How Hollywood Preys on Our Deepest Fears


For virtually cinema's entire history, moving pictures have tried to show us what it's like to dream, remember and imagine. Some depictions are aspirational, offering peeks into otherworldly states where the pains and troubles of life are forgotten. Others prey upon our fears of surrendering our consciousness, arguably the only power we have ourselves.

It's here that dreams represent a sort of death. Or perhaps another life not of our choosing.

As with our dreams, filmed realities cover the entire human condition. But a certain level categorization is possible, and even beneficial for lending insights to our waking selves.

The False Realities

Some of us may seek out sleep, and we may talk of wanting more shuteye. But there is an inherent worry in falling asleep, an evolutionary instinct hardwired by eons of evolution. When we surrender to sleep, we surrender our control. As we lie vulnerable, we no longer feel like the authors of our own lives.

In The Matrix, this tension drives the character Cypher, portrayed by Joe Pantoliano. When he says, "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?" And here he takes a bite. "Ignorance is bliss."

The Wachowskis were widely lauded for the literary and philosophical allusions they stitched throughout this film, arguably their opus thus far in their career. No doubt, they're familiar with philosopher Hilary Putnam's argument about brains in vats. It is itself an updated version of arguments found in Plato's Theaetetus, Zhuangzi's butterfly and Descartes' Meditations:

You do not know that you are not a brain, suspended in a vat full of liquid in a laboratory, and wired to a computer which is feeding you your current experiences under the control of some ingenious technician scientist (benevolent or malevolent according to taste).

For if you were such a brain, then, provided that the scientist is successful, nothing in your experience could possibly reveal that you were; for your experience is ex hypothesi identical with that of something which is not a brain in a vat.

Since you have only your own experience to appeal to, and that experience is the same in either situation, nothing can reveal to you which situation is the actual one.

In this hit film, the Matrix is a massive computer simulation built to enslave human beings by, effectively, turning them into batteries. As Agent Smith explains, human egos were unable to sit quietly and function as simple electricity factories; the Matrix was built to keep our brains stimulated. To continue living, humans were put into a fall dream state and plugged into a false realty.

Movies like The Matrix make us wonder if the reality we take for granted -- both in the larger sense, as in reality is what is, and in the narrower sense of I am real. My experiences are mine, my memories are mine, my thoughts are mine. I am me.

This preoccupation with the mineness of thinking, memory and experience is put further to the test in 2010's Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In this Christopher Nolan-directed movie, entering dreams -- and dreams-within-dreams, and so on -- is a way to conduct corporate espionage via extraction, or the stealing of subconscious secrets. But Dominic Cobb (DiCaprio) and a team of dream thieves are tasked with inserting false memories -- the inception of the title.

But the dreams themselves are not safe, and misdeeds lead to mental breakdowns, subconscious exile and even death.

The real point of Inception is, if a stranger can enter your sleep and steal your thoughts, memories, hopes and dreams, what is left of you?

Nightmares Turned Real

It's not unusual for our dreams to hew closely to reality. As Inception showed us, this can make it difficult to distinguish between the real and unreal.

Preying upon this uncertainty is what made A Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels so popular. In this 1984 horror film, a group of teenagers is stalked and killed in their dreams -- and so also in real life.

As Van Winkle's has previously reported, there are rich traditions in many cultures around the world concerning death in dreams, and how it may correspond to real life. In the Nightmare series, writer/director Wes Craven fictionalized these folklores and, in the form of Freddy Krueger, created a nightmare creature that captured the world's imagination. And, no doubt, haunted more than a few movie-goers' dreams.

But is this idea actually plausible? Maybe. Sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome is a real thing. There's no way to verify that a person who died in reality had a dream in which he or she died, so there is instead a lot of psychological hooey out there on what "dying in dreams" signifies.

There's even more hooey from spiritualists who believe death dreams are actually memories from past lives.

Our Loss of Self

Even if you don't worry about your continued identity across time, you may worry about stringing together a coherent life narrative -- a meaningful account of what you take to be real.

That's the problem in another Christopher Nolan film, Memento, his second feature, released in 2000. In this radically structured, famously tangled tale, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) suffers from a form of amnesia that prevents him from creating and retaining new memories. His condition was apparently brought on by a traumatic head injury.

Because his experiences effectively expire, Leonard lives in a continual present, clutching to memories of his pre-injury life. Convinced his wife has been murdered, and certain it's his mission to exact vengeance on her killer, he invents a unique system for "remembering" the evidence he uncovers: tattoos and Polaroids. This system is, of course, inherently faulty. Not only is Leonard subject to the machinations of others, he must question his own motives, as he skips from present to present.

In the end -- spoiler alert -- it's not even clear that Leonard's wife was murdered; if she was, he could be the culprit.

Like Leonard, we believe we're in control of our memories and motives. But when we go to sleep, we, too, disappear in much the same way. We just expect our lives to continue on as they did before we went to sleep.

What if they don't?

In 1998's Dark City, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a hotel bathtub to find he's lost his memory. Worse yet, there's a brutally murdered woman in his room -- and he will clearly be considered the prime suspect. Determined to figure out who he is, and to clear his name, John investigates the crime. As he quickly learns, he is not just a suspect in this murder, but in a series of killings of which he has no memory.

Eventually, John discovers that so-called Strangers are injecting his fellow citizens with memories that belong to others. Upon waking, they have no recollection of their real life, only the one that's been implanted. Again, spoiler alert: The entire operation is actually an alien experiment being conducted on a ship floating somewhere in space.

Forty years earlier, another film plumbed the depths of body horror, stolen identity and alien forces, and served them up as metaphors for the American fight against socialism. In the Cold War classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, adopted from Jack Finney's 1954 novel, The Body Snatchers, maintaining control of our personalities and individualism served as a proxy battle for our battle against the Evil Empire.

In the 1956 film, Dr. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his hometown to find that aliens have replaced many of its residents. By almost all outward appearances, everything is the same as it's always been. His townspeople's memories remain intact, and they seem relate to each other as usual. It's clear, however, that something isn't right. Something -- someone -- has gone missing as the person slept.

Because the replacements look identical, and because they aren't unhappy with their body-snatching, we must ask: So what? If we look the same and we're happy being subsumed by a larger consciousness -- a shared consciousness seemingly without worries and fear -- what's the big deal with being an individual?

The answer, of course: Our experiences are precious. They're meant to be ours; we want them to be real. Otherwise, they have no meaning.

To that end, philosopher Robert Nozick asks us to consider a Matrix-like scenario in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1977):

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain.

Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smörgåsbord of such experiences, selecting your life's experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years.

Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think it's all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there's no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in?

If, like Cypher, the juicy steak is all that matters, you'd probably plug in.

But if you value knowing the realness of your memories and experiences, you will insist on confirming the "I" in your own first-person narrative. That's also why we often think of our dreams as a better world -- until they're not.

Dreams As Better Worlds

"There's no place like home," Dorothy announces in The Wizard of Oz.

Of course, this happens after she's found out that the fabled Wizard is just a frightened little man; after she's battled the Wicked Witch of the West and those goddamn flying monkeys; after she and her motley crew have faced mortal dangers.

Before her adventures in Oz, Dorothy was convinced her life in Kansas was dull and boring. She wanted a better world, and getting knocked out in a tornado gave her the opportunity. We know things are better in this new world because they're in Technicolor, after all, and everyone knows how to sing and dance.

A similar dynamic is at play in the dystopian film, Brazil. Bored, low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) daydreams about saving a gorgeous damsel in distress. The flights of fancy alleviate, albeit briefly, the drudgery of his job and the banality of his life. But when the dream comes to life, Sam's dream of himself as a noble hero is sorely tested.

It's little wonder Sam wants a better interesting life. When trapped in inefficient, mind-numbing bureaucracies, who wouldn't jump at the first opportunity to escape? This is especially the case when we believe the dream is not actually a failure to address our problems, but the belief that our lives should be better. By dreaming of a more exciting life, we are often comforting ourselves with delusions of importance.

Dreaming of the Good Life

Many Ancient Greeks believed that all things have an indwelling essence, a purpose that can be achieved if only things would go the way they should.

For example, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, translated by Richard McKeon, the great philosopher tells us that an acorn becomes an oak tree because the oak tree is within the acorn from the start. It's in the nature of the acorn to become an oak tree and not, say, a frog.

A similar mental framework drives what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or good life (also known as the just life). To have a good life, to be happy, is to fulfill your essence as a human being, and for the elements of society to work together toward total harmony. In that condition, there's no need to escape to a better world -- you're already living in it.

Night after night, we lose ourselves in sleep, ever optimistic that our dreams will bring comfort, inspiration and pleasure. That's not always the case, of course. Our fears can manifest in our slumbering minds and even attack our vulnerable souls.

But at least in these, and other, films, we are given the chance to explore what this means, and how we might combat it.

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