Behind the Scenes

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Do recurring dreams mean anything? Slate staffers discuss.

Slate staffers have very active REM cycles.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by baranq/Shutterstock and View Stock/Thinkstock.

Do you remember your dreams every night? Do you have one dream that recurs over and over? Our dreams are rarely haunted by the abandoned homes, creepy Easter bunnies, or spiders that the Internet says will haunt them. Instead, it’s often the more mundane, everyday visions that stalk us in our sleep. But what does it all mean? As a special for Slate Plus, we’ve compiled the best recurring dreams among our staff and asked them to interpret them for us. Enjoy, and sleep well.

Dan Kois, Culture Editor

For years and years I had a dream that would recur at least once a week: I am back at Whitefish Bay High School, and I’ve been told that alas, something went wrong with the records or my grades or the state requirements, and in fact I never actually graduated, and I need to redo my senior year. I’m not high school–aged, I’m my current age, yet I must stalk the halls and take AP English and store my stuff in my old locker. (The combo is the same: 22-39-27.) The dream is always half awful (how can my life have gone backwards in this way?!) and half great (I can actually do high school right this time!).

I viewed it as a mark of growing maturity that a few years ago this dream changed. Now I no longer dream about being back in high school. No, I dream now about being back at the University of North Carolina, where, alas, something went wrong with my transcripts or the registrar and I never actually graduated, and so I must repeat my senior year (except that for some insane reason I am living in the dorms, not an off-campus apartment). This dream is almost entirely enjoyable—most of my college friends are back there with me, having suffered the same dream fate—except for some residual stress about how my poor wife is left with our children back in Virginia, but I help out through phone calls and the occasional Skype conversation.

Interpretation? Piece of cake. These dreams reveal that I am entirely happy with my memories of my youth and would certainly change nothing about the way I went through high school and college. They also make it very clear that there’s nothing at all about my current life that I find stressful, difficult, or from which I feel the need to escape.

A.J. McCarthy, Video Blogger

I’m swimming off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard with my friends and family. It’s a perfect day. The water is refreshing, the calls of seagulls overhead can be heard, and the early afternoon sun is hot. Suddenly, I hear yelling. Everyone is in a boat off in the distance, and I’m alone in the water. They’re pointing behind me and calling for me to swim. Shark. I see the fin. Panic. I swim and swim and swim. I reach the boat. Just as I’m pulling myself up and in, CHOMP. Fade to black.

Intepretation? My father thought it was a good idea for me to see Jaws when I was 10 years old and spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard (aka Amity Island). I was seriously traumatized by the experience and now have an irrational fear of sharks that may or may not also manifest itself in bodies of water other than the ocean. Not much room for interpretation here. Thanks, Dad.

Victoria Fine, Director of Strategy and Audience Development

I’ve had the same recurring dream since I was 9 years old or so. In the dream, an atomic bomb is dropping and I’m the only one who notices. Usually I’m in an office building with big windows during a meeting or in a crowded place that’s fun and loud, like a carnival. Sometimes I’m on a plane. Everyone around me is minding their own business, but when I look up, I see a plane dropping a giant atomic bomb (which apparently looks exactly like a U.S. Army spy blimp in my dream world), and I freak out and try to warn everyone. Except no one hears me—or realizes we’re seconds away from impending doom. The dream always ends in the same way—I see it silently float to the ground, really slowly, much like that blimp, and I always wake up right before it hits the ground. 

Interpretation? Pretty sure it’s because I read Hiroshima when I was 9. I was very (nerdily) into Japanese history at the time and had found a cache of historical novels in my local library about being a Japanese kid. That book was filed right in there, and the cover said definitively “Everyone Able to Read Should Read It.” I could totally read at 9 years old. Maybe they should have been a bit more specific. 

Erica Walsh, Slate Video Senior Producer

I’m driving a silver Toyota Camry on a sunny day. I’m not sure of the destination, but the dream always begins with that blissed out feeling of driving your first car during a summer twilight. Inevitably, I realize I’m heading towards New York City, which makes me a little nervous because I hate crowds, traffic, and noise. However, at the George Washington Bridge, I’m forced to stop at a red light, because (foghorn!) it’s a drawbridge! But the light doesn’t turn on time, and I’m on the bridge, rising up, up, up until it’s clear that the car is going to be dropped by the vertical lift. I always wake during the fall, but the agonizing lift and anticipation of the moment the wheels pull away last forever. 

I also have another weird one about being swallowed by a puddle in Africa. 

Interpretation? Who knows.

Amanda Hess, Staff Writer

I’m back in high school in Phoenix. All my humanities classes are going fine, but I can never figure out where my Generic Math class is. I spend all day wandering around the hallways, looking for the right classroom, always just missing the class. The school year’s almost over, and I am definitely going to fail Generic Math. And then I’m going to have to come back to high school the next year to get my diploma, which is a big problem for me, because I already live in New York and have a full-time job where everyone thinks I graduated from high school. Maybe this is why I can never make it to Generic Math on time? My commute is impossible. Nothing ever happens. Finals don’t come. I just keep missing class, over and over again, once a week or so for years and years. Sometimes I make it to one of the classes and it’s gibberish. 

Interpretation? Did I make a huge mistake by moving 2,000 miles away from my family, becoming a journalist, giving up all my alternate dreams, and letting all my actually useful skills atrophy? Subconscious says maybe!

Laura Helmuth, Science and Health Editor

I often have nightmares about travel disasters. I’m late for a plane, I’m lost, I forgot my suitcase, I can’t find my passport, I lost my ticket, etc. Always rushed and panicked and desperate.

Interpretation? I don’t think it means anything aside from the fact that I’m a worrywart.