What would you do if you called an uber and a hearse showed up? When this happened to Sarah Schanchner, her response was to wake up and tweet about her alarming dream with #pandemicdreams. This hashtag has been trending on twitter throughout the pandemic. Many people have found that they are experiencing abnormal dreams often centering around fear, death, and a strange new world.
No one truly knows why we experience dreams, but there are a few theories. One revolves around evolution. In the safety of their brain, people are able to dream up different scenarios in a safe environment that might be otherwise threatening. Another hypothesis is the idea of memory consolidation, which suggests that we use dreams to sort out the information we gather throughout the day into existing knowledge or create new memories to fill in the gaps between our experiences. The mood regulatory function theory says dreams act as a way to work through any emotional problems experienced when we are awake. These theories all suggest that vivid, intense dreams often serve as coping mechanisms, or our brain’s way of dealing with strange situations.
And during the time of a global pandemic and “shelter in place” orders, we are under some serious stress. With the majority of people being stuck in quarantine and social distancing, the most interesting interactions we can have with other people are either with a screen in between us or in a fantasy. COVID-19 is unlike anything that people have ever faced before, with all non-essential businesses shut down and colleges moving to online/e-learning education. The stress of the pandemic has caused it to be a defining moment in much of the public’s life.
Our dreams reflect our apprehensions surrounding the disease and give us places to attempt to emotionally work through what we are feeling.
People are finding a lot of similarities in their dreams concerning COVID-19. Many are claiming they are having more nightmares than ever before. The biggest influence on dream intensity is a disruption in a person’s regular sleep habits. As many people are stuck at home, they are changing their sleep schedules, causing disruptions in their usual REM cycles, and often resulting in more vivid dreams.
Personally, I have spent a good amount of this time throughout quarantine in my bed asleep. For the most part, it has been nice and relaxing, but I have noticed that my dreams have become stranger since I have not left my house in a month. One night I dreamt I was on Bourbon Street with two of my friends when one of them turned into the hulk. For some reason I had given this large green Mark Ruffalo in a dress my ID, credit card, and phone when I went to the bathroom. I came back and my friends had left me alone in the French Quarter so I ripped a flag off someone’s balcony, stole a police horse, tied the flag around the horse’s mouth like a giant mask, and rode it through the crowd, across the highway all the way back to Tulane’s campus. I don’t even live on campus so why that was my destination, I have no idea. I texted my friends about it (including the one who turned into Mark Ruffalo who proclaimed she was honored) and they told me they had also been having strange dreams the last couple of weeks.
Bay area resident Erin Gravley and her sister started a blog to encourage people all across the world to anonymously share their odd dreams throughout this time. One that stuck a cord with me is simply entitled “A recurring dream.” The dream starts out ordinary but goes sideways once the person realizes they are surrounded by people without a mask. Many questions go through this person’s head. Why is everyone not social distancing? Is the pandemic over? Why would I not know about the virus being cured? Those questions lead to the most paranoid thought of all — Did I dream the pandemic? Am I crazy?
The dreamer opens her mouth to vocalize these questions but all that comes out is a dry, rasping cough. Everyone around her stares until they too begin to hack up a lung and the dreamer wakes up gasping for breath. Reading about other people’s dreams has made me feel much better about my own and has honestly made me think: If this pandemic is a dream, it’s a nightmare and I would very much like to wake up now.
This piece was written for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The ongoing series, “Coping with Corona” is a live curriculum project where students investigate and report on the missed angles of Coronavirus coverage.