Content warning : Mild description of gore, discussion of mental health
That crunching sound — it’s familiar. It chills me. But it’s supposed to, right? It’s only there because it’s unsettling. It’ there to upset me intentionally. I’m sure that’s the only reason. Let me take a step back to explain.
A couple of years ago, while single and crawling to the end of my BSc, I developed a heavy addiction to YouTube. In retrospect, this was just a way to fill time and stop my thoughts from spiralling out of control. Fortunately, I managed to steer this boat so that rather than watching time-wasting ‘People Try X’ videos and Let’s Plays (I don’t even game) that didn’t bring me any benefit, I watched educational videos on whatever I could find. I got into video essays hard. If I was going to waste time, at least I could use it to learn. It was rare that I watched the same video twice. I managed to wind down the habit, becoming exponentially more productive. But, there is one video in particular that often pops into my head; one that I’ve watched more than any other. Eventually, I came to understand why.
The Monster in the Dark
The video in question is by Evan Puschak for his channel, The Nerdwriter, titled The Most Disturbing Painting. The topic of the video is Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son, the most famous of this 18th-century painter’s Black Paintings. This collection was found after Goya’s death, as murals on his walls, Saturn being found in his dining room. At the time, Goya was becoming disillusioned with the people of Spain and its societal infrastructure, despite being patriotic and idealistic as a young artist. The Black Paintings were a reflection of this, but what makes them more unsettling was that they were not intended to be seen by anyone. They were a stable projection of Goya’s inner monologue, which may have further reinforced his disdain and paranoia by the simple fact that he would see them every day.
I remember seeing a photo of Saturn while I was flicking through a book of art inspired by Greek Mythology when was in my mid-teens. I came across a photo of this fearful, bedraggled monster choking down the bloody corpse of his child. The look on his face suggests he’s surprised; caught in the act. At the time, I’d given it little more thought than ‘huh, weird.’ But the seed was already there. I’d had that dream a couple of times before. I simply hadn’t made the connection yet. It hadn’t developed, or maybe I didn’t have the mental faculties that I needed to process it properly.
Then I came across Puschak’s essay. It opens with a moment of silence, which is then punctuated by the animalistic sound of something chewing. Not just chewing; crunching too. The more I listen to this sound, the more I hear layers; the teeth of whatever this creature is sinking into something soft and wet until it reaches something with less give, forcing it to crunch hard. This sound was oddly familiar. Every time I watched the essay, it resonated. It wasn’t simply chilling. I recognised it. I had heard it, or at least something similar before.
I have never been interested in interpreting dreams. Some of that could be because I rarely remember my dreams, and I haven’t been curious enough to record them. Yet, there have been some that persist. A handful have burned into my mind because of how vivid and tactile they were, or how surreal and bizarre yet specific the situation was, but only one has become familiar by repetition. This is the dream that echoed in that sound effect.
As far as I can remember, this dream has recurred for around a decade now; about 6 or 7 times. Last time I had it, I was beginning treatment for debilitating chronic insomnia. Zopiclone, a benzodiazepine sedative, is commonly prescribed. This drug lulls the user into a shallow sleep in an effort to encourage the body to take over the next steps by itself. Technically, you’re asleep, but if your body doesn’t take the bait, you end up in a state of limbo. You’re not awake enough to get up and do something, but you’re not asleep enough to rest. This is prime nightmare territory. As such, nightmares are a known, listed side effect of taking zopiclone.
The night before I had the dream again, I’d had a terrible night. Those vivid dreams I mentioned, that sear themselves into my long-term memory? This night begat one of those. I zombied through the day, hoping the next night would be better, hoping that once I took the meds and lay down my head, I would drop off and start to get back some of the sleep I’d been so sorely missing. Instead, a familiar scene played out. Each time it’s always the same, bar one thing that’s gradually altered with each run-through.
It’s so incredibly dark. There’s no source of light anywhere. All I smell is rot; an earthy compost. I stagger around, trying to find a wall or something to lean on — an anchor point where I can take some weight off my feet and feel a little less overwhelmed. The earthy dankness peaks as I make contact with a vertical, slightly curved surface like the edge of a tunnel. I feel earth and stones beneath my hands — a burrow? A cave? Who knows. I take a moment to breathe, then I notice it. The wet chewing, wrapped around a gnawing crunch. It’s quiet, subtly in the background. If I carried on breathing too loudly, I may have missed it. Having no other options here, I sidle along the wall towards the source of the sound. I begin to see some light as I reach a chamber with some chinks in the ceiling letting in some outside light. It is here where the sound was coming from.
In the centre of the room sits a hulking mass of matted hair, like a large bear. A slightly meaty scent lingers in the air, and I notice the buzzing of flies. I stick to the wall, staying in the shadows, hoping not to be seen. I want to know what I’m dealing with before I make my next move.
This… thing is focussed on its meal: A headless, half-consumed human corpse, gripped in its blood-soaked ratlike claws. Its head is reminiscent of a rabbit, with proportionally small ears. I stand, transfixed for a moment, before coming to the conclusion that my only way out will be through the top of the chamber. I have to climb. I reach up, gripping a large rock, hoping it’ll hold my weight. I give it the slightest pull, and all I can do is freeze as it slides out of the earth, clattering on the stones below.
The creature throws down its meal and snaps its head in my direction. It lets out a glottal screech, baring its sharp, leporid incisors. It raises its hulking frame, surprisingly agilely, and thunderously bounds my way. I try to dodge at the last moment, hoping that I’ll get the chance to escape when it misses. But it doesn’t miss. It is laser focussed. It traps me in its claws, transfixing its gaze on me. The screech of this monstrosity directly in my face chills me to my core as it tightens its grip, ending the dream.
The slight difference I mentioned? Those eyes. The once keen eyes I remember as once been deep and keen have since become duller. They reached milky white over the last few times, and finally, last time I saw it, those eyes have vanished completely as if they were never there.
I probably never reflected on this because it never felt urgent, or I didn’t feel I had the time to think it over. Finally, a period of time arose where I could boundlessly think; a stretch to breathe and organise my thoughts. Then Puschak’s essay came back to me. His mention of the animalistic fear in the eyes of the old man reframed my view.
This creature isn’t evil. It’s afraid. If its head resembles a rabbit, wouldn’t it probably be herbivorous? Imagine if you were in your own home, eating something you shouldn’t be because you were desperately hungry, only for a stranger to walk in and make a startling, threatening noise. Would you act favourably to this?
There’s a quote on story genre that to this day I am trying to place:
The difference between a tragedy and a horror is that a tragedy shows a relatable person become the monster. It’s tragic because you could see yourself doing the same given similar unfortunate circumstances. In horror, on the other hand, you are simply presented with the monster and have no option but to relate to the victim.
By empathising with this creature in my dream, I may begin to understand my own subconscious a little better. By taking this a step further, I could abstract this to say that the creature is a manifestation of me. But so is the observer. And the corpse.
The creature, motivated by fear and desperation, is doing what it must to survive. The (pre)corpse was probably just going about its business until it was dragged into this hole and consumed. This is me, my fear, my desperation consuming my unconscious mind before I even have a chance to react. And the observer? That’s my rational mind. When I consciously stumble upon my subconscious succumbing to fear, the fear overtakes my rational mind.
The Power of Other Minds
I thought this was the end. I’d figured it out. I tried to see how coherent this was, so I delivered the first draft of this article up to this point, TED Talk-like to my housemate in our kitchen while we made lunch. He seemed more gripped by the rambling thread than I thought he’d be.
“Yeah, but you can’t be driven by fear.” he nonchalantly stated once I’d defined all the roles.
And there. That was it. I’d been so concerned with deciphering the imagery that I hadn’t figured out what to do with the outcome. He was not wrong. I was a little taken aback. I am motivated by fear. I’m afraid that I’m not good enough for my chosen career. I’m afraid that I’ll be found out as a fraud. I’m afraid that I’ll have to return to the passionless town and passionless people I grew up with; that I’ll have to move away from everyone I love.
It took a decade, but I- we’d deciphered it. When I say we, I don’t just the two of us there in the kitchen. I mean Francisco Goya, Evan Puschak, and all their influences. Art and its interpretation is a collaborative effort. Together, we’d reached a conclusion on this phenomenon which could be easily dismissed as a 10-year psychological tick. Now imagine trying to solve the same thing with only abstract psychological concepts. Imagine discussing this dryly as a clash between the id, ego, and superego. Already, it feels more distanced, more clinical, and less lived-in.
We need art. It helps us explore our inner and outer selves, societies past and present, and how we can hope to relate them. Dismissing this power, such as by cutting art funding or by stating how useless art is shows you have missed the point. This millennia-old effort has continuously evolved, subverting norms, re-exploring old concepts from new perspectives and vice versa, and even, in some cases, helping people through their daily life. Art has the power to change lives. So if you have had a dream that keeps coming back, keep your eyes and ears open. Art may help you to decipher parts of your own mind. Deciphering may be a step towards significant growth.