Imagine, if you will, a perfect American suburb. You know the kind, probably only immortalized on the silver screen or through photography. All the houses are colonial style, possibly Victorian, with white picket fences and freshly mowed grass. The neighborhood’s safe enough for the kids to play without adult supervision, and everyone is familiar with who lives on their block. But scratch that seemingly perfect veneer, and there’s decay under the surface. A horrible secret with grave consequences for the children. Sin has defiled this garden, and not even sleep is a reprieve. For in dreams, that’s where Freddy Krueger can get you. And if you die in your sleep, you’ll die for real.
On the surface, this is the basic premise behind Wes Craven’s horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was released in 1984 to much fanfare. The film, which heralded the beginning of New Line Cinema as a profitable independent company, arrived as a revitalization of the horror genre, which had grown stale with its myriad of hokey slasher films. The premise behind Craven’s film was ingenious — a madman, known as Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), has returned after being murdered to haunt the nightmares of the teenagers of Springwood, Ohio. But these are more than just fever dreams, because if Freddy manages to get his claws upon the teens, they may just never wake up. It’s not hard to see why this premise was so tantalizing back in the day and how it remains just as fresh and exciting even now. Horror is an incredible tool for taking the things we partake in daily and warping them into the most perverse versions of themselves. Craven, an erudite man who based all of his films off the vivid dreams that ailed him, properly understood the function of what horror really seeks to explore: the human versus the inhuman, and balance versus imbalance.
Craven is making vicious observations about the nature of dreaming and of sleep itself, and in many ways, he takes a similar approach to the subject as David Lynch frequently does. Recently, I covered the infamous diner scene from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and by proxy, deconstructed the film’s complex narrative. Understanding the whole picture of Diane Selwyn’s story was vital to understanding the dreamlike narrative structure of the first two-thirds of that film. Lynch stresses the inescapability of reality, and more importantly, how we cannot escape our actions. Diane struggles with guilt, and thus tries to flee into a dream world concocted to ease her own subconscious. The tactic fails eventually when the truth inevitably collides with her dream construct. Believe it or not, A Nightmare on Elm Street is not so dissimilar. Craven often blurs the lines of reality and dreams not just as a parlor trick, but to show the close correlation the two often share with one another. Our dreams are influenced by our memories and experiences. More frighteningly, our dreams are often uncontrollable, and perhaps this is a way our subconscious connects with our own fears of that inescapability from reality. In Craven’s film, that chaotic variable comes in the form of the spectral boogeyman Freddy Krueger, whose true identity is much more insidious than his burnt exterior would suggest.
If the key to understanding dreams is to accept the close proximity they share with reality, then it’s equally as important to understand the truth behind Freddy Krueger. The film explains that Freddy Krueger was a child murderer, the kind of horrible real-life villain that lives on the fringes of society in order to feed upon the unsuspecting. Justice was not served. Upon Krueger’s arrest and prosecution, something as silly as somebody not signing a search warrant in the correct place allowed Krueger to walk free. The parties with any power in the situation, such as the judges and the lawyers, had gotten the fame and fortune they’d sought from the incident, but the parents of Springwood were left powerless and fearful that their children’s lives might be at stake. So they took justice into their own hands, and the parents of Elm Street attacked Krueger, killing him by burning him alive. The evidence was hidden and Krueger appeared to be no more. That is, until he starts appearing in the dreams of teenagers, seeking revenge on their parents by continuing his criminal ways now in the form of a dream demon.
One of Craven’s most developed themes that runs throughout his filmography was an exploration of gothic structure, particularly focusing on the fractured structures of society. In this film, Craven explores the effects of cyclical sins, highlighting the labors caused by sins of the father and the mother. One of the most harrowing aspects of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the fact that Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her friends are at the mercy of a phantom killer not because of anything they’ve done, but instead as the result of their parents’ vigilantism. These teenagers are paying the price for their parents’ erroneous actions, and Craven makes it all the more complicated by having Krueger be so vile in real life. It’s not so much that he justifies the way the adults of Elm Street take matters into their hands, but he makes it understandable, which only makes the fallout more disturbing. Craven highlights the idea that it’s always the following generation that must pay for the mistakes of the one that preceded it. It’s not hard to see this correlation in real life, but it’s always been a particularly recurrent theme in horror. A strong example is the way director Tobe Hooper explores the predatory nature of America towards its youth in his horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, all inspired by his fears of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
So in essence, A Nightmare on Elm Street is an exploration of the damages passed down from generation to generation. The effects on Nancy and her friends are much more profound than simply having Freddy Krueger stalking them in their sleep. Craven smartly weaves the failures of the parents throughout the story. Heather’s dad, Lt. Don Thompson (the venerable John Saxon) is never shown to be at home with Nancy or her mother, Marge (Ronee Blakley). He’s constantly at work, and the few times he interacts with Marge in front of Nancy, the two are disagreeing on the best way to help their child. This leaves Nancy at home with Marge, who is hardly fit to be a parent. She suffers from alcoholism, hiding a bottle in just about every conceivable location in the house. It’s not hidden from Nancy. She knows about her mother’s failings, and yet she is still affected by her neglectful parenting. The suburbs of Elm Street may look idyllic and picturesque from outside the home, but there’s horrible decay inside each of those houses, and the children are the ones suffering.
Roger Ebert famously decried the wave of slasher horror in the 1980s as the “dead teenager” genre and lamented how it had no value on society, seeing it as just a vehicle for young people to enjoy carnage from a misplaced vantage point. However, film scholars like John Kenneth Muir disagree with Ebert’s stance towards the sub-genre. There are very few genres that speak so artfully to a teenager’s speed of life, and the horror genre is perhaps the only one that is completely candid with them. Because of the actions of their forefathers, young people must learn to survive in different ways, and horror movies teach them that survival is possible, that they do have the tools necessary to conquer the horrors in front of them if they should self-actualize. In fact, horror films are built strongly off a sense of morality. It’s often depicted as black and white, but the best of the genre understands that the scariest thing is how close humanity is to inhumanity — indeed, the parents in A Nightmare on Elm Street are truly no better than Freddy Krueger. They’re murderers too, after all, and it’s their kids who have to contend with that fact. But that doesn’t mean they have to die without a fight.
But Freddy Krueger is quite the formidable opponent. Freddy’s biggest tool is that he is able to warp perception, clouding the truth of reality. When the teenagers let their guards down, this is when Freddy comes for them. It’s all the more disturbing that they should die in their sleep, a place perceived as safe. The film shreds that notion, which each major death happening on a bed. Tina (Amanda Wyss) is caught by Freddy, trapped under her sheets before she’s horrifically lifted into the air, rolling up the walls in real life to be torn apart in front of her boyfriend Rod (Jsu Garcia), who can only watch helplessly. Rod himself is hung by his own bedsheets, making the incident look like a suicide. And then Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) is actually sucked into his bed, which unleashes a geyser of blood that eerily slides across the ceiling of the bedroom. Krueger is especially monstrous because he attacks people in perceived “safe” places, such as sleep and dreams. So just how might Nancy Thompson defeat this dream demon?
Nancy’s friends may fall to Freddy, but she has something they didn’t, and that’s knowledge. Craven argues that the only true way to fight against Freddy Krueger is to understand the truth of reality. Glen tells Nancy of a tool that monks use to combat the nightmares they create in their sleep. They acknowledge the nightmare as a fabrication, turning their backs on it to rob it of their power. But that act can only happen because they know what is real and what is a dream. They know the truth. It’s only Nancy who has the strength to pursue answers. She forces her mom to tell her the story of Freddy Krueger. In the dream center, it’s Nancy who discovers that she can take a piece of Freddy out of the dreams with her. And by the end, when it’s only Nancy left standing, she arms herself with popular mechanics, combating the erroneous nature of Freddy Krueger with the strict structures of reality. And when all that fails, she chooses to turn her back to Freddy, refusing to give him any more power. Now, the infamous ending seemingly challenges that notion, and it’s arguable that the conclusion is a result of how Nancy chooses to face — or not face — the reality of what’s happened. But it’s clear what Craven is saying: armed with the truth, we can self-actualize, and we can survive. What does self-actualization look like in a film such as this? In Nightmare on Elm Streets, the parents present a pathology towards their children as a result of their poor parenting, but when the characters learn to self-actualize, they shed the societal pressures and parental failures, becoming the best versions of themselves. Freddy can no longer go after their flaws, and he can no longer distort their reality because they know the truth about themselves. This is how they survive, by embracing who they are and refusing to let evil warp or distort how we view even ourselves.
When it was released in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a success for New Line Cinema, a company that had only acquired and distributed films prior to producing Craven’s chiller. The smart and scary premise combined with an instantly memorable killer in the form of Freddy Krueger catapulted the series into the pop culture pantheon. Craven would leave the series after the first film, but box office receipts dictated that the series should continue, with or without its creator. Six sequels would follow, each a phenomenal success at the box office, and yet the series weathered increasingly mixed critical reception the longer it went on. Later sequels would forgo Craven’s thoughtful style of storytelling and sinister fright tactics in lieu of fantastical dream sequences and a Freddy Krueger who quickly became a Bondian quipster. By the late 80s, the horror genre was at the mercy of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which neutered the more horrific aspects in terms of violence and content. The genre became tamer, punctuated more by humor, and that was never more clear than with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, with the back half of the franchise aping the visual style of MTV music videos and loading their soundtracks with the likes of Sinead O’Connor, Kool Mo Dee, and The Goo Goo Dolls — essentially keeping the franchise stranded in the 1980s. And yet something must be said for the way the series continued to be a large influence in the media.
Most importantly, even though the quality of later entries would flag, what remained was a concentration on many of Craven’s themes established in the first film, which became intrinsic to the series at large. The teenage protagonists still endured sins or grievances imparted upon them by negligent, ignorant, and abusive parents. The series would explore the pathology that parents can impose upon their children through pressures and misunderstanding, zoning in on subjects like sexual orientation and drug addiction (Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), self-harm (Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), and teenage pregnancy and eating disorders (Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child). Even the series’ low point, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, filmed in spectacularly bad 90s 3D, attempted to speak about the long term effects of abuse by parental figures. Krueger still represented the embodiment of a mistake from the past and continued to haunt his victims by utilizing their weaknesses against them.
It became all the more important for these teenagers to learn how to self-actualize if they ever wanted a chance of defeating Krueger. In the Dream Warriors, the teens realize they have “powers” in their dreams and can work together to defeat Freddy, while in Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Alice (Lisa Wilcox) must learn to accept who she is in order to defeat Freddy at his own game. In that film, themes of self-actualization reach their most potent form, as Alice must be able to face her own reflection in order to find the strength needed to defeat Freddy. That, and she’ll need help from her friends’ best qualities, which she absorbs every time they fall victim to Krueger. It’s a touching notion – that our friends seek to make us better by equipping us and changing us. Alice shows Freddy Krueger his own reflection, which destroys him, as evil cannot see its own reflection. It’s too hideous. Alice survives because she can accept what she is, and Freddy dies because he cannot do the same. Even as the series veered into the fantastical, perhaps too far removed from genuine horror, there are always moments built around empowerment in a world that cuts through our defenses and seems hellbent on destroying us through our weaknesses.
Craven would eventually return to the series he created with 1994’s New Nightmare, the second best film in the series and the perfect bookend to the original film. The film is a meta piece of cinema where the action takes place around the filming of the next Nightmare on Elm Street film. Freddy Krueger is fictional, but it’s soon revealed that when Craven wrote the first film, he had done so as a way to entrap a very real evil presence. Without any more Nightmare films, that evil is free to escape into our world, and only Heather Langenkamp, ingeniously playing herself, can stop the entity by replaying her role as Nancy Thompson. The film is often messy, but Craven does something quite important. He validates the importance of horror films in society, comparing them to the timelessness of fables, fairytales, and bedtime stories. It’s no coincidence that Heather’s child and Hansel and Gretel play large roles in the plot. Speaking about the film’s commentary on the horror genre at large, John Kenneth Muir writes, “The monsters that we don’t capture on the screen will haunt us in real life. Thus horror movies not only ‘bottle’ such monsters, but they help children grapple with the idea of evil in a way that does not endanger them, and, to the contrary, shows them how to survive.”
A professor of mine once told us that horror films should take the viewer to a “forbidden” place, one that makes us uncomfortable and frightened, and we walk away having experienced something revelatory. We live in a society that is too eager to ignore difficulty subjects or controversial topics. Horror, as a genre, has always been about exploring those taboos. It’s a case of art with purpose, allowing the audience to witness untold horrors in an almost productive way. Horror films go beyond just simply scaring their audience, because that fear is used as a way to create a sense of catharsis or may even empowerment. Horror films remind us that the world is imbalanced, that humanity must contend with inhumanity, but they ultimately show that survival and personal growth amidst these trials and tribulations is possible. I can speak personally on the subject matter. As a child, I was quite afraid of a great many things, and my active imagination helped to make sure every molehill was a mountain. But through horror films, I found a way to combat my own fears by watching characters I empathized with take control back from evil.
G.K. Chesterton said something to a similar effect, stating, “Fairytales are more than true: not because they tell children that dragons exist, but because they tell us that they can be killed.” It’s not far-reaching to say that anyone who doesn’t believe that evil exists is blinded. And yet, Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street affirms that with the truth, we stand a chance at fighting those real horrors should they ever come our way. The horror genre has always been at the mercy of a poor reputation. It’s too often seen as pointlessly violent and sadistically nihilist at times, and true, there are certainly films in the genre that are exactly that. But then there are films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, that use their frights to construct a story with surprising depth, complete with a message about survival. Wes Craven’s recent passing was a huge blow for the horror community, but it should also be seen as a huge blow for the art form at large. He was a man haunted by powerfully disturbing dreams and he found catharsis in turning his fears into stories that explored the ways in which we might find balance in a world of chaos. It’s more than fortunate that we are able to share his discoveries and insights with him through his films.