Star dreams

While we're awake, the famous are everywhere. Naturally, they reappear during our nightly regurgitation of mental effluvia.

By Steve Burgess

Published October 9, 2000 7:24PM (EDT)

I'm a member of the Beatles. George Harrison, I think. I'm in a running gun battle with the other Beatles -- except Ringo, who's on my team. I'm hugging the wall, clutching a machine gun, when McCartney comes around the corner looking for blood. Too late, Paul. I let go a fusillade and the composer of "Yesterday" folds up like a daybed. Lennon has been dispatched, too. We're hunting down that bastard George Martin, when I wake up.

Dreams about celebrities not only seem tawdry but are often perplexing (I like the Beatles), suitable only for drowsy teenagers drifting off on bunk beds while copies of Seventeen magazine slip to the floor. But I do it all the time, and it's not as if I can help it. The famous simply show up and assume various roles, including frequently my own.

I'm not alone. Every night, stars flout union regulations to give countless free performances in little rooms around the globe. Erotic dreams involving powerful world leaders are common, and sitcom characters regularly show up to mimic aspects of our lives and consciousness. "I need to go to school and register for classes. I have a transportation problem and get the idea that I will go to Jerry Seinfeld's apartment and then use George's car," recounts a dreamer named Linda in Gayle Delaney's book "All About Dreams." Kay Turner's 1993 book "I Dream of Madonna" recounts women's nocturnal visits from the goddess of pop. Clearly, "Entertainment Tonight" has a syndicated reach that stretches far beyond regular cable.

How could it be otherwise? While we're awake, the famous are everywhere. It's only natural that they would reappear during our nightly regurgitation of mental effluvia. As you sleep, your eyes, darting around their sockets like motorcycle paparazzi, may well be following Gwyneth Paltrow down a dark street that leads to things noted and quickly forgotten.

I'm riding a city bus. Frank Sinatra tunes are playing over the speakers in the ceiling (not a bizarre dream invention, but a memory -- in my old hometown the radio always used to play on city buses). Across from me sits a group of rowdy teenagers, and they're not happy about the music. They yell at the bus driver, complaining about the noise. I turn to look at the driver. He's steering with one hand while singing into a microphone. He's Frank Sinatra. That shuts them up. Punks ain't gonna mess with the Chairman.

While not a common theme of research, celebrity dreams do tend to show up frequently in case histories. In "The Dreams of Women," Lucy Goodison writes that film stars "may be used in our dreams to give voice to our more extravagant aspirations or our more outrageous desires." Apparently my subconscious desire to be chauffeured by Frank Sinatra for a buck and a half would not be denied.

Turner discovered that when women dreamed of Madonna it was usually not as a sexual figure but more commonly as a friend and ally. Goodison agrees that the celebrity's role in your dream "may not coincide with media stereotypes," or may take off from a different aspect of the celebrity's perceived character. In the case of Madonna, women identified with their perception of her strength and personal confidence rather than her much-publicized sexuality. Linda, the "Seinfeld" dreamer, eventually figured out that Jerry represented her husband. George, she decided, was herself. Dream interpretation is not for the squeamish.

Delaney, author of additional books such as "Living Your Dreams" and "Breakthrough Dreaming," is co-director of San Francisco's Delaney & Flowers Dream and Consultation Center. She suggests that a celebrity dream can be decoded by discovering how the dreamer views the celeb. Using Brigitte Bardot as an example, Delaney points out that she could be seen primarily as a sex symbol or an animal rights activist. "Once the dreamer's description of Bardot is made," Delaney writes, "the dreamer can decide for herself if Bardot reminds her of a part of her own personality or potential, a characterization of someone in the dreamer's personal life, or a force or attitude with which the dreamer has been trying to grapple." What Bardot means to you may depend on whether you're a French film buff, a mink farmer or a mink.

"There is no limit to the various roles famous people can play [in dreams]," Delaney suggests. Right. It's the luck of the draw. Compare my Margaret Thatcher dream with that of Jason, one of the subjects Delaney describes in her book "Sensual Dreams: Why We Have Them, What They Mean." In my dream, Maggie and I were seated at a banquet table arguing about English kings and American presidents. In Jason's dream, they were having sex. Clearly, Jason and I are different -- I simply lack that Stephen King-style imagination.

According to Delaney, further investigation revealed that Jason's dream version of Thatcher actually represented his tough-as-nails girlfriend. My own nocturnal Maggie may have been left over from a real-life encounter that followed a public-speaking engagement by the former British prime minister. During the Q&A period I asked Thatcher about her acceptance of tobacco sponsorship money. She turned her gun turrets toward me and fired off a defensive salvo (something about Churchill and cigars) that ended with a booming "IS ... THAT ... CLEAR?"

Our different experiences highlight the fallacy of "dream dictionaries," those books that offer universal explanations for dream symbols. For me, a shellshocked veteran of combat with the Iron Lady, Thatcher represented an elegantly dressed battle cruiser, a force to be dealt with. Lucky Jason, lacking any inhibiting personal experience, was free to cast her as Betty Page.

During one alarming period I dreamed repeatedly that I was Bryan Adams. I never did anything Bryan Adams-y -- at no point did I write "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," and awake gasping, sheets soaked in sweat. I was just him, doing regular stuff. Certainly, my dreams never succeeded in making his music sound any better.

Still, it wasn't hard to figure. Adams is from Vancouver, British Columbia, my current home. He's a slim, boyish-looking guy with dirty-blond hair -- descriptions I might apply to myself, whether or not anyone else agrees. And, my assessment of his musical worth notwithstanding, he's very successful. Clearly I possessed some neural district, like a Republican neighborhood in San Francisco, that yearned to be Bryan Adams. New serotonin boosters may deal with psychological maladies like mine.

But how do fans dream about their heroes? Michelle Gibson of Vancouver has examined the way enthusiastic fandom affects self-development. One of her interview subjects dreamed of caddying for Greg Norman, while another appeared in the cast of her favorite soap. Yet another found himself playing in the backup band for ... Bryan Adams.

So why does the fan dream of a supporting role, while I -- indifferent to Adams' musical charms -- dream that I am he? "None of [my interview subjects] wanted to be these people," Gibson points out. "It was enough for them to be in the presence of greatness, just helping out. They were fulfilling a desire to be part of their lives."

Whereas I, with no emotional need to keep Adams in his rightful place in the universe, was free to depose him and claim the spoils. "In our society, rock stars are shorthand for success, getting anything you want," Gibson says. "You didn't care about Adams, but about what he represents. By taking his role you can say, 'I'm a stud muffin.'"

One great thing about dreamland -- objective truth is impossible. Your own dream theory is as good as Freud's. In my experience the most reliable method of dream interpretation is to match the emotional feel of the dream to that of a recent waking event. Once the emotion is identified the symbolism can often be unlocked.

It's not all meaningful. Many dreams seem only a kind of sorting, a random sifting of recent data into haphazard shapes. Sometimes, though, the sleeping brain attaches significance to that random data. Bland images can be infused with meaning when dropped into your subconscious, like tofu in a stir-fry.

I think that's what happened with me and Frank. I'd recently glimpsed Sinatra in a late movie -- it was not long after the singer's death. His subsequent appearance at the wheel of the bus was probably a random brain burp. But as the dream continued, I tracked down Sinatra at a deserted club by the freeway. Outside, the sun was shining, but inside, the empty club was dark. Sinatra was there with the club owner. Later I recognized the feeling of awe that accompanied my venture inside the club, a feeling that often accompanies dreams involving fatal accidents or journeys beyond the fringes of ordinary reality. As I entered the darkened club, I was Orpheus in the underworld, following Sinatra into the land of the dead.

In hindsight, I wish I'd had a closer look at the club owner.

Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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