I hear the sound of throttled screaming – the kind of shocked yelping you’d imagine making as you draw water into your lungs from the depths of some dark, inescapable lake.
It takes me from my bed towards bathroom door. A thread of light framing the inner edge of the door frame shows me that this bedroom is not mine, but is one I feel I know.
I swing the door open, (it creaks silently), and expose the bathroom. White tiles, a stained bathtub with rusting shower attachments and a matching white sink. Idiomatic to American motels – I know this despite never having visited one.
There is a man dressed in a tired grey suit reclining in the empty bath. Some invisible force seems to be choking him.
It could be a practical joke being played on me by some talented actor, a revenge being enacted by an angry phantom or the result of a peculiar medical complaint. Whichever the cause, he does not look likely of surviving it in tact.
His eyes meet mine as the door cracks the wall. I feel that rush of certainty that such emergencies elicit in us. I must act. I know what I am meant to do.
I rush to him, kneel down, take his throat in my hands and help.
The next thing I remember is standing and staring into his vacant eyes. I remember feeling utterly calm.
I do not always remember my dreams. When I do they are often about incredibly mundane happenings that are not worth sharing. But this dream made me think so I thought it worth sharing.
It made me think of privacy and technology, of TV and movies. It made me think of my public self and the importance of having a private self. It made me ask some questions that went back to the past and on into an imagined future.
Specifically I wondered: what led me to experience the vivid realism of this dream and what might dreams like this one-day mean for how I am seen?
Let’s begin with the obvious aspect: the violence.
The roots of violence
Arguments about the negative impact of television, video games and movies on the minds of the young, (and the old who were once square-eyed youths), are not new. Simply put, violence administered so flippantly and frequently by goodies and baddies alike is thought to normalise it as acceptable real-life behaviour. So violence becomes ok, even encouraged.
Perhaps so, but this is not the tangent I want to follow. I am more interested by how the violence in my dream was so realistic; the sounds, the clarity of images and sensations in the dream that bordered lucidity.
I have never murdered someone, so how would I know what it should look and feel like? Is my projection of it made lifelike because I have seen so many projections of it in on-screen realities?
Let’s take some elements of my dream. The bathroom. It looked like the bathroom in Hitchcock’s Psycho or Harron’s American Psycho. I have never visited these bathrooms in real-life but I have seen them as sites of on-screen violence, so perhaps it my subconscious selected them as a most appropriate setting for what was to unfold.
And what of that clear impulse I felt to act? The confident motion towards the man, my hands around his neck, even the sense that strangling him was helping all seemed informed by a felt history. How? I have never strangled someone or come close to it, so why would it feel so natural and familiar to do so in this scenario?
But then I need to take another step further back as a more pressing question arises in advance of answering this one: was it really me?
I was inside the participant in the dream, this I’m sure of, yet I was also an observer of the action. I didn’t look in the mirror and verify that it was me or a projection of myself. But I felt each aspect of the scene so how could it not have been? After all, we take this double role in our everyday lives – we choose to be witness to and / or orchestrators of our engagement in each part of our lives.
Ah, a little clarity! The film camera relies on this quality to successfully engage us as participants in action. It cleverly mimics our natural tendency to withdraw to the role of observer, despite still being physically present in our reality. This is place where our inner voyeur is happiest: safe in the privilege to look in on a scene without having to actually engage in it.
Having watched countless hours of movies, it comes as no surprise to me that my perspective in and detail of my dream mimicked a scene from a movie. I have learned to feel what I view as my own, with my body doing its best impression of developing a felt memory for violence, flight, invisibility and dying.
My dream was a projection informed by a projection. And so the loop completes – art imitates life so life imitates art…and on ad infinitum.
A time before the future
But I wonder through all this musing without a crucial control in place: how can I know what it would be to dream without the influence of TV and movies?
Unfortunately that’s not something I can easily set up – I am a little too tarnished by modern living to start to undo its influence now. I am not my grandparents’ generation – though they probably wondered about the vivid radio reports that infiltrated their dreams!
This makes me think of the future, and to something that concerns me more than why my projected imaginings are so real. How long will our dreams stay ours to share as we wish?
Charlie Brooker’s television mini-series Black Mirror brought some of these issues to life. In the episode, The Entire History of You, most people had an implant that allowed the replaying of everything they had ever seen or heard. They could even display it for others to watch on TV screens. But this is only sci-fi and not a forewarning of future reality, right?
Well come back to today and take the recent cases of the FBI asking Apple to help them hack seemingly private information from people’s iPhones. Or, more immediately, how we might question whether each email I send is really ‘private’ and whether that little camera in the top of my screen is ever really ‘off’.
Perhaps those words have just changed meaning. Or they are no longer absolute and are followed by conditions like: your email is private, until it has value to us or your camera can be switched off but the lens is never closed. Are the avid gossips and eager eyes keeping watch without our knowing until we become worth knowing?
Perhaps I am running away into fantasy and getting you all worried unnecessarily. Maybe we don’t all need to become luddites to keep safe. But there is some technology we irrefutably can’t escape.
Take CCTV, passport control, credit card paper trails and the like. Parts of our lives are watched and collected as data by people who we have never and, probably, will never meet, and to whom we are mere statistics to be sold at.
The point is, how much of this was even imaginable thirty years ago? In this light is the idea of memory- and dream-recording implants becoming the norm such a great leap to make in the next thirty years?
A leaking private life
And so I return to my murderous dream and wonder what might come of it if it were publicly available.
Could it be used as evidence to tie me to a crime? After all, it was so vivid, familiar and felt – how could I deny that it was not in some way real? Enacted in real-life while I slept by my evil sleep-walking alter-ego?
Would I then become wary of ever watching programmes about unsolved murders for fear I will re-dream the scenario and be convicted of murder? “Having an overactive imagination” might be a more suitable description of my ‘crime’ but would the courts of the future hear my pleas?
Or could my dream be used as part of a diagnosis of some new psychosis or mental disorder? One of the new ones that will need to be invented as we become ever more exposed. Severe night terror disorder, or something of that order.
Perhaps they’ll develop a pill so I can dream of organising my bookshelves or visiting the supermarket again: the vanilla approach. Or my mind implant could project movies for me overnight, so every night becomes a safe limbo like a long-haul flight.
Beyond this lies a question for me about who we actually are and will become. As our private selves become willingly and unwillingly more publicly available, how will technology alter our sense of self?
Most of us already undergo processes of creating public-facing versions of ourselves we didn’t need to thirty years ago – self-made improvement projects hosted by digital communities like Facebook, LinkedIn and all the rest. Projected versions of us, created for the benefit of others. But are we cultivating our private selves as keenly and carefully?
And will dreaming murderous dreams make us unnecessarily concerned that we are indeed violent murderers, as the dividing lines between reality, imagination and fantasy blur and eventually vanish?
Or are we headed towards the reality laid out in Minority Report, where we can be convicted of a crime we’ve not yet committed just because we dreamed it?
But the question that woke me that morning was more sobering than any of these. How much of us are and will soon be on public view, and are we really the ones who will make that choice?