarkets. This is the only theme that still recurs regularly for me, and whose meaning (if any) eludes me. In a sense it’s easily explainable – supermarkets have been a part of my life far more than spiders and trains. One of my earliest childhood memories is shopping at Moorabbin Safeway with my mum; my first job was at Coles Sandringham, where I worked for three years; and now, as an independent adult, I wander through the aisles of Balaclava Coles and Safeway every week. But why I dream about these places – and why it’s always a Safeway; usually the one in Mordialloc or Chelsea – I have no idea.

Haunted rooms. Occasionally, even today, I’ll have a dream about finding myself in a room where the presence is simply, diabolically evil – and usually becomes so (or it dawns upon me that it’s there) very suddenly. I’m not talking about a tangible monster, axe murderer or something like that here, and that’s largely what makes it so frightening – the presence is invisible, omniscient and can’t be defeated; at best, merely fled from.

As I touched on above, there’s no doubt that dreams often serve to express stresses or desires currently occupying the back of your mind. Sometimes it’s not clear what they are – for example, the oversized spiders lurking in sheds and boxes probably represent some unfaced anxieties packed away in my subconscious. Other times these stresses and desires are presented openly, as is, without any need for interpretation. A good example that pretty much everyone’s experienced is dreaming about kissing and/or holding hands with a lost or potential love interest. Very occasionally, I’ve had this involve a female for which I actually have little or no attraction to in real life, but from whom I may have picked up some subconscious cues. My co-workers at Channel 7 have also shared stories about ‘captioning dreams’ – apparently an inevitability of working in the industry too long – in which they are either captioning exactly as they do in real life, or, more bizarrely, where the dream itself is actually subtitled as if it were a TV program.

I believe that themed dreams in particular are symptomatic of deep and long-term mental baggage, such as self-esteem issues, guilt, loneliness or childhood trauma. They seem to indicate that dreams are not just random, one-off ‘movies’ that your mind makes up to pass the time, then cancels and deletes when you wake up, but broad and tangible universes that you revisit from time to time in your nightly comas – landscapes animated by a subconscious that, like a ghost, won’t reveal itself in broad daylight but calls out for attention or resolution at night. Many of my dreams have been set in a vast industrial city, full of crumbling skyscrapers and abandoned infrastructure similar to Leo di Caprio’s dream world in Inception (image here), which I probably return to whenever I feel a project has run down into failure or I’ve neglected some area of my life.

Having mentioned Inception, it is possible that, like Leo di Caprio’s team in that film, we go somewhere when we dream, at least in a cerebral sense? Is it possible that while we’re asleep, our dream world is just as real and crucial as waking reality – and waking reality just as vague and unreal a memory? Could some dreams be reliving key past life experiences – say, one in which I was abused in a room as a child, fled, and spent my teenage years as a vagabond, walking along railway tracks, living in abandoned buildings full of spiders? I don’t really believe that but it’s an interesting thought, and recently a number of movies like Shutter Island and Inception (which I reviewed against The Matrix here) have explored the fascinating concept that our minds actively construct or distort reality instead of merely absorbing it.

Anyway, to end I’ll go right back to the start – to one of the very first dreams I can remember. It was short and utterly plotless: just picture a perfectly normal, well-lit butcher’s shop operating in the middle of the night as if it was the middle of the day, and dangling above the meats by a piece of string, an extremely creepy blue mask. The bizarre thing was that nobody but me could see it – or at least paid any attention it – so it’d bounce up and down on its string, cackling to itself, and if you can imagine this from the point of view of a camera, every now and then the blue mask would ‘fill the screen’, so that you could see nothing but its blue oval-shaped face, with its soulless gaze, slit-like eyes, effeminately rosy cheeks and slightly upturned mouth. At this point the rest of the world would freeze or ‘pause’ except for me and the mask, and this is why it seemed to be laughing to itself – it knew that I alone was aware of its malevolent presence in this random butcher’s shop in this innocent small town, but was powerless to make anyone else aware – and therein, perhaps, lay the dream’s meaning.

As with previous dream subjects, the mask itself has clearly identifiable roots in my childhood – in this case, an Ishka store my mum used to visit in Brighton. It’s a a very tame sort of outlet these days, full of jewellery, earthy tapestries and incense sticks, but years ago the upstairs was pretty much a disorganized attic full of authentic tribal paraphernalia, the walls adorned with spooky African masks – to the point where I refused to go up its creaky narrow stairs by myself. I even wrote a poem about the blue mask dream when I was 15, with which I’ll conclude this blog entry…

In the dead of the dead of the night,
When the world becomes lifeless and still,
The villagers their torches light,
To get rid of the darkness and chill.

But it is not the darkness nor chill that they fear,
Nor the shadows that dance by the light;
They’re afraid that they just might happen to hear
The laughter of the spectre of night.

They move without making at all any sound,
Oblivious to the spectre so near them,
They know that the spectre is somewhere around,
But know not that it can too hear them.

The Mask – the face of black magic and sin,
Possessed by a life of its own,
With its thin slanted eyes and malevolent grin,
And a stare that chills down to the bone.

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