The Sin-Eater

One of Wes Clark’s Nightmares


If you know me, you probably think of me as being calm and mature. The fact of the matter, however, is that there’s some really weird, dark stuff floating around in my sub-conscious. (Must be all those films noir I watch.) Every now and then I’ll get a whopper of a nightmare so bad I’ll start talking and yelling in my sleep, which awakens my poor wife. In the worst ones I’ll quickly sit up or thrash around.

Some of these nightmares have literary possibilities. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody found literary material in a dream; this happened to television executive Dan Curtis in 1965. He had a dream about a mysterious young woman on a train, with a voice saying, “My name is Victoria Winters, and I am on my way to serve as a governess for a wealthy family on the coast of Maine…” This dream led to the successful horror soap opera “Dark Shadows,” which Curtis produced and directed.

Anyway, I had another nightmare last night, 12/29/02, which led to my wife’s awakening me at about 2:30 AM. It was a real doozie. The dream encompassed most of what I write about below, but some of the story was fleshed out in the five minutes or so thinking about it before returning to sleep, when dreams are best remembered. For lack of anything better, I call it “the sin-eater.”

The Sin-Eater

A man (me) - distraught, angry and frustrated – is investigating the horrific death of his wife. She died of what appeared to be an animal attack, the front of her throat horribly mangled. An autopsy revealed that the woman died of a lack of air due to blockage and damage to her throat, but a subsequent loss of blood would have resulted in death as well. The police and FBI have no leads to follow, and the husband becomes vengeful.

He makes some inquiries of his own and discovers that his wife has been in contact with another man. It is unclear whether or not she has been having an affair.

The husband finds the man, and is horrified at his appearance: he is bedraggled, ugly, animalistic and savage-looking. (He looks like “Killer Bob” in the Twin Peaks TV series.) What’s more, this man taunts the husband with detailed, obscene accounts of his having seen his wife. Provoked beyond recall, the husband attacks the man, biting his throat with his mouth, ripping and tearing flesh with his teeth.

The husband then has a desire to bite into the man’s voicebox, to prevent him from screaming obscenities about his wife. As he does so, and the animalistic man’s life begins to fade, a half-remembered account of a folktale he had read about in a book many years ago begins to form more clearly in the husband’s mind.

The folk-tale is about the sin-eater, a wayfaring man roaming from village to village who was invited to eat at a banquet prepared by the citizens. His feast represents his taking upon himself the sins of the citizens. Driven wild by these sins, he then leaves the village to be restored to sanity once again by time and the outdoors. When sane, he once more petitions another village for a meal in exchange for taking upon himself their sins.

In addition to the account of the sin-eater, the husband then realizes that the animalistic fellow he attacked was a sin-eater, and, dying, the requirement to be a sin-eater is now incumbent upon himself, having eaten the sins of the old one. He also realizes that his wife was attacked because she attempted to seduce the sin-eater. In a redeeming act, he symbolically and literally “ate” her sins by attacking her in the manner he did.

Withdrawing from the neck of the corpse of his wife’s murderer, which is now lying on the ground, the husband slowly rises to his feet and stumbles down the street, in search of redemption from a sinner and a release from his curse.

*   *   *

Killer Bob from Twin Peaks is a recurring nightmare character; one I thought I exorcised years ago when I called the actor on the phone and spoke to him. I guess not.

Now that I’ve had this dream I dimly recall reading about the sin-eater folklore, but it must have been in a book or article many years ago. I haven’t thought about it at all since then. An Internet search reveals that it’s an old Appalachian belief. (The bit about attacking sinner’s throats, however, is not part of the lore.)

My Internet search also reveals, oddly enough, that a movie starring Heath Ledger entitled “The Sin Eater” is due for release in 2003. It appears to be a crime mystery. I do not recall seeing any advertisements for this film that would have created this dream.

I will spare you with the exact words of the “taunting with detailed, obscene accounts.” It is not especially relevant to the storyline.

That last part, where the new sin-eater walks off, was pictured in my mind as a crane shot in the style of a movie. Specifically, I think I may have recalled the conclusion to Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street,” when a guilty, unpunished Edward G. Robinson is shown aimlessly walking around a city, unsuccessfully trying to convince others of his guilt.

Speaking of commercially-viable nightmares: I had a dream years ago, when my father was still alive. I dreamt that we lived in a society that required a kind of lucidity test for all citizens over the age of sixty; failure to pass the test meant a one-way visit to a state-run extermination center. In my dream I was frantically trying to help my father cram for the test the night before, and feeling that it was futile since he wouldn’t pass. I have always thought that this would make a compelling plot for a sci-fi movie, were it not for the fact that it is too much like “Logan’s Run.”