The Stuff of Nightmares

illustration by Tobias Kwan

I don’t want to watch a horror movie with you. I probably never will. For the longest time, I would tell people that the most frightening film I had ever seen was Signs. One day, in fourth grade, we read those Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books during a rainy day at recess. That night remains, to this day, the only all-nighter I have ever pulled. I am jumpy. I am squeamish. I’m the type of person who has nightmares easily. I’ll stay up with the covers pulled up to my neck and lie awake, willing myself to fall asleep but very likely staying up until sunrise. I don’t want to be scared or unsettled or traumatized any more than I need to be.

The nightmares started when I was a kid. They were of the standard, haunted house variety: I’d be in an abandoned home with a handful of friends and, as we made our way through the house, they’d be picked off one by one. Sometimes we’d be chased, forced to separate in the darkness. I can recall a specific nightmare spent entirely in the closet of a stranger’s house, my hand over my mouth, trying to stifle my own breath as something lurked outside. I would wake up in a cold sweat, sometimes in tears, and leap out of bed. I’d walk around my room, pace around the second floor of my home, anything to convince myself I was in a different, safer place. No one was chasing me. No one had to be saved. It was just me, alone, at 3:30 in the morning on a Wednesday. I’d wear myself down––I was young and tired––and eventually crawl back into bed, pull the sheets over my face, and hide until I fell asleep again.

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In fairness, Children of Men is not that type of nightmare. There are no monsters and there are no haunted houses. It can be described as post-apocalyptic, but even that feels untrue. It’s mid-apocalyptic; it’s not a dystopia because it’s our world, just handled poorly and left to the dogs.

The year is 2027. There hasn’t been a child born on the planet in eighteen years, and everything has quite literally gone to ruin. The only civilization (if you can even call it that) is found in Great Britain, surviving by the skin of its teeth. There are checkpoints everywhere. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and abused. But Britain thrives, don’t you see? It might be fractured—split into those that support the government and those that support a terrorist organization called “The Fishes”—but at least it’s there. That’s more than can be said for most other nations.

Clive Owen is Theo Faron, a former activist turned bureaucratic goon. He’s a cynical alcoholic, pushing his way through a crowded coffee shop, ignoring a report on the world’s youngest human’s untimely death. He pays for the coffee, steps outside, spikes it with a little whiskey and—boom, the coffee shop is gone. Exploded. Decimated. Smoke rises onto the streets of London. A woman, bleeding from where her arm once was, screams into the abyss.

In a nightmare, this is where Theo might wake up. It was all so sudden and so quick, and then it’s over. In Children of Men, though, no one ever wakes up. Theo goes about his day, has to sit at his desk, all the while knowing that, had he stopped to put some cream or sugar in his coffee, he might well be dead. It’s the kind of thing that keeps a man up all night.

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My nightmares as a teen took on less classically frightening tropes and drew more specifically on my social anxieties. Dreams where I suddenly showed up to school naked, forced to sit through calculus while trying to shield myself from my classmates. This gets to be the age in your life where you start to fear the cruelty of others. You become hyper-conscious that everyone is watching your every move and making a judgment call on it. In another dream, a friend tells me an ex only dated me because he felt bad for me, and then the next thing I know, everything is on fire.

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It would be generous to say things were going Theo’s way before he is kidnapped, but they were certainly less exciting. He’s suddenly pulled into an unmarked van on the streets of London, and briefly held by the Fishes. The leader of the Fishes—and the one responsible for taking Theo—is a woman named Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian is strong and beautiful and aggressive, not to mention Theo’s ex-wife. She’s not trying to get back together with him. In fact, she’s not even trying to be nice; she and her second-in-command, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are simply trying to get some transport papers and be on their way. Theo agrees—a lingering soft spot for his ex—and is dumped back out onto the street.

The papers are for a young girl named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a refugee—or “fugee,” as they’ve become known in Britain—desperate to get to the coast to catch a boat. The arrangement of papers requires Theo to stay with the girl as her companion, and so Theo, Julian, Luke, Kee, and Kee’s companion, Miriam (Pam Ferris) make their way to Canterbury in the woodsy, abandoned countryside of Britain. They all laugh and talk. Theo and Julian flirt. There is a chance, Theo thinks, that he and Julian could get back together. They are smiling and joking and kissing. Miriam peels an orange for Kee. Luke turns around, tells them to—

It happens very, very quickly. First, there is a car on fire, barrelling down a hill right into the road. Then there are people everywhere. Luke is driving backwards. There’s a motorcyclist. There are guns. There are rocks smashing through windows. A bullet flies through the windshield into Julian’s neck. There is blood everywhere. It doesn’t stop. It covers her chest, it’s all over Theo’s hands. Luke is driving backwards and backwards and backwards, and the blood still flows.

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I have nightmares about blood sometimes too. The frightening thing about blood isn’t the pain. It’s watching it all come out. It doesn’t stop. In a particular nightmare, I’m at a tattoo parlor and something goes wrong. My arm leaks blood, and despite covering it in paper towels, the tattoo artist keeps shaking his head. “There’s nothing we can do,” he tells me, “it just won’t stop.” Blood keeps going as long as your heart does. It just doesn’t stop.

In real life, I’m not particularly bothered by needles. I don’t have to look away when I get blood drawn and, within reason, I can look at injuries without being too grossed out. It’s not bothersome in reality, but my nightmares take this moderate, human squeamishness and blow it all out of proportion.

I have a lot of nightmares about zombies, which is ridiculous, of course, because zombies are ridiculous. They’ve become a staple in pop culture, and I, for the most part, ignore them. I don’t watch The Walking Dead and I’m only able to sit through about half of Shaun of the Dead, on a good day. And yet, zombies flood my nightmares: stressful, anxiety-ridden dreams where I’m running through buildings and locking myself in bathrooms. I can recall being handed an axe in one, being told to take out anyone that comes near me but I can’t do it. I can’t harm anyone. I’m not brave in my nightmares. Instead I’m at my most fearful, and that, perhaps, is the most terrifying aspect of the dreams.

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Kee stands naked in a barn filled with cows. She’s pregnant, don’t you see? It does not make right Julian’s death nor the needless violence but it does mean something, Theo understands. She is worth protecting in this world. Theo takes her away from the Fishes, away from the public, and begins to transport her to the coast, alone.

Post-apocalyptic Britain is otherworldly. Theo and Kee stop on the road at an abandoned schoolhouse waiting for a rendez-vous. A deer trots through the hallways. There are torn down posters, and tables and chairs flipped over. The place has been ransacked—and why not? No one has needed it in years. Kee’s baby, however, will need it.

Theo was a father once, in a slightly different time. He and Julian had a baby boy named Dylan. He passed away during a flu epidemic, before he reached the age of five. There was nothing that could be done. It just happened. Theo and Julian went their separate ways. Kee gives birth in a refugee camp. A little baby girl.

It feels fitting, in a universe with such violence perpetrated by men and soldiers, for a strong, young woman to give birth to a girl. Children of Men is a story about men and the destruction of men. There are arguably two main female characters—Julian, strong and beautiful and killed so soon and so swiftly—and Kee, just as strong and passionate and capable. In a world without children, it’s men that rip at each other’s throats, start wars, make bombs. With the birth of Kee’s child, though, it seems appropriate for the dawn of a new era to begin, one that focuses on women and the strength of women in the rise of the failure of men.

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The scary thing about nightmares, for me, is that I immediately go from feeling safe to everything happening all at once. Real life is stressful and scary, but sleep shouldn’t have to be. Sleep should be a place of comfort. But on some nights, I drift, slowly, and then wake up in a horrifying situation, heart racing, sweating, fearing for my own life.

This is the terror of the world in Children of Men. Everything is going along mostly fine, perhaps deteriorating a bit, but then, all at once, it’s horrifying. The characters don’t know the apocalypse is happening until it’s too late. Until coffee shops are being blown up and people are getting shot and refugees are rounded up like Holocaust victims.

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In the midst of a battle between the refugees and the Fishes and the British military, Kee reveals her baby to a group of soldiers and the world goes silent. She walks through hallways of men, sniffing and setting down their weapons. Luke even admits he cries when he holds the baby. “I forgot how small they were,” he says, echoing a thought shared by everyone, these people who haven’t seen a child in so very long.

The second Kee leaves the building, though, the gunfire and bombing starts up. It begins once more.

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You will always have your nightmares. Even when it’s been months on end—even when you tell people that you never remember your dreams—they’ll still crop up every now and again, just to remind you how scary everything—or anything—can be. For me, there’s no thrill in being scared, no joy in it. Instead it serves as a reminder of what’s out there and what can still, despite all the bravado of my waking hours, keep me up all night.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.