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COLUMN SIX | What’s in a dream?

Sinister tales and odd spooks, Part 2 T o sleep, perchance to dream… For thousands of years, humans have tried to understand the mysteries of sleep, and the dreams that follow.

Sinister tales and odd spooks, Part 2

To sleep, perchance to dream…  For thousands of years, humans have tried to understand the mysteries of sleep, and the dreams that follow. In dreams, humans can relive past memories, talk to deceased loved ones, bend the rules of physics, defy logic, and even fly.

In ancient times, dreams were believed to be messages or prophecies sent from the Gods or another world, and it was the job of augurs, shamans, priests/priestesses, and similar ilk to interpret these dreams for others.

Eventually, neurologists and psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung would put forth their own theories about dreams: Freud believed that dreams were our subconscious minds expressing unresolved, repressed desires, while Jung considered dreams the mind’s way of communicating important messages to us.

As technology advances, more advanced sleep studies have allowed scientists to learn a little more about the brain, even if there are no conclusive answers as to what dreams are, or what they are for.

Based on the most recent findings, there are several possibilities: dreams could be electrical brain impulses, pulling random thoughts and imagery from our memories and trying to make sense of them. Humans are not the only beings who dream. Animals will dream about what they experienced during waking hours, feeding the theory that dreams serve an evolutionary purpose as a biological defense mechanism — we are more prepared for potentially dangerous scenarios if our brains make connections by simulating events while we are asleep.

Another theory, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, links dreams with the development of processing memories of emotional reactions, and how the brain sorts through short-term versus long-term memory.

In yet another study, at UC Berkeley, the deepest stage of sleep (otherwise known as REM) was shown to influence our ability to comprehend complex emotions, and that people who suffered from reduced REM sleep were impacted in their ability to successfully function socially.

It is also possible, due to various rare conditions or over-use of certain substances, to lose the ability to dream, either temporarily or permanently.

There are many books that try to explain the existence or purpose of dreams, and interpret their possible meanings, just as there are many books that attempt to explain what ghosts are and whether they exist. While it is clear that dreams exist, what happens in dreams is not real (at least as far as we know). Meanwhile, the existence of ghosts is unclear, but many who allege the ability to see or hear them will argue that even without concrete evidence, there must be something, even if it simply the meaning that we derive, through our imaginings and our hopes that something, anything, lies in the hereafter.

As explained in Part I of this spooky series, a ghost is often described as a disembodied soul. They can be as ephemeral as a faint, shadowy trace, or appear in frighteningly vivid detail to those who see them. Sometimes they allegedly manifest as disembodied sounds, or sudden flashes of light, shadow, and movement.

Different cultures have their own definition of what a ghost is, and what it can do, and how it either consciously or unconsciously affects the living.

Growing up, I heard many Vietnamese ghost stories from my parents, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles. My entire extended family escaped post-war Vietnam in the 1980-’90s to settle in Canada, and to many of them, ghosts are undeniably real.

For them, a ghost’s existence and presence was to be treated with respect and compassion, not just fear. This is because many Vietnamese people believe that ghosts are born from the sorrow and trauma of death, and that spirits are just as deserving of love and acceptance as the living. In Vietnam, especially during the decades-long war between the North Vietnamese Communist forces and the pro-democratic South (eventually backed by US forces in the 1950s), wandering spirits were believed to be the manifestations of suffering, injustice, and pain. As the war dragged on, and more crimes and atrocities were committed by both sides, the designation between the world of the living and the dead became increasingly blurred for those caught in the crossfire.

According to my relatives, depending on the level of trauma associated with its death, a ghost would either be a benign presence, protecting loved ones… or a hungry and desperately lonely spirit, bent on consuming the happiness of the living so that they wouldn’t be alone in their misery. Benign ghosts were to be honoured, so that they would bestow blessings, and angry ghosts were to be appeased, lest they lash out with bad luck or curses.

In Vietnam, a ghost that haunted someone’s memories, dreams and thoughts was just as valid and real as the ghosts sighted in abandoned minefields, burnt fields, unmarked grave sites, dark roads, and empty houses.

Encountering ghosts in dreams seems to run in my family. My grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side both dreamed of the departed, with dreams ranging from brief sightings and images, to lengthy and complicated conversations. My mother would also dream of ghosts often, with my own supernatural dreams and encounters eerily in sync with hers.

My grandfather allegedly encountered many ghosts over the course of his lifetime. The story below details one of the encounters that chilled him the most.

In the late 1960s, he was living in Buon Me Thuot, the capital city of what used to be Vietnam’s Quang Duc province. This was a few years prior to the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in 1975.

The story begins benignly. There for business (as an architect, he had been asked to design military barracks for the Americans), he had recently been gifted by the locals with a trained monkey as thanks for his services.

According to the villagers, since the dead were never buried properly or given a funeral, they were doomed to wander that area forever

At first, the monkey was a beloved pet for the children, amusing the family with its antics and tricks. However, the creature eventually became a potential safety hazard due to its well-meaning attempts to help family members cook meals. Uninterested in nurturing the monkey’s culinary knife-wielding exploits, my grandfather made the decision to release it back into the jungle.

He loaded the blindfolded monkey into the car, and drove to the outskirts of the city. The drive was uneventful, despite the warnings from the locals about driving along this particular stretch of jungle road.

Any travellers during this time ran the risk of being attacked by Viet Cong soldiers, hunted by tigers, or setting off landmines. Meeting one’s end in the depths of the jungle had other risks; there was a chance that your body would never be retrieved, due to the chaos of war and the odd tiger who had a craving for the taste of human flesh.

Once he was deep in the jungle, my grandfather released the monkey into the trees. Then he sat in his car for a few minutes, enjoying a rare moment of peace and quiet. He also wanted to wait and see if the monkey wanted to return, as he felt a bit of remorse about setting it loose.

After some time, my grandfather heard the faint sounds of crying. Worried that it was the monkey, he exited the car and walked a few meters up the road. As he came closer to the noise, he saw a figure sitting at the road’s edge. The person was hunched over, shaking, holding their conical straw hat (the Vietnamese call it the Non La) over their face.

“Are you all right?” my grandfather called out.

The person continued to cry and did not answer. My grandfather came closer, and leaned to one side to get a closer look at their face. He could not tell whether it was a man or a woman. He continued to ask what he could do to help, but every time he tried to peek under the straw hat, the person, still crying, would quickly turn the hat to hide their face.

At a loss for words, and now feeling uneasy, my grandfather decided to go back to his car. His family was waiting at home for him, and the person clearly did not want to be disturbed. He also did not want to be in the jungle once it became dark.

When he got back to the car, he suddenly experienced a sense of heaviness. Unable to fight it, he fell asleep.

For years, when he told this story to my mother, and my aunts and uncles, he would reiterate that he had no idea why he suddenly felt the urge to nap.

During wartime, it was very dangerous to nap in one’s car by the side of a remote road. My grandfather had a strict rule that he would never sleep during long drives—the first priority was to always make it home as quickly as possible once he was done with business or work.

With sleep, came the dream.

In the dream, my grandfather saw many figures wandering the road, meandering around his car. They were all hiding their faces and crying. Eventually, they saw him and one by one, the figures approached his car. They raised their hands, touching the windows, pulling at the handles on the door.

“Help us,” they cried. “Please help us.”

My grandfather woke up in a cold sweat. The road was empty, but he immediately started the car. Completely forgetting about the monkey, he drove home as fast as he could.

The next day, while he was on the job site, he told his workers about what had happened. He was then told that the particular stretch of jungle road that he had been on was rumored to be haunted by the souls of those who had been murdered during the war, or who had stepped on the landmines that were still scattered throughout the jungle. According to the villagers, since the dead were never buried properly or given a funeral, they were doomed to wander that area forever.

Soon after my grandfather’s encounter with the mysterious figure, and his terrifying dream, a team of villagers were sent to excavate the area just beyond the road. There they discovered a mass grave. The bodies were then exhumed and given proper funerals.

After my grandfather passed away many years later, he became something of a ghostly figure himself — he would appear in my grandmother’s dreams often, and my mother, aunts and uncles would report occasionally seeing him, either in dreams or even in person. I myself have never seen him, though I did dream of my grandmother once.

I love to analyze coincidences. For any writer, what better entertainment is there than unpacking the deliciousness of an ambiguous “what if”?

What if ghosts are excess energy, lingering as moments or imprints in time? What if ghosts only have as much power as we give them, by speaking their names, by the power of our thoughts, the act of keeping their memories alive? What if ghosts are trying to reach us, whether in waking hours or in dreams? I maintain that I do not believe in ghosts (particularly the cartoonish white bedsheet variety) — however, I do believe that there are many forces humans don’t understand yet. Our scientific methods and theories aren’t quite enough to answer the question of what happens after death — or at least not yet.

Regardless of what the answer is, I still curl up in a chair with a cup of tea during family gatherings, and soak in all the what-ifs, past-happenings, and why-nots. Whatever the truth is, until we go into the Beyond ourselves, we’ll never know. Even then, there currently exists no earthly means to report back.

Until then, the speculation is good fodder for stories, no?

Got a tip for a haunted location, or a spooky yarn you’d like to be interviewed about? I’ve received tips for a haunted barn, and a sinister tunnel, among others.

Keep them coming! I’ll be investigating one of these locations and writing about my findings in Part 3.

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