Monday, November 3, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Here's this week's update, with a minor announcement.

When it comes to scary movies, I scare quite easily. But, I don't look at this as a weakness. Being hard to scare at a scary movie is like being a picky eater at a restaurant, or having a high tolerance for alcohol when trying to relax with a beer.
Is this the face of a killer?

If something is trying to scare me for the purposes of my enjoyment, and I know that going in, I am happy to oblige.

Fear is a wonderful sort of thing, because it is rational, moral, and emotional all at once.

It's rational because it is the result of a judgment, which means some rational – though perhaps not accurate – process has evaluated the situation. It's moral because that judgment is specifically the judgment (again, perhaps not accurate) that something harmful will happen, and judgment of something as harmful implies the judgment of something else as good, which is in danger of being harmed. And it's emotional because it mobilizes our bodies to react to what's coming. It's exciting and enlivening, because our minds have told our bodies to WAKE UP AND GET READY, IT'S COMING! Whatever it is.

The opportunity that scary movies provide, then, is to frighten us about frightening things without actually harming anybody to do it, which is not only good practice for frightening situations in reality, it's also just the kind of thing that art is for: the contemplation of ideas.

A similar argument can be made on behalf of the feeling of revulsion.

Hey! Revulsion and fright? Are we talking about A Nightmare on Elm Street?

There are two ways to take this film, and I think we can take it both ways at the same time. The first way is as a more or less loosely strung together series of ideas and events intended to scare you and gross you out. Keep in mind that I am easily and willingly scared, but I say it's effective on this score.

Let's look at a couple of the effective scary ideas in the film and make a couple comments, then we'll move on to the other way to take the movie.

Going to Sleep

This is clearly a big one in the movie. Sleeping is an inevitable, regular state of extreme vulnerability. Every night we lay prostrate, close our eyes in the dark, and become unaware of our own bodies and our surroundings for something like 8 hours. Where does our consciousness go when we sleep? What are dreams, and what meaning do they have?

What I'm saying is that sleep is a little scary by itself (just ask any one of many toddlers). Eric Fromm in his book The Art of Loving says that falling asleep requires “rational faith,” which is something like courage and confidence based on evidence in the face of the unknown. You've woken up before, but it still requires some courage to try it again.

A demonic burn victim with knives on his gloves waiting to taunt and kill you beyond the wall of sleep1 is certainly one way of calling this to mind, and then making it worse. Although, considering how used to going to sleep we jaded adults become, it might be a good idea to intensify (and thereby refresh) that sense of foreboding every once and a while (but not too often, you've got to sleep. You've got stuff to do in the morning).

The Weirdness of Death

Dead people speaking, or getting up and walking around, or doing strange things is (as you know) very common in horror movies, even trite some might say. But, it really is worth considering.

People are very clearly meant to be alive. If I say, “I saw a guy,” you are going to imagine a living human being, because that is what a guy is. You are not going to imagine a corpse, or a tombstone. I'd definitely have to specify if I saw only his body, or evidence of his body.

This means that death quite naturally seems weird. I have been to wakes where I thought I could see the deceased person breathing, or imagined them opening their eyes. This makes sense because those are things that people do, and that this person is not doing those things is a remarkable state of affairs.

This oddness is well represented in movies by dead people saying cryptic things and acting strangely. But being dead itself is a strange way to behave.

You Can't Be Sure It's Safe

The end of A Nightmare on Elm Street is another classic element of horror films. The sudden discovery that the monster has not been defeated, and that everyone is still in danger, tries to ensure that even after the movie is over the audience is uncomfortable and scared. It's the same thing that makes the dark scary; you don't know what's out there.

Being Cut with Knives

And, finally, it is worth giving a mention to the basic, primal fear of getting cut with sharp things. The health and integrity of my physical person is worth maintaining. I certainly wouldn't want to stop fearing such a thing entirely, I might grab something by the wrong end in the kitchen.


So, those are just a handful of things from this movie which, taken by themselves, are scary. But, does this movie have some kind of unifying core? Something that it “says” so to speak, rather than simply a plot that ties these different frightening things together?

Here's my suggestion: The movie is called A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not “Nightmares” but “A Nightmare.” This whole movie is a single nightmare. It's a bad dream that all the characters are trapped in, and that bad dream is that you must hate and fear other people because you cannot trust them.

Where am I getting this theory exactly?

Well, I think it depends on a few things, including: the last scene of the movie; the story Nancy's mother tells about who Freddie is; and the stupidest line I've ever heard in a film.

The Last Scene

The very last scene of the movie, when the Krueger-mobile drives off and the mother gets nabbed, is clearly intended to have the effect on the audience that I mentioned above: it's supposed to make you anxious even after the movie is done, because the monster is still out there, just like in a campfire story. But, the other thing it did for me (I'm not saying I wasn't afraid to walk out to my car in the middle of the night to go home) was to cause me to re-evaluate the entire movie.

Simply put, it was Inception-like in it's undermining of my confidence about what was a dream and what was reality throughout the film. When, before that final scene, was the last time we saw Nancy go to sleep? Did we ever see her wake up again? Was anyone ever awake? Freddie only has power over someone when they are asleep. Yet, by the end of the movie, Nancy has pulled Freddie into the “real world” to fight him. Then, suddenly, we're back in what seems unmistakably to be a dream. It's a far more coherent explanation of what we see in the movie that Nancy never brought Krueger's hat or Krueger himself into the real world, she just never left the dream.

Nancy's Mother's Story about Freddie

This movie leaps right into the action and the stalking by dream-walking demons and the killing. The only time we get some idea of what exactly is going on is when Nancy's mom tries to convince Nancy that what is pretty clearly happening to her cannot be happening.

Her story goes like this: Fred Krueger was a “filthy child-murderer” (her term) that killed 20 kids in the neighborhood. He was arrested, but “someone forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place,” and so he went free. Some of the parents tracked him down, found him in a warehouse he used to perform his murders in, and then they torched the building, burning Mr. Krueger alive inside.

This is the only explanation we get concerning who Freddie is. The thing is, Nancy's mom is clearly very disturbed by what her daughter is telling her, and she has become a chronic drunk in an attempt to numb herself.

How reliable a source of information is she? Numb herself to what?

Is it simply the notion that the filthy child-murderer has come back from the grave to seek revenge? Or, could it be that she doubts they did the right thing when they killed Krueger? Is it reasonable to believe her assessment that simply “Someone forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place,” is the reason that Krueger was acquitted for the murder of 20 children? It is possible for evidence to be suppressed because someone failed to get a search warrant. But, all in all, the story seems rather flimsy.

Okay, but this isn't a conspiracy theory. It's a discussion of literature, so we're going to move on to the more artistic elements that make my case, like:

The Stupidest Line I've Ever Heard in a Film

I admit this might be a little hyperbolic, but it's certainly the stupidest line I can remember.

Tina was the first girl to get killed, and Tina's boyfriend Rod was there as an invisible attacker (Krueger, of course) killed her. He flees the scene of the murder and is naturally treated as a suspect. Eventually they find him and lock him in a cell. Then, Krueger comes and kills him, making it look like suicide. So, what we have here from the law's perspective is a suspect in a murder case who seems to have killed himself. The investigation was on going. They don't appear to have questioned him. He was in a holding cell for the night.

But, at his funeral, the Priest (or pastor, Roman collars aren't as useful for identification as you might think) says something like, “This young man is proof of the teaching 'he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.'” Then, immediately afterward, he says something like, “But, we must remember that our Lord told us not to judge.” That is just about the stupidest thing. This guy just very obviously judged this kid rashly. It doesn't even have to do with whether the kid knew what he was doing or repented afterward. He was a suspect in a murder case who had not gone to trial, and he wasn't guilty of the crime. Saying he lived by the sword, and so he died by the sword, is straight-up judging in the clearest, most prejudiced, most disqualifying sense. Either this line is just stupid, or the stupidity is a big blinking sign telling us to think about what else in the movie might be similar.

When I first heard the line, I just thought it was dumb. But when I was thinking about it later it occurred to me that the only other instance of something like this is Nancy's mom and the other parents. And they didn't make up their minds before the trial, they refused to accept the judgment of the court and killed someone who had been acquitted.

What really ties this theory of the movie together, though, is an image. And that image is of Nancy locked in her house with Freddie, unable to get out because her mother has locked the door and put bars on all the windows in an attempt to keep anything from getting in. Nancy's mom built the cage by barring the windows, made the monster by killing Krueger, and locked her daughter in with it, all the while attempting to protect Nancy from someone out there.

The question this theory of the movie asks you to consider is whether Nancy's mom and the other parents made the monster by unleashing the vengeful spirit of a killer of children, or by murdering someone the law said was not guilty out of fear, thereby imprisoning their children in the cage of the suburbs, inside a dream of fear, with a monster of fear in the form of the person their fear had wrongfully killed. Either way, it's a cool movie.

But the second one might be scarier.

1Yes, that was a Lovecraft reference.

© 2014 John Hiner III

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