In late March, shortly after California issued a shelter-in-place order to contain its coronavirus outbreak, Erin Gravley, a 29-year-old administrative assistant, had her first pandemic dream. She forgot most of the details soon after waking, remembering only that everyone in it was social distancing. The dream reminded Gravley of a book she’d read a year earlier, called The Third Reich of Dreams, an anthology of dreams documented and smuggled out of Nazi Germany by a Jewish journalist named Charlotte Beradt, who fled Berlin for New York in 1939.
Beradt’s study charted how the terror and oppression of Nazism imprinted itself on citizens’ collective subconscious. Some of the people she interviewed dreamed of mind-reading machines or ominous new government departments and nonsensical bureaucratic decrees, a number of them dreamed that dreaming itself had been forbidden, others dreamed that they found themselves suddenly unable to raise their arms in salute. Their strikingly similar dreams sometimes anticipated the horrors that were yet to come, of mass deportations and concentration camps. These nightmares were produced without any conscious effort on the part of the dreamers, Beradt observed, “they were, so to speak, dictated to them by dictatorship”.
Gravley was intrigued by the suggestion that as well as offering insight into an individual’s subconscious, dreams could shed light on our communal experiences. She posted a message on Instagram asking if anyone had experienced coronavirus dreams that they would be willing to share with her. A handful of people responded. On a whim, she created a website, idreamofcovid.com, to collect and publish dreams. The website went live on 26 March and it “took off” in a way she hadn’t expected. By early May over 2200 people had sent her their dreams.
“Sometimes it feels, with all these different dreams coming in every day from people all over the world, like having your finger on the pulse,” Gravley told me, when we spoke by phone. It had amused her, for instance, that not long after she published a dream featuring Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease expert, taking a shower (the dreamer is “thrilled” and “excited”), Fauci was played by Brad Pitt in a Saturday Night Live skit.
Gravley now spends at least an hour a day reading through strangers’ dreams. “It feels very intimate,” she said. Often people confide other thoughts or fears with her. They tell her about how they’re having trouble sleeping, that they are anxious but don’t feel they can talk to their family, that their partner is desperately sick. She recently included links to mental health resources on the website.
Visit idreamofcovid.com and you can browse strangers’ dreams chronologically, by location or by theme, from “animals” to “Zoom”. It’s a surreal, poignant, often darkly comic online archive. The peculiarity of dreams, their abstraction, emotional intensity and crude symbolism, makes them feel universal: my dreams could be your dreams. Someone dreams that masks have become part of our faces, that their wardrobe is hanging with human organs, that people have started smuggling themselves out of their homes in shipping boxes, that they were disqualified from a post-pandemic global sex tape competition because they had hallucinated their partner and were just having air sex. Gravley, who also writes fiction, said she was struck by the parallels with creative writing. “Dreams do a lot of the work that stories do,” she said, “they tell us how we feel, and then they put a face and words to it.”
Each dream is illustrated with a delicate, whimsical drawing made by Gravley’s 24-year-old sister, Grace, a receptionist and self-described “girl with an iPad and a dream” who taught herself to draw while studying plant science at university. At first Gravley only asked Grace to design the logo, but when Grace read through some of the submissions she thought “Oh I want to draw the dreams – these are so cool!” The project was giving her a sense of purpose, Grace told me. “It’s altered my perspective on humanity in general, how similar we all are,” she said. “It’s made me feel connected to some sort of cause.”
Our pandemic dreams may be similar because our nightly journeys often reflect our waking lives, and dreams are thought to be a mechanism for processing fears and anxieties. “One of the leading theories about why we have dreams is the threat simulation hypothesis, the idea that we’re using dreams to process things that we feel anxious about or threatened by in real life. Dreams give us a chance to work through these fears in a lower-risk environment, by just imagining them, leaving us feeling more confident and more prepared to face them in the daytime,” Alice Robb, the author of Why We Dream, an exploration of the new science of dreams, told me.
Anxiety dreams may help us build psychological resilience. One year-long study of women going through a divorce found that those who frequently dreamed of their former partner appeared to be faring better at the end of the year than those who did not: their moods were better, their finances more stable and their love lives more satisfying. This effect was especially pronounced if the women were assertive in their dreams or experienced vivid, emotional, complex dreams. By thinking and talking about our dreams we can benefit more from them, acquiring new insights into our feelings and desires, Robb argues in Why We Dream.
Deirdre Barrett, a clinical and evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School, has conducted research into survivors’ in the aftermath of traumatic events such as terrorist attacks. She too has been collecting people’s dreams during the pandemic, to inform her research. In an interview with the Guardian, she noted that in many of her respondents’ dreams the threat posed by the virus were visually represented by natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tornadoes, or more commonly still by swarms of insects. “The biggest dream cluster is bugs; flying bugs attacking the dreamer, cockroaches swarming, masses of squirming worms,” she told the newspaper. On her Instagram page, Barrett posts trippy digital art she has created inspired by pandemic dreams, of ghostly children in gas masks and a freaky zoomorphic coronavirus.
Perhaps the resurgent interest in dreams suggested by websites such as idreamofcovid, as well as the plethora of news articles on pandemic dreaming, points to how we are all grasping for a sense of meaning amid such tragedy and upheaval. Perhaps, stuck at home, we also have less other stuff to talk about. Since starting the website Gravley has found to her surprise that, bar one dream about viruses in jars, she has stopped dreaming about covid. She wondered if by reading strangers’ dreams she had found a way to work through her own anxieties during the day and now no longer needed to do so at night.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion