About four years ago, back when I was somewhat interested in Freud and the psychology behind dreams and before I found out that Freud had done more cocaine that Bush during the early years, I bought a book on dream interpretation. With the childish writing style and large soft cover print edition that I got, I always ended up feeling as if I were reading “Dreams for Dummies…” which is essentially what level of intelligence and common sense I was dealing with.
I put the book down when I got to the part that anyone, no matter who they are, will soon become pregnant if they see a white rabbit in their dreams.
Bringing with me this level of incredulity is it really surprising that I didn’t particularly like Wes Craven’s supposedly “landmark” A Nightmare on Elm Street?
Like any film of the slasher horror genre since that debacle known as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street must be entered in to either with a ton of hash, nitrous oxide, a dark sense of humor, or an IQ equivalent to that of a German Shepard. You might be able to find it funny, you might be able to use it as foreplay, but forget any intellectual stimulation.
Taking A Nightmare on Elm Street from this purely hedonistic attitude and ignoring every single one of the large plot holes that A Nightmare on Elm Street has, let’s step back and examine this sucker. Instead of completely having a brainless pursuit, let’s buy into the self-illusion that B-movie makers have had since the 50s… that horror is inherently art, contains heavy social criticism, and can be home to stylistic excellence.
Normally, all I believe is that horror filmmakers are excellent stylists (for an example, take 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was a stylistic predecessor in some ways to Spielberg’s Jaws in refraining from showing the unknown in totality until absolutely necessary, a technique then adapted by slasher films and regular thrillers alike), but let’s play their game for the purposes of argument. Let’s assume that A Nightmare on Elm Street has something, anything, semiotic that I could pull out of it, and work from there.
Implicit in the functioning of A Nightmare on Elm Street is that not only is unreality as important as reality, but unreality and reality are interchangeable, can interact, and one can affect the other. Reality (which, at the end, is thrown through a ringer with a suggestion that all of A Nightmare on Elm Street was a dream and thus eliminates the main purpose of this argument regardless of its outcome) is our waking world, and the second reality of the dream world is our unreality. Instead of having the direct link to reality that dream interpreters assume dream reality and reality to have – where what we experience in reality directly influences what we experience in dreams – A Nightmare on Elm Street establishes a paradigm in which reality indirectly affects unreality.
Krueger, a sort of dream shaman, was killed by the parents of the children preyed upon in A Nightmare on Elm Street (Krueger, it turns out, was one of the many psychotic killers of movie lore who just couldn’t die and leave well enough alone, but instead has to come back in one form or another many years later to exact revenge). Nancy Thompson, Krueger’s would-be-victim and nemesis, also attempts to attain the level of dream shamanism necessary to actively combat Krueger. Nancy does so by reading up on the subject, talking metaphysics with her boyfriend, and developing a stronger willpower than Krueger.
Therein lie both the “messages” that A Nightmare on Elm Street contain and the inherent flaws in the film’s logic.
The resounding message of A Nightmare on Elm Street seems not to be that reality and unreality have active and interchangeable correlations, but instead the clichéd message of the 80s horror film… self reliance as expressed in an inherently misogynist form of feminism.
As in countless other movies of the slasher genre, A Nightmare on Elm Street contains a male villain and a female heroine. The female heroine begins as a “standard” woman: wearing the fashions of the day, having a moderately stupid yet testosterone-laden significant other, and engaging in girl-chat with her friends. This inevitably leads to the first murder of an actual character in a movie (one murder almost inevitably occurs in the “teaser” segment of the film, although this one is almost never significant to anything other than box office receipts, and thus one could argue that the victims in that may be human, but are not characters in the movie.), which has a tendency to be the complete feminine sex-role stereotype. Examples of this paradigm occur in many films in many ages, from Halloween to Urban Legends (ironically, Urban Legends contains another form of feminism in the form of the killer’s identity). The one highly popularized counter example occurs in Scream, where the first murder is Casey Becker. Yet Casey Becker begins as an enforcement of the new style of sex-role stereotype… the flirtatious yet ultimately helpless and dependent “modern woman.”
The murder of this mirror character often prompts an extreme protectiveness and justified paranoia in the form of
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