When I was seventeen I had a pair of uncommonly disturbing dreams. I typically don’t remember much about my dreams at all, even the stand-out ones. These two dreams remain vivid in my mind, 18 years later.
The first dream is very short and feels very cinematic to me.
I’m driving a pickup truck in a rural US town. A town that’s most distinguishing characteristic is its utter mundanity. A town that can only be called a town because the buildings happen to be close enough together, and nobody cares enough to argue the contrary.
There’s a tiny, four room motel in a potholed dirt parking lot off a two lane road, painted barn red and fronted by a ground-level, covered wooden porch. It looks abandoned (or at least long unused), but one of the rooms is where a dozen or so locals are getting together for a party that I’ve been invited to. (All of this makes sense to my dream-self, but none of this is pulled from real places or people I know)
The dream breaks up a bit at this point. It cuts to me at the party in the motel that night. People are drinking and laughing. I’m there, and I have a feeling that something very bad is going to happen.
The dream breaks up again, and I am back outside the motel. It’s daytime again, and now the building’s taped off and guarded by police, their cars parked dramatically at manufactured angles.
I know in my mind what they found. A room full of bodies. A room I was in when they died. I don’t remember how it happened or why, but I know I murdered all of those people.
What’s worse is that now I wanted to get back in, to see the crime scene.
The second dream is so much more disturbing than the first that I’ve never shared it with anybody, and I never intend to.
What was so disturbing about these dreams wasn’t as much facing what my dream-self was capable of as it was trying to reconcile what happened with the reality that I thought I knew. The terror of realising that there is only a thin membrane separating us from a world of unspeakable things.
When I started thinking of ideas for a television themed horror article, I was immediately struck with just how safe much of what is categorised as horror really is, and I struggled to think of something that evoked that feeling I got from my long ago dreams. I struggled to qualify this and justify that, and even briefly considered just using some examples of what isn’t good horror as an inverse point, or something. It was truly a struggle.
Finally I remembered something that has resonated with me recently, and I realised then what it was that made me appreciate the show so much.
The television series Hannibal aired in the United States from April to June of 2013. It follows the early relationship of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and FBI Investigator Will Graham. Hannibal is already a very proficient and careful killer who is, quite innocently on the part of the FBI, called on to consult, helping Will Graham and Agent Jack Crawford investigate serial killings.
Will is gifted but at a cost. He is profoundly empathetic, getting into the serial killer’s heads more than is healthy. Combined with some other factors that Hannibal observes, Will’s situation is perfect for Hannibal’s manipulation and exploit.
Going back to my dreams, the element of the show that I find most authentic is Will’s struggle with sanity in the face of the terrors that he not only sees, but has the misfortune of truly understanding. He’s caught between the reality of what a person is capable of doing and the fear that his understanding of the mind of a serial killer goes beyond that of strong empathy. That he is truly capable of depraved, murderous acts.
Combine Will’s inner struggle with an excellent sociopathic character and what I would consider some seriously artistic violence and gore, and you have the makings of a powerful horror show. It is refreshing how bold the show seems. The overt cannibalism (one of my favourite moments of the season involves a scene at Hannibal’s dinner table and raises the question: “Did he know she’d recognise the taste of human flesh?”) The gratuitous use of dismembered and reconfigured bodies, and oh, did I mention all the cannibalism?
Ah, anyway. I’m thankful that Hannibal was picked up for another 13 episodes. I am looking forward to the evolution of the characters and to seeing the lengths to which they will push boundaries. Because when I think of truly worthwhile horror, I think of the parts of ourselves and of the world that we are frightened to reconcile with reality. Something so fundamentally disturbing that our minds refuse to cope with it. Is that what all horror is or even aspires to? Surely not. But for me, effective horror in any medium strives to make even the safest concept (such as a dinner party) feel foreign and wrong.
Robb Olson is one half of the Booked. Podcast team. If you enjoyed his column, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and buying The Booked Anthology. If you do you’ll help keep the This Is Horror ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.