Friday, January 25, 2013

A nightmare to remember

People say it's boring to hear about other people's dreams. But people think things like sport and cars are interesting, so I wouldn't trust what people say.

Admittedly, I won't exactly be engrossed if someone's telling me their blandly psychedelic dream about being on holiday with friends when weird shit happens, and I dismiss the trashy dream psychology that can interpret teeth falling out in a myriad of contradictory ways depending on which pocket What Do My Dreams Mean? guide you buy at 70% discount from The Works "book shop." But sometimes dreams can be really interesting, as long as they're well written.

A lot of dreams have obvious or subtle messages to be mulled over the next day, but when it comes to nightmares I've always been more impressed when my unconscious delivers a traditional chilling experience just for the sake of the chill, rather than something to be psychoanalysed that's revealing of my hidden desires. At least I hope not, or else I'm about to tell you everything.

I've just spent an enjoyably macabre evening immersing myself in the kind of horror fiction I like - folky, arcane and subtle - and if that doesn't mean I can look forward to a cracking nightmare tonight, maybe writing about some of the greatest hits of my brain's dark side will seal the deal. Take thou heed and be thou warned, voyagers into the darkness; for herein, foul night ghasts lurk!

Goo (age four)

Going way back to my early childhood, I probably only remember this dream today because I told my brother about it in subsequent years and we'd sometimes joke about it. I thought of it as a recurring dream, but as with other dream themes that I assumed to be recurring in my childhood, teens and even sometimes today, whether I really had it more than once or just imagined I did is impossible to know. The mind can't be trusted.

I can date this to around 1990 with reasonable accuracy, as it featured my family as it was then, without my youngest brother who may not have been born and the next brother along still being a toddler. I was standing in line next to my father, mother and brother in a featureless white room as we waited still and patiently for an old woman wearing a blue and white pinstripe dress and bonnet to lift each of us up in turn and set us back down, saying her name followed by their name. Her name was Goo. Their names were not always their real names, but the names by which I knew them.

'Goo, Daddy,' Goo raises and lowers my father with absurd strength. 'Goo, Mummy,' my mother the same. I'm next. She lifts me high - 'Goo, David' - and sets me down to the ground. I'm unable to speak. I try to force a scream, but my throat's too tight. 'Goo, Christopher,' she probably says, but I'm too concerned about my own wellbeing to notice or care about my brother right now. It feels like I'll never speak again. It feels like I can't breathe. I look at my parents in desperation, but they can't help me.

Goo's image is taken directly from Ladybird's The Gingerbread Boy from my bookshelf, in which she wasn't quite as scary. The guy in the bow tie and waistcoat did not feature.

The Fire (age five)

This more mainstream 'mare took place around the same time as the Goo dream, when we lived in Repton Drive. In the dream, the house is on fire and I'm caught in the centre of the blaze, with no means of escape. I'm sure many people have shared this nightmare. I look down at my feet and see perfect squares of cooked flesh plop one by one onto the parquet floor. Maybe not everyone has that bit of the dream. I wake up.

I'm pretty sure this brief nightmare would have been completely forgotten along with most of the others if I hadn't gone downstairs upon waking to watch an episode of Quick Draw McGraw in which the eponymous equine sheriff was shattered into tiny squares, just as I had been. I shivered.

Another tale of blood-curdling terror!
Image: Yowp

The Rooms (ages seven and up)

This was my classic childhood nightmare, one that I'm convinced was recurring because it happened a few times in my teens too and has even occurred more recently in a very similar form, I think within the past year. The age range of the dreams is apparent in my memories, as my height changes considerably in relation to the objects in the rooms.

These dreams are set in some sort of derelict museum, hotel complex or vast private home with countless rooms and corridors in an illogical, labyrinthine layout, lit by a very dim red light. Your basic contemporary haunted house. I'm the only person in here, and I feel a constant foreboding as I walk tentatively through the corridors, hoping to find the exit and fearing the unknown but certain forces that are waiting patiently to be disturbed.

Maybe I'd accidentally glimpsed Twin Peaks past my bedtime and buried the trauma down deep? Image: Zimbio

This fear would usually reach a crescendo that jolted me awake and back into safety. Sometimes it would be completely unseen - just a horrible, unquantifiable feeling when entering a bad room rather than a safe one. Other times, there would be a visual trigger, such as a statue or bust fixed to the wall. I'd try not to look at it - in my memories, the wooden walls and floral carpets of the dimly lit halls are vivid, but I always averted my gaze from these objects, which I intuitively knew were too scary to look at directly. There would sometimes be a button alongside them, which against my instincts I pushed, animating the figure and causing it to lunge towards me as I finally looked up.

If I ever moved between floors in the dream, I could only travel upwards. If I went down a staircase, the red light would fade as I plunged into pitch darkness and I would be gripped by terror, a unique experience to this dream that I've never felt in my waking life and hope not to. For the record, I've also had plenty of very enjoyable, not at all scary dreams set in vast buildings - impossibly huge hotels, castles, ocean liners, space stations - which tend to be naturally lit, expansive and awe-inspiring, rather than the densely packed, claustrophobic, dimly lit chambers of the nightmares.

The Invasion (age seven)

I said I wasn't going to bore you with faux-psychedelic 'weird' dreams, but there's one from my childhood that's always stood out, and like the scary stairs it had another distinctive type of terror that it's hard to put my finger on.

I'm in the back garden in Ashley Meadow, circa 1993, playing on the swing, when I get a sense that something's not right with the sky. The clouds look wrong, they're moving in unnatural ways, then each one reveals itself to be the camouflage for a gigantic space craft shaped like an animal's head. I know they're not real flying heads, they look artificial, but I also intuitively know their intentions here are not peaceful. An even larger bull's head descends, in profile from my vantage point, and its eye glows red, seeming to stare directly at me in spite of the great distance. This will be the end of everything.

I think the fear here was down to both the apocalyptic scenario and the sheer size of these objects. I used to have a strange fear of things that were bigger than they should be - I'd sometimes stare at a large, blank wall and imagine it being painted with a mural of Sonic the Hedgehog or something that would make me uneasy because it was too big, so I guess I should keep away from Australia's Big Things while I'm here.

Years later in my teens I had this feeling again. In this dream, I'm reclining in the back garden at Newfield Street, circa 1999, and see a flotilla of papers flying overhead at high altitude. They're far away, but there are enough of them to be seen, a shifting, multi-coloured mass. This chaos then organises itself into an accurate, full-colour representation of Mr Garrison from South Park (and Mr Hat), which remains hanging in the sky for several seconds before the papers disband and are carried by the wind. The sheer unlikelihood of this happening by chance sends a shiver down my spine. Was the universe trying to tell me something? Was this its messenger?

The fact that it happened to be such a ridiculous character should not detract from the existential dread. Image: Wikipedia

The Silent Film (age twenty-six)

This is a more recent one, from the past year or two, and I warmly embraced it as evidence that it's still possible to have creative, classic nightmares in adulthood, and that they haven't all been usurped by rubbish anxiety dreams about imminent work deadlines or unprepared-for German exams that I already have enough of. Similar to my haunted house dreams, the terror here was subtle and mostly implied. I've never had a dream where someone chased after me with an axe, I don't get anything from that type of horror.

This dream, which I may have had once or twice, begins with me watching a silent horror film. I have a great appreciation for the early expressionist horrors, and even though the campy, deliberately over-the-top acting leans more towards comedy than horror, everything about the look and atmosphere of those films makes them a little scary to me by default. These qualities are tuned up significantly in the dream, which I just now realise also takes some inspiration from the modern Japanese horror style of The Ring and also has shades of M. R. James' story 'The Mezzotint' and that bit in Roald Dahl's The Witches when a girl gets trapped in a painting, which scared me as a kid.

My subconscious is such a plagiarist. Image:

The film I'm watching is very slow paced, in fact it's more like a painting than a motion picture as there's very little motion, just the billowing of the grass and silhouettes of the trees in a dark field, all washed over with a blue tint. A solitary country house is on the right side of the frame, with no lights in the windows and no signs of life apart from the flickering and scratched film grain. I'm aware that there's something inherently mysterious about this film I've tracked down - it was presumed lost, it may be the only copy, it may have been the first horror film, take your pick, but there's something sinister about its legacy.

As I watch for longer, the line between the film and reality blurs and I'm in the field, walking between the trees on jumpy, degraded film stock, growing more aware of a dangerous presence somewhere in the dark that never manifests, or at least hasn't thus far in this ambient nightmare. Perhaps tonight will be Act II?

Tiny Darth Vader (age twenty-one)

During my final year of university, I went through a brief phase of taking accidental mini-naps in the morning, probably caused by not getting enough sleep because I stayed up late on the internet, desperately trying to carve out some me-time after my cohabiting girlfriend fell asleep. I had a lot to learn about being in a relationship. I only have slightly less to learn nowadays.

As these dreams were on the cusp of wakefulness, they were very brief and there was usually some level of lucidity, which I would pathetically fail to take advantage of. On this occasion, I found myself in an office setting and thought it would be cool to have a nightmare, so I gave my unconscious permission to make one. This was going to be fun! I would so love a good scare.

There was a single desk in this office, and the swivel chair had its back to me. Anyone, anything could be in that chair, about to face me - what would my darkest fear turn out to be? Come on, brain.

I cautiously approached the chair and desk, trying to prepare myself for the inevitable scare, noticing as I got close how it was strange I couldn't see anything above the back rest, which wasn't all that tall. This wasn't going to be a regular human I was dealing with...

It swivelled!

There in front of me, perched on the chair, was... some sort of... it was a tiny Darth Vader. Either a dwarf or a child in a custom Vader outfit anyway. There was nothing scary about this at all. Darth Vader, seriously? Is anyone scared of Darth Vader, even a child? Let alone a 21-year-old man? A miniature Darth Vader at that. Is that the best you can do?

My mind had failed me again. But because I'd built up the anticipation, I emitted a shrill squeal of pent-up anxiety. It took some effort to force it out of my throat. It felt real.

You know, I was making a real effort to try to make this post genuinely scary at the start.
Image: Geeky Gadgets

I opened my eyes and saw my girlfriend trying not to laugh. She then failed. When I confessed the details of the night terror that had caused this audible wail, she laughed even more. Whichever writer was on dream duty that day should be fired.

Interesting? Tedious? I'd love to hear about your classic childhood nightmares if you have a minute - terrifying, embarrassing or deeply revealing.


  1. I had a really scary, really vivid dream when I was very small- probably pre-school age. I was walking along Charlotte Square with my mum, and there was a white sheet on the ground. As I walked past it a really really black man grabbed me and pulled me under, and started laughing maniacally and wouldn't let me go. Now I'm a bit like "why was that scary?" and am worried that I'm a closet racist.

    About 8 months ago I had a dream that really freaked me out. In the dream I kept sleepwalking and doing things I couldn't remember, because I was possessed by the devil. There was this chilling feeling of real dread and horror so I woke myself up... then I rolled over and James opened his eyes, grinned an evil grin... because he was Satan, and I couldn't escape by waking up. So I tried to wake up again, and each time I thought I was back in my bed something nasty would happen. It took me ages to wake up from that one, and I was a bit suspicious of James for a few days.

    My weirdest dream happened when I was about 19. I dreamed that I was a well respected male exorcist, in my thirties. It was obviously a really elaborate dream, because at the end I was in an aeroplane trying to get rid of this evil spirit and then I woke up, completely confused and disoriented. The only way I could describe the feeling is, imagine if you woke up tomorrow to find that your whole life was a dream and you're actually a teenage girl. It was that confusing.

    1. Being a therapist might not be so bad, I found your screwed up mind really entertaining. Thanks!

    2. You're welcome! :D Of course, the worst nightmare I have is when I'm back in the office I used to work in in Edinburgh, after bigmouth. That one brings me out in a cold sweat every time.

    3. I've had the recurring dream where I'm back in Edinburgh quite a few times over the last few years, and I always feel like I've made a big mistake, and really disappointed in myself for just going back to my old life like nothing happened. I've got nothing against the place (maybe still my favourite place in the world, and loads of great memories), but it's not the right time. I always head to the airport and buy an expensive plane ticket to anywhere, just to get back on the right track.

  2. I had a nightmare last night about dinosaurs attacking the city. I had to climb a lamp post to avoid a Velociraptor, but then another one snook up on me from behind - clever girl!

    I woke up in shock and told my girlfriend about it, then spotted a drawing of a dinosaur she'd done... which CAME TO LIFE AND ATTACKED ME! I woke up and realised I'd been shouting for real. I am twenty-seven years old.