By Belle McDonald
A flicker of pale light shines from the street lamp outside your bedroom window, wobbling softly as branches create shadows on your ceiling. Snug underneath your warmest comforter, you clear your mind and willingly sink into the indigo abyss of dreams. Your dream will carry you on a winding path through the infinite memories, fears, and desires that orbit your mind like planets. Some are easy to discern; they are nearby and clear like your mother’s face. Others are obscured by the vastness of space, a forgotten moment as vague as the childhood scent of fresh school supplies. We let our minds travel to places physically impossible to explore in the light of day. The next morning, we remember fragments of last night’s travels: perhaps the image of a raven, an all-seeing eye, or last week’s forgotten homework assignment. And yet, we fixate on these faint recollections, craving access to our subconscious thoughts. Societies across time and space pursue the prophetic power of dreams, driven by curiosity and a need to explore the unknown. But should we place any trust in the omens that history has arbitrarily created?
Growing up, I was mesmerized by Salvador Dali’s dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychoanalytic film Spellbound. Attempting to break through the main character’s amnesia by analyzing his dreams, the story recounts a strange dream featuring a curtain of eyeballs, running figures, faceless men, and a mysterious card game. There is something so chilling about his fast-paced and surrealist depiction of dreams, but also something so familiar. The disorientation I felt as I watched the scene is the same feeling we all experience after waking from a nightmare. As a 10 year old kid with a weird imagination, I became obsessed with the alternate universe of dreams. How could I understand the meanings of my own seemingly meaningless dreams? I turned to Google for answers, only to find an abundance of articles featuring headlines like, “Nine dream signs you should never ignore!” and “According to mystics, these dreams predict death!” From boxes to teeth, ants, hair, and the color green, I was confronted with endless lists of objects you definitely do not want to dream about. While superstitions were a big part of elementary school playground lore, I never considered that dreams could tell my fortune. This simple Google search sent me spiralling into the extensive canon of literature dedicated to dream analysis.
The mystery of dreams is emphasized by the slim control we have over their manifestation. To explain the mystifying creation of dreams, ancient civilizations often viewed dreams as enigmatic messages placed in our minds by divine powers. Both Islamic and Christian scriptures mention prophetic messages hidden behind dreams. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written as early as 2700 BCE, is perhaps the oldest record of dream analysis. Gilgamesh dreams of a shooting star, and his mother prophesies new friends. Gilgamesh then meets his friend Enkidu. Enkidu dreams of a falling mountain and an attacking bull. The dream foreshadows his journey to the underworld, and the Bull of Heaven that they encounter later. Stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh use dreams as driving forces for characters and the plot in the same way that humans tend to believe superstitions and omens. During the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, the fabled Dream Book was written, describing the danger and betrayal implied by mirrors and snakes. In Ancient Greece, Artemidorus wrote Oneirocritica, a five-volume dream analysis describing omens like wolves, the signifier of violent enemies. Some of these images are as mundane as household items and pets. Yet, entire civilizations believed in their portentous meaning in dreams.
These ancient omens remain foreboding in modern superstitions. Why do we see cats, eyeballs, empty boxes, and roads as ominous? We interact with these images every day, and yet in dreams, society says that they predict danger and misfortune. The dichotomy between your neighbor’s fluffy kitten and the black cat from your dreams is significant and perplexing. Literature and media help to preserve these superstitious ideas over time and space. For example, the infamous dream sequence in Twin Peaks is perhaps the most eerie and accurate visualization of dreams in visual media. The dream is fairly simple, featuring a red room, a statue of Venus, the character of Laura Palmer, and a dancing man. While nothing in the dream is explicitly foreboding, the imagery is analyzed as evidence in the murder investigation of Laura, a popular high school girl in Twin Peaks, Washington. We have all seen paintings or sculptures of Venus in museums, or have touched the velvet of red curtains at theaters. The scene captures a bizarre and uncanny feeling by twisting mundane objects, just as humanity obsessively turns everyday objects into omens and premonitions.
The surreal mixture of elements in Twin Peaks, the random images that make up your dreams, and the depiction of dreams in popular media like Spellbound continue to perpetuate notions of dream-world premonitions. Ancient cultures and civilizations constructed meaning and divine messages from dreams, producing arbitrary symbols of fate and fortune. These notions live on through centuries of change. The random images that our subconscious’ produce most likely have no implication on our futures unless we allow them to. And yet, no matter how unfounded in science, society cannot help but continue obsessing over omens in dreams. There is a sort of comfort in explaining the unexplainable, even if it is filled with dreadful omens.