Talking Back On Elm Street: The Curious Case Of Liberation Through Freddy Krueger

As an 80's baby, the decade's teen culture has had an intellectual grasp on me for quite sometime. In regards to horror films, the biggest cash grab during this period, the slasher film, helped teenagers come to terms with their visceral and latent anxieties. I’ve read some amazing positions on the sub-genre, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a position as radical as Freddy Krueger as a protective figure.

L.J. DeGraffenreid's “What Can You Do in Your Dreams? Slasher Cinema as Youth Empowerment,” opens by stating that the A Nightmare On Elm Street films are about more than a psychotic killer murdering teenagers and Final Girls. Creator and director Wes Craven composed his original film to speak on “the generally troubled relationship between parents and their rebellious offspring” (954). For those of us who know the films or at least has seen two of them can recall adult authority figures as dismissive, commanding, and even abusive.

This relationship makes the slasher itself, “underage society’s revenge-seeking doppelganger, its desire for rebellion made manifest in the murderous tendencies of powerful, sadistic Freddy” (954). How so? Consider Elm Street’s “heroes” as they “rebel against abusive authority figures by relying on the dream-induced Krueger as their avenger” (954). With a Freudian approach to film analysis, DeGraffenreid feels through dreams, the Elm Street characters are allotted their emerging sexual desires through the symbol of Freddy, who makes them manifest in a reactionary rebellion against those “abusive adults” (955). Generally, the dreams symbolize a struggle between sexual autonomy and the moral authority of the adults in these teenagers lives.

“Tina is the sacrificial lamb” in white as she runs from Freddy and his phallic-like gloved hand in the opening scene of the original film. White and the actual lamb shown are signifiers of “sexual innocence,” the evidence of Freddy slicing through Tina’s (Amanda Wyss) nightgown, “an act of blatant sexual violation” (955) but a revelation of her desires that she willingly indulges with her boyfriend, Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia) soon after this dream sequence.

Do I really need to explain this one? DeGraffenreid explains that this scene is used “to indicate the psychologically painful dangers of such [sexual] exploration” (957) that Jesse (Mark Patton) spends a lot of time attempting to subtextually suppress. As a popular example of queer horror cinema, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2 is arguably Freddy as a warning to a homophobic society that oppresses LGBTQAI people and acts as Jesse conduit to his sexual liberation.

“Jesse opens his mouth to kiss [Lisa’s] breasts, only to unroll Freddy’s massive, wart-covered, ‘’Tex Avery wolf’’ tongue. The hugely phallic symbol becomes a reference for what we cannot see, namely, Jesse’s ‘‘monstrous’’ sexual arousal” alerting his psychological conflict and sexual anxiety (959).

In a dream sequence, Jesse discovers his gym teacher’s leather/S&M fetish at a bar and is forced into the school shower rooms but lo, Freddy appears to exercise his own sadistic hand at his gym teacher’s peril. “What is most interesting about this sequence is that it sheds new light on Freddy’s nature—now, he can be both tormentor and self-defense mechanism” (965). Making slasher films express that ‘the most horrifyingly violent acts are not committed by the monsters, but by members of the American family’ (Derry 168).

DeGraffenreid does make great references to Part 3's Dream Warriors (1987) also. My personal favorite example is when Dr. Simms (Priscilla Pointer) in a group therapy session states that the teenagers ‘‘won’t make any progress until [they] recognize [their] dreams for what they are… the byproducts of guilt [from] moral conflicts and overt sexuality.’’

In which Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) replies: [Oh great] “Now it’s my dick that’s killing me.”

Dr. Simms is that overt, dangerous authority figure who refuses to look beyond science, rationale and even deeper, is a representative of the “psychologically oppressive” adult figure who Part 3’s heroine Kristen (Patricia Arquette) rightfully declares against her: “you stupid bitch, you’re killing us!” (961, Tracansky 65, 966). It's one of my most felt moments in Dream Warriors as she's being dragged into "the quiet room" by Westin Hills' strong arms.

While DeGraffenreid focuses on the first three installments in the Elm Street series, I wanted to pick up the slack with the following installments (The Dream Master, The Dream Child, and Freddy's Dead) to see if this theoretical approach holds up.

And so it does. Continuing on in Part 4: The Dream Master (1988), most notably with one of my favorite Final Girl's of all time, Alice (Lisa Wilcox). Her reluctance to embrace her emerging adulthood is evidenced by her daydream, trance-like states where she fantasizes about “crossing over” into new found desires. One example, the object of one of those daydreams being the jock character Dan (Danny Hassel) in a sequence where she confidently (and cheesily) declares him to be “one major league hunk.”

Her developmental road as Freddy picks off her friends and relatives one by one spikes. She sees no clearer motivation than to end his murderous spree. But this not without her father’s imposition. Drowning further into his alcoholism after her brother Rick (Andras Jones) succumbs to Freddy’s hand, she tells him she’s "going out" (we know to meet Dan and friend Debbie to make a plan to destroy Freddy) and he physically tries to stop her.

Alice: If you just knew what was going on.

Dad: I know very much what’s going on with you and your friends.

Alice: Yeah. Everybody thinks they know but they don’t.

In order for Alice to fully embrace womanhood, she needs to face Freddy and her daydreams, never again allowing them to suppress her independence and sexuality. Her father pleads with her to stay in the house, staying “inside” as to maintain her complacency and innocence. We as the audience are aware so close to the film’s climatic sequence that, as Alice contends, that he has no clue what’s going on and staying inside is no longer an option.

In Part 5: The Dream Child (1989) not long after Dan is killed by Freddy, we learn that Alice is pregnant with his child. We are made aware at the end of Part 4 that they’ve begun to engage in a romantic relationship. We see the fruits of their relationship being physically expressed in the opening scene of Part 5. Fraught with grief, Dan’s parents visit Alice and her father’s home wanting to know what her plans are for her child. They propose to adopt her baby themselves but Alice politely declines.

Again adults and teenager are at odds. We see Alice’s dreams of her unborn child throughout the film as her desires; the boy calling himself Jacob and Alice mentioning how she’s always loved that name, which Freddy manipulates and interrupts with his face physically imprinted in Alice’s womb and Jacob describing Freddy as his “friend with the funny hand.” This obviously alarms Alice who practices no discretion in verbalizing these dreams as reality. It makes her look “crazy” so Dan’s parents express “concern” but more so a threat.

Because Alice has been accused of being “hysterical” and having “paranoid delusions” by her doctor, Dan’s mother threatens to sue for custody. But Alice, who has come full circle with her character arc in the film prior stands her ground with her now-sober father backing her plans to keep her child. A stance that is in part due to Freddy’s presence in her life. Dan’s parents perhaps act as the adult figures who want to strip Alice of her autonomy, again heralding the adult desire for the teenager to regress back to a period of innocence and a child-state by propositioning to adopt their grandchild. DeGraffenreid I assume, would see Alice’s rebellion against this as an act of protection for self, her child, and a statement of her womanhood.

My last crack at this theory comes in probably the most overt, head-to-head match between adult authority figure and teenager in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). Three teen-aged outcasts who occupy a youth shelter for wayward adolescents all share a similar dysfunction of parental abuse. This is like prime rib to a starving man for Freddy as he exploits each of their weaknesses through parental trauma, but for the teens, it becomes an exercise in their own coming to terms with these repressive figureheads.

Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), however, is the weak link. Crumbling in front of his “mother” who wants to “clean his ears” with an extremely long, spiky (phallic) q-tip that she threatens to penetrate him with because he never listens to her. He pleads with her claiming to have been “a good boy” and apologizing. But it’s Freddy, the master manipulator who enjoys Carlos’ lack of strength, having given him the opportunity for his own sake to call out his mother on her abuse and doesn't.

Spencer (Breckin Meyer) is a tad more crafty when his nightmare is a video game where his father becomes an 8-bit yuppie wielding a tennis racket repeating the phrase, “be like me”. Prior, Spencer is seen playing a handheld Tiger game ignoring his three-piece suit Dad's lecture on coming home and getting his act together or the ultimatum, slumming it without his family’s wealth to buffer him. In the dream he beats him down screaming, “I’m not. Like. You! I don’t wanna be like you!” taking his independence and turning his back on the imprisonment of his parental authority.

The most powerful of the three teenagers is Tracy (Lezlie Deane). With her tough, physical exterior she wilts in a dream sequence where it is very much implied she has been the victim of sexual abuse by her father. Letting vulnerability take hold of her briefly, she soon turns and confronts her father/Freddy figure proclaiming, “You’re not my daddy!” Grabbing a kitchen appliance as a makeshift weapon, she beats the living crap out of her “father.” Not letting the illusion fool her, she knows that her “daddy is dead.” Freddy appears to remind her he is in control, but Tracy bests him with self-inflicting burns on her wrists from the fiery stove that brings her out of the dream to live to the end. Maggie (Lisa Zane), a social worker at the youth center whom we discover later is Freddy’s daughter along with Tracy and a psychologist who goes by Doc (Yaphet Kotto) defeat Freddy in the third act.

But it is the physical and mental dual between Maggie and Freddy that is the parent/child crescendo that rounds out the film. Equal parts silly, entertaining, and reflexive, Freddy’s Dead turns DeGraffenreid’s theory a bit on its head by positioning Freddy in that parental space. Regardless of Freddy’s past place as a buffer from the character's survival from waking authority figures, his evil must always be extinguished.

Traces of DeGraffenreid’s thesis is found in about every single Elm Street film. DeGraffenreid feels " is no mistake that the slasher lies ‘beyond the purview of the respectable (middle-aged, middle-class) audience’; what appears to be a ‘degenerate aberration’ to adults makes psychosocial sense to teens, providing us with ‘‘a clearer picture of current sexual [and familial] attitudes’’ (Clover 21). Freddy forces the reader toward greater awareness of their own psychological reality, pushing them to react to authority’s manifest abuses” (967).

Source: Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Issue The Journal of Popular Culture Volume 44, Issue 5, pages 954–969, October 2011

This article was originally published at Paracinema on November 29, 2014.

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