Elm Street Was a Nightmare Before Freddy Made It One

Even though I love them now, I didn’t grow up liking horror films. I grew up being forced to watch them.

In my early youth, I think my parents and some of my extended family members were determined to turn my cousins and me into intrepid risk takers who didn’t allow our anxieties to hold us back from any “scary” experiences that might come our way. They made us try everything. With height requirements for most amusement park and carnival rides topping out at just 40 inches, they were taking us on rollercoasters, dark rides, drop towers, pendulum rides, and thrill rides before we even turned four-years-old. One winter, while we were snowed in at my grandparent’s house in western North Carolina, my uncle fashioned some makeshift sleds out of patio furniture cushions and saran wrap and the slickness of them against the melting snow sent us flying down a large hill at speeds that could total a car. If there was a cliff to dive off of into a pool of water, they pushed us to try it no matter the height. If there was a haunted house or horse ride or ghost tour available somewhere, they made sure we were part of it. Mostly, though, because they often didn’t have a lot of money to spend back then, they rented scary movies and brought us all together to watch them.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when they finally brought A Nightmare on Elm Street into the mix, but it doesn’t really matter. A Nightmare on Elm Street scared the absolute shit out of me. The only one ever to do so. There was just something so unjust about the whole premise. I know, I know…all slashers are technically unjust. But Nightmare was on a different level for me. In the other slasher films they made us watch before Nightmare, the killer or killers were material. They were real people — or in the case of Child’s Play, an actual, tangible object — that could be destroyed if the characters trying to outrun the killer(s) could just figure out how to. Freddy Krueger isn’t tangible in the same way. He’s technically a phantom, a bogeyman who’s not exactly part of the material reality we live in. The only times he can cross over into materiality are when he’s literally tearing people apart. And what’s worse is he doesn’t hunt his victims in the material world, either. He haunts them in their dreams, taunts them, makes them believe they have agency when they don’t, and then, just when they expect to wake up and escape the nightmare he’s created for them, he eviscerates them in both the dream and their waking lives. When you’re chosen by Freddy, you can’t ever really fight back. Occasionally, he gives in and lets his victims believe they have a chance, but it’s only to make their eventual destruction even more shocking and devastating to not only the characters in the film but also the viewers.

Something about this kind of injustice, this level of unfairness, struck something in me when I first saw it. I didn’t scream or run out of the room or cry. I sat through the whole film hoping it would end differently than I suspected it would. And then it didn’t. It didn’t really end at all. The final scene is a complete mystery left up to interpretation. Did Nancy actually defeat Freddy? Or is everyone dead now? Was the whole situation just a dream all along?

I could barely sleep for a while after we watched it. I knew it was completely out of the realm of possibility for some vengeful child murderer to make his way into my dreams and kill me the ways he killed the film’s teens Tina, Glen, and Rod. And yet, I was filled with another kind of dread I couldn’t quite understand at the time. Freddy started to shape my dreams, too. Nightmare-prone since I was very young, it wasn’t new to me to be plagued with bad dream after bad dream. Usually though, my bad dreams are a little more realistic in the sense that the ways I die in them could actually happen: home invasions, shark attacks, tornadoes, drowning in a tsunami, being poisoned, falling off cliffs, getting run over by trains, and/or succumbing to some serious illness. Mythical creatures and the twisted villains of the horror films we watched never made it into my dreams until Freddy came along. Sometimes he wasn’t even in them. Sometimes, it was just me in the movie’s iconic boiler room set searching for a way out of the dream.

Other times, he was there. Taunting me. Trying to make me believe I had a shot against him before he inevitably turned the dream dark. Waking me up right before the moment I died as I always did when it came to my nightmares. I didn’t dream of myself as a character in the film; I dreamt of Freddy in my world. In my bedroom, at my school, in the places I liked to hang out with my friends. My dreams would be covered in the same slime from the movie and filtered in the exact same hues. They didn’t go on forever, but the amount of nights I ended up in one of these scenarios was enough to keep me away from Nightmare and the rest of the series until I was in my late teens.

But even then, I didn’t watch the movies nearly as closely as I watched others. By that point, I was horror-obsessed and surrounded myself with a lot of other people who were as well, so occasionally, someone would suggest we watch one of the Nightmare films. Trying to stay cool, I usually acquiesced. In my twenties, when I was doing a lot of work to heal from some of the traumatic events of my childhood, I avoided watching Nightmare all together. I just couldn’t stomach watching Nancy’s drunk mom, Marge, stumble around the film, acting as if the decisions her and the rest of the kids’ parents weren’t what was to blame for the current terror the kids were experiencing.

Many, many years passed, and I didn’t really watch Nightmare again until last fall when my girlfriend suggested we start watching the whole series of films from start to finish. She loves horror, too, but she didn’t grow up in the U.S. so she missed a lot of the foundational film references most of us have come to know so well. This time, I watched. I watched closely, with focus and attentiveness. If I was going to have to encounter Freddy again, I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to find something in it worth thinking about beyond how much it scared me as a young person.

As the film was coming to an end, I realized Freddy wasn’t exactly the reason I was scared the whole time. We don’t ever actually fear the bogeyman of these films, do we? We fear something else, something much bigger than the possibility of death by a blade bespoked garden glove or a sharp knife or a chainsaw. Often with slasher films, we’re forced to engage with the premise that a superhuman-seeming man will just come along and kill you. You’re not invincible, but they seem to be. You can’t predict it, you can’t make calculations of your chances for survival, and you can’t avoid it. They’re coming for you whether you rightly “deserve” it or not. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is not working on the same premise. A Nightmare on Elm Street is reflective of the results of the carceral cruelties of our society and how that shit keeps coming back to stab us in the ass (and stomach and chest and throat).

When you tell the story of A Nightmare on Elm Street in chronological order, it takes a little bit of a different shape. In late 1960s small-town Ohio, Fred Krueger was a sadistic maintenance man at a power plant who killed 20 children before he was inevitably caught by the local police. During the time of the investigation and his arrest, the police didn’t get the search warrant signed in the correct place which causes the judge to throw out the case against Freddy on a “technicality.” Fearful for the lives of their children, a group of parents who live on Elm Street come together and devise a plan to make sure Freddy never hurts another child again. They decide to kill him first. They burn him alive and, for some reason that is never fully explained in the film, Marge keeps the bladed glove that was Freddy’s trademark torture device.

After this, you’d think all of the families on Elm Street would go back to their normal lives raising their kids. But they don’t. Nancy’s parents, Marge and Don, end up divorcing at some point before the film begins. By the time we meet them, Marge is an alcoholic and Don is a workaholic, and we know Nancy never gets the amount of attention and love she wants from either of them. Early in the film, it’s insinuated that Tina’s parents are separated, too, and her mom, Mrs. Gray, has a proclivity for promiscuity. Rod’s parents aren’t even mentioned, but they don’t seem to give a shit about where he is at any point because they don’t even bail him out of jail when he’s accused of Tina’s murder. And then there’s Glen’s parents. Well, Glen’s parents are so overprotective of him that later in the film, his father’s decision to keep their house phone off the hook when Nancy is calling is what eventually leads to Glen getting slaughtered by Freddy. When the film begins, it’s many years after his death, and Freddy is back to try to take what he may have intended to in the first place, or he’s back to get revenge on the families who snuffed him out.

Freddy’s actions before his death are absolutely reprehensible, no doubt. We’re not expected to nor am I trying to pretend that we should necessarily have empathy for the man Freddy was before all of the kids’ parents killed him. It’s just that, regardless of Freddy’s morality and his blatant disregard for human life, Freddy was also still a human being. We’re never given the story of his life or what made him become the murderer he eventually is as an adult. By the time we meet him in the film, everyone in that small town in Ohio decided he was a piece of shit who got what he deserved. And in a horror film, it’s true, we’re not exactly expected to care about that, because why would we? Someone who did gruesome stuff to young children is doing more gruesome stuff, and that’s horrifying. Let the good guys — or in most cases, the final girl — win and let’s call it a day. But in Nightmare, it’s written to seem like the parents are just as responsible for the deaths of their children as Freddy is. Their actions set this whole sequence in motion, and their actions tore their own lives apart. As a result of their guilt and the secrecy they have to employ when it comes to Freddy’s demise, they become different people all together. They cope with the weight of their decision by getting drunk, working long hours, having casual sex, or keeping their grip on their children so tight they can’t see what’s good for them. They don’t love their children the way they can or should because there’s too much psychic and emotional energy being drained by the results of their desperation for what they thought of as justice. They sought to make things “right” by killing Freddy but, in the process, they lost so much. Killing Freddy would never bring back the 20 children he murdered, and killing Freddy ultimately altered their lives and the lives of their children forever. Justice would have been him not murdering those kids in the first place, of course, so it follows that justice could not possibly come from enacting violence on him as a punishment for his crimes.

In this way, Nightmare reminds me of all the care we do not take when it comes to our communities. Where was everyone when the first child got murdered? Or the second? Or the third? How did the number of children reported missing in a small town in suburban Ohio balloon to 20 before people finally figured out what was going on? What were the mental, emotional, familial, and environmental conditions that made Freddy who he became? And most importantly, what happened to the families of those 20 children? It’s not like they got to participate in the “just” and “cathartic” act of setting their kids’ killer on fire. They don’t even know it happened. I know this is not what Wes Craven intended. He created a bad guy we could all be fearful of, despise, and root against. And I think it’s fine that we do. But I can’t help but see the parallels between how justice is treated in the film and how we think of justice in the real world.

Justice in our world is conflated with punishment. We don’t talk about Hammurabi very much, but we can see the results of his “code” almost everywhere in our society. Someone does something to break the social contract, and we jump to take something away from them in retaliation. We pretend our institutions — the cops, the courts, the lawyers, our laws — are here to ensure we mete out the most righteous actions on those who have committed bad acts and for those who were impacted by those acts. We don’t call the death penalty or prison or parole retalliation because it would be too messy, maybe even too human, to admit we’ve been indoctrinated to think that “evil” exists in our society as simple fact of life instead of something we’re constantly constructing and reinforcing through these very institutions. These punishments are called “justice,” and we’re taught to believe this kind of justice has the ability to recalibrate our society, to set us straight now that we have defeated the person who made fairness elusive. We pour our resources into “fighting” the “evil” in a reactionary way instead of getting in front of it and building ways to ensure that it stops chasing after us, and we all suffer as a result. Our inability to imagine a way out of this haunts us and follows us everywhere we go —  into our work, our interpersonal relationships, our schooling, our intimate partnerships, and our understandings of community. The punishing never really ends.

This doesn’t mean Freddy isn’t the enemy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He definitely is. But what’s also lurking in the dark steam of Freddy’s boiler room is how we’re all impacted negatively — as individuals and as communities — when we refuse to take responsibility for one another and give into the belief that any one of us is disposable. At the beginning and end of the film, the Elm Street parents, once united in their vindictive desire to achieve a kind of community recalibration on their own, are strangers to each other and to their kids. Their kids are angsty and feel unloved, so they discover ways to cope with their parents’ absences in their own ways. There was no trust, no joy, no togetherness. Elm Street was a nightmare before Freddy got there, because Elm Street was just another part of a society — our society, where people are taught to care very little for each other. And no one wanted to admit it. I know this was never something I would have been able to fully think about or articulate the first time I saw Freddy kill Tina or when Marge admitted what she’d done to Nancy, but maybe the injustice I detected in the film was pointing toward this direction. Because we’re human beings, it’s completely unrealistic to think there’s a guarantee we’ll always be safe from harm or from harming each other. But in the world we’re constantly constructing right now, we’ve made harm an inevitable and inescapable bogeyman in and of itself.

Right before the final, intentionally inconclusive scene of the film, Nancy gets her chance to turn her back on Freddy and says, “I take back every bit of energy I gave you. You’re nothing. You’re shit.” Maybe, when it comes to the ways we allow our carceral imaginations to rule how we’re constantly constructing our society, A Nightmare on Elm Street is trying to remind us that we should consider taking her lead.


Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.


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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 25 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. “Because we’re human beings, it’s completely unrealistic to think there’s a guarantee we’ll always be safe from harm or from harming each other. But in the world we’re constantly constructing right now, we’ve made harm an inevitable and inescapable bogeyman in and of itself.”

    Wow do I feel this on so many levels. Thank you for taking the time and energy to investigate this film and message further as an adult!!!!

  2. This is awesome, brother.

    “We pour our resources into “fighting” the “evil” in a reactionary way instead of getting in front of it and building ways to ensure that it stops chasing after us, and we all suffer as a result.”

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