Nightmares feel scariest when they lose their dream-like quality and adopt realist aesthetics. However improbable it may be, a sudden inability to move, a threat with superhuman powers, or a soon-to-be-fatal accident become horrifying only when they feel real— and that’s when we wake up. While typical dreams may have myriad aesthetics, a nightmare always has a psychological realism, and this consistency might explain the singularity of our nightmares.
The true vision of reality is never benign. That’s why, for example, movie characters who use the phrase, “this is too good to be true,” are almost always correct. And if they are not suspicious of their fortune, then audiences can peg the character(s) as certainly naive and most likely doomed. We see this in Darren Aronofsky’s A Requiem for a Dream, which is a film whose skeletal plot structures are based on spineless, reckless optimisms that consume and ruin its characters.
Despite the (well-executed) postmodern techniques, which resist simplicity, we can formulate the characters’ suffering as follows: each delusion rests upon a denial, and that denial requires assistance from another delusion. The young characters’ fantasy that heroin enables blissful, harm-free escape also rests upon the belief that they’ll have infinite access to the stuff, which relies on the delusion that the drug-game is trustworthy and reliable. Even the old mother, whose belief in the efficacy of a diet pill, denies criticism of Western Medicine, which requires that pharmaceutical companies have good intentions and transparent science. Despite contradictions to their dreamy denials — the teeth grinding, the sweaty withdrawls— the characters cling-tight to their delusions.
Faced with objective discomfort, characters detach their minds from their bodies and take refuge in their psyche, placing it in jars of gooey fantasy. Hence the fact that the words, “this isn’t happening,” means that it’s certainly happening; true reality inflicts pain beyond intelligibility. This disagreement between the psyche’s strength and the weight of reality enables characters to overlook emotional abuse, medical complications, and bleak futures. They are definitely not stupid, but their actions are nonetheless self-defeating: instead of seeking sobriety after a drug drought, or a change in medicine after concerned medical advice, characters double-down on their initial fantasies.
The characters’ move with an optimism that is reminiscent of images we get from 19th century American Landscape paintings. Although the movie’s tones and subjects greatly differ from the paintings, the underlying ethos is the same: that when faced with television or heroin or prescribed medicine or an unseen vista, we are face-to-face with the transcendental. Imperfections dissolve. Reality appears imbued with fantastic promises, as the viewers stand before the promise of warmth, beauty, and freedom.
But, as Kierkegaard wrote, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” so if these adventures were truly free, where were their anxieties?
Not in the paintings. But, for A Requiem for a Dream’s characters, anxiety arrives at home, which is, as for most of us, the psyche— and it arrives in the form of a hallucination. The mother, for example, only sees her hellish reality via stimulant psychosis. Once her giddy highs wane, she notices her teeth grinding, hallucinates a freakish case of people capitalizing on her psychological frailty, and witnesses the furniture of her daily life conspiring to threaten her sense of safety. Such scenes are shot with jump cuts and feature such surreal images that it feels unreal.
Paradoxically, these hallucinations are the closest she gets to the reality of her demise. Reality arrives through its opposite: a hallucination, which collapses her psychic crutch. Precisely because the episodes are unreal, she cannot escape from them; a person can decorate reality with fantasy, but one cannot ignore the psycho-spiritual flashes that seize one’s mind. This is essentially what Carl Jung had in mind when he said that ‘ideas have people, people don’t have ideas.’ That’s why the mother is able to filter external influences — she ignores her son’s warnings, accepts her friends’ encouragements, and propagates her faith that she will end-up skinny and fit for T.V. — but she cannot avoid her intrusive thoughts. Importantly, the hallucinations feel realer and more pressing than typical appearances. After all, the nightmarish terror is the result of repressed thoughts and concerns.
The film’s title, A Requiem for a Dream, foreshadows the falsity of the characters’ dreamy optimism. The film’s visual grammar — the repetition of disturbing images (drug jump cut) and sounds (grinding teeth)— ensures that the viewer shares the protagonists’ terrifying feelings. We do not get to look-down or judge the characters because we feel that we have something in common with them; most of us have some reckless optimism, some goal, some engulfment by love or drugs or ambition. Many of us are detached from the harmful realities of our behavior.
So when the movie finishes, we feel that we’re lucid dreaming in a world that can’t be happening.