Perhaps you’re familiar with this scenario; a mysterious presence is creeping around your house, peering in the windows, twisting the doorknobs. You’re aware of a terrible danger, but the phone doesn’t work, or is out of reach, or your shaking fingers can’t work the buttons. The stranger – rapist, murderer, vampire – is now in the house. You try to run but your feet are made of concrete, or they sink into the floor like it’s quicksand. The hostile presence is so near you can feel his breath on your neck. He reaches out for you. You can’t move. You try to scream but you have no voice. Only a whisper emerges, a wordless croak or gasp.
If you’re lucky, this is when you wake up.
This dream and many versions of it plagued me throughout my teen and young adult years. One element that never changed was the paralysis and the inability to make a sound. I’d wake up gasping, still trying to speak. I couldn’t let myself go back to sleep knowing I’d end up right back in the same predicament, so I spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to purge the Dark Man from the cobwebbed corners of my subconscious.
I always assumed these nightmares were a part of my interior make-up and was an inevitable result of being a woman in a violent society. Then about twenty years ago I read a book that helped me rewrite the plot of those nightmares. Women Who Run With the Wolves, Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, was quite the fad when it came out, the type of book everyone bought but no one read. Well, I read it, cover to cover, twice. My copy is still bristling with sticky notes. Lately, because the hostile stranger has reappeared in my dreams, I took another look at those tabbed pages. Women Who Run With the Wolves is an analysis of the psychology of fairy tales and how they still apply to our modern lives, but for this post I want to focus on one aspect of that; the phenomena of the Dark Man Dream. I’ll apologize in advance to the author for how badly I’m about to mangle her premise.
I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that I wasn’t the only dreamer hunted nightly by a murderous stranger, but what did surprise me was the idea that The Dark Man is no stranger at all. He is a force from within, a manifestation of our animus (Jung‘s term for the masculine part of a woman’s personality) gone horrible awry. The part of us that seeks to act out in the world has been locked up, for whatever reason, and essentially, is damaged by our neglect.
Pinkola Estes spends much of the book discussing the blocked or repressed artist, the women (and I suspect this goes for men as well) who are for whatever reason not listening to their inner muse, are not creating though they long to, are basically still and quiet when they are desperate to run wild and be loud.
The Animus, when not integrated into the whole and given something productive to do, turns on us and chases us with knives, runs us down, hunts and haunts us in desperate attempts to either wake us up or murder us in our sleep.
When I first read this book, I wasn’t writing much. I’d let the most essential part of my personality, my creative side, wither and turn to dust. I won’t go into the reasons, we all have them, plenty of perfectly valid, iron-clad obstacles, to excuse our lack of self-expression and the abandonment of our dreams. The theory of the Dark Man Dream made perfect and terrible sense to me. Then I hit upon this life-changing sentence; Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.
From that moment on, I began to make room in my life for writing. I carved out a sacred niche, which started as twenty minutes three times a week, and then became an hour, then every day, and is now three hours every day. It’s still not enough, but it’s been adequate to keep the Dark Man sated, his murderous weapons of frustration safely stowed.
I can’t remember how long it took, but finally I was able to rewrite the script of the dream. Not only was I able to move, I was able to turn around and fight back against a gang of attackers. Most significantly, I was able to scream, and keep on screaming until the cry for help became a howl of righteous anger. No nightmare has ever felt so good.
Lately, The Dark Man has been showing up in my dreams again. Maybe he just wants me to write about him in this post, to revisit those voiceless days so that I’m never again tempted to lay aside the pen. Or maybe it’s time to reach for another level of expression, to go deeper and darker to where more intimate and dangerous strangers lurk, to unlock the scariest of doors. As Pinkola Estes says ” If you’re scared, so what? Let your fear leap out and bite you so you can get it over with and go on.”