Do you occasionally have nightmares? Almost all people do, although interestingly the incidence of scary dreams tends to drop off between the ages of 25 and 55. Nevertheless, I still have them, and you probably do too. Unlike many people, though, the dreams that terrify me are rarely violent in nature, or at least not where I’m the object of violence. I write horror books and love Scorsese movies, so you’d think violent imagery would creep into my dreams more often than it does (the summer I was teaching a class on the Iraq War notwithstanding). Although I never have exactly the same dream twice, my dreams often do follow very similar patterns. For over 30 years I’ve been plagued with what I call my “Alfred Hitchcock dream”: a scenario in which I’ve been accused of a crime I didn’t commit, and there’s no way I can prove my innocence.

I call this the Hitchcock dream because this is essentially the setup of about every third Alfred Hitchcock movie, who made the “wrong man” plot a staple of cinematic thrillers during his long career that stretched from the silent era to the 1970s. In fact his 1956 film The Wrong Man essentially gave a name to this plot scenario, but the innocent person falsely accused is a major plot point in North by Northwest (1959), The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), Dial M for Murder (1954), Vertigo (1958) and the much-overlooked Frenzy (1972). Hitchcock was known for utilizing psychology in his movies, or at least psychology as he understood it–he had no formal training in the discipline–and part of the reason his films have endured as classics is because they needle the audience in a very incisive, close-to-home sort of way that many filmmakers have been unable to replicate. I know far less about psychology than Hitchcock did, but I’ve always been fascinated by the terror of the “wrong man” situation and why it scares me.

This stunning fan-made trailer for North by Northwest perfectly captures the fear and anxiety generated by the film’s central premise.

I have a “Hitchcock dream” an average of three or maybe four times a year. Sometimes the intensity of it isn’t that bad–I’ll dream that the crime or mistake I’m accused of is consequential but not catastrophic, such as being blamed for losing an important document (a common scenario I dreamt during the time I practiced law) or some other similar thing. But I remember one nightmare I had probably about 15 years ago. I came home, opened my closet and the body of one of my friends and co-workers flopped out, covered in blood from multiple stab wounds. The murder weapon was still sticking out of his chest. I didn’t do it, but I couldn’t begin to explain how it happened, who killed my friend or why. In the dream I thought, “The police will be here any moment!” and in shock, before I had a chance to think, I had already pulled the knife out of my friend’s chest, meaning my fingerprints were on it. I dropped the knife and ran. This scenario appears almost exactly in North by Northwest, where Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is caught red-handed stabbing a man in the lobby of a United Nations building–only he didn’t do it. The circumstances are so extraordinary, however, that logically no one would ever believe that he didn’t do it. Thus, he runs.

I remember another very vivid dream which happened to me while I was in law school. I dreamed it was the year 1871. Despite the amount of history I consume on a daily basis it’s astonishing that I don’t have “period” dreams more often, but it’s pretty rare for me to dream about a past era. In this dream I didn’t see the murder or the body, but my best friend, dressed in a tweed suit, cravat and top hat, detained me in a paneled Victorian drawing room and warned me that I was accused of killing someone, that the police were in hot pursuit and I had to get out of town immediately. My friend helped me get to the train station and I boarded an antique steam train. Even sitting there waiting for the train to start moving I was terrified that the conductor would recognize me and rat me out to the police. The anxiety and terror was overwhelming. All I knew was, I did not commit this crime and no one will believe me! 

Frenzy, from 1972, one of Hitchcock’s most terrifying films, is also a story of a man wrongly accused of murder.

What’s interesting is that in neither of these dreams, nor any other examples I’ve had more recently, do I ever remember any resolution. In each case I have no idea whether I get away with it, whether I do convince the police I’m innocent or if I’m punished unjustly. The terror and anxiety seems to be the self-contained point of the dream. These dreams exist to terrify me, unlike the device in Hitchcock’s films where it’s usually a means to tell an absorbing story.

It’s obvious that the “wrong man” scenario is particularly disturbing to me on a psychological level, but why? In real life I’ve never been accused of a crime, much less had anything close to a real experience approximating the extreme murder scenarios. On a societal level I think all of us understand that the criminal justice system isn’t 100% perfect. Recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore and other places are shining an increasingly bright light on the dysfunction of American policing and law. At one time I supported the death penalty, but I no longer do because it’s clear that innocent people are sometimes executed. Perhaps a “red-handed” situation as dramatic as North by Northwest is pretty far-fetched, but police departments and courts are clearly quite capable of accusing and convicting people of murders they did not commit. A trial in a court of law is not an absolute guarantee that a mistaken accusation will be corrected. Some high-profile cases where innocent people have very nearly been condemned for murders they didn’t commit include Klaus von Bulow, falsely accused of trying to murder his wife in 1980, and Stephanie Stearns, falsely accused of killing a couple on a deserted Pacific island in the 1970s. Hitchcock plays on our collective insecurities about our legal institutions. We fear machines that don’t work quite right–especially when we rely on the machine for so much.

Vertigo (1958), now regarded by some critics as the best film of all time, deals heavily with psychology and various psychological situations. It is rightfully considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

I doubt I will ever stop having my Hitchcock dream. It’s now so deeply ingrained in my psyche, and such a comfortable pattern for my brain to replicate while I sleep, that I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of it. Despite how disturbing these dreams are at the time, I don’t think it would do any good to stop watching Hitchcock films. It’s not the movies that cause them, but rather the collective anxiety of our society about the potential abuses or honest mistakes made by the powerful people whom we appoint to protect us and keep order. If I wake up in a cold sweat after a Hitchcock dream tonight, I won’t blame Cary Grant or Kim Novak. It’s a fear I think many of us share.

The header image in this article incorporates the 1655 painting “The Knight’s Dream” by Antonio de Pereda (public domain) and a photo of Alfred Hitchcock by Jack Mitchell, used under Creative Commons 4.0 International (Attribution) license. The header image is itself relicensed under those same terms (CC4.0).