‘White Bear’, the truly unnerving and remarkably horrific 2013 episode of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Twilight Zone’-for-the-twenty-first century series, ‘Black Mirror’, was the main topic of discussion when I saw a close friend the day after its transmission. We were both gobsmacked by the emotional impact of the programme and how ingeniously it tapped into the bloodlust of the modern media mob. My friend said she had a nightmare when retiring to bed that evening, no doubt inspired by how much ‘White Bear’ had unsettled her, and claimed it was the first nightmare she’d had in years. My response to this was one of surprise. ‘You mean you don’t have nightmares every time you fall asleep?’ I asked. I didn’t realise this wasn’t commonplace. I’ve had nightmares all my life. I don’t think I’ve ever slept without having one for company.
Perhaps only having to look at somebody else’s holiday snaps is more boring than having someone recount a dream to you. It’s not as if you’re being told about a great film you have the opportunity to watch yourself following a glowing recommendation. A dream only ever has the one solitary viewer and nobody else can share it. And most are either so predictable or incomprehensible when you receive a review of them that restraining a yawn is as hard as attending a Mariah Carey concert bereft of earplugs.
But there is a distinct difference between a dream and a nightmare. I also occasionally have those dreams wherein things happen to me that are of no interest to anyone else – usually featuring old friends I lost touch with years ago, or deceased relatives who were pivotal figures in my childhood. Occasionally, I have the ‘I’m related to somebody famous’ dream, ones which never select anyone famous I’d actually like to be related to. Past family members include Paula Yates and Debbie Gibson (don’t ask!). Back in the days when my clock radio was tuned into Radio One, the record midway through being spinned as the radio switched itself on would worm its way into a dream rather than waking me up. I remember ‘Vindaloo’ by Fat Les in the summer of ’98 being transformed into an edition of ‘Top of the Pops’ in my dream, one in which Gary Glitter strolled onstage and scooped up a child from the studio audience, something that sparked a few worried ‘ooos’ before said audience burst into laughter at Mr Gadd’s knowing gesture. I can only calculate this must have taken place around the time The Leader paid his fateful visit to PC World
There is an entire landscape mapped out in my dreams – houses, streets and statues in towns that never existed, yet ones I have visited more than once, often years apart and almost always at nightfall. As a writer, I can’t help but be fascinated by the subconscious and what it produces, largely because it is utterly out of my control. When I was a child, I regularly asked my parents why I dream, but never received an adequate answer. I wanted to know why I had a nightmare that placed me on the main road that ran along the bottom of my street – hearing a marching band approaching along that road when it was free of traffic in the middle of the night and then seeing ghostly apparitions of what resembled phantom eighteenth century soldiers slowly plodding towards me like dead veterans of Culloden. That one made such an impression that it remains intact in my memory more than forty years on. Even now, when I hear the strains of a marching band, the sight of that bewigged platoon in tricorn hats is the first image my mind calls upon.
There was also an incident around the same time in which I was convinced a pair of hands grabbed my feet at the bottom of the bed, something that caused such trauma that I kept my feet curled up when going to bed until my mid-teens. And this is the first time I’ve ever publicly admitted that! I’ve subsequently learnt this is a fairly common phenomenon, which makes me feel less of a freak.
My nightmares tend to follow a fairly familiar pattern, in that I regularly find myself marooned in some urban hell hole – a sink estate somewhere or surrounded by old houses in the process of demolition. I visited such a location as the latter a couple of nights ago. Perhaps this taps into my childhood again, in that I was witness to endless demolition, usually old terraced back-to-backs; possibly the fact that my original home went the way of the wrecking ball has something to do with this as well, the lost Nirvana I can never go back to because it’s been erased from the map?
There are times when I abruptly wake in a cold sweat, pretty much believing the nightmare had been reality; it can take several minutes before it dawns on me it was my obstinately active imagination refusing to switch-off even when the rest of me had. Then I wonder if it’s because I’m a writer and I spend so much of the waking hours inhabiting worlds I’ve created that the creative juices continue to flow when I don’t need them. Other theories have been put forward; one is that having a cigarette last thing at night before extinguishing light from the bedroom is to blame. Mind you, I didn’t follow that routine as a child and I was still tormented by nightmares then. I stopped drinking coffee at suppertime and opted for tea in the belief that the final beverage of the day might have been responsible, but it hasn’t made any difference.
I suppose a sensible psychological answer to the mystery of nightmares would be that they’re a manifestation of our most deep-rooted fears. Certainly, when I was once in a band, the recurring dream of stepping up on stage and suddenly finding I’d lost the ability to speak (let alone sing) would back this theory up. Equally, having moved home a lot over the last twenty years, some of the awful residences I’ve been guided around by lying letting agents have no doubt conspired to put the recurring worry of ending up surrounded by crack head chavs into my imagination when I’m not in position to act as guardian of the shit-filter.
I have accepted the fact that when I drift into slumber I’m no longer in possession of where my mind wanders. I do recall a character in Marvel’s ‘Dr Strange’ who went by the name of Nightmare and ruled over a Dali-esque, nocturnal netherworld populated by cobwebs and shadows, as memorably portrayed by the great Steve Ditko. But what makes actual nightmares so scary is that they’re not decked out in the comforting clichés of Halloween; they’re as real as the perception you have of the world you’re in as you read this. Only when we wake does it dawn on us that reality was playing a cruel trick – or was it? Is what we consider reality the very thing we’re dreaming and what we thought was a dream is for real? I hope not…but sometimes I’m not so sure.