A New Masterpiece in Fantasy Terror: Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street

By Christian Gay

Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a masterful and horrific exploration of the surreal world of dreams, which also introduced the world to an iconic slasher villain: Freddy Krueger. Krueger and the film’s premise terrified me as a child growing up in the 80s, long before I ever sat through a screening. Now, having seen the film many times, it’s evident that its wealth of bloodcurdling imagery and symbolism could keep a psychoanalyst or film critic busy for days. In this most recent viewing, I found myself preoccupied with subjectivity in the film— which scenes are meant to occur in the dream world and which are real? Whose dreams are whose? Are we to believe the film’s ingénue?, Nancy, in her final confrontation with Freddy, when she realizes that “this was all a dream”—presumably her dream?

This hypothesis presents the opportunity for an interesting and somewhat queer interpretation of the film: as a symbolic battle between Nancy and her latent lesbian desires. The film opens with a sequence that features teenaged Tina roaming wet, steamy hallways clothed only in a sheer nightgown. The makeup, costuming, and camerawork all work to portray Tina here at the outset in an attractive light. She is terrorized by a largely unseen presence, before she wakes up to discover the aforementioned nightie has been torn to shreds. If we are to believe Nancy’s assertion late in the film that the entire narrative is her dream, then what if this first terrifying, but also somewhat erotic, dream sequence is Nancy’s and not Tina’s?

Next we see Tina discussing her dream with , Nancy Thompson, and their schoolmates Rod and Gabe (Johnny Depp, in his first lead film role). When her mother leaves with her boyfriend for Las Vegas, Tina invites Nancy over to her house for “a sleepover date.” Gabe makes up an alibi for his parents and tags along, but his presence with the girls seems non-threatening and platonic. His romantic gestures and benign advances on Nancy are rebuffed. “We’re not here for us,” Nancy reminds Gabe, implying that they are only sleeping over to accompany and safeguard Tina. Gabe and Tina’s chaste relationship is in stark contrast to Tina and Rod’s. When Rod surprises the three of them by showing up, Tina lies to say her parents are home, ostensibly to keep Rod from imposing. Rod presses Tina to let him in the house, and immediately drags her off to her mother’s bed. We then see Gabe lying alone on the couch downstairs at 2am, kept awake by the loud sounds of Tina and Rod having sex. Frustrated by being sexually ignored by Nancy, Gabe announces, “morality sucks.”

Meanwhile, after they have sex upstairs, Rod mentions to Tina that he’s had nightmares, too—but the film never suggests that we enter the world of Rod or Gabe’s dreams. Tina and Rod go to sleep, and we cut to Nancy, alone in bed, restless. Her crucifix pops off the wall above her head, and she grips it tight. Clearly uninterested in Gabe sexually, could Nancy be angry at and jealous of Rod, who has interrupted her sleepover date with Tina? Could she feel betrayed by Tina, who asked for her protection from the “madman” Rod, then slept with him? Could she be clinging to her crucifix to suppress any prurient, un-Christian desires ? Nancy’s imagination is certainly hard at work. While she lies in bed, we see a figure struggling to emerge from the wallpaper above her head. Could this hidden figure struggling to emerge perhaps represent Nancy’s id? What if we view Freddy Krueger as Nancy’s sinister alter-ego, representing her subconscious desires, including a sexual attraction to her friend Tina? Is his violent menace the threat of her repressed homosexuality, her subconscious wish to punish herself and others when these desires surface or are rebuked?

Freddy attacks Tina immediately after her sexual encounter with Rod, which could be seen as her romantic betrayal of Nancy. Following shots of both Tina and Nancy in bed (making it unclear whose dream we are entering), Tina is woken by tiny pebbles hitting her window—something a secret suitor might employ to get her attention. She explores the backyard wearing only a men’s shirt.Tina in the dream world, is once again portrayed in a sexualized and enticing manner. This could easily be someone’s fantasy of Tina, rather than Tina’s own subjective view of herself. She walks into the alley behind her house, where Freddy Krueger’s arms surreally stretch out, as if to embrace her. Fred menaces Tina, chasing her to the back door of the house where it is Nancy, and not Rod, to whom Tina screams for help. But Nancy does not appear or respond—she remains absent from this dream world. Is she ignoring and punishing Tina for her betrayal?

In the other surreal dream sequences, Nancy centrally and clearly conveys her dream world. Tina is featured prominently in subsequent dreams as well, demonstrating that she is still on Nancy’s mind. For example, Tina’s corpse leads Nancy from study hall down into the bowels of her school boiler room, where Nancy wakes herself from the dream by scalding her arm. This sense of agency that Nancy exhibits in the dream world, which none of the other characters demonstrate, also speaks to the film’s privileging of Nancy’s subjectivity. In one of the film’s other memorable scenes, Nancy is dozing in the bathtub when Freddy’s threatening, gloved hand emerges from the soapy water between Nancy’s legs. This surreal and sexualized threat conveys that Nancy, in her dream world, senses danger between her legs: her emerging sexuality is hazardous to her.

As its theatrical trailer promises, the late Wes Craven’s film A Nightmare on Elm Street is “a new masterpiece in fantasy terror.” Dreams and fantasies are terrifying and fascinating in their simulation of reality that, at the same time, can reveal subconscious and latent feelings and desires. Part of the fun of the film is Nancy’s feminist ability to gradually understand and manipulate the dream world, eventually exerting her will over it and controlling the threats it presents. Despite her temporary subversions, the film’s final sequence blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, suggesting the inevitable nature of the subconscious to out itself.

 

 

 

Christian Gay holds a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Miami, and has taught courses on the American studio system, queer cinema, and Alfred Hitchcock. Some of his favorite filmmakers are Stanley Kubrick, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Zhang Yimou and Mike Leigh.

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