Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Dreams of the Living Dead

I mentioned in the last post (“‘No Feeling Is Final’: Healing Beyond Feelings’”) my recent dream about fighting “two terrifying eight-foot-tall living corpses”—zombies! Dreams about zombies, or “the living dead” seem to be getting more common these days. What is that all about? In addition to this dream of mine, I’ve had at least one other zombie dream, and have heard at least three more such dreams from different people I work with, in the past year. I’ve also read references to zombie dreams all over the place.

Of course, zombies are big in popular culture right now—movies, comic books, toys… Yuck. The image of animated corpses lurching and moaning (or ominously silent) seems to be no more than an invitation for our violently over-stimulated society to revel in gruesomeness and gore. And, as a cultural icon, they might represent our modern illusion that we can keep our physical bodies going, even beyond death. Or they might refer to our technology, which can be as mindless and relentless as animated corpses hungering to eat our brains. Or they might refer to our materialistic appetites and dedication to distraction, which drive the corpse-like ego on and on without mind, spirit, or soul.

But I haven’t been watching zombie movies, and neither have the others I know who are having zombie dreams. True, we’re immersed in popular culture, whether we like it or not—but we’re not saturated by the images and we don’t take those cultural messages at face value. So why are we dreaming of the living dead?

In two earlier posts (“Monsters In My Dreams,” and “More Monster Dreams”) I described how monsters of all kinds relate to a primal fear of death. This isn’t necessarily a fear of physically dying, but a larger resistance to the natural process of death/loss essential to the ongoing, ever-changing nature of growth and life. Fear of death is really just fear of change, since all change involves death. Something must end in order for something new to begin—and, in fact, the ending process and the beginning process are inseparable.

I’ll use myself as an example. In my recent dream, there are several features that point to my struggle with the inevitable nature of change.

The zombies in my dream had to be killed again and again—four times—before they would remain dead. The first two times I killed them by brute force, but I knew that I was running out of strength and so would need to use my intellect and imagination to finally put an end to them. This seems to address the fact that when I was younger, I could deal with loss and change by pushing through it, but now would be exhausted by this kind of force, and need to let go with more conscious awareness of the paradox inherent in death leading to new life.

The paradox was reflected in my dream thoughts, as I was killing those monsters: “It’s terrible to have to kill something so beautiful!” Of course, the living corpses were anything but beautiful in a physical sense, and yet they represented something that had lived, had completed its life, and was beautiful in its potential to let go and become new. It was terrible to kill them, just as it can be terribly sad to have to leave the old behind and step into new life.

Ironically, when those monstrous creatures burst onto the scene and began attacking us, someone shouted, “Oh no, it’s the Twinkles! Apparently, the “Twinkles” were known for their overwhelming and deadly power. They were almost unstoppable. Yet they were called the “Twinkles!” How ridiculous! I think of a twinkle as something brief and bright, something light-hearted and light-spirited. Yet stars are the primary “twinklers,” and stars are virtually eternal (mythically, stars are often believed to be the immortal souls of the dead).

For me, a twinkle is also associated with the phrase, “when you were just a twinkle in your father’s eye”—referring to the spark of a soul existing even before its conception. So, these Twinkles were both undead corpses fighting to maintain their dreadful existence, and the sparkling ephemeral and eternal essence of new life.

Zombies speak (or moan) about the challenge of letting go. When I struggle with zombies, I am struggling to let the old die, so that the new can come into being. But those zombies are really hard to kill, because I’m actually most afraid of facing the awful moment after they’re gone—the moment when I wait in the dark, in the midst of the desolation, to see whether my worst fears or best hopes will be realized… or if something entirely unexpected will come into being. When the zombies die, I enter emptiness, and have to wait and see.

There is death in the midst of life, and life in the midst of death. Have you ever dreamed of the living dead? They’re more complicated than the movies might suggest!



  1. micheal

    Zombie dreams are a very common occurrence. I, on the other hand, happen to fill most of my free time watching these gore filled shows and movies. But the zombie dreams i have are often different than on tv. I have been a lucid dreamer for my entire life (starting at age of 2-3). So i have gotten used to reoccurring nightmares and dreams. Zombie dreams and monster dreams dont really frighten me anymore. The only memorable one was the ooze zombies. I was in a museum and these zombies chased after me. They collided and oozed together, it was as if it was one creature that could gain and lose zombies. You shut a door, it goes through the cracks. I couldnt fight it like zombies in my other dreams. When i would try to kill it, it would just ooze over the wounds or the separated appendages would spawn into a new zombie itself. I ran back into my car and shut the doors, knowing it wouldn’t work, then forced myself to wake up.

    Im not searching for symbolism, just thought it was an interesting dream.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes, “ooze zombies” certainly are interesting! And it sounds like they are also extremely adaptable as well as undying. It’s funny that we’re all trying to avoid the idea of death, yet some of our scariest images are of things that don’t die…

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