Thursday, April 15, 2010

Psycho-Babble: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) introduced us to the burnt-faced, razor-fingered killer Freddy Krueger. Freddy was a terrifying new type of horror villain who could kill you in your dreams. Your only defense was daylight and a fistful of No-Doz.

But after multiple sequels, a TV show, and countless media interviews, Freddy quickly became as familiar a ghoul as Count Chocula or Herman Munster – and about as scary. As with most shadow dwellers, the more Freddy stayed in the spotlight, the more his essential evil was worn down, dulled by the coarse stone of over-exposure.

More importantly, the mainstream embrace of Freddy as “the killer you love to hate” squeezed out the single most chilling aspect about him, the thing that was most psychologically resonant and disturbing:

Freddy Krueger fucked kids and then killed them.

All child rape is evil, but even such an unspeakable evil must be graded on a scale. On one end of the scale, you have the pathetic groping lechers (see “Molester, Chester The”) and on the other end are the vile psychopaths who so defile and torture the innocent that they are compelled to murder them afterwards (See “Fish, Albert”).

Freddy is that latter kind of evil. The worst kind.

Child rape and murder was all too familiar to those of us around in the early 80s. Between 1972 and 1978, John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered 33 boys. From 1979 to 1981, the Atlanta Child Murderer killed at least 28 children. In 1981, 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Hollywood, Florida Sears in 1981. Only his head was found.

The 80s was the decade when children started appearing on milk cartons.

We all knew a Freddy Krueger or two. There was that guy who lingered at the school playground in gray sweat pants pulled up over his gut offering you Starbursts. There was your Dad’s co-worker with the sandwich crumbs in his porn-stache who smelled of Whisky Sours and French Onion Soup dip.

While our caretakers numbed out on dry martinis, valium, McDonald’s cheeseburgers, Pall Mall cigarettes, or episodes of Barnaby Jones, we kids of the 80s were left to navigate the perv gauntlet with only an ABC Afterschool Special on “Stranger Danger” to guide us.

In 1983 President Ronald Regan proclaimed May 25 National Missing Children’s Day. By 1984, the child-killing Freddy archetype was seared into our individual and collective subconscious … just waiting for a sick fuck like Wes Craven to exploit it.

And exploit it he did. A Nightmare on Elm Street tapped into that archetype and milked it for all it was worth.

But what makes A Nightmare of Elm Street so powerful is that it isn’t about Freddy Krueger. It’s about Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) and her slow realization that Freddy is living in her subconscious and trying to kill her. The power of the film comes in the subtext. A Nightmare on Elm Street is an allegory about a teenage girl dealing with traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse.

Everything about Nancy, from her sleepy depressed demeanor, to her fear of sex with Johnny Depp (c’mon it’s Johnny Depp!), to the self-inflicted burn marks on her arms, to intruding subconscious images of a violent, molesting demon are all symptomatic of a survivor of sexual abuse.

The movie revels in images that reveal the feelings of violence and disgust that Nancy has about sex and her body – from Freddy’s serpentine tongue kiss through the phone to his finger knives in the bathtub, dangerously close to her vageen.
Nancy’s checked-out alcoholic mother naively thinks that killing Freddy would save her daughter, but revenge is worthless because the damage is done. The subconscious is where the trauma is buried and where Freddy wields all of his demonic powers. It is only in the subconscious where Nancy can face down and triumph over her demon.

Freud would totally love this movie.

I got a chance, several years back to ask Wes Craven a question at a screening of Nightmare. I wrote my question on a card and handed it to the moderator. It said:

“Is Nightmare an allegory of a sexual abuse survivor having memories of her abuse?”

The moderator read my card, paused, then actually announced that he was going to paraphrase it. (I know, right? Crazy rude.)

What he said wasn’t a paraphrase, but an entirely different and totally lame question along the lines of: “We have a lot of fears from childhood. Does Nightmare tap into those fears?”

It should have pissed me off. I really wanted to know the answer to my question. I’m a sucker for subtext.

But I was more fascinated than angry. It just made sense.

The whole theme of A Nightmare on Elm Street is that child molestation is disturbing and, therefore, the collective chooses to push the entire subject into the shadows, even though doing so creates disastrous results (see “Church, Catholic”).

So even in a discussion of Freddy Krueger with the creator of Freddy Krueger about the true meaning of Freddy Krueger, Freddy’s true horror was once again pushed back into the darkness.


  1. I've often found myself having this discussion too, maybe I've read too much Freud. Even as a raging horror fan it is peculiar to consider the incongruous capacity society seems to have to absorb something so abhorrent, all be it fictional, and reconstruct it into an acceptable, palatable package of hackneyed, comedy villainy. Does then make it all the more scary for that? I'm not sure, it's an interesting subject. Great article.

  2. A lot of your observations about sexual imagery in Nightmare Elm Street are pretty spot-on, but according to the 'lore' of the series, Freddy wasn't a child molester. It was originally considered in the development process, but they opted for child murderer in the end. I'm not sure how this changes your thoughts regarding whether or not the movie is an allegory for child sexual abuse specifically, but there ya go.

  3. I may be wrong, but I don't think there are many child murderers who do not first molest the kids. My guess is they dropped it because some producer got cold feet. But the subtext is all there in the imagery.

  4. dangit. now you got me wanting to know too. having seen the film in the past year, i reckon you're on to something. even craven might not of been fully conscious of this though too. repression runs deep.

  5. He is definitely aware. He has a Masters in Psychology, I believe. They changed the original script to remove the child molester thing for some reason. The remake re-introduced that element which was a good choice, unfortunately everything else sucked.

  6. quite frankly ive been a fan of this franchise since i was very fascinated me and terrified me.having said that..people rarely see the writing on the wall..they choose to sweep it under the rug because the watered down cell is easier to digest..the curtain has been knocked down..the wizard has been exposed

  7. Supremely insightful article, and impeccably well-written. The calibre of this content is something that is so sorely missing on the 'Internet'... I congratulate you on the depth of your Art and the size of your balls.