I finally saw the movie “The Good Night,” a romantic comedy about a man who discovers lucid dreaming as a great escape from his boring life. I really enjoyed the movie, and recommend it for all dreamers, if for no other reason to see how the mass media is viewing LD.
I promise – no serious spoilers in this article! Rather, I want to take a look at how The Good Night confronts lucid dreaming – does it perpetuate stereotypes or move the culture forward? The short answer is a little of both.
Stereotypes of Lucid Dreaming
The most obvious stereotype is that lucid dreaming is the preferred way to get all the sex you want. The main character is bored with his life and the destructive relationship with his live-in girlfriend, and suddenly he begins having erotic dreams about a beautiful woman. He learns the tricks and, night after night, continues the romantic exploration in his lucid dreams. When he gets bored of even this, he imagines three versions of this woman in bed.
We”ve also seen this stereotype of lucid dreaming before – most famously mocked in the animated film Waking Life. It’s not wholly untrue; lucid dreaming can be a wondefrully safe place to explore sexuality. But unlike the movie, these sorts of dreams usually necessitate some work from the dreamer, who must face issues of trust and “letting go” in order to to maintain access to this ecstatic realm. This is the work of Tantra. These dreams may start light, but they tend to shift into dark places unless the dreamer can let go of the need for controlling the fantasy. More on this later.
Another stereotype is lucid dreaming = controlling the dream. The lucid dreaming guru is played by Danny DeVito, who quickly sizes up the pale and pudgy Gary and says, “Looking for some control?” I rant about the claim of dream control way too much for my own good, so I’ll just say here that what makes lucid dreaming a verifiable altered state is not manipulation of dream content but rather a confluence of the analytical mind and the more ancient emotional and visual centers.
Conscious volition plays an important role in lucid dreams, but that role is more accurately described as “willful intention.” Mastering intention is the first of many challenges for lucid dreamers, but it’s just the beginning. Danny DeVito’s character ruminates that his best moment is bedding Cleopatra in a bathtub. To me, this is the mark of an intermediate lucid dreamer at best, because his conscious mind is still dictating the fantasies.
A final stereotype perpetuated in The Good Night is that light switches don’t work in dreams. This is right out of Waking Life, and it’s not true. Unless, of course, a dreamer believes it is true. This is an example of the expectancy effect, in which the dream world performs a certain way due to internalized assumptions. Besides, if you need to flip a light switch to determine if you are dreaming or awake, you are dreaming.
A better reality check is presented in the movie: looking at your hands. This technique comes out of Carlos Castenada’s works about the fictional Yaqui shaman Don Juan. Reality checks are about making mental habits to seriously consider “Am I aware?” In other words, be here now. My personal favorite reality check for lucid dreaming is moving through thresholds.
Moving the Culture Forward
The Good Night has a lot of good information about lucid dreaming that I have never seen in the mass media before. Danny DeVito says at one point that lucid dreaming is “full on emotional exploration, sometimes emotionally alarming.” This is more a more accurate understanding of the cognitive landscape of the state, and goes against decades of myths that strong negative emotions have no place in lucid dreams. This leads me to believe that the writer Jake Paltrow has had personal experience with lucid dreams.
Penelope Cruz also has a wonderful line in a dream, reminding hapless, powerless Gary that “anything you need to make it great is in you.” It’s not ironic that the woman of Gary’s dreams has to tell him that his ability to love is what he desires most. This is a solid psychodynamic process, in which an internalized helper comes to a dreamer and “re-awakens” him or her into living more fully.
Finally, The Good Night depicts that controlling dreams can become an addiction and even lead to lucid nightmares. The mechanism behind this trend is not clear. As Gary continues to sleepwalk through life, and focuses only on controlling his dreams, the sexual fantasies go sour. This has been noted by many dreamers, including the historic account of Frederick van Eeden. To his great consternation he noted that “Demon dreams” began to follow his lucid-control dreams.
Psychologist Scott Sparrow has noted this disturbing trend as well, writing that in the height of his experimentation with lucid dreaming, “all kinds of angry people began showing up in my dreams, and turning rather demonic to boot.” This dark side of lucid dreaming is usually not talked about, which probably leads hundreds of people to give up their explorations prematurely.
This is the realm of the lucid nightmare, where the dreamer is aware but unable to change the dream any longer. At this point in the lucid dreaming process, I recommend working on self-compassion, and trying to meet what happens in the dream rather than manipulate it away. The Good Night shows this process accurately, and Gary stops trying to force rendezvouses and instead turns back to his own creative passions.
Not bad for a romantic comedy!