As with The Golden Child (1986), I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street on the WPVI-TV Philadelphia Million Dollar Movie while I was in the sixth grade. It was broadcast during the wee hours of Saturday, January 14, 1995, but I was attending a sleepover at a friend’s house that evening, and his parents had a strict “No Scary Movies” rule. The USA Network was also showing a Friday the 13th movie marathon that same night, and I really wanted to watch it (having never seen any of those films at the time); but even my parents were against the idea. My mom was cool with letting me see things like Halloween (1978), which she was familiar with and considered tasteful; but she worried about the Jason flicks because she’d never seen them herself (and truth be told, they’re about as tasteless as she thought they would be). So I was effectively forbidden from watching any of them (or at least until later in May that same year); but Mom was a big fan of Nightmare, so she recorded it for me while I was at the sleepover and we watched it together the following night.
One example of the Million Dollar Movie title card that was used on WPVI-TV Philadelphia in the 1990s
(One of the greatest stories my parents have ever told me is when they took me with them to see Nightmare when it premiered in theaters back in November 1984. I was barely 2 years old at the time, so I have no memory of this event myself; but I’m told that my mother was really enjoying the film, and that I was behaving and being remarkably quiet for a toddler at a loud horror movie. The infamous bedroom scene with Tina and Rod scared the pants right off my dad, though, and he pinched me to make me cry so he’d have an excuse to walk out of the theater! No wonder my dad and I could never see eye-to-eye on horror movies while I was growing up!)
Anyway, I’m sure most of you are already familiar with the plot to this film, so I’ll give a very short synopsis of it here. Some teenagers start having nightmares in which they’re menaced by this disfigured creep who has knives for fingers. Whenever this asshat kills someone in their dreams, they die in real life at the same time. One of the teenagers, Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp in one of the greatest female roles ever written for a horror flick), discovers that when they were little children, their community was terrorized by a serial killer who preyed on little kids. The man was arrested and put on trial, but he got off on a technicality and was released. Then, fearing for their children’s safety, the parents of the community took the law into their own hands and burned the killer alive. But this has only made things worse, for it is the killer’s ghost who now haunts the kids in their dreams, seeking revenge against the parents by finishing what he started. Now it’s up to Nancy to find a way of execrating this evil spirit.
On the one hand, A Nightmare on Elm Street has more than its fair share of devoted fans; on the other, it receives far more derision from mainstream critics and the general public than it really deserves. I blame this on most of the sequels, which became increasingly goofy with each new installment. By the end of the 1980s, Freddy Krueger was practically a live action cartoon character, and this is the version of him that most people remember today. Sequels like The Dream Warriors (1987) and The Dream Child (1988) are more like self-parodies than straight horror films; they don’t even bother to take themselves that seriously. But if you actually watch the original Nightmare from 1984, I promise you: even if the movie doesn’t scare you (as it scared me in 1995), it will make you quite uncomfortable at the very least. There’s absolutely nothing “funny” about this film at all, and the Freddy Krueger character is really just the tip of the iceberg.
The original 1984 poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street
When the film begins, the daylight reality in which Nancy and her friends all live seems safe enough; but as Freddy Krueger becomes more prominent in their dreams, so does the ugly truth about their everyday world begin to unfold. These things are never stated to the audience outright, but viewers will notice that Nancy’s parents are divorced (and that the proceedings of this arrangement were anything but amicable). Nancy’s mother is an alcoholic, and her father – the town sheriff – only shows up when there’s a tragedy. At the same time, Tina’s mother also seems to be divorced and would much rather spend time with her boyfriend in Las Vegas than stay with her daughter (even when she knows the poor kid has been having terrible nightmares). Rod’s parents seem to be completely absent from his life, leading him to take on a life of petty crime. And then there’s Glenn (played by a baby-faced Johnny Depp), whose parents demonize Nancy for no good reason aside from the fact that two of her friends are dead.
It’s ironic that these parents once resorted to mob justice to protect their community, for they don’t seem to care very much about anyone aside from themselves now. None of them are involved in their children’s lives anymore, and none of them seem to care that much when each other’s kids die. When Tina gets butchered, Rod is immediately accused of the crime, and none of the adults ever question this. We never see Tina’s mother afterwards, so we’re left to wonder if she even grieves for her daughter at all. When Rod gets strangled by Freddy in his jail cell, it’s clear to all the adults that it was suicide and no one shows any kind of sympathy for him. Clearly, Tina and Rod’s deaths mean nothing to Glenn’s parents, who seem to think they can avoid having anything like that happen to Glenn by keeping him away from Nancy. Meanwhile, Nancy knows exactly what’s happening, but no one will believe or even listen to her, even when the evidence is staring them in the face. For Duat’s sake, she can’t even get any help from her father, the sheriff!
It is this complete absence of parental support that makes the film truly terrifying, in my opinion. Never mind the idea that Nancy and her friends are being targeted by a supernatural force; Freddy Krueger is simply the 1980s American version of an ancient Akkadian Alû demon (i.e., a spirit that terrifies people while they sleep), and the ancient Akkadians knew well enough how to deal with such things. If an Akkadian child reported having certain experiences while he or she was asleep, his or her parents didn’t take any chances; they simply execrated the Alû with their magic and the problem usually went away. So the idea of Freddy Krueger in and of himself is not that impressive; entities like him are just little things in this world, and it doesn’t take that much to get rid of them. It would help if the Elm Street families were willing to entertain the possibility of such events in the first place; but even more importantly, the fact that the children can neither trust nor depend on their parents is a serious breach of Ma’at. That is what enables qliphothic forces like Freddy to perpetuate themselves in the first place, and that is what disturbs me most in this film.
Robert Englund as “Freddy Krueger”
Mind you, I’m not claiming that every childhood boogeyman is actually real; nor do I contend that magical thinking is always the best answer to one’s problems. But if I had a kid and she told me that some freak was coming after her in her dreams, I wouldn’t laugh at her or treat her like she’s crazy. I’d say, “Well, it could be one of two things going on here, hon. It could be that there really is some freak coming after you in your dreams; or, it could be that it’s just a dream and nothing more. Either way…I say we whack the fucker, just in case.” And then I’d have her draw a picture of the creep that’s scaring her, and we’d hurl all kinds of abusive language at him in Seth’s good name. We’d stick pins in his ass and chop him up into little pieces; then we’d throw him in the fireplace and watch the little bastard burn. Call me superstitious if you like, but like the Akkadians, I don’t believe in taking any chances with this kind of stuff. No kid should ever have to face a monster alone like Nancy does in Nightmare on Elm Street.
(If it seems crazy that I’m talking about the things that happen in Nightmare like they’re real, I’d like to point out that the film is partially inspired by true events. During the 1970s, director Wes Craven came across an article in the L.A. Times about a group of Khmer refugees who were living in the United States, and whose children were having nightmares that disturbed them so badly, they refused to sleep. Some of them later died in their sleep, and it was as if they had known they would die if they didn’t stay awake. This story disturbed Craven to his core, and it later became his main inspiration for writing Nightmare. Craven has also said that he took inspiration for the film from certain Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and anyone who’s ever listened to the man talk will know that he actually believed in some kind of spirit world. One of these days, I’ll discuss this further when I finally get around to reviewing his 1988 masterpiece, The Serpent and the Rainbow.)
The Nancy Thompson character is easily the best thing about this film; in fact, she’s the very best “Final Girl” since Laurie Strode in Halloween and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979). Unlike Laurie, she becomes aware of her nemesis early in the film and she actively hunts him down; and unlike Ripley, she has no weapons aside from her own determination and resourcefulness. Nancy eventually discovers that if she holds on to something in her dreams while she’s waking up, she can bring it over to the real world. She decides to conduct this extremely dangerous experiment with Krueger, and when it proves successful, the tables are immediately turned. Freddy finds himself at Nancy’s mercy, suffering every form of abuse the teenager can throw at him; he even becomes afraid of her at one point. And considering how slimy a character Freddy really is (i.e., Nightmare drops a few hints here and there that he didn’t just kill his underage victims when he was mortal, if you know what I mean…), it feels really good to see him get his comeuppance this way.
This is a recurring theme in many of Wes Craven’s films (including 1972’s The Last House on the Left, 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs and 1996’s Scream). Each of these films has a transition point where the surviving victims gain some kind of advantage over the villains (who, in turn, become blubbering, pathetic fools). This sort of transition was actually quite jarring to me when I first saw these movies; I expected the villains to remain powerful and menacing to the very end, just like Michael Myers does in Halloween. I wasn’t used to seeing them humiliated in such ways; but as an adult, I can see what Wes Craven was trying to do here. He was trying to tell us that while evil may often seem very powerful and formidable, it only has as much power as we allow it to have; and when we take that power back, evil is revealed for the frail and empty little thing that it really is. In the original script for Nightmare on Elm Street, that is exactly what happens; Nancy defeats Freddy Krueger by taking back all the energy she’s put into him with her fear, and his spirit is dissolved back into the Void forever.
Heather Langenkamp shows us that a true Daughter of Seth doesn’t take any shit from anyone, including unstoppable supernatural serial killers.
My only criticism of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the fact that its ending was changed (and for purely commercial reasons). Nancy defeats Krueger, and all seems well; but then she realizes she’s actually having another nightmare, and the rotten bastard gets her after all. This ending always leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. They go through the entire movie developing this really likable character who’s noble and strong and who succeeds in defeating (and even humiliating) the villain; then they pull the rug out from under her at the last minute just to give the audience one last jolt. Granted, this scare was quite effective when I first saw it as a kid; but now that I’ve seen and digested the rest of Wes Craven’s work, I can see how “un-Cravenian” it really is. As it turns out, Craven had a major dispute with Nightmare’s producer, Robert Shaye, who wanted a scary ending to set the stage for a sequel. Craven eventually gave in to Shaye’s demands just so they could finish making the film. There have been plenty of great horror movies that have happy endings and that still spawned numerous sequels (e.g., the various Universal Monster films), so I think Shaye was misguided in thinking that a scary ending was truly necessary. Yet Nightmare’s shoddy, tacked-on ending still isn’t enough to spoil the rest of the film; everything else about it holds up remarkably well.
(As a matter of fact, 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 makes much more sense if we assume that Freddy’s power has been seriously depleted by Nancy, preventing him from using his normal dream-stalking tactics and forcing him to try and possess the next troubled teenager who moves into Nancy’s house. But I digress; I’ll review Freddy’s Revenge another day.)
As with many other horror films, Nightmare makes me think about the nightly execration of
Apophis by Seth in the Underworld; but it does this in a way that few other films do. In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, all living things are manifestations of the Creator, Ra, who descends into Duat each night to be reborn at dawn. This cosmic mystery is not only reflected in the rising and setting of our Sun, but in our own sleeping and waking as well. Sleep is kind of a scary thing when you stop to think about it, for if we hold to the Cartesian definition of existence (i.e., “I think, therefore I am”), we technically cease to “exist” for a while when we aren’t awake. Sure, our bodies are still there and our brains continue to function; but we don’t really “think” in the normal sense of the term, since we aren’t conscious. So in a way, we all become like Schrödinger’s cat when we’re asleep; we’re neither alive nor dead, and we only collapse back into a solid state of reality when we regain our capacity for conscious self-reflection (just as reality was first established when Ra reflected upon Hir own existence during the Zep Tepi or dawn of time).
Since we’re all manifestations of Ra, the threat
Apophis poses is not only cosmic but personal as well. Nancy Thompson’s struggle with Freddy Krueger is a perfect representation of this principle, especially since it’s built upon fears that many cultures traditionally associate with sleep. Apophis and Krueger are both astral monsters that try to kill living things while they regenerate (whether this means a sleeping Creator or a sleeping human). Both attempt to kill the future (whether by preventing the dawn or by murdering kids). Both thrive when the good do nothing (whether this is due to a paralyzing gaze or a conspiracy of silence). And both are easily overpowered when you learn how to see through their tricks (whether this is achieved by a badass chaos God or a plucky suburban teenager). In this way, I consider Nancy Thompson to be a true daughter of Seth.
The cosmic struggle between Ma’at and Isfet happens everywhere and at every level of existence – even on Elm Street.
If you’ve never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street before, I highly recommend that you give it a try; it’s a really good movie. (Just be ready for that dreadful ending.) I would also recommend that you avoid most of the sequels, as well as the pointless 2010 remake. The only exceptions to this, in my opinion at least, are A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), which are both quite fascinating in their own ways (but more on them later).