Dreamed recurrently (late 1930s to 1946) by Miss S., as reported by J.B. Priestley
In 1963, writer J.B. Priestley put out a request on a BBC show for examples of strange experiences with time, whether waking or dreaming. Over a thousand responses came: predictive dreams and visions of varying clarity, accuracy and credibility. The following year he published many examples in his book Man and Time, though dreamers' names were withheld for privacy. This is one.
From the earliest possible time I can remember I dreamed over and over again that I was walking up a churchyard path--every detail of the church and the churchyard being quite distinct and vivid. Horses were wandering about aimlessly, the one unreal factor of the dream, and my long hair was clinging round me.
Suddenly, I would feel myself being drawn with great force to a graveside. On reading the grave, I would experience a terrible falling sensation, and awake to find myself in a state of terrible depression.
This dream repeated itself over and over again all through my childhood, never differing in any way.
When I was twelve years old I spent a holiday in the New Forest. Whilst cycling home one day after a swim, I found the very church of my dream, exact in every detail, including Forest ponies outside the gate. My hair was loose and wet. I found the grave too. It looked an ordinary grave until I read the description --Died April 29th 1934.
The day on which I was born.
The dream never returned to haunt me again.
Now this letter made the professional storyteller in me... suspicious. I mistrusted at once that neat "shock twist" at the end, that discovery of the gravestone on which the date of death was also the writer's date of birth. It seemed a good device for a piece of fiction but did not make much sense as an occurrence in real life. Even if we accept reincarnation, which I do not, we cannot believe in a turnover of existence so rapid that while one is ending, another is beginning. Nor could I for one believe that somebody who died on April 29, 1934, might haunt in some mysterious fashion another person who happened to be born on that day. Yet I felt that this letter was too fascinating to be ignored, no matter what it turned out to be.
We will call the writer Miss S. I wrote to her, asking for further and confirmatory details, and these she supplied in a sensible and obliging fashion. The recurring dream of her early childhood had been frequently described to her parents and friends. (This was confirmed later by her mother.) The actual discovery of the grave was then explained in detail by Miss S, with an exact reference to the churchyard and where the grave could be found there. But why didn't she find out whose grave it was? Her explanation--and she was apologetic about it--was that at the time she was frightened and confused: She was only 12 and she found the grave during a thunderstorm; she never stayed again in that neighborhood, which was not near her home, because her relatives no longer lived there; and for some years afterward, rid now of the dream except in memory, she wanted to have done with the whole frightening and mysterious experience.
She concluded: "Somewhere at the back of my mind I believe it was a youth of 19, but this I cannot swear to." I must add that the manner of her letter, a fairly long one, was calm, reasonable, helpful. I must also add that her manner was the same when later she was interviewed and cross-questioned by a woman researcher, about her own age, and therefore more likely to put her at her ease than I might have done.
The final result of our various inquiries and explorations, which included the photographing of some possible graves, can be stated as follows. The approach to the church, the church itself, the graveyard--all of which she actually saw, outside her dreams, only on this one occasion--were as she described them. But there was no gravestone bearing the date April 29, 1934; and indeed, as the rector put in writing for us, there had been no interments in that churchyard during April or May 1934. Two photographs of possible graves were shown to Miss S, who declared at once they were quite different in type (as well as in date, of course) from the one, and the only one, she saw, which unlike them had very clear black letters and figures on a white upright stone.
It is now reasonably certain that Miss S did not actually see that gravestone with her birth date on it. But she equally certainly thought she did. After a long and searching interview, she was acquitted of any conscious faking, though not entirely of some confusion of memories and associations. So now, what are we to make of her story?
First, her dream is different in kind from most of the others described to me by correspondents. To begin with, "it repeated itself all through childhood, never once differing in any way." This repetition itself seems to me to suggest a not very happy and healthy childhood, one turned away from life. The symbolic content of the recurring dream carries this suggestion further.
Horses, for example, are often symbols of vital energy, and in the churchyard, where she always found herself in the dreams, horses were wandering about aimlessly. After that, "being drawn with great force to a graveside" seems almost inevitable. The dream kept returning to make a highly dramatic comment on her life situation. But later, having nearly entered her teens and being healthier and more active (the cycle ride, the swim), she suddenly saw--and during a thunderstorm too--the church and the churchyard she had known in these dreams; and then, profoundly disturbed, living for a moment in a waking dream, projecting figures from her unconscious, she appeared to find a gravestone with the date of her birth on it.
In short, she was being symbolically and dramatically reminded that she had been born into this life and must live it. Then, turned toward life, she was no longer haunted by the dream, was free of the churchyard.
Now if Miss S is right when she insists that she recognized the church at once "exact in every detail," then the recurring dream was in part precognitive. Sooner or later... she would come upon that church and the graveyard. But the emotional force of the recurring dream came from her own life situation at the time of dreaming.
In my opinion the dream was not, so to speak, a foretaste of what she would feel during the future waking event. Instead, her experience in the churchyard was shaped and colored by her recollection of those childhood dreams, which were not, as Miss S appears to think, prefiguring the experience. The appearance of her birth date on the gravestone--an illusion--was the dream's farewell to her.
A close analysis of everything she did and thought and felt, after she recognized the church and then went to look at its graves, might prove my point; but it would be impossible after all these years. I wish I had space here for a further consideration of this fascinating example--if only because I know it could be argued that there was a kind of "mirror effect" between the recurring dream and the final experience, half-waking, half-dream.
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