“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” and the Horror of Generational Trauma

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My teenage friends and I spent a lot of time rewatching classic horror movies and then watching all of their sequels. Unfortunately, because we were dependent on the selection available at one of the three local Blockbusters we frequented, we didn’t always get to watch them one franchise at a time. Most Friday movie nights, we would end up with a random assortment of sequels — something like Halloween II, The Exorcists III, and Dawn of the Dead (1978) — to check off an ever-growing list of scary movies we had to see. It was rare that we ever got a big chunk of one franchise at a time, and to be honest, that was mostly fine with me. Not only because it gave us an opportunity to see a lot of other things at once but also because I was harboring a secret discomfort with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and I never wanted to be in a position where I’d have to watch more than one film in the franchise in a single night.

For a while, I didn’t have to worry about it at all. We rarely ever found any Nightmare sequels, and when we did, the ones that were available were usually the last two in the franchise. And then, one summer, I don’t know what happened. One of those Blockbusters got in a slew of Nightmare movies, from the second one (Freddy’s Revenge) to the fifth one (The Dream Child), and I knew I was going to have to finally confront the reality of sitting through these movies with my friends. We couldn’t rent them all at once, thankfully, because other people had gotten to a couple of them first, but we did get the second and third in the same weekend. I braced myself for the experience.

When you’ve watched enough slashers, you become familiar with the formula of how slashers work. And it’s no different for their sequels. The first film in a slasher franchise is just pure, unbridled terror. It introduces us to a cast of characters who, for the most part, are going to die in gruesome ways by the hand of some unidentified psychopath they usually think they don’t know. Even if that first film has a resolution of some kind at the end, what it really does is ask more questions than present answers. The resolution might feel good for a moment, but those questions always remain, which should be a source of uneasiness for the viewer (though I find that people often forget those questions until the next installment in the franchise comes out). The second installment, then, should provide some answers to those questions and expand on the lore of the person responsible for the killings in the first film and the killings happening in the second.

The Nightmare franchise took a little bit of a different turn in doing this, which to my surprise, actually made them easier for me to sit through. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge isn’t so much of a sequel as it is an entirely new first film for a different franchise. With Wes Craven out of the picture for the production of the sequel entirely, the writer and director were free to do whatever they wanted. And mostly, the humor and homoeroticism of it made it less scary and more fun to watch than the first film. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is, technically, a direct sequel to the original film and builds on the myths and ideas the original was exploring.

Although it was only released three years after the first film, Dream Warriors transports us six years after the events that happened in the first film. This time, we’re immediately introduced to the new final girl of the series, Kristen Parker (Patricia Arquette), as she’s about to pass out after trying her hardest to stay awake. When she falls asleep, we find out exactly who she’s been trying to avoid. Our old friend Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is setting traps for her in her dreams and attempting to chase her down. Kristen comes to when her mother finds her in her bathroom with her wrist slit in what looks like a suicide attempt. She tries to explain, but her mother doesn’t believe her and decides to send her to Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital, where some other teens are being institutionalized following what looks like their own self-inflicted violences. Kristen is introduced to Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson) and fights with him and the orderlies of the hospital so that she won’t be sedated and forced to fall asleep. As this is happening, the hospital’s newest intern therapist, Nancy Thompson (yes, that Nancy, played by Heather Langenkamp), is being shown around and hears the commotion with Kristen. Nancy immediately identifies what’s wrong with Kristen and recognizes Freddy must be back to finish what he started with Nancy and her friends: destroy the rest of the Elm Street children in retaliation for what their parents did to him.

A little later, we’re introduced to the rest of the kids in the ward: Phillip (Bradley Gregg), Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow), Kincaid (Ken Sagoes), Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), Will (Ira Heiden), and Joey (Rodney Eastman). We don’t get a lot of detail about what led to their initial institutionalizations, but it seems the same as Kristen. They were all found to be harming themselves in some way, so they were sent to psychiatric care in an attempt to help them with their mental health issues. Once they get there, though, they’re subjected to what we’ve often heard is true about psychiatric care facilities. The administrative staff at the hospital has very little empathy for them, and they’re often subjected to unfair punishments at the hands of the orderlies. Dr. Gordon tries to believe, but he just doesn’t understand what they’re going through. He becomes further distraught when the kids at the hospital start dying off or getting hurt, one after another.

After some convincing by Nancy, she, Dr. Gordon, and the remaining teens resolve to fight Freddy themselves in a collective dream. It’s revealed early in the film that Kristen has the ability to pull people into her dreams, and they later find out all of the kids have power in their dreams, so Nancy and Dr. Gordon try to leverage these powers to defeat Freddy in the dream realm. Meanwhile, a nun who appears to work at the hospital keeps dropping hints to Dr. Gordon about who Freddy is, how he got that way, and what needs to be done to stop him. It’s in these moments that we get to understand some of Freddy’s backstory. He didn’t become a child-murderer out of nowhere. Actually, his mother was a nun at the hospital when it was open to “criminally insane” adult men. One night, she got locked in the facility alone and was repeatedly raped by some of the men who were being hospitalized there.

Freddy was the product of the violence and assault his mother endured, and the story is presented in a way that’s supposed to signal to the viewer that he was somehow “bound” to become as psychotic as those men were. The nun then tells Dr. Gordon that to stop Freddy, he must find his bones and bury them in hallowed ground. From there, the fight becomes twofold: Nancy and the Dream Warriors are going to attack Freddy in the dream realm, and Dr. Gordon is going to do what he can to find Freddy’s remains and bury them in blessed earth.

As I wrote last year, much of the first film deals with this inherited punishment the kids of the film have to take on as a result of their parents’ act of vengeance towards Freddy. In the first film, we find that the neighborhood of Elm Street is the brightest, cheeriest place from the start. Many of the parents we encounter are divorced, fully engaged in sublimating any pain they feel with drugs and alcohol and sex, and they aren’t very attentive to their children who are in desperate need of their love and care. The parents seem to be suffering from the psychological effects of their killing of Freddy while their kids are facing sudden death by Freddy’s hands because of what their parents did to him.

The carceral logic of the parents — killing Freddy because he killed other children in the neighborhood — has ensured a never ending cycle of violence that continues to plague Elm Street despite everyone’s supposedly just and righteous attempts to stop it. The famous ending of the film serves as the ultimate reminder of the fact that even if you mean well and you’re doing what you think is right, you can’t stop violence from occurring through enacting more violence. It’s just not going to happen that way.

Dream Warriors could, on the outside, look like another reiteration of this, but I think Craven goes even further in on this idea than he did before. Where the first Nightmare was singularly focused on that one act of carceral vengeance by the kids’ parents, Dream Warriors extends these ideas outward to include acts of violence that are bequeathed to us and must be carried by us before we’re even born, before we’re even thought about as a possibility in the lives of the people who bring us to life.

In Dream Warriors, we see this happening in two different ways. First, with the last of the Elm Street children. If we’re following the timeline of the films, then Kristen and the rest of the kids holed up in the psychiatric ward were not even born when Freddy was killed. I believe we’re supposed to assume their parents participated in Freddy’s death just like the rest of them, which means they participated out of fear that something terrible could happen to their children before their children even existed. That fear of possibility alone was enough to drive them to join ranks. Second (and more interestingly, in my opinion), with Freddy himself. By painting the picture of his conception as a series of horrific acts perpetrated on his mother by men who suffered from various afflictions that pushed them to commit these acts of violence, we see how Freddy was also an heir to inherited brutality. His psychopathy isn’t just some individual issue that causes him to grow into the villain he becomes — it was created by the specific circumstances of his birth and, more broadly, by the way society has treated, contended with, and hasn’t treated mental illness.

With the introduction of this new lore and understanding of the characters we know and the characters who exist on the periphery of the film, Craven manages to create a direct connection between Freddy and his victims. As different as they are and as diametrically opposed as their positionalities are, they’re all brought into this situation because of that inherited violence — generational trauma, if you will — that creates the circumstances in which they live. This gives Craven the opportunity to bring into question what we think we know about the perpetuation of violence and the possibility of justice even more than he did originally. Not that I’m trying to excuse Freddy’s barbarism, but it makes for an uncomfortable reckoning with what we know and understand about violence when we realize he’s a victim, too. And it’s made even more intolerable when it’s revealed it’s actually that victimhood that turned him into the monster he becomes.

While the kids battle their generational trauma in the form of Freddy Krueger, Freddy refuses to battle his and instead, succumbs to a fate that was written for him through societal indifference and a lack of care for the people within a community. In our real world outside of film and television, this reality plays out every day. There are people committing atrocious acts who are not simply perpetrators but also victims of interpersonal cruelty and systemic violence. But because we like to forgo nuance and complete understanding of how violence and terror are maintained and sustained through our actions within our systems and institutions, we’ve drawn a very strict binary between victim and perpetrator that prevents us from looking at that violence as a much larger symptom of an ill society hellbent on our destruction.

Craven replicates these conditions within the microcosms of his films, and more specifically, within the world of Dream Warriors. Unlike the first film, though, he does present us with a viable way out of these inheritances. In the original film, no one was really on Nancy’s side helping her bring Freddy to justice. In fact, she didn’t even know how to bring him to justice. The only thing she knew was that he needed to be destroyed, thus replicating what was done to him to begin the cycle of violence in the first place. The idea that Freddy couldn’t be brought to justice by a single person using the same tactics that made him who he became is repeated throughout the events of the film, including at the very end. But Dream Warriors gives the kids a real way out: If they can work together to overcome Freddy, then they can be free of him forever.

At one point in the film, the nun who’s haunting Dr. Gordon tells him, “Only one thing can save the children now. The unquiet spirit must be laid to rest.” And I can’t help but think of our generational inheritances this way, as unquiet spirits. Of course, cleaning up the messes that the generations before us left for us won’t be quite as simple as what happens in a 96-minute movie (even if the threat of death in that movie seems so imminent), but what Dream Warriors does is present us with a very real suggestion for how we can move forward, for how we can heal, and for how we can create a new alliance against the violence we see in our society and in the communities we’re a part of.

In the end, it’s only through each of the kids coming together, along with the help of Nancy and Dr. Gordon, and using their powers (or looked at in another way, their strengths and abilities) that can truly stop the cycle of violence from continuing on. What looks like just another “getting the gang together” moment in a horror film then becomes a much larger commentary on the way we can overcome the generational trauma of brutality and cruelty in our communities — by organizing ourselves and combining our individual strengths to finally defeat these traumas and put them to rest.


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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. It’s been forever since I’ve seen that one, but that’s certainly an interpretation. Probably a valid one, but at the same time, it’s sounds like you might be trying a bit too hard. (“Might” because, again, it’s been decades.)

  2. Oh this sounds fascinating! I’ve only seen the first Nightmare (and the meta one…the 4th?) because, like you, it was one of the only ones to really really scare me, but if you can move forward so can I!

    I hope you write more about the other ones too!

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