Sleepless and the demons of the unconscious

Tony Black examines ‘Sleepless’ and the power of sleep itself…

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Last night, my dreams wouldn’t have been out of place in The X-Files. After watching a Black Mirror episode (it’s great, check it out) involving an augmented reality horror game, my unconscious mind was plagued with hauntings, ghosts, the possession of a former work colleague, and most vividly being told–at the point I lived alone–that the empty side of my double bed was “a bit haunted”. It wasn’t exactly a nightmare, nothing akin to the vivid manifestations experienced by Augustus Cole and his Marine battalion in ‘Sleepless’, but unlike many dreams, it stayed with me to the point I woke up the next morning. The unconscious mind is where many of our demons are released, and sleep is the conduit to their manifestation.

Have you ever stopped to think about what sleep actually is? The very concept is inordinately strange. As human beings, we effectively turn ourselves off for six to eight hours at a time. We are not conscious (though scientists claim it’s markedly different from unconsciousness itself), or aware of our immediate surroundings until our body either naturally emerges from this hibernation or is brought out of it by external stimuli – be it a knock at the door, a loud voice, or someone shaking you awake. Remember the Paranormal Activity movies where the possessed woman stands staring at her boyfriend sleeping for hours? That could be happening to you tonight, and while asleep you may never know it. Nightmare fuel, I know, sorry about that! Sleep nonetheless is characterized as putting you in “an anabolic state, building up the immune, nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems”. It is, in short, our means of survival.

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‘Sleepless’ posits the idea of what might happen to people who suffer the extreme end of insomnia, that most heinous of sleep disorders that keep people awake for much of the night, their minds ticking over and bodies unable to engage that anabolic state. It’s something of an irony that Dr. Saul Grissom’s project was conducted on Vietnam soldiers in order to create a ‘perfect soldier’, a killing machine jacked up on being able to remain awake, not needing that crucial rest to build up those internal systems. In the end, what Grissom creates in Cole especially is a Biblically-inspired wraith of vengeance against those who would interrupt the natural order of man for physical and political gain; paying indeed for his own violent misdemeanors after the battalion felt God-like in the jungles of ‘Nam, slaughtering innocents, believing themselves untouchable.

What’s most interesting about this concept, and where Howard Gordon’s story goes beyond fringe science, is the presence of dreaming as part of Cole’s vengeful psychology. His lack of sleep, as Mulder theorizes, creates that bridge between the waking and the unconscious world, allowing him to project into the minds of his fellow soldiers and the scientists involved their own fears, tapping into their basic human anxieties – and their sense of guilt. Dreaming is among the most mysterious elements of the nature of sleep – it makes sense for the biological machines that are our bodies to need hibernation, need a recovery period, but why does our mind in the dream world create abstract unconscious thoughts? Why do dreams often reflect our fears, our worries, our desires or our hopes? Not even our most intelligent scientists truly know. They perhaps never will.

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‘Sleepless’ reflects back the darker demons that lie within our unconscious, or altered state of mind, while we sleep. Through Cole’s actions, as a twisted victim as well as a murderer, we see the negative side of what many may consider a gift, the lack of sleep, the gain of time. It’s a cautionary tale on the need for our mind and body to rest, recover, and not overlap the unconscious, subconscious processing of our own fears to manifest in the real world. Let’s face it, the world is a scary enough place when we’re awake!

You can follow Tony on Twitter @Mr_AJ_Black.

You can find The X-Cast episode on ‘Sleepless’ on iTunes or Libsyn here.

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