For some time now, I’ve been noticing that a great movie is often followed by a great dream. I remember the first and best lucid dream I had after watching “Inception,” the Leonardo DiCaprio movie. In my dream, for the first time, I was able to move spaces as I pleased and completely transform scenes. I awoke feeling full of life and joy. The feeling is one I’ll never forget, since it left me with a lingering sense that anything is possible.
So, I think it’s interesting to consider how the characters in the movies, shows, and cartoons we watch on TV or at the movies—and even the situations that we, the audience, experience vicariously through those characters—sometimes seep into our dreams. We may not really know what they’re doing there. Many people interpret this phenomenon as the result of visual overload, attributing it to the mere fact that they experienced the stimulus right before going to sleep. Is that really all there is to it though?
I have found studies examining how what we see onscreen influences our dreams. Most of these studies focus mainly on scenes of aggression or violence and how they affect people. However, there’s not much information about the effect of movies or audiovisual products in general on our conscious and unconscious lives.
I’m fortunate to have access to the dreams of hundreds of people, thanks to my work as a professional reflector at DreamsCloud. I’ve been able to observe how movies affect the dreams of some users, and I’ve seen that most of them succeed in gleaning some information that they can use to become more aware in their own lives.
A few days ago, for example, I responded to the dream of a user who alluded to the influence of the movie “Frozen” on the dream she had dreamt that very night. Apparently, she had indeed seen the movie just before going to sleep, and she associated what happened in her dream with that fact:
I was at my grandmother-in-law’s house, and I was moving objects with my mind and freezing the objects I touched. When I touched them, they turned as white as snow, as cold and hard as ice. Then, I was in my classroom at school. My classmates were there, but I didn’t notice them or what they were doing or which of them were there. I was looking at my feet as I walked, because with every step I took, an image of a real snowflake formed. In other words, I was freezing the ground with my feet, without meaning to.
I guess I dreamed that I had magical, uncontrollable snow powers because I watched the movie “Frozen” the night before. In the movie, the queen Elsa, has magical snow powers, and when she gets upset, she can’t control her powers.
Dream integration doesn’t focus on interpreting another person’s dream; instead, it focuses on helping the person integrate the dream’s possible significance, via a dynamic process. In working with this method, one of the most useful psychological concepts to know about is “projection.” When we see things in others that we don’t see in ourselves, we’re projecting. For example, when “we see the mote in someone else’s eye,” to paraphrase the common saying that very nicely expresses this internal mechanism. So, in the case of the DreamsCloud user who dreamt of herself as the main character from “Frozen,” freezing everything she encountered, I suggested in my reflection that she “take back the projection” (another psychological term). In other words, she should try to recognize that character’s attitude in herself (see the beam in her own eye). Interestingly, that’s just what the dream seemed to help her see, by putting her in that role. She herself recognized as much later, in her response to the comments she received. She told us that she too “flies off the handle” sometimes, like Elsa in “Frozen,” and when she does, it affects other people. So, for some reason, at this moment in her life, her dream drew her attention to this aspect of herself. As a result, she can be aware of it and try to find other ways to handle situations that bother her, without having to freeze anyone along the way.
Dreams involving zombies are another example of an audiovisual influence that’s having a big impact on DreamsCloud. Zombies mostly appear in the dreams of young people who are fans of this movie genre:
For me, it isn’t unusual to dream about pizza and zombies, since I’m kind of an aficionado of them in real life. (...) I know I have to escape, because some danger is approaching. The fairground is deserted, and I’m in the restrooms there, I think. I lean through the door, and in the background, I see someone I know (he’s a vendor for the company where I work), but he’s a zombie and I have to run away. The scene changes, and I’m in an office, in the waiting room. I try to close the doors, but I can’t. And the vendor’s wife appears with a syringe. She’s trying to attack me, and I struggle with her and finally get it away from her. I stick it into her back, and then she’s cured.
In this case, this person’s liking for zombies makes them the perfect symbol of a fear or a worry, or maybe even a strength—one that is very likely related to some aspect of herself that the vendor from work is accentuating. It could be anything; that’s why professional reflectors don’t interpret. Instead, we focus on making suggestions and asking questions, just as my colleague at DreamsCloud, Laia Molina, does here: “The dream makes me think about a possible allusion to certain conflicts related to pleasure and fun, and their opposite, work. I wonder why that man and his wife appear, and not other people. What do they represent to you?” We leave it up to users to draw their own conclusions.
As I was working on this article, I came across some lovely words from Isabel Coixet, the well-known Spanish movie director. In thanking filmgoers, she also shares how it feels to know that audiences are often emotionally impacted by her movies: “I thank everyone for blending their own lives with the invented life on film. For restoring my faith in the power of fiction as a reflection of what we wish were real.” And the thing is, the fiction we see onscreen affects our lives and our dreams, because it puts us in touch with things that are real to us. Moreover, when it comes to our dreams, onscreen images are the perfect stimuli, causing the hidden recesses of our unconscious to be revealed.
So, should we heed the character from Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” who says that instead of peeping out at others, “what people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change”? Well, according to some studies that encompass both cinema and psychology—and in my own opinion, too—we can do both at once. We can peer through the “rear window” at what we see onscreen, and look within ourselves at the same time, thanks to our dreams. The things we watch from our sofas—the stories that transfix us and the characters we easily relate to—are useful tools for knowing ourselves.
So, all we have to do is choose a good movie and pay attention to our dreams when we wake up (and share them on DreamsCloud!), to see if what we’ve watched has awakened something hidden within us. Enjoy the movie, and sweet dreams!
Professional Reflector at DreamsCloud
Integrative Therapist specializing in Dream Integration, with a degree in Humanities
Román Gubern, El eros electrónico [The Electronic Eros], Taurus, Madrid, 2000.
Slavoj Zizek, “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema,” documentary, 2006.
J. Eduardo Cirlot, Diccionario de símbolos [A Dictionary of Symbols], Siruela, 2016.
Carl Gustav Jung, El hombre y sus símbolos [Man and His Symbols], Paidós, 1995.