The Mysteries and Motifs of Pandemic Dreams

One night in May of last year, the animator Marcie LaCerte dreamed that she found herself in the middle of a crowded Gap without a face m...


One night in May of last year, the animator Marcie LaCerte dreamed that she found herself in the middle of a crowded Gap without a face mask. The scene brought on a familiar panic; the classic dream distress of being naked in public, with the faux pas updated to fit pandemic life. LaCerte animated the dream, along with a series of others, for the film above, “Invisible Monsters and Tomato Soup,” produced by Stevie Borrello and Meghan McDonough.

The idea for the film arose during the early weeks of the pandemic, when the three filmmakers were, like many people, catching up via video call. They had been experiencing vivid and odd dreams since going into lockdown, and began collecting ones from others, solicited through social media, Reddit, survey sites, and from their own acquaintances. They combed through the more than eighty responses they received, looking for interview subjects with visually compelling dreams, eventually narrowing the list down to twenty, from respondents spanning five continents.

LaCerte told me that, throughout the process, the filmmakers kept in mind the fact that dreams recounted in the light of day tend to be less than riveting. Listening to a dream can be “exhausting,” LaCerte said, because it’s typically a “whole big narrative,” with details that are only relevant to one person’s subconscious. In order to counter that phenomenon, they focussed on teasing out concepts that ran through multiple dreams, in an effort to glean something universal, despite the disparate experiences of dreamers in countries with very different responses to the pandemic. Borrello described the process as like being “a detective with wires on a board, finding the themes that connect and then whittling it down.” These ranged from small oddities that cropped up repeatedly, like lizards and childhood acquaintances, to broader tropes, like experiences of physical touch tinged with danger.

To place the motifs they were getting from respondents into the context of the field of dream research, the filmmakers consulted Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “Pandemic Dreams.” The filmmakers latched onto a phenomenon that Barrett has identified as “invisible monsters,” stand-ins that crop up in place of COVID-19 in anxiety dreams. Barrett told me that, when a crisis isn’t associated with specific memorable images, “one disaster will show up as another.” In contrast, dreams that she studied in the aftermath of 9/11 were, for example, quite closely tied to reality. Even when the event itself didn’t appear, planes, crumbling buildings, and fire were constant tropes. Although masks and ventilators do make appearances in the COVID-19 dreams that Barrett has recorded, particularly those of health-care workers, the virus itself is more slippery in its representations, sometimes replaced by invisible spectres, like threatening footsteps or simply the knowledge that something ominous lurks outside, and sometimes by concrete dangers appearing in place of the virus, like natural disasters or evil beings.

The dreams in “Invisible Monsters and Tomato Soup” run the gamut: some are nightmares; some feature “figures of comfort,” as McDonough put it, like the grandmother of a childhood friend. To capture this range in her animation, LaCerte created a visual world that fit multiple moods. Rather than make the monsters and threatening figures appear frightening, as they were in the original dreams, LaCerte gave them kind eyes and friendly smiles. A pair of menacing, knife-wielding radioactive lizards share an endearing moment, when one presents the other with a bouquet. Even a Boschian blue demon sitting in the middle of a fiery hellscape gobbling up a human victim has a surprisingly pleasant expression on its face. LaCerte uses color to communicate changes in tone. Nightmares appear in dark, saturated tones, shifting to a gentler, pastel palette for dreams about reassuring visits from the dead or distant loved ones. A bright shade of scarlet runs through the changing color schemes, evoking, by turns, danger (a hand whose touch feels like fire), warmth and light (lanterns at a Chinese market, hot sand), and comfort (cans of Campbell’s soup). Barrett told me that colorful, vivid dreams have become more common during the pandemic, along with dream recall, particularly for people who had previously suffered from a chronic lack of sleep. Pandemic-induced insomnia aside, working or attending school from home has allowed some people to sleep in slightly later than they had normally, and to experience the longer REM periods that occur in the final cycles of sleep.

In March, Barrett began collecting dream reports from around the world using a survey and categorizing the thousands of responses she received into a few core groups: dreams about the dead, isolation, illness, and so on. Common themes have evolved over the course of the pandemic. Last spring, many dreams reflected fears about infection itself, expressed through swarms of insects or toxic air. As the pandemic dragged on, these gave way to dreams about secondary implications: financial and employment anxiety, dread about returning to offices, dread about not returning to offices, and stress about helping kids with schooling at home, such as the one Barrett recorded in which a mother dreamed that her ten-year-old’s entire class was being sent to her house for her to teach until the school could reopen.

As vaccines have been rolled out in recent months, Barrett told me, dreams about a post-pandemic world have started to crop up. Everyone’s COVID-free dreamscape is different: one woman found that a whale had moved into her swimming pool; another described a world in which Bernie Sanders was President and was busy rolling out plans to kick-start the economy with a marijuana initiative. More and more frequently, Barrett told me, dreamers are envisioning an environmental reset, in which they step outside into a utopia filled with clear air, clean water, and thriving wildlife. In the final image of “Invisible Monsters and Tomato Soup,” a woman flies above this kind of world. During the pandemic, dreaming has become something of a hobby, this dreamer explains via voiceover. At the end of each day, she “can’t wait to go to bed” she says, gliding gently over chartreuse hills and baby-blue lakes.

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Newsrust: The Mysteries and Motifs of Pandemic Dreams
The Mysteries and Motifs of Pandemic Dreams
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