Most nights when I try to sleep, I’ll end up rolling around in bed, staring at the ceiling. After enough time has passed and my mind begins to wander, I find myself thinking about how vulnerable people are when they sleep. One of my more rational fears is that of alien abductions. Psychologists and neurologists can attribute alien abduction stories to sleep paralysis and other sleep disorders, but that doesn’t stop the fact that there is an infinitesimal chance there is life on other planets. And because there are infinitesimal opportunities for alien existence, there is an infinitesimal chance they are traveling the universe by now. Given these clear statistics, I have no qualms in saying that I fear aliens climbing in my windows and snatching my people up.
I’m describing my fears to you to attempt to get at a larger, more universal idea. What are people TRULY scared of? Yes, I realize that most people are not scared of being abducted by aliens, but in some people this translates to being kidnapped or mugged. All of these are examples of being vulnerable or losing control in a situation.
I once listened to a podcast interview with John Carpenter (the link is dead at the moment, but hopefully it comes back up), the director of Halloween and The Thing, where he talks about why his films are so beloved among horror aficionados. Carpenter noted that all great horror films feature two types of universal fear: fear of losing control and fear of the unknown. When you consider Halloween, the viewer quickly sees these two fears realized. Laurie has lost control of the situation; Michael has intruded into the house and she has no chance of saving the children she was tasked with babysitting. On top of that, Michael is a masked killer who seemingly materialized from nowhere. These two fears are crystallized onscreen in what has become revered as one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Consider The Exorcist, another celebrated horror film. Regan’s demonic possession exemplifies both the unknown and the loss of control, not only for herself, but for the priests brought in to try and save her. Every classic monster movie – dating back to the German expressionist’s fascination with the inner consciousness or the multiple remakes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – show examples of people transforming into false versions of themselves. Every culture in the world has some variation of werewolves, vampires, and zombies – three monster movie tropes constantly rehashed and reworked. I feel that my fear of alien abduction is therefore rationally justified, it epitomizes both the unknown and loss of control.
In my eyes, a key trait of a good writer is his or her ability to tap into universally shared themes. Carl Jung argues for “archetypes” ingrained in every world culture and – arguably – something foundational to our human experience. His idea of the “shadow,” an archetype that is arguably our “other self” or that which be bury deep within ourselves, holds these fears that we don’t reveal to others. He notes, however, that for one to truly known themselves, one must be in touch with his or her “other self.” In exploring my own psyche, thoughts, fears, and dreams, I feel that I have found enough personal proof for many of these concepts to confirm them for myself. What I hope to achieve now is to prove some of my own seemingly personal fears as being universal and in doing so, recognize them, own them, and conquer them.
I’ve kept a dream journal since I saw Richard Linklater’s Waking Life sometime in my early high school career. I had been mildly interested in dreams before, especially lucid dreaming, but a friend of mine passed his copy of Waking Life on to me and I became obsessed with dreamscapes. I tried to be more conscious of my dreams and I frequently found that I could become lucid. After keeping records for awhile, some patterns began to emerge. Stretching back to my childhood, I realized that the most common reoccurring dream images I had were those of houses. Empty rooms and long hallways. Staircases and basements. The mundane domesticity of the suburban home and the decadent grandeur of opulent mansions. But I am always alone, searching or wandering by myself.
To this day, I find myself wondering why this is. It’s not that I’m scared of empty houses in waking life, so what could it be? Always in these dreams I feel this unshakeable terror, but nothing is pursuing me. Could it be the house itself? The more I have dwelled on it, I have begun noticing large empty houses imbued with meaning in film and literature.
The first example I will give is Eric Heisserer’s 2004 internet anthology Dionaea House. Written in the form of email correspondence and blog posts, Heisserer created a rabbit hole that captures the readers attention from the first mouse click. The connected websites tell the story of a variety of individuals drawn to a seemingly normal suburban home. Mysterious events begin to occur and more victims get roped into the home’s blight. In taking the form of multiple individual’s correspondence, Heisserer imbues each character with a distinct writing style and allows their own words to build their personalities. It’s a fascinating read and plays at very basic human fears. If you’ve never read it, I strongly encourage you to take a trip down the rabbit hole.
From Heisserer’s Dionaea House, I then heard of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Published in 2000, it is clear that Leaves inspired Dionaea house in terms of content and form. The story is convoluted and intentionally maze-like, mirroring the home that is at the heart of the story. Told from the perspective of multiple narrators that stack on one another commentary, it quickly becomes necessary for the reader to keep notes or bookmarks to insure a complete reading of the text. The editor of the story, Mark Z. Danielewski, provides notes on Johnny Truant, a tattoo parlor artist who discovers a manuscript in his new apartment. Truant provides notes on this manuscript, which was dictated by an elderly blind man named Zampano to his caretaker. The manuscript details the academic study of a documentary film (which does not exist!) called The Navidson Record.
It is The Navidson Record, buried within the text, which captured my attention. The film is a record of an investigation led by Will Navidson and a group of explorers into the depths of his own home. Navidson discovers throughout the story that the interior dimensions of his house are larger than the exterior dimensions. Slowly, more rooms begin to appear as a long, cavernous stairway leads the explorers down into an ever-changing, ever-growing labyrinth. Danielewski is a fascinating author, choosing to write the story in different fonts, colors, and layouts which mirror the tempo and flow of the novel. The book itself is as artful as the story contained within.
Finally, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce tells the story of a recently deceased narrator exploring both heaven and hell on a bus ride. Lewis’s novel mirrors other great author’s investigations of the afterlife, such as those seen in Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both Heaven and Hell receive depictions not normally seen in other works. Hell, notably, is populated by endless amounts of large, empty houses. The people who build them, in the absence of physical needs, constantly move away from each other, thinking themselves able to live on their own. Yet they are beset with endless regret and despair, never able to find happiness. The sprawl of Hell stretches thousands of miles and its residents will never meet because of their constant movement.
Consider the homes that are central to such films as The Shining, Straw Dogs, Poltergeist, Citizen Kane, The Amityville Horror, El Orfanato, The Tenant, American Beauty, Rosemary’s Baby, Hausu, Revolutionary Road, or Rebecca. These homes, which should be comforting and pleasing, become corrupted in some way, introducing anxiety and fear into their occupants.
The more I dwell on these works, I begin to see why these images pervade my dreams. The Great Divorce and House of Leaves best epitomize this. At our cores, humans are horrified by the thought of being alone. Hell, in Divorce, is depicted as a wasteland of empty, gray homes, stretching endlessly into the abyss. The house depicted in Leaves changes with the mental state of its explorers. In a pivotal scene, our main character is left alone in a floating void of blackness. The home, and everything material, becomes absent – the very epitome of loneliness.
I think this may be what I fear most of all. The unconscious mind of my dreams has built itself a Hell: The thought of forever being alone, searching for meaning where there is none. I think that within all of us is some fear we have which we feel is personal and distinct. Through examination, I believe that we can show that they are not unique to us, but that they fall into categories of deeper and innate human truths.