• 12.14.11

What If You Died At 38 But No One Found You For 3 Years?

An absorbing new companion website to a documentary about Joyce Vincent asks uncomfortable questions about life, death, and loneliness.

What If You Died At 38 But No One Found You For 3 Years?

Crazy story: In 2006, housing officials broke into a north London flat only to discover the body of a young woman surrounded by a pile of half-wrapped Christmas presents, her television set still flickering away. Joyce Vincent was her name, and she had been dead for a long time. Like a really long time. Those presents? They were for Christmas 2003.


Here’s the thing: She didn’t fit the profile of the kind of person who might die alone. She wasn’t old. She wasn’t a recluse. She wasn’t a junkie. The mystery of how a 38-year-old woman who once hobnobbed with celebrities and had a high-powered job at Ernst & Young wound up dead and forgotten is the subject of a new movie, Dreams of a Life, by Carol Morley.

To promote the film, the game-design studio Hide&Seek has developed Dreams of Your Life, a moving companion website. Hide&Seek had the foresight to note that the gruesome appeal of Vincent’s tale lies in the solipsistic questions it raises: What if that had been me? Could something like that ever happen to me? “Because it’s a story that says so much about isolation and loneliness, we wanted to make a web experience that in some way kept you company,” Hide&Seek’s Margaret Robertson tells Co.Design.

So the site asks visitors to spend about a half hour answering deeply personal, occasionally disturbing, and sometimes funny questions about their own lives: “Do you have friends?” “If you died, how long would it take for someone to find you?” “If an armed gunman broke in and held you hostage, would you take a bullet for a coworker? Or would you be happy to tie them up and see them shouted at?”

[click to visit the site]


The text was written by A.L. Kennedy, a Scottish author famous for her dark sensibility, and appears onscreen like a hand-scrawled note, as if Joyce Vincent herself were penning missives from the beyond. Morbid commentary (“…all you can be sure of about life is that it kills you in the end”) and details about Vincent’s life and death are interspersed here and there. And as you proceed through the text, the website’s background image–a window with a photo pinned up and a jar of flowers on the sill–shifts subtly to indicate the passing of seasons. The flowers die. Snow gathers in the window. If you look closely, you might even notice a dead bird in the trees.

All of this is designed to make you reflect on death–a rather troubling thought in the middle of the workday, when normally you’d just be checking Facebook or paying your credit-card bill online. But the gentle provocation is the point. “We wanted to make a website that looked nothing like a website, and gave people a little respite from all of that noise and information overload,” Robertson says. “Our aim was to make something that would give people a chance to think about the people in their lives and think about whether or not there were any changes that they wanted to make about their degree of connectedness.” There’s something sadly true about that: The best way to learn about the perils of not connecting with the people around you is to spend a half an hour on an awesomely absorbing website, not connecting with the people around you.

[Images courtesy of Hide&Seek]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.