By Cameron White
Season 2, Episode 4: “Nightmare”
Original airdate: Sept. 17, 1999
Broadly speaking, the subgenres of horror can be summarized into two categories. Physical horror is characterized primarily by the physicality of the act of scaring someone, whether by shocking images (such as the gruesome torture porn genre) or by the execution, the build-up to a bloody murder or sudden assault on a character. Psychological horror, on the other hand, relies on the psychological basis of fear. What does it mean to be afraid, really? Fear, after all, is in the mind, along with all our other emotions. Literal manifestations of these fears can often be more effectively scary, especially for people already desensitized to the gore and violence (and violent execution) of the physical horror films.
Fiona wonders aloud in “Nightmare” what happens to a person’s physical body if it’s damaged (or worse) in a dream. She’s reflecting the time period of the episode, as The Matrix (itself a sci-fi horror film of sorts) had been released earlier in the year; she’s also touching on how the best horror films tend to converge the physical and psychological horror to maximum result. Such is the case for “Nightmare,” one of So Weird‘s better story ideas that also begins the insights into the Bell family as promised.
That starts in this episode with meeting Irene’s sister and brother-in-law, Elaine and Kevin Braddick. The episode is in part about their marital troubles vis-à-vis the effect they’re having on Danny, their son. A different show would start with Danny in the cold open, but this is So Weird, so instead, Fi pontificates about the nature of dreams. The first actual scene is a good one though: Jack, dressed for a funeral, standing in a graveyard with friends and family, gathered around an unreadable gravestone. It’s a dream, of course, and a recurring scene throughout the episode. Jack meets Danny in his dream before they even meet each other in real life, which kicks off the plot of the episode. Eventually, after a Lynchian funhouse of images, Jack realizes what the monster that’s haunting the dreamspace is, and helps Danny fend it off.
What is the monster? Physically, it appears to just be a CGI smoke monster; psychologically, though, it’s the fear of loss. And the monster isn’t just for Danny, either: after Jack gets attacked by the monster (because, Jack being Jack, he believes it’s only a dream and nothing bad will happen to him), he sees the image of his father the last time he was alive, holding his car keys and insisting to Molly that he’ll be alright, even though he knows “too much.” As Fi falls into Jack’s arms after hearing him talk about it, the dream becomes almost too real to bear, accentuated by the stark white room in which they’re standing. (It’s reminiscent of the last physical room in 2001: A Space Odyssey—perhaps intentionally so.)
The fear of loss is a pain that even reaches into the only other subplot in “Nightmare,” one that more effectively provides insight into Carey Bell. Last week and this week, Carey was rather cagey when talking about college. This week, he reveals to Molly that he dropped out, a fact that he defers telling his parents out of respect for the events of the episode. The reason for him dropping out? He wants to pursue music full-time instead of studying business, which leaves Molly understandably torn. (Among her list of more practical job choices: astronaut, czar of Russia.) Molly is someone for whom music and love go hand-in-hand, so she knows how Carey feels; on the other hand, he just spent a lot of his parents’ money for a college degree he didn’t get. This is the true beginning of Carey Bell as a main character on So Weird. The Bells and the Phillipses are intertwined in Molly the musician and Irene the manager; if one family falters, everyone suffers. The effect of Carey’s decision will continue to reverberate throughout the season.
More importantly, the fear of loss is touched on once again by the show in a more direct fashion and with Jack as the lead character. Fi only briefly touches on her paranormal research; her presence, as ever, is to be the Fox Mulder in the room, to help Jack believe in the unbelievable. That belief led him to a painful memory, but one he keeps close to his heart because he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Fi or Molly. Family is a notoriously fragile thing. It can be torn apart by even the fear of something, be it love or loss. The monster in this episode is a powerful representation of physical and psychological horror working in tandem.
Yet Jack was able to make a leap of faith, to believe that the nightmare was real, and that gave him the strength to help Danny fight the fear too. That’s Buffy‘s influence on all modern genre television: the monsters may be literal, but they are not undefeatable. In this way, Jack, Fi, and the rest of the tour bus are strengthened by working together. The fear of isolation was expertly executed for this episode, making it stand out among So Weird‘s best season. But the nuances involved in working together come forward, too, making So Weird one of Disney Channel’s most complex shows in its sea of products.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about his otherworldly possessions. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. If you strike him down, he shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.