Love and Psychosis in Channel Zero’s The Dream Door

In many ways, The Dream Door is Channel Zero’s weirdest season. The synth score, the clear influence of oddball 1980s drawings-become-reality flick Paperhouse, the one-liners; it’s a challenging season of television, looping from white-knuckle terrifying to goofball black comedy and back around to moments of almost unbearable vulnerability. In its strange, meandering story it touches with unflinching honesty on issues of living while seriously mentally ill — and of living with the mentally ill — most shows avoid like the plague.

The Dream Door is a show about the intersection of our ugliest, most violent urges and our deepest, oldest wounds. It’s a show about the painful things good people can do to each other in the throes of sickness. It may lack the searing horror of No-End House’s first episodes, the jaw-dropping monster design of Candle Cove, and the stylish chillwave weirdness of Butcher’s Block, but in its cockeyed exploration of emotional mess and overflow it finds a vein none of the show’s preceding seasons ever tapped. That it appears The Dream Door is the series’ last entry renders its gonzo insightfulness especially poignant, an exciting new voice in horror cut off right as it began to explore its full range.

Still, from the clever visuals with which it paints the alienation of living in suburban America while black — the yawning shots of the scant few feet between black protagonist Jillian (Maria Sten) and her therapist, the magnificently condescending and stupendously-named Abel Carnacki (Steven Weber), are particularly thoughtful — to the gorgeously dressed and shot sets it tosses off like they’re nothing, The Dream Door has plenty of meat to chew on. You’re not going to see another story like this one anytime soon.

Love and Madness

As a culture we have certain stories we like to tell about the mentally ill, most of which fall into one of two categories. The first is the story of the harmless but burdensome person laboring under depression, anxiety, or some other condition understood to be primarily or wholly internal. The second is the story of the “psycho”, someone whose experience of reality has diverged sharply from the norm. Jillian’s attachment disorder — characterized at first by extreme suspicion and mood swings and soon after by the manifestation of her supernatural ability to summon avatars of her own emotions into reality — transitions from the former to the latter over the course of the show’s first half as her conviction that her childhood imaginary friend Pretzel Jack (Troy James) is real convinces those around her that her grasp on reality has slipped.

Psychosis is more common than most people realize. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3% of Americans will experience psychosis at some point in their lives. While the phantasmagorical creations of Jillian’s subconscious are tangible and interact with the real world, they are explicitly tied to her very real mental illness. Over and over again she’s dismissed as crazy, first by her husband’s friend Jason (Nicholas Tucci), then by her therapist, then by her own husband, Tom (Brandon Scott). Here’s the thing: just as Jillian’s right about Pretzel Jack’s existence, psychotic people are right about the reality they experience. The things they see and feel are real, and feeling trusted and accepted can be an important step toward recovery for them. Attempts to deprogram their delusions typically only magnify their suffering.

The Dream Door gives us both Jillian’s experience as a person whose mental illness can lead to harm for herself and others and Tom’s as someone living intimately with her while unable to grasp or accept that illness. The show’s handling of Jillian’s dysfunction is a rare one, admitting that sometimes mental illness can be frightening, ugly, and potentially lethal without condemning Jillian as a subhuman monster. Even people whose feelings can be dangerous, The Dream Door tells us, deserve to be loved. It’s only when Tom works through his own discomfort with her illness that they heal the wound in their marriage. “You have a lot of intense shit in your head,” he tells her. “We both do. It’s just sometimes yours gets out into the real world and kills people. And I accept that. And I love you.”

Vulnerability and Violence

Ian (Steven Robertson) possesses the same power Jillian does, the ability to manifest his own emotions as constructs of flesh and milky fluid. Where she struggles to understand and control her powers, though, he has fine-tuned mastery over his. He treats his emotional manifestations like remote-control cars and he’s eager to help Jillian do the same. It’s hard not to see the eventual revelation of his violent sociopathy as an extension of that emotionally disconnected mindset, just as his desire to possess Jillian’s body and affections feels like an extension of his solipsistic cruelty. Only his own unexamined desires can really interest him. The childish blandness of his creations speak to his dead and sterile inner life.

Ian has no connection to the things he creates. He is a vacant person, all his emotions forced out of his body and made to serve him. His only relationship to other people is destructive and selfish, often murderously so. By contrast, Jillian forces herself to face and even cherish her manifested creations, to reconcile with the fractured pieces of her psyche. In one brutally intimate scene she accidentally summons a limbless, helpless infant-thing while making love to Tom. “It’s our baby,” she tells him, holding it in her arms after he recoils from its naked vulnerability in horror. “It’s a part of me.” Jillian stays with the infant-thing as it slowly dies, and by doing so she come to terms with her own persistent feelings of abandonment and helplessness.

That scene is where The Dream Door really plants its flag, opening up the sticky innards of its story about psychosis and giving us a chance to feel compassion for some of the most uncomfortable human experiences imaginable. To sit with yourself like Jillian does, to make a conscious effort to accept your own weaknesses and failings, is an act of bravery. Sometimes exposure to our own inner lives, and to the inner lives of our loved ones, can be ugly and harrowing, but just because loving someone — or loving yourself — is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.