Horror is at its best when it functions as a metaphor for the darker aspects of human life. Sure, the initial draw is often the ghost, monster, or killer that threatens to haunt our dreams, but the movies that really stick with us often have a deeper purpose beyond solely trying to scare. Some of the best films in the genre are flicks that had something important to say, and Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake is one of those films.
It follows Mark (Thomas Jane) and Jessie Hobson (Kate Bosworth), a couple who take a foster child named Cody (Jacob Tremblay) into their home, and soon find out that his dreams come to life in the real world every night. At first, Cody dreams about beautiful, glowing butterflies, but as the movie goes on, he begins to have nightmares that wreak havoc on those around him. On the surface, this may sound like a rather humdrum plot, but Mike Flanagan expertly uses this simple premise to craft a touching story about a profound, universal element of the human experience: Grief.
Both Cody and the Hobsons are suffering from traumatic losses, and the way those losses affect them powers the narrative every step of the way. Sometimes it’s right in your face, and other times it’s much more subtle, but the characters’ grief is always there, moving the story forward, and the film uses it to convey a deep message about this important emotion.
Mark and Jessie Hobson
Prior to the events of Before I Wake, the Hobsons lost their young son Sean in a drowning accident, and when the movie begins, Jessie belongs to a grief support group to help her cope with the loss. They can’t have any more children, so to help fill the hole in their hearts, they decide to take in a foster child, Cody. Soon after they bring him into their home, he sees a picture of Sean and dreams about him, and Mark and Jessie get to see their beloved son one more time.
At first, that seems like a nice reprieve for a grieving couple, but it soon takes a dark turn. Once the Hobsons discover Cody’s secret, Jessie begins to take advantage of him to help ease her pain. She shows him a home video of their son opening presents on Christmas morning, and then she hangs up a bunch of pictures of Sean to subtly push Cody in to dreaming about him as often as possible. This causes a small rift between her and Mark, as Mark recognizes that she’s using the child for her own emotional comfort, but Jessie insists that she’s simply allowing Cody to help her heal. [Spoilers Ahead]
It gets even worse from there. Some time later, Jessie gets her doctor to prescribe sleeping pills, and she secretly gives them to Cody so she can have even more time with her son. This backfires, as Cody dreams about a deadly monster called the Canker Man, and the creature kills her husband after they unsuccessfully try to wake Cody up. After that, social services takes the child away, and Jessie is left without her husband, her son, or her foster-son.
With this part of the story, Before I Wake captures an important truth about grief: it can seriously mess with our heads and cause us to mistreat the people around us. Jessie was so caught up in her own pain that she treated Cody like a tool for her own emotional comfort when she should have been loving him unconditionally, just like every child deserves.
In this way, the film is clearly a cautionary tale. It tells us to watch out for this insidious effect triggered by grief and to make sure that when we experience loss, we don’t let our pain blind us to the people around us. When we’re hurting, we need to cope with our pain in a healthy way rather than take it out on those closest to us. Otherwise, we may end up causing real, potentially irreparable harm to the people we love and to our relationships with them. Just like Jessie lost her entire family, we too might lose the people closest to us if we get lost in our own pain and let it negatively affect the way we treat them.
Cody and the Canker Man
Jessie’s grief is front and center throughout almost the entirety of Before I Wake, but Cody’s pain is only revealed to us towards the end. Since he’s an orphan, we know that he lost his parents at a very young age, but he doesn’t seem terribly affected by it. He says that the Canker Man ate his mother.
However, the truth is much more complicated than that. After social services take Cody away from Jessie, she looks into his past and discovers what really happened to his mother. She wasn’t killed by the Canker Man like he said. Instead, she actually died from cancer, and young Cody misunderstood it as “canker.” He eventually forgot what really happened, and his mind combined his mispronunciation of the word “cancer” with his vague memories of his mother’s withered condition before her death to create the monster that haunted his dreams.
After discovering all this, Jessie goes to the orphanage where Cody is being kept, and she finds that his nightmares have completely run amok. She sees monstrous creatures everywhere she turns, and all the workers there have been trapped and incapacitated. She eventually runs into the Canker Man one last time, and she defeats him by giving Cody a reminder of his mother and of her love for him. After that final battle, Jessie brings Cody home with her, and the next day she tells him the truth about his past.
Cody’s experience with the Canker Man reinforces the film’s message about the dangers of grief, but they also add a new dimension to it. His part of the story tells us that we can’t bury our grief and ignore it. Cody’s memories of his mother were buried so deep inside him that he didn’t even realize what it was doing to him, but it had deadly consequences for almost everybody around him.
In this way, Before I Wake tells us that we need to acknowledge our pain and bring it out into the open, and only then can we find healthy ways to heal from it. If we let it fester inside of us, it will eventually find its way out in other, much more destructive ways, and much like the Canker Man, it can become a savage beast that destroys everything in its path.
The Way Out
Up until now, the film’s message has been pretty depressing, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Before I Wake also tells us about an important antidote to grief: at the end of the movie, Jessie and Cody both overcome the negative effects of their grief through love. After Jessie tells Cody what really happened to his mother, she explains that our lost loved ones continue to live on in our hearts even after they’re physically gone, and she encourages him to embrace his unusual gift and its power. Then, in the final line of the movie, Cody calls Jessie “Mom,” and she kisses him on the forehead, confirming that they’ve both found a remedy for their grief in their mutual love.
Sure, Jessie still misses her son, but she’s finally come to understand that he lives on in her heart, not in the tenuous manifestations of a young boy’s dreams, so she shouldn’t use Cody as a tool to see him again. Similarly, Cody is at last freed from the Canker Man and the dangerous effects of his unprocessed grief by being reminded of his mother’s love for him and experiencing that same kind of love once again with Jessie.
That is the ultimate message of Before I Wake. While the movie initially seems like just a cautionary tale about the dangers of grief, it ends up being so much more than that. Above all, it is a story about the most powerful force in the world (love) and its ability to keep our sorrow in check and prevent it from becoming an all-consuming monster.
The Canker Man, the movie’s grisly metaphor for grief, was conquered by love, and love can help us avoid the potential pitfalls of our own grief as well. While it won’t take away our pain, loving the people in our lives and allowing ourselves to be loved by them can help us manage it in a healthy way. Love helps keep us from becoming self-centered in our anguish, and it allows us to find joy in the people who remain with us, just like Jessie and Cody did when they truly began to love each other.