We’ve all heard the legend that if you die in a dream, you die in real life. Usually when you’re in a life-threatening scenario in a dream, you wake up before you actually die. Usually.
I’m not a sleep scientist or a psychologist or any of that, so I can’t tell you what science says on the topic. But what I do have is experience. My friends, I have died in dreams. Multiple times, in fact. I’m kind of used to it by now.
Let me step back and clarify a few things about me and sleep. I have a very, um, difficult relationship with sleep. I always have. As a child, I had nightmares regularly that many of my earliest memories are nightmares and trying to manage them. My parents tried very hard to limit my exposure to things that we knew might induce nightmares for me, but it wasn’t terribly effective. Those nightmares never really went away; they just changed to more complex, mature themes. Every time I conquered a fear by facing it down, my unconscious mind found some new way to terrorize me. More recently, my brain has decided that I don’t even need a scary scenario to have a nightmare; I’ll have a perfectly ordinary dream and wake up terrified for no apparent reason.
My current sleep routine has me waking up 3-4 times in a typical night, including the ones where I’m only “in bed” for 4-6 hours. I have a vivid dream for each waking episode. So, yeah, 3-4 dreams per night. It’s a lot of data to work with if you want to know what you can and cannot do in dreams.
My unconscious is also really anti-authoritarian. If you tell it it can’t do something, it will find a way to do it. I once read an article that claimed you can’t read in your dreams. Ever since that day, I’ve done a lot of reading in my dreams, ranging from street signs to entire books. Tell me something can’t happen in a dream, and it’s at least a 60% chance it’ll happen in a dream for me within a month.
And that brings us to the “If you die in your dream, you die in real life” canard. The most obvious problem with this concept is that there’s no way to measure it—we can’t exactly ask people who die in their sleep what they were dreaming about. But we can ask living people if they have died in a dream. I have. In my experience, if you die in your dream, one of two things happens. I’ll call these possibilities “nothing” and “game mechanics.”
Nothing. This is, from what I’ve heard from other people who have said they experienced death in a dream, probably the more common option. You die. You lie dead, a corpse. You are still in your body, but your body has no senses, no control. You’re dead. It’s not quite like sleep paralysis, where you know you are awake and you can hear and feel but not move a muscle and that fact is frightening. But with dying in a dream, you are still in a dream, and you might even know it, but you’re just…dead. You just lie there, not able to move, not able to see or hear. It’s just… nothing. It’s terribly boring and slightly terrifying all at the same time. But mostly boring, actually. You think “If this is a dream, why am I not awake yet?” And then, eventually, you do wake up and you’re not dead. Honestly, though, as annoying and boring as this is, I prefer it. If I have to die in a dream, this is what I want to happen. Unfortunately, it’s not what usually happens to me. And that brings me to…
Game mechanics. In many games where death is a possibility, you have some number of lives (or infinite lives) and you are allowed to return to the moment right before you die and try again. Anyone who has played such games knows that as much of a relief as this might be, it’s also super annoying if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do or if you’re not skilled enough to do it! Unhappily, this is usually what happens to me when I die in a dream these days. I hate it.
This started happening when I was working on my master’s thesis, studying Phantasmagoria (Sierra On-Line, 1995). I started having recurring Phantasmagoria-themed nightmares (I mean, the game’s tagline was “pray it’s only a nightmare”). These generally focused on highly gendered domestic abuse scenarios, and it is my contention that Phantasmagoria really is about domestic abuse. To clarify, I am not and have not been a domestic abuse victim, so it wasn’t recalling some buried trauma. It was purely from the research I was doing. But the dreams were deeply disturbing, even to the people I told them to. And I often died in them.
But each time I died, I’d be dropped right back into the same scenario, right before the moment of death, having to rewatch the scene over and over again until I solved the puzzle to escape or finally woke up. Just like in so many video games.
And like in video games, it’s frustrating. It’s also deeply terrifying. As much as I hate experiencing the “nothing” version, I’d prefer “nothing” over “game mechanics” death any day. Nothing dream death is merely boring. Game mechanics dream death is terrifying.