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Papers >> Arts >> A Nightmare on Elm Street



“The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was
inspired by an extraordinary series of
unnoticed stories in the Los Angeles Times. A
young immigrant male, early 20’s, usually
from Southeast Asia, a son, would have a
severe nightmare where he would wake up
screaming. The next day, he would tell his
family it was the worst nightmare he’d ever
had, and he had been terribly shaken by it.
The next night when he went to sleep—he
died. Six months later I looked in the paper
and there was a very similar story. I clipped it
out and put it with the other one. Then the third
appeared about a year and a half from the first
one, this time in Northern California. And the
elements were the basis for the film. The rest
is horror history.”—Wes Craven, Director of A
Nightmare on Elm Street.

At a time when the stalker movie had run its
course to all ends and the image of mute,
staggering, vicious killers had been etched
into society’s consciousness to the point of
exhaustion, a new kid entered the block. The
year was 1984 and it was time for a new villain
to enter into the horror genre. It was a villain
that was agile, intelligent, almost invincible,
yet viscous, and by all means deadly. A
Nightmare on Elm Street introduced the
distinctive presence of Fred Krueger to the
horror industry and to the audience. Freddy
Krueger took the center stage and with him a
new era of horror films began. This horribly
scarred man who wore a ragged slouch hat,
dirty red-and-green striped sweater, and a
glove outfitted with knives at the fingers
reinvented the stalker genre like no other film
had. Fred Krueger breathed new life into the
dying horror genre of the early 1980’s. This
paper will enter the realm of the ideas in the
movie, such as the psychological horror it held
for the viewer, as well as the use of reality
within the film. Not knowing what was real and
what was a dream made for A Nightmare on
Elm Street to be a successful horror movie.

Horror films are designed to frighten the
audience and engage them in their worst
fears, while captivating and entertaining at the
same time. Horror films often center on the
darker side of life, on what is forbidden and
strange. These films play with society’s fears,
its nightmare’s and vulnerability, the terror of
the unknown, the fear of death, the loss of
identity, and the fear of sexuality. Horror films
are generally set in spooky old mansions, fog-
ridden areas, or dark locales with unknown
human, supernatural or grotesque creatures
lurking about. These creatures can range from
vampires, madmen, devils, unfriendly ghosts,
monsters, mad scientists, demons, zombies,
evil spirits, satanic villains, the possessed,
werewolves and freaks to the unseen and
even the mere presence of evil.

Within the genre of horror films falls the sub-
genre of teen slasher/stalker films. These
teen slasher/stalker films take the horror
genre film characteristics into account,
however they add more to the formula. More
violence, sadism, brutality, and graphic blood
and gore are used to increase the terror factor.
Sexuality and gratuitous nudity are also key
characteristic of many of these films, including
this one. Imitations and numerous sequels
are also a common characteristic of teen
slasher/stalker films as well, as Craven came
back with six sequels.

A Nightmare on Elm Street and all the
following six sequels fall into its own sub-
genre of the teen slasher/stalker ideas and it
is known as the Nightmare on Elm Street
Series. This series of films adds a new
dimension to the typical teen slasher/stalker
film, depth of character and story. The
characters are not there only to be killed, but
rather they have distinct personalities. They
are independent and intelligent, particularly
the female lead characters. The killer, Fred
Krueger, not only murders his victims violently,
but he displays a great amount of wit,
sarcasm and intelligence while doing it.

As the Nightmare on Elm Street movies
progress, the audience gradually gains
knowledge of each of the characters individual
personalities. The storyline takes on a greater
depth as well. The story goes beyond the
simple gore and focuses more on the
psychological terror that lies within and scares
society the most. The line between nightmare
and reality becomes blurred and the terror is
allowed to build up, which results in a
tremendous amount of suspense for the
viewer.

Horror films developed over a century ago
have come from a number of different
sources: folktales, witchcraft, fables, myths,
and ghost stories. The first horror movie was
made by Georges Melies, titled The Devil’s
Castle (1896). Another of the early influential
films was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).
The shadowy, dream-nightmarish quality of
this film was brought to Hollywood in the
1920’s and continued on into the horror films
of the 1930’s. Horror entered into the Dracula
and Frankenstein era during the early 1930’s.
The studios took stories of European
vampires and mad scientists and created
some of the most iconic beings ever known
on the screen. Dracula films and sequels
were less successful than many of the
Frankenstein sequels. Many of the films in the
horror genre from the mid 1930’s to the
1950’s were B-grade films, inferior sequels,
or low budget gimmick films. During the
1950’s most of the films were cheaply made,
mostly drive-in teenage oriented films. To
counter the popularity of television,
experiments with 3-Dimensional films were
made. These low budget films helped to keep
the horror genre alive when the larger
Hollywood studios turned away. Horror films
branched out in all different directions in the
1960’s and afterward. Film censorship was
on the decline and directors began to portray
horror in ordinary circumstances and
seemingly innocent settings. Alfred Hitchcock
brought out his most horrific film, Psycho, at
the start of the decade, which changed the
face of horror films. In 1968, the MPAA created
a new ratings system with G, M, R, X ratings in
part to the violent themes of horror films. In the
1970’s the horror genre was subjected to far
more violence as well as blood and gore.
Murderous films, in which the victims were
stalked and killed by mortal or immortal
psychopaths, also became popular during
this decade, with films like The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween
(1978). This trend carried through to the
1980’s as well with films like A Nightmare on
Elm Street and Friday the 13th , with the
sequels to these films carrying them
throughout the rest of the decade and into the
1990’s. During the 1990’s Wes Craven, the
writer and director of the original Nightmare on
Elm Street, has been credited with bringing
the horror genre back to life with films such as
Scream. The characters in these films are
now aware of the history of the slasher horror
film and know all the rules. “They survive the
movie based on their ability to outguess the
twists of the formulas in which they are
trapped” (Mast, Kawin, 553).

Nowadays, with all the horror movies out, the
characters have more of an understanding as
to what is happening to them in the films. As
stated above, knowing the “rules” of horror
movies gives them a better jump as to what
may happen to them during the movie.

The horror genre, as well as slasher/stalker
genre, and The Nightmare on Elm Street
genre, have been influenced by
Expressionism, rendering inner states as
aspects of the outer world. “Masks, madness,
and shadows come together in the
Expressionist horror film, where the
threatening figure is often uncontrollably
destructive, sexually aggressive, masked or in
heavy makeup, and acting out some culturally
repressed impulse” (Kawin, 94).

A Nightmare on Elm Street was written and
directed by Wes Craven. The movie was
released in 1984 and challenged the typical
slasher genre film of the time in many
aspects. The movie begins with the haunting
children’s song, “One, two Freddy’s coming
for you…Three, four, better lock your
door…Five, six grab your crucifix…Seven,
eight, gonna stay up late…Nine, ten never
sleep again.” As a teenage girl wanders
around a dark boiler room in only her
nightgown, as a screeching is heard as
knives are scratched against the pipes. A
badly burned man wearing a dirty hat and
striped sweater with knives for finger grabs
her from behind and she then wakes up
screaming in her bed, it was only a dream.
Not long after this, the same girl is in another
dream where she is being chased by the
same man, Freddy Kreuger. As the man
catches her in the dream, reality shows her
being thrown around the room in a state of
unconsciousness and stabbed repeatedly by
an attacker that can only be seen in her
dream. The combination of reality into the
movie makes for a more nerve-racking
experience for the viewer. The movie portrays
that people get caught in their dreams, and
what happens to them in that dream will be
reality when they awake. Another dream has a
girl being burnt by Freddy and as she wakes
up, she looks at her arm and there is a large
burn mark from the happenings of her dream.

The film is already different from the typical
slasher/stalker films in that the terror is taking
place in both the dream state, as well as in
reality. The basic plot resembles other horror
films in that a scary, strange entity is stalking
teens in order to kill them. The setting is dark
and spooky with a foggy appearance. As in
many horror films a character who is thought
to be one of the main characters is killed off
early on and that is where the similarities end.
The plot of this film gives a reason as to why
Fred Krueger is after these teenagers. The
parents of these teens who live on Elm Street
had gotten together, captured him and burned
him alive because he had gotten out of jail,
charged with murdering children, on a
technicality. Now as his revenge he must kill
the children of all the parents that were
involved in his murder, by stalking them in
their dreams. By making Freddy Krueger the
result of a dark secret in the neighborhood,
the motivation is much deeper than the
average horror film. Although Freddy is a
horrible villain, his crimes existed in the past.
The teenager’s parents are now responsible
for the reawakening of the terror because they
committed an act just as horrible and as a
result, their children must now pay for their
sins.

The nightmare world is connected to reality,
which effects the visual style of the film. This
allows for anything to happen, there are no
limitations. While other villains are restricted
to real world laws of physics, Freddy Krueger
can do anything when looking for people in
their dreams. There are no physical
limitations as to what he can do and this
allows the filmmakers to do things in terms of
effects that had not been done before, such as
when Freddy pushes through the wall and
knocks the crucifix over Tina’s bed onto the
floor. Weaving the reality sequences with the
dream sequences so that the audience did
not know which was which also had an impact
on the visual style of the film. Some of the
dreams appeared so realistic that when it was
cut to reality or switched back into a nightmare
it added even more surprise to the where the
story was.

The characters in this film are also very
different from the typical characters in
murderous horror films. These characters
have personalities and are intelligent, unlike
many that have no idea what is going on
around them. Nancy, the female lead
character, is a particularly strong character in
the film. She is not about to let herself be
killed by Freddy. She fights back by trying to
stay awake while she continues drinking
coffee and taking caffeine pills. She also
discovers ways to go into the dream state and
learn about it without being killed. She even
manages to find a possible way to bring
Freddy into reality from a dream and sets him
up to be killed. Nancy redefines the role of a
victim in this genre of film. She does not just
run from the attacker to get away, nor does
she try and hide from him. Rather she goes
into the killers world by announcing that she’s
there by screaming out “Krueger, I’m here.”

Freddy Krueger also redefines the typical role
of a killer in this film. The typical stalker was
one that never spoke, was unimaginative, and
vicious, that captured their victim by chasing
them down to a dead end. While Krueger is
scary and dangerous, it is his wit and
intelligence that really come through. He has a
brain and knows how to use it, he uses all the
tricks of the trade to lure his victims to him and
is very cunning while he does it. He uses
sarcasm and plays with the minds of the
victims, for example when Krueger transforms
himself into a high school girl hall monitor and
asks Nancy where her hall pass is. This is not
the typical image one would have of a killer but
this lets the audience know that he is lurking
about just waiting to make his move.

The film also deals with certain thematic
concerns, such as the role of parents and the
police in society. The parents in this movie are
not interested in what their children are telling
them. Nancy’s mother, who is an alcoholic,
won’t believe her when Nancy tells her about
Freddy. Nancy’s father, a police officer, doesn’t
show up to help Nancy when she brings
Freddy out of her dream into reality, even
though he said he would be there. Nancy
believes that something might happen to Rod
while he is in jail and she asks the police to
check on him. The police don’t check up on
Rod and when they hear screaming from his
cell, they find him murdered by who else,
Freddy Kreuger. The parents feel that there is
no problem because they think that they
solved the problem by killing Krueger
themselves. The parents won’t listen to their
kids, which is a common theme in many
movies.

A Nightmare on Elm Street adds to the horror
genre, by bringing into light the psychological
aspect of horror, which can be much scarier
than blood and gore. It brought a new
perspective to the typical horror movie and
allowed for serious character development.
Therefore, it became possible to battle the
killer, Fred Kreuger, as it became an issue of
the mind, not over who was bigger or stronger.
The movie gave motives for the plot and made
it interesting and intelligent. It also made a
connection between what society fears and
the reality of what those fears really are.

In a time when the horror film had become
little more than a mindless game of cat and
mouse, with excessive amounts of blood and
gore, Wes Craven brought hope to the genre.
A Nightmare on Elm Street intelligently probed
into the audience’s fear of nightmares and
combines that with the fear of being trapped
within a nightmare in order to create a very
intelligent thought-provoking movie that
helped to redefine the horror genre. Craven’s
use of reality within the film made the movie
one of the most popular early horror films. He
used a psychological terror to scare the
viewers, as well as keeping everyone in the
dark during the movie as telling the difference
between dreams and reality became nearly
impossible.

“There is an ancient entity that is evil and
storytellers over the centuries have giving in
different names. In our time, one of the names
given it was Freddy Krueger. Yes, Freddy died
in the last film and he’s still dead. Just
because you stop Freddy doesn’t mean you
stop evil, you just free it up. I think that’s an
important lesson.”-Wes Craven you stop evil,
you just free it up. I think that’s an important
lesson.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY
-Brown, Gene. Movie Time, A Chronology of
Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its
Beginnings to the Present. Macmillan
Company, 1995.
-Kawin, Bruce. How Movies Work, University of
California Press, 1992.
-Mast, Gerald and Bruce Kawin. A Short
History of the Movies, Seventh Edition, Allyn
and Bacon, 2000.
-Stocker, Carol. Will the Nightmare on Elm
Street Continue. St. Louis Post, Dec, 1997.
-Wilmington, Mike. Horror Films that Scared
us over the Years. Chicago Tribune, Oct, 1997


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