Are Dreams Really a World of Our Own?

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and graphic violence and may be triggering to readers who are abuse or assault survivors. If you or someone you know is in crisis or dealing with abuse, you are not alone, and we urge you to seek help by using the hotlines mentioned at the bottom of this article.

 

I was standing on the side of the road, heart beating madly. I still don’t know why my mother was furious with me. Her screams were muffled as if they originated underwater. I tore the car keys from her hand, threw the van door open, turned the key in the ignition, and floored it. I was rocketing down a narrow, one-lane road. My younger sister Vix sat in the passenger seat, brows furrowed in concentration as she watched the road ahead of us turn into a white concrete wall. I pushed the pedal to the floor.

Then we flew through the wall as if it weren’t even there, emerging from the white into a vast abyss, lurching forward, tumbling out of the van, free falling into the void. I watched Vix shrieking, the whites of her eyes twinkling like dying stars; a scream clawed its way out of my throat.

My husband shook me awake and I felt the scream die on my lips. My dog crawled up from the foot of my bed and rested her head on my lap, licking my hand. All the sounds in my dark bedroom were radio static compared to the scream still echoing in my mind. Vix’s terror felt so real. The strange narrow road, the illusional concrete wall, they were grade-school cardboard dioramas. My sister’s fear was real, and it did not belong to me the way the fear in my other nightmares did.

The next morning, my mother told me Vix had been in a car accident the previous night. Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt, but she was severely shaken up.

This was not the first instance of a bizarre coincidence I experienced in the realm of dreams. I watched my grandmother choke up phlegm and blood in a forest of dark trees and unblinking yellow eyes on the night she was admitted to the hospital for a severe respiratory condition. I comforted my grieving sister in a warped McDonald’s PlayPlace two weeks before the untimely death of her pet. My childhood was a delirious carousel ride of prophetic nightmares. In an unpredictable environment, my mind forced a violent game of chess every time I closed my eyes: me against myself, searching for a way out of the next day’s minefield. During the days, I had so many instances of déjà vu from my dreams the night before, I was never quite sure if I was awake.

I have done quite a bit of research on dreams and dreaming, but many of my conclusions and beliefs are drawn from personal experience and parapsychological research. I am always looking for more information, research, and opinions on mysterious dreams. Some of Albus Dumbledore’s words seem appropriate here:

From this point forth, we shall be leaving the firm foundation of fact and journeying together through the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wildest guesswork.” (HBP 197)

Modern research on dreams with psi or parapsychological elements is growing, but there is a very real stigma placed on those who talk about having these kinds of dreams and the desire to explore them. Mysterious dreams have been a commonplace feature throughout world history. Harriet Tubman had dreams that helped her find safe pathways during her time on the Underground Railroad (Van de Castle 22). European monarchs have dreamed of their assassinations (Van de Castle 28), and Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own about two weeks before its occurrence (Van de Castle 30). These instances are a few examples of the many historical dreams that feature psi phenomena, but for many, it remains difficult to account for these types of dreams as extrasensory rather than coincidental. This is quite understandable, given the kinds of questions parapsychological dream researchers have to answer: How can we reliably test a dreamer’s precognitive abilities? How can we test a dreamer’s ability to form telepathic connections to a loved one in crisis?

Etzel Cardeña, Director of the Center for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology at Lund University, says that this is possible. He argues that psi phenomena “cannot be readily explained away by the quality of the studies, fraud, selective reporting, experimental or analytical incompetence, or other frequent criticisms. The evidence for psi is comparable to that for established phenomena in psychology and other disciplines, although there is no consensual understanding of them” (Cardeña 663).

If nothing else, dreams are powerful sets of symbols and images that relay important messages to us all. Sometimes a dream is like a Remembrall. Sometimes a dream is like a prophecy. Sometimes a dream is your soul’s way of checking in, letting you know if there’s something you need to pay attention to. No matter what message a dream is communicating, it serves as the symbol between the dreamer and a message from somewhere else: the dreamer’s unconscious mind, or maybe the mind of someone close to us, like my sister.

Alfonso Sánchez Medina proposed several theories concerning the origin of telepathic dreams.

Projective identification and counter-identification represent the oneiric basis of communication. One member of the analytic couple unconsciously transmits the contents of his real life to the other-and the other dreams them, thus gaining awareness of unconscious emotions and fantasies. In order to achieve this kind of communication, however, it is essential that an intense emotional climate develops – and this is particularly true in cases where unconscious abandonment fantasies are at stake.” (Sánchez Medina 380)

Intense emotions as a necessary component of telepathic dreams is a concept additionally supported by Edward Bruce Bynum in his book The Dreamlife of Families: The Psychospiritual Connection, and it corresponds to my own experiences. More interestingly, this concept matches up with many of Harry Potter’s dreams, particularly those concerning his shared connection with Voldemort.

Harry had an unusual closeness to Voldemort’s soul, much closer than my closeness to my sister or than between any other pair of people living or fictional. Living with Voldemort’s soul in his body gave him special insight into Voldemort’s daily life, at least when the latter’s emotions were strong. In the second chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry woke up from a vivid dream, scar burning, images of Frank Bryce’s fatal encounter with Voldemort quickly fading from his mind. During Chapter 29, Harry fell asleep in Divination class and dreamed of Voldemort torturing Pettigrew. Soon after Cedric’s death, Voldemort became obsessed with finding the prophecy in the Department of Mysteries; Harry’s dream life teemed with long, dark corridors, mysterious doorways, and a longing to discover what lurked behind them. When Harry fell asleep during OWLs in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort infiltrated his mind with visions of Sirius’s false death. Eventually, Voldemort’s emotions became so strong that Harry began having visions of his activities while he was awake.

When I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time, Harry’s dreams in the first few chapters resonated with me deeply. Visions of flying motorcycles and strange green light felt comparable to the nightmares of my childhood: dinosaurs destroying my hometown, scorpions crawling in my bed, tornadoes, and mysterious white hallways. I ran down these strange white hallways for years as Harry walked down those halls of the Department of Mysteries.

Much of my childhood was forgotten to me by the time I discovered the origin of those white hallways – impeccably clean, perfectly lit, a labyrinth of pathways down which I was always running. I was being chased by tall men with kitchen knives. Every time I almost made my escape, it was too late. The closest man would stab me between the legs with his kitchen knife. Hobbling, I would turn around and remove the knife, stammering promises of revenge, and shut myself into the room.

The dream evolved as I grew older. At the peak of its evolution, my white house became a cornfield – orange clouds, dust storms, and heat lightning all around. Scarecrows glided through the cornfield, Dementors with plaid shirts and straw hats, gaining on me as my feet dragged through the heaviness of dream sludge. They always caught me and wrapped their scratchy straw fingers around my throat, but I could not scream.

In my early adolescence, I remembered the incident these dreams stemmed from: When I was six-years-old, I was sexually abused by my neighbors on an almost weekly basis. When these memories came pouring back, it felt like a horrible backward prophecy. These dreams alluded to a horror that had already taken place, not a battle I would have to prepare for and fight in the future, or so I thought. Those scarecrows caught me six more times, black tar oozing from their mouths of lies and false promises, fungus stinking from their soggy, scratchy innards. Each time they caught me, the nightmares multiplied.

Time took me further away from my traumas, but the nightmares got worse. Drugs and alcohol stifled the terrors, but a solution would not come so easily. Instead, I relived them during the day, sitting in my apartment with my knees pulled up to my chest, rocking back and forth, unable to breathe, silent on the ocean floor of my anxiety. I felt like Harry, overcome with visions of Voldemort, unable to escape my attachment to these terrors even while awake. During the winter of 2015, the only thing that made me feel like a real person was Harry Potter. But when I reread Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows again, something clicked.

At Malfoy Manor, Harry learned to control his visions of Voldemort. The core lessons of Occlumency finally sank in. He began to use his connection with Voldemort to his own advantage rather than letting himself be controlled by the nightmares he witnessed. I wasn’t controlling my nightmares by avoiding them. Our dreams, even the scary ones, hold valuable information, keys to solving our struggles and growing as human beings.

When I stopped using drugs, the nightmares came back full force. I was trapped in burning buildings, overcome by demons with yellow eyes, and forced to watch my loved ones die gruesome, horrible deaths over and over again. But I was determined to find control like Harry. I trained myself to become lucid in dreams. Every hour, I checked in with myself: Am I dreaming? I tested this question by plugging up my nose and trying to breathe, attempting to push my hand through solid walls, and looking into the mirror to see if my reflection was warped. These practices helped me gain lucidity in dreams, but they also kept me in touch with living reality. My disassociation would fade away when I knew which world I was walking in.

When I finally became lucid in my nightmares, I started to fight off my demons. I locked them in cages and tossed them off piers. I fought them with swords and bats and fists. In one dream, I became lucid in an empty grass field with a white sky. I started walking. A house appeared on the horizon. My stomach dropped. It was their house. The place where all of my night terrors started, my own Godric’s Hollow, the place where the scarecrows and tall men from the white house began their pursuit. I clenched my fists and took a deep breath. In my mind’s eye, I conjured a match and it appeared in my hand, already aflame.

I tossed it. It spun. It arced upward and landed on the roof, which was instantly set ablaze. Green, brown, red, and yellow bubbled like lava, stunk like burning rubber, and the house dissolved into a puddle of wreck and ash. I stepped into the fire. The flames were cool, refreshing, with a touch as gentle as stream water. I was a phoenix, and I was reborn.

A few nights later, I had a regular, non-lucid dream. It was the scarecrows again. They caught me, but this time when I opened my mouth to scream, my voice cut through the straw like blades. I wept with joy and woke up.

I don’t know why people have dreams. I don’t know why people have dreams that are bizarre coincidences. All I know is that dreams are incredibly powerful. Dreaming gives us a window into a different world. Maybe sometimes that world is someone else’s reality. Maybe it’s a message from the part of ourselves that sleeps when our primary consciousness is awake. Either way or any other, dreams are powerful symbols we can use for healing, transformation, and self-love. Like Harry, we can all learn how to work with our strange visions, no matter when they come to us.

 

Works Cited

Bynum, Edward Bruce. The Dreamlife of Families: The Psychospiritual Connection. Inner Traditions, 2017.

Cardeña, Etzel. “The Experimental Evidence for Parapsychological Phenomena: A Review.” American Psychologist, vol. 73, no. 5, 2018, pp. 663–677., doi:10.1037/amp0000236.

Van de Castle, Robert. Our Dreaming Mind: A Sweeping Exploration of the Role That Dreams Have Played in Politics, Art, Religion, and Psychology, from Ancient Civilizations to the Present Day. Ballantine Books, 1995.

Sánchez Medina, Alfonso. “Projective identification and ‘telepathic dreams’.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 99:2, 380-390, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/00207578.2018.1425091.

 

These are some resources for victims of assault if you intend to seek help…

RAINN (National Sexual Assault Hotline)

National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline