My Top Ten Movie Dream Sequences
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were watching Behind Her Eyes, a miniseries based on the book by Sarah Pinbrough, featuring lucid dreaming and astral projection. At the same time, I had just started reading David Mitchell's Slade House, about psychic "vampires" of a sort who lure their victims into a lucid-dreamlike pocket universe to drain their energy. I was also writing about lucid dreaming and astral projection, in the third and final novel in the Ghostland Trilogy.
The weird thing is, I had no idea what Slade House or Behind Her Eyes were about when I started them. This strange bit of kismet ended up with me experiencing a bizarre series of dreams one night. I didn't technically lucid dream but I dreamed about lucid dreaming, a whole complicated nest of semi-lucid dreams - where I was aware I was dreaming but unable to shape the dream - within a single dream. Waking (within the dream) and sleeping and waking (within the dreams within the dream) over and over again. It was a pretty intense experience - did I mention I love nightmares? - but more confusing than Inception. When I woke up I found myself counting my fingers, as they often say will help trigger a lucid dream - and does for the characters in Behind Her Eyes - a couple of times to make sure I was really awake.
All this got me thinking how much dreams in reality and in fiction have inspired my writing and my love of the horror genre, and which dreams in particular might have shaped my writing more than others.
I'm not going to list my personal nightmares here. I don't want to bore you or put myself up for psychoanalysis. Also, there's still gold to mine from them in my fiction. Anyway, here's my list of Top Ten Dream Sequences, in no particular order. And yes, there will be spoilers.
The Stand (1994) "Nick's Dream"
"There's a storm comin! His storm!"
Not a particularly scary scene, but that's part of why it stuck with me. The character of Nick Andros from Stephen King's The Stand is deaf and unable to speak. We learn this when his character misses the approach of loudmouth bullies taunting him, and doesn't see them until it's too late to react. He's knocked unconscious and sent to dreamland, where he meets Mother Abigail, and discovers he can both hear and speak. It's a great moment of joy that adds depth, likeability and pathos to his character very early in the series.
I could be wrong, I've only seen it twenty times - it's my favorite King miniseries - but I think it's the first glimpse we get of the Dark Man, standing in as a scarecrow with red eyes.
Jacob's Ladder (1990) "Hospital Scene"
Technically not a dream sequence as much as an entire movie framed as a dying man's nightmare, Jacob's Ladder is one of the most terrifying movies of all time, and among my top three horror movies. US Army Veteran Jacob's descent into madness is one of the most chilling and realistic ever filmed, and this scene in particular has been cited as a huge inspiration for Keiichiro Toyama's Silent Hill - which, not coincidentally, is my favorite game franchise.
The scene also unintentionally inspired countless jerky fast-motion ghosts/demons in the late-'90s/early-2000s, but I don't hold that against it. If you haven't seen it there's still plenty to enjoy even though I spoiled the film's twist. Likely you would have even guessed it, since it's been imitated so many times since. (Though technically it's a sort of reimagining of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," which was adapted way back in the '60s and shown on the original Twilight Zone series.)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) "The Puppet"
The Nightmare on Elm Street series has always been my favorite of the three major horror baddies - Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers - and Dream Warriors was my favorite of the bunch. As a kid I connected with the ragtag group of protagonists in this one, more so than in the previous installments. The Puppet sequence is one of many great dream sequences in a series filled with them.
First of all, this kid's got a bunch of marionettes hanging on his wall. Creepy enough. One of them transforms into Freddy, who then tears out the kid's ligaments and uses him like a human puppet, forcing him to walk out of a high window. The reveal of a giant Freddy looming over the hospital cutting the "strings" is a great moment, which I now realize may have inspired a major scene in one of my own books.
Waking Life (2001) "Just Wake Up"
Richard Linklater's Waking Life is a surreal meditation on the nature and meaning of life, lucid dreaming and free will. This was the first, and one of the only, major films to use the rotoscoping technique - essentially drawing over top of live action film - which made the film even more trippy and intriguing than it might have been otherwise. Gist of the movie is a young man having an existential crisis while believing he's trapped in a dream, unable to wake up. A lot of the movie is just following him while he talks to people about life and dreaming. All of this culminates in a scene with the movie's director, Linklater, who tells the protagonist that if he wants to stop dreaming he should "just wake up."
"Just wake up" in this sense means realizing he's actually dead. It's a thoughtful, intriguing film with many takeaways, and this scene in particular has stuck with me for its trippiness and its emotional impact.
Mulholland Drive (2001) "Winkie's Diner"
There are so many great dream sequences in David Lynch's work, and many of his films feel like fever dreams themselves. Narrowing it down to even one or two feels criminal, but only ten can make my list. While some deep thinkers have decided that the film itself is a dream, which would make this a sequence within a dream where a character in the dream talks about his own dream, I'm gonna treat this scene straightforward. It's a simple scene where a man talks to his friend about a terrible dream he had - which happened to take place within the Winkie's Diner in which they're currently sitting.
It's a scene that works on multiple levels for me. I'm tense long before their walk down the side of the building to the alley, where the "man round back" supposedly lives. The fear in the dreamer's eyes, his moments of embarrassment while telling the story, the way he parcels it out, the language he uses. Everything about it gives me chills. "I hope I never see that face outside of a dream," he says. "He's the one that's doing this." Doing what? It's never fully explained, at least outside of the sort of dream logic you find in a Lynch film.
When they finally see the "man round back," played by Bonnie Aarons (who also played the Nun from the Conjuring movies), it's such a genuinely shocking and creepy moment that the dreamer faints - or dies? The face truly is something that should not exist outside of a dream, and the scene is indelibly imprinted on my brain.
The Cell (2000) "The Dolls/Enter King Stargher"
This movie blew my mind when I saw it in the theater, and it still holds up quite well today. For creepy imagery, not much in mainstream cinema has delved this deep into nightmarish metaphor. For me it's up there with the Floria Sigismondi and Chris Cunningham music video esthetic of the late-'90s. (If you don't know what I mean, look them up. Seriously.)
In this scene, Catherine (played by Jennifer Lopez), meets serial killer Stargher's victims within his mindscape. These women are trapped behind glass like museum exhibits, completely lacking what critics these days call "agency," forced to perform the whims of their twisted master. The intentionally jittery camera movements and editing are unsettling enough, even without the macabre imagery. The creepiness ramps up when one of the "exhibits" opens, releasing the female bodybuilder, who lurks behind Catherine with a dangerously menacing physique. Stargher himself wears a cape that literally spans the length of his entire hall, drawing back like giant curtains (or wings) as he rises from his throne.
Trainspotting (1996) "Junk Dream"
Oh, sweet baby, this scene has creeped out many an unsuspecting filmgoer. Trainspotting is mainly a comedy-drama about the horrors of heroin abuse, but this scene, in which Renton's parents lock him into his childhood bedroom, forcing him to sweat through going cold turkey, is pure nightmare fuel.
Dreamscape (1984) "Buddy's Nightmare"
To be honest, I don't remember a lot about this movie, but a few scenes have stuck in my memory over the years, and I've still got a fondness for it, at least in concept. One of the scenes I remember well enough is when psychic Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) enters a child's "dreamscape" at the clinic to help him get over his recurring nightmare. The German expressionist set pieces and shadow play were probably already cliché even before Tim Burton overused them, but they work well enough and the claymation looks surprisingly good within the dark landscape. It's not something that would creep me out as an adult, unlike the Winkie's Diner scene, but as a kid it was pretty scary, yet also kind of comforting when the kid vanquishes his nemesis, the "Snake Man."
The Fly (1986) "Brundlefly's Baby"
Jeff Goldblum, who would later go on to utter one of the most famous lines in Jurassic Park ("Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."), played scientist Seth Brundle, who crosses a line of his own while experimenting with teleportation, and becomes physically merged with a house fly. There are many absolutely horrific moments of body horror in this one, from a director who was then known for it (David Cronenberg), but one of the most gruesome is when Veronica (Gina Davis), gives birth to a giant, squirming maggot. Of course, it's all a dream, but it's a nightmare that builds upon everything that happened before it and is somehow still not as shocking as what comes later.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) "Erasure"
Like Trainspotting, Eternal Sunshine is mainly a comedy-drama, about a man, Joel, erasing his relationship with Clementine from his memory through a new medical procedure. This is Charlie Kauffman's undisputed masterpiece, a groundbreaking movie that found a far wider audience than most arthouse films before it, with assured and understated direction by Michel Gondry.
This scene comes after Joel realizes he doesn't want to erase Clementine, and tries hiding his memories of her within different memories she doesn't belong. The world (within his memories) disappears around them as they run from memory to memory. It's as terrifying on an existential level as it is a solid thriller concept. The process has already started and cannot be stopped.
Get Out (2107) "The Sunken Place"
Another "technically not a dream sequence," The Sunken Place scene in Jordan Peterson's Get Out is a genuinely freaky hypnosis nightmare. After his girlfriend's mother hypnotizes him, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) finds himself unable to move or speak, while she plants . Later this is revealed to be the place where the consciousness of the "host" bodies reside while their captors act as them. Once you know this, it makes the scenes where Chris interacts with the other appropriated bodies even more unpleasant.
Twin Peaks (1990) "Cooper's Dream"
The "Cooper's Dream" scene, among many others, stands out as one of the most iconic in the David Lynch filmography. This was the first scene in the series to feature both the Red Room and the Man From Another Place (known colloquially as the "Backwards-Talking Man," and later in the series called "The Arm"). Played by Michael J. Anderson, The Man's and Laura Palmer's sluggish dialogue, with bizarre non-sequiturs and dance moves, and forwarded-reverse movements lend a creepily surreal aura to the whole scene. It was a historic moment in prime-time network storytelling that changed the landscape of television and inspired countless artists.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993) “Phantasms”
TNG had plenty of genuinely creepy moments, particularly in episodes revolving around time loops, but Data's dream sequences in "Phantasms" went Freudianly freaky. Later in the episode, Geordie finally answers the telephone call on an old-timey rotary phone inside Data's chest.
Inception (2010) “Café Scene”
Inception is all about dreams. Dreams within dreams within dreams. "We have to go down another level." It's slick and bombastic and interesting and a bit messy, and I feel like Nolan could have taken the dream logic a bit further without losing coherence, but it is a pretty cool movie. This scene in particular, where Ariadne (reference alert!) learns that she's already dreaming, inspired a scene in one of my novels. The jaw-dropping visuals of a city block folding over on itself and the sometimes heady (geddit?) talk about the subconscious were pretty ambitious for a blockbuster movie at the time. Gamers might see similarities to this movie and the Double Fine game Psychonauts, which also had enemies that would turn on the dreamer if they sensed any aberrations within the dream.
Little House on the Prairie (1976) "Laura's Nightmare"
I'll leave you with one more, but I wasn't able to find a real clip (the below clip is is spliced with A Nightmare on Elm Street). The episode "The Monster of Walnut Grove" scared the crap out of me when I saw it as a very little kid. It's the only episode I've seen of the series and oddly enough I've seen it twice, both times in flipping through the channels. Make of this story what you will. It also aired for the first time exactly one month before I was born, which isn't really an interesting fact. It might have been cool if it had aired on the day I was born. I don't even really know why I included it. Anyway, yeah. The scary horror writer was frightened by a scene from Little House.