The Blurred Line Between Reality and Nightmares
"If a werewolf bites you, do you turn into a werewolf?" Wendy, at age 3, had been watching some unsuitable television and she was a little stirred up.
"Now, you know that werewolves aren't real, right?" I asked.
"Sure," she said.
Wendy knew the drill. If she wanted information about witches, ghosts, monsters, etc., she had to pretend to believe that they aren't "real," whatever that means.
She'd been told characters in storybooks aren't "real," but that didn't stop her from holding an open copy of Good Night Moon upside-down and shaking it, trying to get the bunny to come out. She knew dreams weren't "real," but she'd lived them. When I asked her, "How'd you get that bruise on your leg?" she would reply, "It must have happened in a scary dream."
And there I was, about to explain the properties of werewolves and their victims, and the human-to-werewolf conversion process, all under the heading of Things Not Real.
"First of all," I said, "Werewolves can't bite you because they are only in books and on TV. But in stories, their bite turns people into werewolves like themselves. That's enough of that. How would you like me to read you a story about Babar the Elephant?"
She persisted, "When they see the moon, do reg'ler wolves turn into werewolves?"
"No, werewolves are people, and the moon changes them. Regular wolves keep being wolves. They just howl," I said, a slave to accuracy. For someone who says werewolves don't exist, I sure seemed to know an awful lot about them.
(Wendy ought to try me on mummies — one of the few A's I got in college was for a 30-page research paper on ancient Egyptian embalming techniques. Give me enough bed sheets, a dead pharaoh and a three-day weekend, and I could probably make one for you.)
Wendy's problem was that supernatural creatures fascinated her during the daylight hours when she gathered her data. But once she parachuted behind the lines of Reality into Dreamland, everything she'd found out came back to haunt, pursue and terrify her.
Then at dawn she'd wake up and plunge right back into her favorite subjects. But one concept even horrified her in broad daylight. "Daddy," she asked, "is there really a skeleton living inside me?"
"Sort of," I said. "But it's just a bunch of bones that are part of your body. Just the way there are boards nailed together inside your playhouse that help it stand up straight."
"No!" she said. "There's no skeleton inside me. Skeletons live someplace far, far away." She could deal with people turning into wolves, but the skeleton idea was too much. For a long time she would refer to her skeleton as "him."
Now Wendy is 18 and hasn't changed all that much. She goes to slasher movies with her friends and comes home scoffing at the "totally fake" special effects. But the ensuing dreams turn the young woman into a little girl who crowds into our bed next to her mama.
"Why do you see those movies?" I ask.
"They're exciting. Like the way a rollercoaster is exciting," she says, eyes gleaming. "It gets the adrenaline going. Especially movies that are based on something that really happened because you know they could happen to you."
Wendy is not the only one who gathers material for reality-based nightmares. Mine are about work. Here's a frequent one: A crucial deadline is approaching relentlessly and no one else on my team seems concerned. I'm terrified, but my vague dream brain can't accomplish much. Besides, I'm surrounded by people who are gossiping, joking, arguing, preparing elaborate snacks, describing ailments, cursing their computers, showing off vacation photos, circulating greeting cards, singing "Happy Birthday," wanting envelopes, collecting money for football pools, selling Girl Scout cookies or going out to lunch and then reminiscing about it all afternoon. Every so often my computer freezes or I'm called into a long meeting. Personal disgrace draws ever closer and the dream goes on and on.
Eventually I wake up — and go live it.
Scary? Dream and reality are both scary. In fact, if a werewolf showed up in either place, I'd put him to work and give him a five-minute limit on telling me about his weekend.
I never tell Wendy about these job-responsibility nightmares. I'm trying to make up for telling her too much when she was little. It's also part of my campaign to give Wendy the impression that being a grown-up is something she might like to try someday. So I'll let her keep thinking that being chased by a psycho with a chainsaw is as bad as it gets.
Rick Epstein can be reached at email@example.com.