The Dream is available to everyone. It is the Upside Down; the world through the wardrobe; the Hinterland; the place where the tornado takes you; and much more besides. But ultimately it is inaccessible.
“I was never supposed to be here, I was never supposed to know.” Jacob Kowalski
All of us have aspirations be they to earn more money, own a bigger house, drive a larger car, find a job which we find fulfilling, but these are not The Dream. The Dream is not aspirational. However, if you ever find yourself in Florida, surrounded by the Disney and Universal theme parks, you will experience The Dream being sold and marketed on a gigantic scale. Yet it is not a financial purchase. No-one can sell you The Dream and neither can you buy it, although if you do fall into The Dream you will find yourself grabbing at tangible artifacts to make it seem more real.
Unfortunately, explaining what something is not, fails to explain what it is. So probably the easiest place to find The Dream writ large is in the ever expanding universe of Harry Potter.
Initially a series of hugely successful novels, they were produced as a succession of films which took J.K.Rowling’s story about a boy wizard and turned it into a world wide phenomenon. Now incorporating spin-off movies, a theatrical production, as well as a seemingly endless amount of merchandise, the Potter universe is almost unrivalled in its reach and diversification. But the true reason for its success, amongst one sector of its audience at least, is down to The Dream, which is the desperate, urgent desire to exist within that fictional world.
Either intentionally or unintentionally, J.K.Rowling created an immediately accessible space which ‘you’ could inhabit. She did this by primarily creating a character, Harry, who was as ignorant of the magical realm as the reader. Just like those of us in the real world, he was unaware of an alternative dimension to his existence under the stairs. Yet unlike us, Harry received a key to enter The Dream in the form of an invititation to study at Hogwarts. Here Ron, Harry and Hermione could have their adventures but where you too, through the power of The Dream could also mentally exist. Through sheer force of will you could place yourself in the Potter universe and be sorted by the Sorting Hat, sit in Professor McGonagall’s classroom and live your own role, as well as partake in the larger Voldermort story-line, perhaps as a fourth addition to Rowling’s primary characters. Even now the entire Potter universe is in a perpetual state of expansion. Each additional film or experience adds to the overall detail of the Potter realm (yet always religiously following J.K.Rowling’s original blueprint). And as it grows so it becomes more and more imbued with its own sense of reality which allows the space within it for occupation to grow ever larger as well.
Other universes are equally open to The Dream. It is no surprise that Disney’s new Star Wars inspired Galaxy’s Edge theme park has been so well received. However, I would argue that some created realms are somewhat less accessible. Those worlds, as occupied by Batman and Superman, are ones where the habitable Dream space is limited. Mentally, to invest in the idea of being a playboy millionaire with a tragic backstory who uses his fortune into becoming a vigilante, takes far more effort, than it does to place yourself within a gigantic space opera or a school for wizards. This logic may sound bizarre or even non-sensical. How can one fictional world be more or less ‘accessible’ than another? But it is all in the delivery. Gotham as presented within the mainstream Batman franchise of films is a far different place to that revealed within Todd Phillips’ recent Joker (2019). Yet, depressingly, Joker’s brutal mechanics are probably far closer to home for most of us than the Gotham inhabited by Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego. We have all had dead-end jobs in back water towns and wished for something better, we all receive mail, we have all, for the most part, experienced climbing inside a wardrobe but we don’t all have a playboy lifestyle and we haven’t all crash landed in the mid-west in an alien space craft as a small child. However, on the superhero flip-side, anyone can be bitten by a spider (although it is unlikely that it will be radioactive).
Yet this is not a DC versus Marvel origins conflict (and I have no bias here, I am happy to nail my colours to the DC mast). Also, this is not about enjoying a story or engaging with characters on an emotional level, this is about something deeper than that, it is about wanting to actively be a part of a fictional realm. With that in mind, I believe a major reason which makes one ‘story’ more open to The Dream than another was stated, unintentionally, by Stan Lee when referring specifically to superheroes, he said that they ‘should be real people with real world problems’. But this is not to say that some ‘constructed realities’ are closed to The Dream, they are not. Any fictional realm, if it grabs the right person in the right way, can be their chosen escape route out of reality. The Dream is not limited by genre or story-line, although some stories are more conducive to The Dream than others. Indeed all that matters is whether the reader, the watcher, the consumer is willing to invest enough time and energy into creating the necessary space inside each reality for The Dream to exist. And it is an investment, an intense, emotional one, and as such it can and does extract a heavy price. Which beggars the question, why would you invest in The Dream at all?
Unfortunately, such a question assumes that investing in The Dream is a conscious decision, I don’t believe this is the case; it is less a planned journey from King’s Cross Station and more like an accidental tumble down a rabbit hole. You pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or watch Star Wars: A New Hope and the emotional pull can, for some, be overwhelming. You lose yourself in a place unrestrained by the dirt, gravity and gloom of our own mundane existence. Instead you are transported to an alternative dimension where you are no longer insignificant, no longer invisible. Suddenly the opportunity to be more than just a bit part player in your own narrative becomes not just available but somehow, inevitable, and this is the founding ideology behind The Dream, irrespective of characters, settings or stories.
Nowhere is this crystallized more precisely than in the end of night firework display at the Magic Kingdom. Here, beneath the spires of Cinderella’s castle, people are sold the essence of The Dream, that you are a somebody, you do have value, and as long as you believe than you can achieve anything. It is a philosophy unfettered by the drag and draw of reality, and almost all of Disney’s output pushes it with a passion and a drive unparalleled by anyone else. Except the fireworks always end and you are forced to file down Main Street, avoiding the buggies and the exhausted, crying children, to head back to a crowded car park, where you climb into your battered Nissan for the long drive home. Reality really is a bitch.
And that is the curse of The Dream, you have to leave it behind, but like a moth to a flame, it keeps drawing you back. To see this in action you merely have to enter Universal’s Hogwarts or Hogsmeade parks and see the queues for Olivanders, the people dressed in house robes and the crowds gathering onto the Hogwarts Express. A sizeable proportion of these individuals are not just tourists experiencing an attraction, they are pilgrims visiting a shrine.
Maybe everyone has a story waiting to draw them into The Dream, and the form these stories take can vary greatly. Books, films, comics, computer games, RPG, all offer a valid space in which The Dream can exist, although some complex, open-ended worlds require the dividing line between simply being an inhabitant and becoming an actual author of the fictional world in question, to become blurred. However, I would argue that being an author of your fictional world (within highly specified restraints ie: think Minecraft, Fortnite or D&D), is not the same as fan fiction, fan art, fan websites, etc. These are created to spread a followers passion concerning whatever fictional realm has snared them inside its hinterland maze. It also helps to cement their bond with The Dream, although it is not a necessary activity for every Dream adherent. Yet if you want to witness the creative infinity loop which can arise from such a passionate devotion to The Dream, film and comic conventions are undoubtedly one of the best places to visit. Whatever form The Dream takes, the devotees of their chosen alternative reality, for a short while at least, all rub shoulders. Manga aficionados, Marvel fans, those desperate to sit on the Iron Throne or enter Hogwarts or flip into the Upside Down, all merge discuss, cosplay and purchase.
Even those who would mock the inhabitants of The Dream are, invariably, locked into their own created space such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Each one is a cleverly packaged Excel sheet, where we fill in the data, populate it with images and videos, thoughts and emotions, and than use it to compare ourselves to the impossibly perfect lives posted by those we follow. At least within the Dream space offered up by Harry Potter, Star Wars, Stranger Things and many more, no attempt is made to hide its inherent fiction behind a veneer of truth. Those within The Dream, whatever Dream it may be, actively choose it over reality; Ready Player One without the hardware. Facebook and the like are by comparison a false dream space, a scam, which pretends to give you the keys to a kingdom of like-minded souls, only to have you end up talking only to yourself. Their endless scrolling, although addictive, does not have The Dream’s philosophy and as such is an empty realm. This is not to say that social media has no value or worth, it does. But when you see those slack-jawed individuals, constantly pulling down on their screens for yet another post or tweet – it is a world away from the wide-eyed, active engagement as seen within the followers of The Dream – although it should be said that being active in one realm does not preclude being active in the other.
So, leaving social media to one side, The Dream is a space created by a consumer of a created world within which they find a home, a place of worth, a location where they are no longer just a nerdy school kid, a boy under the stairs or even just the third man through the door. But what happens when The Dream dies? I would suggest, without exaggeration, that it is like a death in the family. It would be an eternally aching scar. You would be unable to return to the source material without feeling how all the hope and optimism generated by that world’s Dream had ultimately turned to despair due to the realisation that, both The Dream, and its associated potential were shown to be unachievable – Disney’s castles would, if you like, have been revealed to be nothing more than empty shells built on sand.
There are many scenes across multiple films and books which bring into clarity the loss of The Dream, but one of the most effective is towards the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Jacob Kowalski has to leave the sanctuary of a subway station and walk into the rain which will erase all his knowledge of the magical, wizarding realm. His torment and misery are clear and he even asks, “It’s just like waking up, right?” but this is untrue and Jacob knows it. Once you have touched The Dream, reality without it is far harsher, greyer and lonelier than before. It is a place where with your small job, small house and small life, you are invisible amongst a crowd of millions; where you are not even the hero of your own life-story.