It’s 1999, and the television in my living room displays a scene of dark, oblong shapes descending from the sky. These mysterious flying objects were spotted a few miles from my house. I head to bed, but my feet are heavy with fear. I climb onto my mattress, slip under my duvet, and lie down. Something is watching me. In the shadows of my bedroom, a man in a tweed coat looms over me. Only, he doesn’t stay like that for very long. Within seconds, he is a clawing, sharp-toothed, drooling mass of spindly arms and snapping jaws. He pounces.
I woke up in absolute terror, crying more fervently than I ever had before. I ran downstairs to my parents. I don’t remember much after that, but the memory of this nightmare is still as fresh now as the moment it happened.
When I was a child, aliens were my ‘monsters in the dark’. I wasn’t fussed about ghosts or zombies or vampires or witches. I was just absolutely terrified of aliens. However, I had a somewhat masochistic curiosity, so I would wander through Llangollen’s Doctor Who museum (which unfortunately closed down – how much money would they have made if they’d kept it open for a little while longer?) with my face pressed to the glass case in which a Dalek sat. The pre-recorded noises and dim lighting made it a truly horrifying experience, but I couldn’t look away from the green suits and polystyrene props in front of me. I fed my own fear until it was strong enough to produce a nightmare that completely traumatized me.
For about a year after the dream, I was so scared of sleeping that I had to stay in my sister’s room. This is something I still feel guilty about, but she was extremely patient. However, even then, I was still afraid of having a repeat of the nightmare. I would lie awake for hours, not able to keep my eyes shut for too long in case a laser beam brought an alien floating down from the ceiling.
It was then that I started a bizarre ritual to mentally prepare myself for night time, and it is something that, thirteen years later, has found a life of its own. I don’t remember when I first started doing it, but as soon as I got under the covers, I would picture myself as a super-strong heroine kicking aliens in the teeth until I fell asleep. My imagination was one thing I could control very well, and so I would send myself into a dream with the idea that aliens couldn’t hurt me. It really worked; I didn’t have nightmares again, because some of that drowsy fearlessness translated itself into my unconscious. Soon I moved back into my own room, and was able to doze off almost immediately without any petrified glances at dark shadows. I felt I didn’t need to continue with my pre-sleep confidence boosts, so I stopped relying on my imaginary superhero.
My sleeping mind certainly became a less frightening place, but instead of nightmares I gradually began to experience another bizarre phenomenon. The unpredictability of dreams that I had feared so intensely decided to produce something that I was aware of but couldn’t quite grasp, and something that I could only truly recognize when I watched the film ‘Paprika’. Among other things, the film explores the separation between the ‘self’ and the ‘dream self’. The female protagonist is an austere, sensible character in reality, but in her dreams she is a quirky, adventurous young woman. As soon as I saw this, I knew that there was a clear difference between myself and who I am when I dream. I won’t deny that I was a little horrified when I realized that this separate self was the same as the one I’d imagined when I was little. I suppose I’m lying, then, when I say ‘I don’t have bad dreams’ because I have them frequently; it’s just that I’m experiencing frightening images through the eyes of someone who was created to be stronger than the stuff of nightmares. I’ve vanished through walls to escape burning buildings, I’ve laughed in the face of a hungry zombie, and single-handedly defeated dystopian organizations. ‘Paprika’ made this all very real and somewhat unnerving for me, especially since I’ve recently had a few experiences of lucidity. There’s something a little worrying about being aware that you’re inside a dream, but not of whom you are within it. Am I lucid dreaming as myself, or am I briefly living inside the body of my childhood hero? Super-powers aside, has the separation between our personalities substantially blurred from when I was a frightened six year-old? I find it quite creepy to think about, so I should swiftly end this column entry by saying never, ever underestimate the power of your own imagination.