‘The dream should be treated as a fact, about which one should make no previous assumptions except that it somehow makes sense’
Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols (Picador, 1978)
Picture the biggest pie you’ve ever seen. Now double it. Double it again. Keep doubling it until the crimping of the pastry crust is the mirage of a distant landmass on the horizon. The air is hot, and smells of strawberries. Golden pastry stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction, only broken now and again by a rich vein of red oozing forth from a crack, or pooling in a crater and smoking like blood.
In the distance, you see a faint shimmer of sunlight reflecting off something metallic. It’s a digger – an enormous, hulking digger, on treads, caterpillaring its way across the crunching floor. As it draws closer you see that it’s only one of many, the vanguard in a fleet of diggers, all yellow and black. You start to feel uneasy.
There’s a hint of burning petrol in the air now, mixing with the hot strawberry smell to create a heady, industrial stickiness that clings to your lungs. Your breaths get shorter. The diggers get closer. They stop. They’re enormous, elephant-sized, and for a moment they just sit there in a line in front of you, engines chugging, until at some unseen signal their toothed buckets start to descend. You turn and run.
Behind you there’s a sound like a giant filing his fingernails; a great scraping of metal on sugar-crust. The ground beneath you starts to tilt, and you’re running uphill – the air is so hot it’s unbearable, and as a great whoosh of strawberry steam envelopes you from behind you fall, and are slipping, and are swallowed – and the curtain falls.
I had that dream recurrently for a number of months when I was maybe five years old. After I’d woken, those diggers were projected into the shadow-theatre of my room, and I’d even start to see the drivers of those demonic vehicles dancing around my bed: black skulls with red eyes.
These days, the ‘bad’ dreams that I have are far darker, bloodier and awful, and just as before their denizens climb out of my eyes and into my bedroom, as if from flickering TV screens, and dance the Danse Macabre around my bed. Surgeons opening wounds instead of binding them; vampire magicians who can drain my blood from a papercut with a touch; spiders and scorpions and many legged creatures who scurry from behind my eyelids and out into the humid, summer night.
A nightmare can seem like an intruder, a house invader, something incomprehensible and alien. But once you realise that the images in your head are native to the land in which they reside, and accept that they do make sense in some way (even if you can’t see what that sense is), though they may still terrify, that terror is bearable because it is a natural response to an intelligible language.
‘Almost any difficulty can be borne if we can discern its meaning. It is meaninglessness that is the greatest threat to humanity.’
Edward Edinger, Ego and Archetype (Shambhala, 1992)
Dream images can be so powerful that they’re not even bound to one individual. Nightmares are no exception. For over a decade I remembered with great awe a dream in which I was walking slowly down a corridor in some catacombs. Niches in the walls were occupied by women with looms and spinning wheels, silently working. They paid me no heed as I shivered by. On and on the corridor went, until I came to a door. Pushing it open, I found myself in a hexagonal room. The floor, ceiling, and walls were made of coffins. The door behind me disappeared, and it was bone-quiet. Slowly, silently, a coffin at the head of the room emerged from the wall like a shelf in a morgue, and I watched with horror as the lid opened, and the face of Satan slid forth into the room.
I can still see every aspect of that dream as if it were yesterday. But it wasn’t yesterday, and it wasn’t my dream. From conversations I’ve had with him, I’ve discovered that this was in fact the dream of an old school friend, relayed to me at the time, and so resonant that my psyche assimilated it into memory as my own. Here we see a further beauty of the nightmare, and the collective unconscious in action: one stone was cast, but the ripples spread into a neighbouring pool, and on the shoreline were immortalised by the painter Memory into image. Not an intruder or invader, but a traveller from distant lands, this nightmare reminds me of the bonds of the collective unconscious that bind us all together.
Often it is only the language of images spoken by the unconscious that can adequately portray the psychic reality of our lives in a way that compels us to action. Several years ago, I was in an abusive relationship. I won’t go into details, only to say that it was deeply manipulative: transcripts of our conversations could fit quite happily into the gaslighting playbook. I was made to feel that I couldn’t trust myself; that my perceptions were wrong; that my partner was a patient innocent who put up with my suspicions.
Very early on in this relationship, I started to have dreams of spiders scurrying around my bed. I would wake up and they wouldn’t go away; they burrowed under the duvet, crawled up the walls and followed me as I fled, out into the living room. It would take minutes before they melted away and the nakedness of the flat returned.
And so the relationship continued, and the spiders got bigger. I felt tormented, possessed, ensnared; and then one night, at the apex of this feeling, in a cold sweat and crouching on the sofa, I realised why the weaving legs and half-glimpsed bodies were so terrifying: because they were real. The cumulative effect of these dreams gave me the impetus I needed, and with the help of my friends I pulled myself free of the great web in which I was caught.
Five years later, this person tried to get back into contact with me repeatedly, and I regressed into compliance. Even though there was a great fear in the pit of my stomach, I came close to replying, to letting them back in. “I’ll just scope things out”, I reasoned with myself, “see what they have to say. I’ll be in control”. But I decided to sleep on it.
That night, I woke up to a behemoth spider hovering over my bed. Its legs extended to the four corners of the ceiling, and its body cast a shadow over everything. I flung myself, crouching, to the floor and ran from the bedroom to the corridor, where I stayed until I was sure it had gone. I don’t remember the rest of the night, but I do remember that in the morning I couldn’t stop laughing. My unconscious had seen the danger when I, with my rationalisations, was ready to walk into the Heffalump trap all over again. With that waking nightmare, my mind was made up and, clear of any lingering feeling of responsibility, I was hallowed. I was free.
Like any other dream, the nightmare is both an expression of our individual psyche, and proof of our shared unconscious. Like any other dream images, those that make up the nightmare are part of a language. They’re not always immediately identifiable; often they’re not consciously identifiable at all. That doesn’t matter. Respecting them for what they are is enough. Knowing that they aren’t intruders, that they are a part of you, and that they do – in some way – make sense is immensely comforting.
So, long life to the spiders, the scorpions, and the molten strawberry pies – to the secret language of our sleeping minds.