A Nightmare on Your (Elm) Street
We talked about Scream yesterday so let’s go back in time to Wes Craven’s most popular film, and also the film that kickstarted a sub genre. Starting with Peeping Tom and Psycho, a new type of horror film was birthed. The slasher! Grisly deaths, dumb teens and hidden cultural evils lurked in the sub genre. Audiences flocked to see John Carpenter’s Halloween and it was one of the biggest surprise box office blockusters. Why did the dark and scary genre become so popular so fast among audiences? It was something new to be consumed, but at its core, the horror genre touches on everyday issues that surround the average audience member and they want to confront these horrors. The true nature and essence of the horror film is to explore monstrous otherworldly forces that attack and aim to destroy the “normal” middle-class values while also repressing any desires that threaten these values and beliefs. Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) explores this theme by pitting the human against the non-human, a powerful adult culture and a teen culture of “otherness,” as well as various forms of repressed dysfunction that lay beneath institutions such as the middle American family and small town morals.
A Nightmare on Elm Street presents the basic story, characters and thematic elements of the slasher film, but utilizes subtle hints at underlying themes and motifs that can be interpreted through a sociological lens. The nature of a horror film is to attack our social norms on the screen. For an audience member it’s a sort of weird catharsis and confrontational understanding of our world. The visceral nature of the horror film is one that other genres have trouble ever reaching. Horror films are the audience’s collective nightmares like a Freudian consciousness that is reflected into the movies and back into the viewers mind. Trippy. The monster, or whatever horror entity we’re dealing with, is the return of everything that we oppress and is known as the “other.” This monster or “other” manifests itself in the middle class’ cultural anxieties. The horror film is completely geared toward creating horror, terror, and dread in the audience primarily through the monster and what it represents to humanity.
Robin Wood describes horror as normality being ruled by social norms, which the monster then attacks and threatens. The monster is metaphorically born from a surplus of repression. In the case of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, the family actually gives birth to a repressed monster that represents satan, an attack on old religious values and modern societal values. The Exorcist has the innocent daughter taken over by the “other” as an attack on rooted beliefs as well as an attack and analysis on Ellen Burstyn’s character being a single mother trying to raise a child. The killer in slasher films is portrayed as a monster or the other. Non-human. In A Nightmare on Elm Street we enter an idyllic town and slowly dive into its dark underbelly hidden in the subconscious of the teenagers and metaphorically in the adults past. Craven uses daytime to show us the normal American town in its innocent Eisenhower-esque form, but this is an illusion. Too long has the society repressed its demons and in doing so it creates an “other.” A mutated form of repression that defies human logic yet reminds us that it’s not too far from ourselves.
Freddy Krueger is precisely this manifestation of teenagers, depression, murders, and lack of communication among parents and their children. Freddy is an icon in horror, and it’s easy to see why. He looks like a human yet characteristics are heightened and made frightening. The effects and make up here are still astounding and proof that practical effects will always trump CGI. The craftsmanship and hand crafted aesthetic gets under your skin and just blows me away with its detail. On a purely visual level it’s a gorgeous hand crafted grimy film, as most of Craven’s work is.
Craven uses many clever shots to display Krueger’s monstrous design before we get a real good look at him. His first appearance is the shadow of a man with long arms. His burnt face and lack of intestines and organs show he is the other. Nancy asks Krueger, “Who are you?” and he responds not verbally but physically by slashing across his left chest where his heart should be. Krueger mocks humanity and its morals. Inside he is full of maggots and yellow gooey blood. His fingers are long knives that a housewife might use. He throws out jokes like a comedian yet it feels ominous and evil while he’s haunting teenagers. His sweater looks like something you’d get from your grandma for Christmas, but on Freddy it’s frightening. Even that little detail attacks the norm of a Christmas sweater, a common sight among middle class families.
Freddy Krueger is a bastardized evil version of middle class repression. In the middle of the film it is revealed that Freddy was a child murderer who went free after a loophole in the trial. The parents took order into their own hands and burned him alive in a neighborhood house. The parent’s disobedience of the law and their murder of Freddy echoes the Salem witch trials. While Freddy was indeed monstrous in human form, the breaking of the societal rules by the parents created a curse for the youth because they’ve repressed it underneath their seemingly idyllic town. Freddy is the subject of a jump rope song that children sing, and it acts a sort of summoning of him as well as a display of societies lack of understanding their own repression.
A monster can be defined as a few things. The monster’s body is a cultural body meaning that they represent something other than themselves. They are built and created from us, which Freddy’s characteristics illustrate, and it’s the whole literal idea behind Frankenstein’s monster. The monster always manages to escape, meaning that it is an incorporation of the beyond, and that, which is not definable. Freddy Krueger dwells in two different realms. Craven uses dreams to display this. The audience gazes upon Nancy as we observe these horrors. He comes from an unknown realm and enters the dreams of the youth. The film’s latter half is Nancy’s point of view. We enter her dreams with her and gaze upon her fears while Freddy terrorizes her. This voyeuristic view is central to the viewing of cinema, but in horror it’s heightened and made an essential game for the audience to participate in.
Craven brought this to the next level in Scream, which I pointed out yesterday, but here voyeuristic horror is in its most distilled and fresh pop form. Any typical film that you go to see will be about a character and their wants and fears. In A Nightmare on Elm Street we enter the most private of places for a character but since it’s horror we secretly want to watch her fears come to fruition because the audience is also linked into this game-like experience. The audience’s emotional relationship to the characters may be removed because the audience roots for the teen deaths so they can be scared. The gaze of the audience is central to the horror genre. Almost a paradoxical function that Scream utilizes masterfully by turning it on its head.
The monster stands as a warning and guard against exploration of its origin, which are the repressed fears of the middle class. They’d rather hide their fears and anxieties over past traumas. This seeps into the interactions between young and old. Throughout the film we see a clash of generations. Parents tell their kids to go to sleep and they stay awake instead. Parents tell their kids to not have sex and stay out late, but they do. The older generations tells the youth to stay out of the police’s way and of course they don’t. At the heart of this teen film lays a moral dilemma where the teens are disconnected form the adults. The genre, or horror aesthetic, is arbitrary and the real center, or soul of the film, is the teens overcoming the oppression and social issues of the older generation. Sorta like the whole sins of the father thing.
This dilemma is manifested in Freddy Krueger. Freddy preys upon this generational gap by attacking the youth who are dismissed and pretty much left for dead by the adults repression. Freddy Krueger resides in all places that teenagers inhabit. At a party with no parents he hides in the walls observing their rebellious behavior. Teenagers LOVE to sleep and Freddy takes away that option by killing them in their dreams, a place that should be solely personal. When Nancy answers the phone, a teenager’s most common form of communication, he sticks his tongue through it. That’s the greatest motif and mocking of it in a horror film I’ve ever seen. Because Freddy resides in this teenage realm the adults cannot recognize him, and thus cannot help.
While horrifying, the “other” is something we subconsciously we wish to join, which fits with Craven’s use of Freudian dreams in the plot. There’s a freedom that Freddy has by not adhering to the social norms. Our main character Nancy is constantly attacked through her dreams, a private space. She is the ego in this story, while Freddy is the id, a subconscious monster that only wishes to please itself and defy the social norms, the super-ego is the parents, playing the moralized and critical role. Horror shows us our social norms and then removes the barrier of reality to lead us into the chaos and irrational that is created from repression. Just like the id battling the super ego, this is a constant battle. The monster is always invading and cannot be repressed forever. In both John Carpenter’s Halloween and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the traditional boundaries controlling the worlds of the rational and the irrational either no longer exist or are in a continual state of change. This is because the “other” is not actually an unknown entity that comes from a place we do not know. The true horror is the realization that we created the monster through repression and that it always lives inside us trying to escape. Illusory barriers of law and culture keep it controlled. At least for a while.
The modern American family is critiqued heavily in horror. The family is a symbol of happiness and idealism. It’s fitting that this is the place that a monster is born because this happiness is an illusion. In Elm Street, the first time we see Tina’s mom she is followed into Tina’s room by a man asking her “Are you coming back to the sack or what?” Sex is presented from the old and the young learn of it from them. It’s a transitional time from childhood to adulthood. The next day Tina’s mom is not home which allows Rod, Nancy, and Glen to come over and break rules by having sex, drinking etc. This breaking of rules and negligence of parents is a gateway for Freddy’s destruction.
Throughout the entire movie Nancy’s mom is depressed and has a bottle nearby her. Nancy’s father is a police officer but has absolutely no control of the situation. Law, rules, power and control are simply illusion. How could he stop a monster built by repression? The parents have no ability to understand or comprehend the murders going on because it is their repression that allows Freddy Krueger to live. They are one and the same. In this context, Freddy Krueger becomes a gap between the generations that keeps them from ever connecting. By looking back to the past to an earlier trauma, experience, or event that still haunts the present, a monster is born. Freddy Krueger in the real world was a child murderer. In his return from the past he attacks the children, and consequently the parents. Freddy seeks vengeance upon the children by not only killing them, but by disconnecting them from reality and their parents idyllic world. He brings the darkness of adulthood to teenagers.
In horror, and particularly this film, the generations become “others” to each other as well. The parents will not and cannot help because their social norms deny that Freddy could possibly be attacking them. They killed him years ago and the idea of him returning in any form frightens them so they repress it. This lack of action makes the older people just as dangerous as Freddy to the youth. When Nancy’s mother tells her about Freddy’s origin they’re in the basement and she pulls out a memento to remind her self of what happened. This repression is hidden in the dark basement of the classic American home. There’s also the correlation that many of the dreams in which Freddy dwells are in basement looking locations. Nancy’s new knowledge gives her the power to take Freddy on. This passing of information from the older repressed generation to the younger generation is the first form of honest communication between the young and old. It’s ammunition for Nancy to battle the monster that her mother, the adult, helped create.
The most prominent character in horror, and especially this film, is referred to as the survivor girl or the final girl. The survivor girl can survive the battle with the monster. She is the one who will not die. The final girl alive is able to survive because she plays by the rules of the “others” game and does not hide from him. This final girl is not sexually active, and she’s attentive to the point of paranoia. Nancy tries to stay awake and is always aware of her surroundings and where Freddy may be. She is frightened of him but acknowledges his existence. This final girl is smart and resourceful when in threatening situations. Her intellect and courage is what allows her to battle the monster. At the end of the film, Nancy reclaims her power both by taking on a hero-esque role that men typically fill. She even changes into a men’s dress shirt to visually assume the hero role. Nancy’s search for knowledge and detective work on Freddy finds the repression that created him. Because she finds out about Krueger she is able to set up booby traps and take him head on now knowing how to defeat him.
Nancy’s mother acknowledges Nancy’s role as the final survivor girl by saying “You face things, that’s your nature. That’s your gift” This is like a knighting that gives Nancy her power of knowledge for the third act. Nancy defeats the repressed monster by telling Freddy Krueger he has no power. What this does is tell the repressed monster that the power she had given to him now means nothing because she finally understands what he is. Nancy’s accumulation of knowledge about Freddy is what leads her to defeat him. An honest connection between adult and teen is essentially what defeats Freddy. While Nancy has stopped Freddy for now, this is a never-ending battle. The id, ego, and super-ego will battle on. The middle American family will always have to obey social norms and the repressed shall return. As the film ends, Nancy walks outside to her dreamlike and idealized white picket fence world where she enters a convertible that has the same color arrangement as Freddy’s sweater. She looks back and sees Freddy once again in her house attacking her mother. He is the monster that cannot be destroyed because he is the “other” part of us.
Horror creates a world of terror and fear that is not different from our own. Really, it IS our own. In a lot of ways, this is the ultimate horror film about American values. Part of that has to do with it being a product of a certain time and place that fit perfectly with it’s own ideas and concept. It’s firmly part of Reagan era cinema, which was all about returning to the past and changing it. I mean, one year after this film along came Back to the Future, the poster child for Reagan era cinema (currently working on an essay about that). Nancy, like Marty McFly, travelled to the older generation’s past to turn the present into an idyllic Eisenhower reality. Where Back to the Future is nostalgic and glossy eyed at Reagan ideals, A Nightmare on Elm Street is more skeptical in its exploration of the past and the Reagan era.
The battle between “normal” societal values and monstrous threats create a never-ending cycle of repressive forces that threaten the moral and economic foundations of middle America. Wes Craven did horror as great as anyone. Hell, his filmography stands with the best of filmmakers. He was a visionary and inventive that pushed boundaries. The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People under the Stairs, New Nightmare, Scream. ALL GREAT FILMS.
He had an understanding of horror that went WAYYYY beyond simple scares. He made the genre the best it could be, and the two films I’ve just analyzed will stand the test of time and inspire filmmakers for centuries. For me, his work is seminal, profound, and a massive inspiration. He managed to create deeply psychological, socially relevant and enlightening horrific Freudian experiences. And, I mean C’MON, Freddy Krueger is just a genius creation! Immediately recognizable and terrifying. A Nightmare on Elm Street recognizes and explores threats to society that are rooted in institutions such as adult culture, family, and the small town. Anxieties and secrets metaphorically lay in the dark basements of American homes. Everyone has a Freddy Krueger that haunts him or her in their nightmares when they go to sleep. We see his effect everywhere in the generational gaps, teen culture, and past traumas that plague us. He seeps through our subconscious to attack our “normal” lives.