When I was very young—around three—I’d kneel in front of my bed every night and beg God to stop giving me “the bad dreams.” He didn’t listen.
The following bad dreams were all so vivid that they jolted me back into the waking nightmare that is daily life. I had the first half-dozen when I was a kid; the others all came in my late thirties and early forties.
1. The Wolf Who Erased My Face
A long time ago in a land far away—1965 in Windsor, VT, to be exact—I was one of about thirty million Americans to endure the Northeast blackout. Electricity was lost in a huge swath running down from Maine to New Jersey. I’d been visiting my Grammy Goad in her little shanty shack with its creaky wooden porch and squeaky screen-door entrance. More than a half-century later I still remember sitting helplessly confused in total oily blackness with my family for hours. The experience led to what is still the scariest nightmare of my life.
The dream came in two parts—one during daylight, the other at night.
In the first part, I was walking with my older sister across a field toward a little red schoolhouse. Suddenly our path was blocked by a grinning, malevolent wolf like I’d seen in Disney cartoons. He stuck a sheet of flypaper onto my face and then slowly peeled it off…and I don’t mean only the flypaper…he peeled off my face, too. I could see my face on the flypaper. Where my face had been there was only smooth skin remaining. No eyes, no nose, no mouth. The wolf had stolen my face.
Cut to the next scene.
I’m sleeping on Grammy’s living-room couch right in front of the screen door. I hear footsteps slowly creaking on the porch. Then I see the giant whites of the cartoon wolf’s eyes peering in. He slowly opens the screen door, smiling ear-to-ear, ready to do me harm.
I begin screaming for help. There are at least five adult family members in the shack with me. But they all stay fast asleep. None of them can hear my screams because they’re all wearing earplugs.
2. The Gumball Machine Monster
As my parents were checking out their groceries from the local supermarket, they gave me a nickel to buy myself a little toy from a gumball machine near the cash registers.
The toy that dropped out in a clear plastic capsule was a little beige telephone strung with a gold-bead keychain. Disappointed with the toy, I didn’t even bother to pop open the plastic capsule—I threw it to the ground and crushed it underfoot.
Suddenly the clear plastic capsule grew into a giant clear plastic robot. The gold-beaded keychain sprouted into giant gold-beaded arms and legs. The robot wrapped his gold-chain arms around my throat and began strangling me to death.
3. The Hundred-Foot Wave
I’ve had this dream at least a dozen times, and it’s identical every time. I’m standing alone on a beach collecting shells. Suddenly I look up, and there’s a hundred-foot tidal wave cresting directly over my head.
4. Free-Falling off a Cliff
I’ve also had this dream about a dozen times. I’ve fallen off a five-hundred-foot cliff and am plummeting rapidly toward the ground. About halfway toward the bottom, aware that I’ll be dead within a second or two when I splat violently on the ground, I wake up.
5. The Giant Blue Amish Bird
I’m at a tranquil farm somewhere in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. A fifteen-foot-tall blue bird is running around in circles. It resembles the birds one sees in Amish hex signs. Suddenly the giant blue cartoon bird sees me. It begins chasing me in circles.
6. The Dinosaur Peeking in My Bedroom Window
I grew up in a two-story brick row home. An alleyway ran behind the basements of each solid block of homes, meaning that it was three stories—or about 35-40 feet—from the alley up to my bedroom window on the top floor in the rear of the house. My bed faced the window toward the alley. As I open my eyes in the dream, a T-Rex sticks his massive head in the window and makes eye contact with me before walking away.
7. Being Pushed Toward EXIT Signs That Led to Oblivion
While getting divorced from my first wife, I dreamed that we were both in downtown Portland and the world was ending. The streets were crammed with screaming, panicked throngs. Swept up by the undertow of the hysterical mobs, my wife and I were forced apart. We were both being shoved toward EXIT signs that left the world and ended in death. But she was being pushed toward one EXIT sign and I was headed toward another. We would enter eternity through separate exits, never to see one another again.
8. Handcuffed in the Back of a Runaway Police Car
I’m sitting in a Portland coffeehouse when a policeman suddenly taps me on the shoulder, handcuffs me, and tosses me in the back of his squad car.
He’s still standing outside the car when a transmission gear slips and propels the car forward. It rolls through a public park heading straight for a tree. I tense up in anticipation of the impact, but the car plows right through the tree and keeps careening violently forward, smashing every car in its path until it runs out of gas. Still handcuffed, I wriggle out of the car and start running toward freedom—until I look down the street to see that cops are pointing their assault rifles at me, ready to shoot.
9. The Glowing Red-Eyed Skull
I’m driving around in a gravelly church parking lot doing figure eights that get tighter and tighter with each pass around the lot. In the middle of the lot is a skull impaled on a stick, its eyes glowing red. With each figure eight, I get closer to the skull.
10. Giant Cockroach Faces in a Children’s Book
At an especially tumultuous point in my life I dream that I’m calmly sitting down near a stream looking at black-and-white pictures in an oversized children’s book. Each picture is an intensely focused high-magnification shot of a cockroach’s face.
11. Murdering the Waitress at the All-Night Diner
I’m with a female accomplice standing on a sidewalk and calmly scoping out an all-night diner waiting to pull a robbery. There are no customers in the diner, only a female waitress who’s wiping up a countertop.
The dream skips over the part where we murder the waitress and cuts to where I’m still staring through the glass windows, past the countertop, and out the glass windows on the other side. I spot myself and my crime partner walking away. I’m wearing the uniform of the fallen waitress, walking clumsily in her high heels and muttering to myself, “I can’t believe how low my life has sunk.”
12. A Hurricane of Bricks
I had this nightmare at a point in my life when I was so depressed as to be suicidal. I’d been living on the West Coast for nearly two decades but dreamed I was back in North Philly, walking the dirty streets of that filthy, stained-brick metropolis. I approach a cathedral that’s 300 feet tall. As I get closer, I see the cathedral’s bottom half has crumbled and is surrounded by fences marked CONDEMNED. There’s a pile of bricks and rubble about 150 feet high. When I see that people are walking around on top of the bricks, I panic and wonder why they’re up there. Don’t they know they could cause an avalanche? I think to myself.
The moment I think this, the avalanche occurs. Propelled by gale-force winds, deadly chunks of brick and rubble are flying through the air. I turn away from the church and calmly walk. Women and children run around me, screaming and howling and tear-streaked. But I keep my composure and walk slowly, deliberately, refusing to panic. I’m cradling something small and alive in my arms, protecting it from the bricks. I refuse to let it be harmed.
This is the only nightmare with a happy ending. The reason I didn’t allow myself to get killed in the hurricane of bricks is because I knew I needed to be strong for that tiny, vulnerable creature. I couldn’t kill myself because there was someone who needed me. He didn’t come along until years later—and I didn’t realize it until years later—but that dream was about the fact that I needed to stay alive to protect my one and only son.