“Daddy, help me, please!”: The obvious but necessary interpretation of A Nightmare on Elm Street

Somethings after something in the children

Something's after something in the children

Note: All quotes from A Nightmare on Elm Street or its DVD commentary refer to New Line Entertainment’s 2007 2-disc release of the film.

Of every social and sexual terror that has ever gotten under the skin of Western civilization, the ones that disturb most deeply are indisputably those that involve children. There is something about children that society deems untouchable, in a range of ways. We firmly believe that they live in another world, an alien but safe world, and that all matters adult are forbidden there. When these lines are blurred, base fears are released inside of us. Violence and sexuality become fundamentally worse when children are involved, fundamentally reprehensible.

Although these are protective tendencies, there’s no denying that this separation has resulted in a mild fear of children as well. They are the final and most extreme of all Robin Wood’s examples of The Other, a completely alien creature whose psyche we are vaguely amazed that we ever shared. Because of this, Horror films had begun to integrate children into their canon of Others as early, I suppose, as Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968 ), although The Omen (Donner, 1976) and Halloween (Carpenter, 1978 ) are better examples. It wasn’t until a certain Wes Craven made his mark on the cycle in the mid eighties that the concept of children in Horror was quite masterfully inversed. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984) the children are not the monster; they are the victims, and the monster is ours.

The film follows through in a very visceral way on the childish nature of Horror’s appeal, the regression to child-like states that these films evoke in us. The horrors of Elm Street are not just able to turn us into children, they are children’s horrors, and remind us with frightening power just how incapacitating these can be. Note for instance that the presence of parents in the film, and the narrative function of parents, does not (like many horror films following it) just get used as establishment for the teenage hero’s disconnection and alienation. It is held onto, made stronger throughout the film. This unbreakable bond between parent and child is never unacknowledged by Craven, but this is only to an effect that is more evil still. To our inner child, the great, world-shaking phobia of A Nightmare on Elm Street is that our parents are trying to kill us, both  through their actions (killing Freddy to begin with) and inactions (standing idly by as the horros ensue, insisting that Nancy get some sleep). This elemental terror at the heart of the film is as close as the child psyche can conceive of to the real, true and unimaginable trauma of discovering that there is no God.

Godlessness is actually a pretty key factor in what makes A Nightmare on Elm Street such an effective Horror film. Even aside from its return to the Supernatural, a film device that David Del Valle notes had come to be considered a touch old-fashioned by 1984 (Del Valle, DVD commentary), the film separates itself from the safety of normal film logic by design of its premise: the monster is a figure of dreams. He operates in an ungoverned world, and so there are no rules from which safety can be derived. All the realms that God should preside over – the finality of Freddy’s death; the physics of a space within nightmares; the protection and love of parents – are left unattended, and open to corruption. Everything that Nancy, Tina, Glen and Rod depend upon as children simply caves in, leaving them to flounder helplessly in the ocean of life until they drown. This is rather beautifully symbolized in one of Nancy’s nightmares, where she attempts to escape up the stairs of her house, only to find the staircase turns to sludge under her feet, bogging her down. The film is, for all its gory silliness, a carefully constructed tale of youths who can’t even trust the ground on which they stand to stay solid.

In this regard, Elm Street manages, I believe, to tread quite well the line between social satire and social horror. There is an undeniable element of fun being had: the exaggerated metaphor of life-and-death circumstances being dismissed by adults as kid-stuff (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer) must be acknowledged. At the same time, that metaphor extends itself to a more serious agenda – the implication that kids really do need help that they’re not getting, that as adults we are dismally failing them. It can be argued with next to no protest that the real nightmare of Elm Street is that American society no longer values or protects its children.

There is, I believe, a distinct turning point in the film away from the scary yet satirically twee twinge of Parents Disbelieving Their Kids. Through most the film it is upsetting to watch these confrontations simply because we know that Nancy, Rod and Glen are telling the truth, we’ve seen proof. But the adults of the film haven’t, and so we can forgive them their mistakes and the satire can still live. By the time of Glen (poor Johnny Depp)’s grisly death, however, the  situation (continual failure of the parent) has escalated to a point where we can no longer simply laugh at it. Nancy is, in this scene, fighting desperately to save Glen’s life and is literally being held hostage by her mother. Nancy knows that Glen is in very real and mortal danger, and the parents of the film still don’t realize she’s telling the truth yet, but what they surely can’t have missed is that this young girl is evidently suffering. Nancy is reduced to simply screeching, in tears, at the top of her lungs from within her own locked house for Glen to wake up, vainly hoping he will hear her, that she can save him. The mother remains reclined on the sofa, sipping her spirits.

This is intercut with Glen being swallowed, TV, stereo and all, by his bed. Once he has vanished into the dark, claustrophobic abyss opened up in his bed, his safe refuge, he comes tumbling back out from the hole, toward the ceiling, in liquid form. A gore-red Johnny Depp smoothie is regurgitated into his bedroom. We are confronted by this image after repetitive establishment of the fact that Nancy knew he was in danger, struggled with all her might to save him, and was stopped by their parents at every turn. It is a perfect portrait of horrific powerlessness that every child can relate to instinctively, and that every adult finds themselves remembering all too well.

This, over-arched by the fact that the film is itself “so much like a nightmare” (Del Valle, DVD commentary) in construction, production and execution, lends it an emotional integrity that was lost entirely in the largely redundant sequels (New Nightmare, while not redundant, is still a radically different film and horror experience). The first instalment blends masterfully the real and mundane tribulations of being too young to be a part of the world with the fantastic terrors you imagine may be hiding in this strange exile with you.

But these are all horrors that focus on things we already know about kids. These are horrors of helplessness, or children’s horrors. There are adult horrors at work with the children here too: horrors of disturbing worldliness, or premature maturity – horrors that do, despite Craven’s inversion of their function in such films, remind us strongly of the Otherness of children. The greatest of these must be the bathtub scene, which begins most sinisterly with Nancy falling asleep in the bath, and Freddy’s razor-fingered glove surfacing from the cloudy water between her open legs. This is an image of such sheer perversity that it sends one’s analytical mind into seizures. Firstly, it is a clear rape sublimation, and a pedophilic rape at that. Secondly, the girl is unconscious, so further unease is laid by the social implications of date-rape. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this ‘rape’ is also oddly inverted, because Freddy’s razor fingers are not going in but coming out. The girl is not being penetrated, but extended from. It’s as though this demented and monstrous act of sexuality is coming directly from her, the child. It’s such a monumental and, in the context of the film, hermetically sealed violation of the innocence we’ve seen that its hard to integrate into our experience and perspective right away.

Furthermore, we simply can’t ignore Nancy’s being a child of divorce. While Craven suggests that it was, to his mind, the lynching of Fred Krueger that caused this marital breakdown (Craven, DVD commentary), this notion does not make itself clear in the film, and, more importantly, it isn’t needed for the divorce to nonetheless be significant. Nancy’s survivalism can be attributed to her pre-existing exposure to the falsity of adolescent innocence: she has already seen her family torn apart, witnessed the American icon disillusioned. Her parents are not a united force for her good, but a warring faction who are twice as clueless for it. The purity of these kids is already being threatened before Freddy ever makes an appearance, by the collapse of their familial sanction.

It is through this continued and thorough establishment of the Child’s world that the film makes its most powerful mark. It wasn’t long at all before a plague of teen-slasher films erupted into American cinema (the Friday the 13th sequels, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer) without for a second recognizing the importance of their teen characters, the reality their substance has to a child, the kind of innately terrifying notion of growing up and being expected to handle these horrors on your own. A handful of films have successfully plumbed the depths of Children for the purposes of the genre since then (The Sixth Sense and El Orfanato spring to mind), but mostly an obligational stance on youth has been taken. They are the audience for Horror, so they should be the characters too, and if a bit of youthful nudity happens, well, that can’t hurt either.

What A Nightmare on Elm Street understands so well, and what so many other films do not, is that horror belongs to children. Adults only think they understand it: it is not until we’re forced back into these childlike states that we remember the terrible conviction of youth and innocence, that the bogeyman is going to get us. American society may have produced enough very real horrors for its incoming generation – divorce, alienation, alcoholism, pedophilia – but kids live in their own world, one we know is alien while assuming it’s safe, and we don’t understand what affects them, how, or why. For us as children, the nightmare is that our parents damned us. For us as adults, the nightmare is that yes, we damned our children.

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~ by baileysmith on October 16, 2008.

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