by Tess Gerritsen
(Once again, I’ll be on the road when this entry gets posted. But I’ll read the comments when I get home, and I hope you’ll all chime in and tell us which monsters inhabit your dreams at night.)
As crime writers, we spend a lot of time thinking and writing about what scares us, and many of us probably share the same fears, most of them rational — fear of heights, of pain, of something happening to our kids. But once we drift off to sleep, our fears take on different, sometimes irrational forms. It’s those literal nightmares that so fascinate me, because we have no control over them. They emerge from our subconscious, many of them purely symbolic and posing no real threat. Yet they cause us to awaken in a cold sweat, hearts pounding.
I’ll bet that most of you reading this have had the familiar nightmare of being out of the house and suddenly realizing you’ve forgotten to get dressed. Fear of humiliation is obviously what’s at play here. Which makes me wonder: Do nudists ever have this nightmare? Does it show up in cultures where people normally run around half-naked? What’s their equivalent of the humiliation nightmare?
Another common one is the “Oh my God, I never went to class!” nightmare where I’ve got a final exam in French and I know nothing about the subject. I suspect this nightmare particularly afflicts OCD types like me who are anxious about failing. The more stressed out I am about work, the more this dream plagues me. Oddly enough, even though I’ve been a writer for 25 years, I never have nightmares about being late for a deadline. Instead, this nightmare setting doesn’t seem to advance beyond my college years,
I also have one where my teeth are falling out. I used to have this one a lot, and I’ve heard from other women who also have it. I haven’t met any men who’ve had it, which makes me think it’s very much connected to being female. One theory is that it represents fear of aging. Others — and I think this is probably closer to the mark — say it represents anxiety over loss of power. Your jaw is one of the strongest muscles in your body and your teeth are a primitive means of self defense, so losing your teeth equates to feeling powerless. Which may be why so many women have this dream. We also seem to dream a lot about being chased.
While men may also have nightmares of being pursued, several have told me they’ve got a gun with which to fight back. Which is totally unfair. Even in our dreams, we women are outgunned.
Then there’s this weirdly eccentric nightmare which seems to be mine alone. This dream has plagued me since I was very young, and I can’t seem to shake it. Over the decades, the basic plot has expanded to include members of my family, but it always starts with a view of a clear night sky. Tiny lights like stars are moving. Then the stars begin to move in different directions and I realize, to my utter horror, that these are alien spacecraft and the invasion of Earth has begun. Humankind is about to be massacred.
In a panic, I try to gather up my family, fill the car with food, and head for the wilderness to hide. I’m very methodical about this in the dream. I consider which car will go the furthest on a tank of gas. I consider which food items to pack, how many bottles of water we can carry, which medicines to bring. I think about sleeping bags and blankets and tents. But gosh darn it, as usual, I never seem to have a gun.
I know it sounds like the plot of a dozen Hollywood B-movies. Maybe it was inspired by some horror film I watched as a kid. Yet all these decades later, it still has the power to make me wake up at night, drenched in sweat. I don’t know what brings it on. I haven’t met anyone who’s similarly terrified by alien invader dreams. But it’s such a powerful fear that even when I’m awake and I look up at a clear night sky, it’s always with a tiny apprehension that this will be the night I see those stars start to move.
And it’ll be time to round up the kids and pack up the car.
So what’s your recurring nightmare? Is it something peculiar to you, something that no one else seems to have? What do you think it means?