The 13th Floor

How To Dream Like WES CRAVEN

Wes Craven expanded the consciousness of the horror genre by literally following his dreams.  Some of the most memorable details in his films reportedly came to the filmmaker in his sleep—including the Beauty and the Beast motif in THE HILLS HAVE EYES, the snake-in-the-bathtub scene in DEADLY BLESSING  (later re-imagined in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), and pretty much the entirety of THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS.  For years, the man who created A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET couldn’t avoid talking about dreams.  When I interviewed him in 2010, our conversation inevitably turned toward his practice of using his dreams for artistic inspiration.

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“What happens is you start working on [a story], and then it starts coming up in your dreams,” Craven told me.  “I had been recording my dreams since college, so I had gotten very good at recalling them.  You have to recall them immediately after you wake up, and kind of sit down and write them because they do disperse very quickly.  But as long as you get up and start writing it down, it’ll stay in your mind for half an hour or something like that.”

I asked Craven if he had ever used any specific dreaming techniques, and he mentioned the name Stephen LaBerge.  Although most horror fans won’t recognize the name, anyone who has seen A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 3: DREAM WARRIORS will recognize the ideas that LaBerge popularized in his 1985 book Lucid Dreaming.  In short, lucid dreaming means “being awake in your dreams.”  The idea is that we can all become aware of our dreams while we are dreaming, and thereby take control of the dream reality—becoming, in effect, “dream masters.”  Laberge writes: “Lucid dreamers are often overjoyed to discover that they can seemingly do anything they wish.  They have, for instance, but to declare the law of gravity repealed, and they float.  They can visit the Himalayas and climb the highest peak without ropes or guides; they can even explore the solar system without a space suit!”  Or, as in DREAM WARRIORS, they can harness superhuman powers to ward off the boogeyman.

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So how does one become a real-life “dream warrior”?  Here are five tips to get you started:

  • Before you go to sleep at night, remind yourself as you are falling asleep that you want to remember your dreams. Our minds are very susceptible to the power of suggestion.
  • When you wake up, don’t move right away. Remain still and focus your attention on what was going through your mind just before you woke up.  Avoid the usual patterns of thinking about what you need to do when you get out of bed.  Instead, try to recall the most recent dream scene or feeling. Then try to recall what happened before that or what made you feel that way.
  • Keep a dream journal and record every dream you can remember, no matter how fragmentary. Re-reading your dream journal before you go to sleep at night can help get you into the spirit of lucid dreaming.
  • Getting plenty of sleep and “sleeping in” are helpful for remembering your dreams. Another technique that might be useful is sleep interruption.  Set an alarm to wake up one hour earlier than usual.  Stay awake for a short while, then go back to sleep.  This (according to LaBerge) will increase the likelihood of lucid dreaming.
  • Finally, in your waking life, ask yourself repeatedly, “Am I dreaming?” This will train your mind to question whatever reality it is confronted with, whether you are awake or asleep.

One of the benefits of lucid dreaming, according to both LaBerge and Craven, is a kind of higher consciousness in waking life.  In one of his more professorial moments, Craven compared A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to the writings of Russian mystic George Gurdjieff, who said, “A man who sleeps cannot ‘do.’  With him everything is understood here not in the literal sense of our organic sleep, but in the sense of a state of associative existence.  First of all he must awake.”

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The implication is that by “awakening” within our dreams, we will begin “awakening” to a deeper reality in our everyday lives.  That idea is the very core of Craven’s subsequent masterpiece, SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW.  In the film, a psychedelic drug—in combination with the power of suggestion—causes Dr. Dennis Alan to question his understanding of reality.  A transcendental experience in Haiti forces him to acknowledge that there are more things in heaven and earth than his science-based worldview can account for.  Once he has accepted a more spiritual worldview, he begins tapping into a source of trans-personal power.  LeBerge explains, “Transcendental experiences are advantageous, in my view, in that they help us detach from fixed ideas about ourselves.  The less we identify with who we think we are (the ego), the more likely it is that we may one day discover who we really are.”

Craven returned to the subject of transcendental experience again in SHOCKER and NEW NIGHTMARE—not by blurring the distinction between dreams and reality, but by blurring the distinction between TV/movies and reality.   The usual rules don’t apply to Horace Pinker or the “new” Freddy Krueger, who can step right through the screen to claim their victims.  For Craven, those two films weren’t just about postmodern gimmickry.   He was presenting complex philosophical ideas (drawing on both Western and Eastern philosophies) within the unlikely context of slasher movies—and subtly prompting viewers to question our beliefs about the nature of reality.

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The filmmaker’s recurring themes appeared once more in his final film, MY SOUL TO TAKE, which starts with a line of voiceover that could be applied to any of Craven’s films as writer/director: “This is the story of the day I woke up.”

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