Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Between Nightmare and Terror

Note: This post is a contribution to the Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon at Culture Snob.

Dreams and nightmares have long been valuable plot devices for films, able to suddenly jolt us into reality, or make us wonder at the conclusion that all we were seeing was one big dream. The line between dream and reality in movies is often very thin, with the image of a character leaping out of bed after waking from a nightmare being a burned-in cliche. It's no accident that dreams figure so heavily into film, since it's the medium best suited to representing our nocturnal visions, and replaying that half asleep/awake feeling where you question the validity of what you just remembered experiencing.

I know from personal experience that it's possible to grab hold of your nightmare and bring it into the physical world. And no, I'm not talking about the plot of Freddie's Dead: The Final Nightmare, but a strange event in my life that I've been trying to explain ever since. The incident I will explain has given me the rare understanding of what it's like to run like your life depends on it, that any hesitation will result in your body being consumed by unimaginable terror. It's the same emotion we've seen displayed by numerous characters in horror movies (some more realistic than others), and I'm here to say that until you've tried it in real life, you really have no idea what it's all about:

Our story begins in 2001 in Gig Harbor, Wash. The location is important because anyone familiar with western Washington knows that at night the temperatures plummet, no matter the season. I was spending the weekend with family, who had graciously allowed me the use of one of their bedrooms. They lived in a large house at the top of a long, steep and winding driveway, about a quarter mile in length, surrounded by dense forest. Before I went to sleep the night was uneventful, and little did I know when I laid my head down that my nighttime adventures would take me far beyond my bed.

I can clearly remember everything that happened late that night, except for what motivated the events: the terror that lurked in my nightmare. In my nightmare, I was in the same house, I was sleeping in the same bed, and something woke me. I got out of bed and walked to another room in the house where the sound originated from. When I opened the door, I saw something so terrifying that my brain knew I would have to keep running if I was to survive. Now here's where things start to get interesting: in this nightmare, I run back to the room I was staying in, and get back into bed.

Then I wake up. Actually, I don't wake up -- but explode out of bed and run out of the house with the urgency of a person on fire. There is no hesitation as I fling my relatives' front door open and start running down their driveway. Some may brush these actions off as extreme sleepwalking, but this is not true, as I remember every second of them -- I was fully conscious. I remember how the asphalt driveway was ice cold and my feet gradually numbed. I remember how there wasn't a sound to be heard except the impact of my feet to the ground, and my heavy breathing. Most of all, I remember never questioning why I was running, and never having the urge to look behind me at my pursuer.

I was so completely scared for my life that I ran all the way from my bed to the bottom of the driveway without pause, until I came to the first house I saw. I tried the door -- locked. I tried the doorbell -- no answer. So I went for the next logical action: the large flower pot on the porch. I picked up the flower pot, ready to heave it through the house's window so I could seek refuge from the terror behind me. But as I drew ready to power the flower pot, I stopped. I finally questioned what I was doing -- what was I doing at 2 a.m. standing outside a strange house ready to throw a flower pot through their window? Looking around, I realized no one else was near me, and thinking back, I had no idea what could actually be chasing me. After calming down a bit, I began the slow, humiliating climb back up the icy driveway and to the house, where I proceeded to write down everything I could remember from what had just happened.

And what did happen? As I thought about it, my diagnosis was that since I climbed back into bed in my nightmare, and then immediately woke up, there was no barrier to keep me from completely believing what I had just imagined. If I had dreamt of being chased by zombies in a graveyard, then waking up to a dark bedroom would have jolted me back to reality, but in this case what I woke up to was just a continuation of the nightmare. In the resulting escape attempt, I probably moved faster and with more reckless abandon than I ever have in my life, at full sprint in bare feet down a steep driveway. At no point did I stop to question the need to run for my life, as I was still reeling from whatever evil I had witnessed in my nightmare. I don't have to say that I was a little lucky to snap out of my spell before I threw a flower pot through the neighbors' window -- that would have been a little awkward the next morning ("Oh, sorry about that -- our nephew Adam was having a bad dream.").

The result of this event is that I have a different response to similar situations in movies. When someone is running for their life from certain death, I can sympathize with a good performance, and can also tell when they're not in the game. Another movie connection: I never could recall just what scared me so much in that nightmare, reminiscent of one of the urban legends in Candyman (where a man's hair turns white after seeing a ghost) and The Peanut Butter Solution (where an unknown terror the character can't recall causes him to lose his hair). My hair remains intact, like the flower pot.

1 comment:

Zane said...

I'd be willing to bet that at some point in history, something seriously terrible happened in the room in which you slept - especially since: 1. you have no idea what motivated the events, and 2. this never happened to you anywhere else.

And I need to get me a copy of The Peanut Butter Solution - I remember watching it in elementary school and being slightly traumatized.