Sam Raimi and dream logic

October 5th, 2009

Mr. Improbable and I finally got around to seeing “Drag Me to Hell,” inappropriately enough the night after Rosh Hashanah, but hey, that’s the only time the Brattle was showing it. I am a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series, especially “Evil Dead II.” “Drag Me to Hell” had been heralded as a return on Mr. Raimi’s part to his ultraviolent, comedic, schlock-horror roots, so of course I had to go. (Don’t you bash on my lowbrow tastes — Roger Ebert liked it.)

“Hell” is the story of Christine, a young loan officer (you can tell they really, really wanted Jenna Fischer from “The Office” for this role) who denies an ancient Gypsy woman, Sylvia Ganush, a mortgage extension, and is subsequently cursed. The curse is delivered after an extended fight scene between Pam Christine and Mrs. Ganush in a parking garage. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a self-defense graduate, and I had to appreciate how Christine immediately went into action, fighting with total vigor, commitment, and ingenuity. If I’m ever attacked, I hope my training kicks in like that.

Which it might not, instantly, because in most situations, there’s a moment of disbelief. Most people without serious training — and I don’t mean the kind I got, I mean the kind soldiers get — have a moment of shock when another person aggresses, whether the form of that aggression is a racist joke, a subway grope, or a mugging. Then you sort of “come to” and start fighting, or running, or arguing, or (in the case of the subway grope) grabbing the guy’s hand, holding it up, and saying loudly “Who does this hand belong to? I found it on my butt.” In my life, I’ve only known one person who could go instantly from Suzy Creamcheese to wailing ninja banshee if she had to. Most of us get stopped in our tracks, at least for a crucial few seconds.

Especially — and this is where the “dream logic” part of the headline comes in — if you’re being attacked by a one-eyed Gypsy woman who looks about 110 years old. This is one of the things I love about Sam Raimi’s movies: his characters never pause to think about the sheer improbability of the situations they are in. They just cowboy up and do what needs to be done. Fine, my hand is possessed and trying to beat me to death. Chainsaw time! (The particularly awesome thing is that not only is Ash willing to accept that his hand is trying to kill him, but that it is laughing at him.)

This is how dream logic works. When I was a professor at Emmanuel College, I got to do some work with the distinguished, and very wonderful, J. Allan Hobson on dreams. One of his theories/discoveries is that when we are dreaming, we solve problems pretty much the same way we do when we are awake, with one exception: we don’t question the bizarre. In short, if I were dreaming that my hand were smashing dishes on my head while giggling hysterically, I wouldn’t say, “Hey, wait a minute, it’s not physiologically possible for a hand to manipulate itself in contradiction to the desires of my brain, nor, for that matter, does it have a mouth.” I would, instead, accept the situation as a given and use whatever problem-solving mechanisms come to me most naturally in everyday life.

Have you ever had this experience in a dream? I know I have, although I can’t always remember the details. I do remember a recent dream in which I offered someone sudafed. I am never without sudafed and aspirin in my purse, and will offer them at the drop of a hat to anyone who appears under the weather, so I thought it was really funny that I carry ‘em with me into dreamland as well. Yes, even in the depths of my unconscious mind, I am still a hypochondriac yenta. Good to know.

Now, here’s the cool thing: if you can train your mind to recognize the bizarreness of dream scenarios, but not let that wake you up, you can take control and do lucid dreaming. I’ve managed this once or twice, and let me tell you, lucid dreaming is fun. You can fly or do anything at all!

Have you ever lucid-dreamed? Have you ever solved a problem in a dream in exactly the same way you would have in real life? Have you ever been cursed by an ancient Gypsy woman? Discuss.


5 Responses to “Sam Raimi and dream logic”

  1. EA Week on October 5, 2009 1:03 pm

    I do the “lucid dreaming” thing all the time. Never knew there was a name for it. I haven’t consciously trained myself to do this; I’m just a very light sleeper by nature, and a lot of the time I’ll recognize that I’m dreaming. So, e.g., if I find myself in a horror movie type of dream, I’ll think to myself, what I really need here is some kind of weapon, and lo, a weapon will present itself (and naturally I’ll have the strength/ skill to use it appropriately).

    I will also take advantage of the dream state to do things I know I can’t normally do: figure skating, gymnastics, super-proficient swimming.

    Thanks for this interesting post! Now that I know there’s a name for something I’ve been doing my entire life, I’ll definitely see if I can do this more mindfully.

  2. diane on October 5, 2009 3:17 pm

    I have lucid dreamed. Even as an adult, I used to be plagued by dreams about monsters chasing me. Godzilla, Bruce the shark from Jaws, you name it. Then during one dream, I stopped running and said out loud, “This is a dream. It’s not real. There’s no monster chasing me.” And the monster was gone. Just like that. The dream continued pleasantly. I had to tell the monsters to go away a few more times during dreams before they went away for good. I’ve been monster-free for about 15 years now. Looking back, I realize that at the time that I stopped the monsters, I was making some important decisions about my life, decisions that involved telling myself not to listen to the fears of other people. For example, I stopped listening to people tell me I can’t just pack up and move across the country by myself with no job and no contacts. I stopped listening to people tell me to be afraid to live my life my own way. So I used the same strategy on the monsters that I had used on people (maybe not out loud with people): “Go away — you (the monster or the fear) are not real for me.”

  3. Robin on October 5, 2009 5:35 pm

    Diane–good for you! One of the things I learned while working with Allan is that dreams can be very important. But they usually don’t have deep symbolic meaning that can only be figured out by trained professionals with fancy degrees, beards, and cigars. Usually, if a dream reflects something going on in your life, it’s very obvious what it is if you just take a minute to think about the emotional logic of it.

  4. Molly on October 7, 2009 11:00 pm

    I find lucid dreaming frustrating…on the few occasions that realizing I’m dreaming doesn’t automatically wake me up, I try to do stuff and fail.

    My flying is low to the ground and shaky, I can’t do telekinesis, and I can’t walk through walls. I’ve tried to walk through walls SO MANY TIMES when I’m lucid dreaming, and I can’t do it. Stupid solid dream walls.

    Oh, once I realized I was dreaming and decided it would be a good idea to jump off the second-floor landing I was on and waft gently to the ground.

    I didn’t so much waft as plummet, and it hurt like hell in both my ankles when I landed, to the point that I couldn’t walk, but even the pain didn’t wake me up. Stupid dream gravity.

  5. liza on October 8, 2009 7:29 am

    Diane — You go!!

    As I mentioned in another comment, I have been in a lot of physical and psychic pain at other times in my life. During one particularly awful period in my mid-twenties, I was plagued with nightmares – monsters, large men, anything – chasing me, hurting me, terrifying me. This wasn’t so far from the reality I’d experienced as a youngster, and I had no place to “put it” in my daily life.

    I’d wake up in a panic and be unable to go to sleep for hours because I felt so unsafe.

    After too many of these nights, I found myself lying awake obsessively replaying the dreams in my head. Little by little, I started thinking about alternative endings – how could I have outsmarted the monster? How could I have outrun the large guy? Was there anything I could have done to take myself out of danger? In my waking moments, I’d replay the dream and go down different paths in my head.

    And then, I discovered that I was having reruns of the dreams, except that the endings were now more along the lines of what I’d worked out while awake. The dreams were still terrifying, but the endings were so good that I wouldn’t wake up afterwards. I felt safer.

    In other words, through my sleeping life, I was finding a way to get unstuck from the terrors I’d lived through in my younger life. It was an extraordinarily important step on my healing path.

    I have vivid dreams, but they are now more varied – upsetting, laughably amusing, thought-provoking, and sometimes scary, but the terrors of years past haven’t revisited me in a long time.

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