Electric Dreams


Nora Leonard 

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Leonard, Nora (1998 November). "Nightmare-awake!...oh." Electric Dreams 5(10). Retrieved July 8, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Moonbeam on my windowsill
banishing the dark

Nightmares have many purposes-at the time the primary one seeming to be to frighten the bejezzus out of us. Many dreams are scary, but we don't necessarily consider them nightmares; there are also dreams which depict real-life dangers to the psyche which unfold without attending emotion, only to become truly terrifying when we begin to consciously understand them. Some nightmares are evidence of internal "spoilers", attitudes which seem to rise up to knock us down just at the moment when we are finally beginning to make progress. And then there are repeating nightmares in which an actual trauma is relived in all its gory detail-until, that is, we are able to consciously confront it and deal with its repercussions.

The nightmarish dreams I wish to address in this article are those I call "visitations". These are dreams when a door seems to open in the psyche flooding us with dread and heralding the arrival of a most unwelcome guest: a ghost, an intruder...an alien.

A few years ago, when I was working in an administrative position at a London university, I arrived at the office one morning to find my co- worker in a state of considerable agitation. She had woken in the night to find a stranger standing by her bedside. She was absolutely terrified, but all he did was eagerly proffer to her one-half of a golden spiral notepad.

Knowing my interest, this woman had often discussed her dreams with me, and so I was aware that one of her recurring themes was her failure to fully develop her potential. She had not had the opportunity to go to college, and now, at the age of 55, she was taking an extramural course as part of an adult education program. Although her financial situation was not particularly strong, if she applied to do a degree course and got accepted she would not have to pay the fees because she was a member of staff of the university. I asked her about the stranger-what he looked like, etc.-and the way she described him suggested that he represented her intellectual potential. I suggested to her that perhaps the "half" notebook might mean that he was attempting to meet her half-way, e.g. to merge the unlived intellectual potential he represented with her desire to study; not only that, the notebook was gold, suggesting, perhaps, a golden opportunity. I encouraged her to apply for the university course (instead of extending her extramural course for another year, which was also a possibility), as it seemed to me that the eagerness of the stranger suggested she was more than ready to do this.

When she had first described the apparition, the dread surrounding his appearance had been palpable. But by the time we had talked it through this had gone; not only that, she marched straightway to the Registry Office and picked up an application. Even though it is one of the most sought-after courses, her application was accepted; I am happy to say that she is now in her second year of study and is enjoying it immensely.

It has long seemed to me that certain incursions into the inner circle of the ego's realm bring with them a measure of dread regardless of their content-like the goddess Inanna arising from her stay in the underworld surrounded by the demonic minions of her sister Ereshkigal. Thus any potential that we-for whatever reason-have banished to either the basement or attic of our own psychic domain can become a bogie or a madperson.

Or even a species of zombie. A zombie is a person who has been deprived of their will and their power to speak-and the silent screams of the dispossessed can often be the most haunting.

I am with some man who I love, a man called Will? We are out and we meet Bill Hunter, who recognizes me. He's with his wife and all his children, and he introduces me to all of them. I forget to introduce my lover, and I apologize for this afterwards. Will and I are going back, he to his place, me to mine. I get to my flat and realise I am wearing Will's soft leather coat, a kind of reddish suede.

I'm touched that he made me wear it because I was cold, but then I realize I've got his keys in the pockets. I'm thinking I can't even get into my flat to phone him (somehow I assume he has my keys). It is a bit unclear, the next bit, as I may then find I do after all have my own keys. Nevertheless I decide to go out and meet him, as I know he'll be coming my way.

I'm out on this bit of wasteground, and I see him rush past getting way ahead of me. Then I bump into this zombie woman. She is quite threatening, and I'm flooded with dread. I am trying to push her away, and trying to scream his name for help. But I can't seem to speak. And then I wonder whether the zombie has got to him, and that really puts me in a panic. I wake up, absolutely terrified.

The day I had this dream I had managed to overcome inhibitions that had previously kept me from enquiring about the possibility of teaching an adult education course on astrology; I had called the local council, spoken to the relevant department and arranged to send in my CV and a course proposal. On a roll, I then phoned a local Positive Living group to see about giving a talk on dreams; the moderator wasn't there, but I left a message on his answering machine. My subsequent nightmare pictures the terrifying threat of finding one's willpower only to lose it again. In this instance, my dreamweaver heightens the horror by using the real-life figure of a childhood schoolmate (Bill Hunter); although undoubtedly chosen for the symbolism of his name, his presence might suggest that the part of my psyche predatory to my ability to assert myself is both known to me and someone I was once comfortable with. Not only that, he now has a large family.

In the dream I assume that it is the zombie who is the threat to my "will", but it is far more likely that she is a portent of what I might become in the absence of will. There are many ambiguities surrounding this dream, but I cite it as an example of my ego being visited by a side of the psyche-the zombie-that I go to great lengths to defend against; I needed this dream in order to confront the fact that it is not the outcast zombie but a more familiar part of my psyche that stifles my determination.

The story of the Annunciation as told in the book of Luke is another example of a visitation; someone experiencing a similar scenario of inspiration/impregnation today would perhaps be more likely to perceive it as a form of alien abduction. The author of the gospel describes Mary responding initially with the fear and dread typical of such an appearance-the angel Gabriel actually tells her not to be afraid. That Mary goes on to listen and then willingly submit is all to her credit-regardless of whether you take the story literally or as a myth.

Forget for a moment the human Jesus and think instead of the archetypal image of the Christ which Jesus carried. This "chosen anointed one" brought with him the type of new world view that the tarot card of the Ace of Swords represents. It takes considerable courage to nurture and protect the type of radical vision symbolized by such a child, and there is a whole genre of nightmarish dreams which deal with the trials of looking after such creative-but potentially dangerous or threatening-offspring, and their occasional abandonment.

That this is not a straightforward "moral" issue can perhaps be illustrated by the following dream sequence.

There has been an alien invasion which may be a great threat to all of us. There is much panicking and trying to escape.

Something about June Ackland. One of us may have a bomb hidden inside a leg. The person may or may not be arrested, but it appears that no bomb is going off.

On the day of this dream, I had spent the afternoon collating haiku to send to some poetry magazines. Later I had gone for a walk, and at sunset I was near some allotments. Seeing two women digging in their plot, I had an inspiration for a poem about the burying of dead year gods. I had also been thinking about a meeting I had had with the owner of a nearby bookshop. I had asked this woman about the possibility of giving a seminar in her shop on dreams. She had replied that she was interested, but that there was a powerful contingent of Methodists in the area who were bound to object. This encounter had brought back my childhood experience of being discouraged to question anything regarding my family's Presbyterian upbringing, whether at home or in the church to which we belonged.

I woke up from this dream just flooded with dread. But then I remembered having had the idea about the poem and I decided that I needed to sit with these feelings at the computer. Which I did, working first on the dream and then on the poem (which eventually came to be called "an unforseen planting").

In the dream, June Ackland-a police officer on the British television series "The Bill"-represents the side of me who is still concerned with "keeping the peace". There is also this fear of a bomb in a "leg", which perhaps we can translate as a fear I have that the standpoint I want to present in the poem may be explosive.

The dream has no tidy conclusion; its ending is ambiguous. Sitting at my computer, I realized that, although there had been enormous fear, the alien invasion had not, in fact, been portrayed as harmful. Because of this, I worked determinedly on finishing the poem. In this instance, the feelings of dread that the nightmare left with me proved to be a kind of alchemical "prima materia", a chaotic mass out of which I was able to extract the inspiration to produce a poem.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Several months later, I had the following dream:

I'm in an advanced state of pregnancy, but I realize I haven't felt the baby kick in some time. I'm worried it might be dead, but another woman insists she's felt it kicking.

I start to give birth. There is a young girl there also giving birth: we are somehow jointly birthing the same baby. The labour pains are intense and it is a great struggle to push the baby out.

Contrary to my fears, the baby is still alive, although there do appear to be some things wrong with her. There are sores or gaps in her skin, as if she hadn't quite finished her development. The blood hasn't been wiped from her eyes, so it isn't clear whether there is something wrong with her vision-at the moment, all I can see is the blood.

They've put her in this ziplock bag, but I can touch her. Her skin is hot to the touch, almost as if she were "cooking", and I make sure she isn't being suffocated.

Everyone leaves and I see the child sitting on a shelf in the ziplock bag.

This dream woke me up with such a fright, and a sense of being shocked at the state of the infant and her being left in the baggie. I found myself wanting to comfort her; I also remembered reading the day before about finding a way to reconnect with the creativity of the inner child, and wondering whether this was indicated by the girl in the dream who was giving birth in tandem with me. I had many thoughts about what this nightmare might signify. But it only became clear several weeks later when I came across an entry form for a poetry competition. At first I thought I had nothing to enter, but then I remembered the poem I had written the day of the "alien invasion" dream.

I got out that poem, along with two others, and started to revise them. The child in the above dream was bloody, unfinished and hot, and I imagine that she is contained in the ziplock bag so she can keep on cooking. This was certainly the state I found myself in for the next couple of weeks. Working on the three poems as a group, I came to realize that they embodied my experience of what is often casually referred to as the return of the Goddess [1].

This was a hugely intense period, during which I struggled with my entire religious upbringing. Here is the dreadful "divine" child who carries as big a threat to my inner world view as any other sword bringer; contained in the finished poems is the passionate standpoint pictured in my earlier dream as potentially explosive.

The Mexican god Tezcatlipoca occasionally manifests in a particularly nightmarish form as a bogie known as the Night Ax: "a headless man with a dreadful wound in his chest which kept opening and slamming shut, each time with a spine-tingling thud like that of an ax hurled into a tree" [2]. Anyone confronted with the god in this form seems to have had two choices; either to die of fright on the spot or to reach into the monstrous wound and grab hold of Tezcatlipoca's beating heart, in which case it was incumbent upon the god to grant the person a boon.

This, to me, sums up the essence of nightmares. At times we merely "die of the fright of them", which is to suggest that perhaps something might have lived, had we been able to stand firm to the fear. And then at other times we do seem able to grab hold of their boon-giving component.

In the summer of 1976 I returned to my family home for two months rest and recuperation following the trial of writing up a PhD dissertation. During the preceeding year I had suffered from a combination of insomnia and night terrors, which culminated in a series of life-changing death dreams. These dreams led me to the works of Carl Jung, and also to a complete change in direction away from an academic life of scientific research into a lengthy private study of dreams, shamanism and comparative religion.

In the two months I spent at home, I was plagued by a procession of ghostly visitations. My mother's Siamese cat had grown senile, and as frail as a will-o'-the-wisp. Yet she was possessed by an uncanny voice that would caterwaul through the night at unbelievable intensity and volume. One night I lay in bed in stark terror, listening to Pookie out in the hallway fighting with a poltergeist. It was only many years later, after years of work on myself, that I realized that this had been a visitation experience, that the spirit in the hallway "scaring the cat" had been an ancestral madwoman-a numen of creativity that had been outcast and locked away by generations of my family inhibited by societal constraints.

A banshee prowls our house at night-
She wakes the dead
sleeping behind
the photos yellowing
on the wall-
I can hear them muttering in the hall

She howls at all the battened doors
that will not let
her anguish in,
that shutter out
her tourquoise rage
bewildered by the crunch of age

A creaking hinge lets in this fetch:
she glides along
the sword of light
cutting the dark
enfolding me-
Who gave this ghost the coffin's key?

A Siamese cat leaps on the bed-
all fur, and bones
as frail as birds
who cannot fly
the height they knew-
her sightless eyes of shattered blue...

A velvet paw across my face-
a warmth so brief
fluttering soft
within my heart-
it draws the tears
that mourn the loss of stifled years

A banshee prowls my dreams at night!!
As wild as wind
that bears the dead
beyond their pain:
their silent screams find voice in me
and now, at last, the cat goes free

All Hallows Eve (October 31) is traditionally a time when the boundaries between worlds buckle and bend and all manner of uncanny visitors attempt to cross the ford into our so-called "reality". Perhaps the side of us attuned to the needs of these outcasts-and possibly even dimly aware of our intimate relationship to them- developed the rituals of laying out food and other offerings to welcome these "visitations from the dead".

So perhaps now would be a good time to look back at some of our old nightmares, and to reconsider what-amidst the dread and terror- they might have been trying to bring to us.

[1] For a real sense of what the return of the Goddess might feel like, I encourage you to read "Descent to the Goddess" by Sylvia Brinton Perera, Inner City Books, Toronto 1981.

[2] "The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World", Burr Cartwright Brundage, U of Texas Press, Austin1983, p 84.

Nora Leonard