In 1984, New Line Cinema released the film A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was written and directed by Wes Craven. It is a Gothic feminist fairy tale structured as a coming-of-age narrative. The plot follows a young woman, Nancy, and her friends who all simultaneously begin having the same nightmares for the very first time. They are all high school students who socialize frequently, drink alcoholic beverages, and smoke like many teenagers their age. One by one, they are brutally murdered in their dreams by Freddy Krueger, a dark specter with knives for fingers who lives in the deepest darkest shadows of one’s subconscious. By the end of the film, Nancy displays the courage to face her fear, and by conquering it, takes away its influence over her.
According to Andrew Smith, in Gothic Literature, the term Gothic has taken on a variety of meanings throughout history. Contemporary Gothic narratives typically deal with terror and an interpretation of evil (3). Not all human experiences can be explained, solved, or defined by the natural laws of science in the physical world. Smith claims, “The complexity of human experience could not be explained by an inhuman rationalism” (2). In the film, the character Tina entered the labyrinth of her subconscious, her dream. In this dream she faced horrific imagery, starting with a terrifying shadow of a man with a hat in a dark alley. Then a man laughs at her, with his arms stretched out twenty feet long on both sides in silhouette against a dark background before chasing her. During the chase, the two wrestle, and Tina tears the predator’s face off to reveal a bloody laughing skeleton face. Later in the film, when Nancy dreams while falling asleep in her high school English class, she sees her friend Tina in a body bag being dragged down the hall by an invisible force. During the climax of the film, a tongue comes out of the receiver of a land line telephone. All this terrifying imagery exemplifies aspects of contemporary Gothic storytelling.
A Nightmare on Elm Street features the Gothic’s defining gory and explicit violence. The violence in this film can be read as a “phallic presence, which suggests a horror about the threatened violence of male sexuality” (Smith 131). The antagonist, Freddy Krueger, is a dark spirit who lives in the subconscious of his victims. He is burnt and covered with open bloody sores. On his right hand is a self-made dirty old glove with sharp knives for fingers. Tina’s demise is the scene that exemplifies the violent nature of male sexuality. Freddy’s sharp finger knives are phallic symbols that penetrate the flesh of a female victim, after she makes love with her life partner. This scene begins with vicious slashes suddenly appearing on her chest, followed by her flesh being ripped wide open. These penetrations lead to a long and extremely gory scene. She is dragged across the wall and ceiling, leaving a trail of blood all over the room. Eventually, her corpse falls on the bed in a pool of her own blood.
From visual imagery to the horrific violence he commits, Freddy Krueger truly is the embodiment of pure evil incarnate. He is a loathsome child murderer who was murdered by the parents of the children he victimized. He then returns as a spirit haunting the dreams of the living. Freddy wears a striped sweater, a dirty brown hat, a glove with knives for fingers, and has a grotesque, burnt face covered in open, bleeding wounds. In her children’s literature dissertation, Penelope Young stated that “Those accused of witchcraft were almost always…physically ugly…[and] accused of consorting with the devil” (1). This concept holds true with not just characters who are involved with witchcraft, but most evil literary characters in general. In Dracula, Bram Stoker describes the title character as having a “thin nose…[with] hair growing scantily around the temples…[and a] mouth…[with] sharp white teeth” (Stoker 25). Wes Craven follows this literary tradition of interpreting evil as hideous and monstrous. That is why Fred Krueger wears ugly and dirty clothing with the physical appearance of burnt flesh with open bleeding wounds.
Now that the definition of Gothic has been applied to this film rendering it an example of the genre, the feminist element of the plot can be examined. According to Law, Maureen, Olshewsky, and Semifero, feminist narratives portray female characters as being “courageous women…brave, confident females actively shaping their own destinies and breaking barriers to defy stereotypes and societal limitations” (Law 1). The character Nancy embodies those exact characteristics of feminism. She is a young woman who is a completely independent thinker. At one point in the film, she decides to read a book on how to set hunting traps in order to survive. She also insists against her mother’s wishes that going to school is the best thing for her after suffering the tragedy of the loss of friends. When her mother tries to nullify Nancy’s claim that there is something trying to harm her in her dream, Nancy confronts her mother, inquiring as to who Freddy Krueger is. When Nancy knows something, there is no one who is going to persuade her otherwise or fool her.
Nancy exemplified female strength by rebelling against various authority figures throughout the narrative. Nancy’s father, a police officer, refers to her friend, Rod, as a lunatic. Rod is accused of the murder of Tina. Of course, no one will believe him if he attempts to tell anyone what really happened. Nancy speaks up against her father, telling him that her friend was not what he is accused of being. The second time Nancy rebels against an authority figure is while she is dreaming. She follows Tina being dragged in a body bag down the high school hallway, when she suddenly runs into a hall monitor. The hall monitor inquires as to where her hall pass is. In response, Nancy delivers her famous line, “Screw your pass!” Then, it is her own mother whom Nancy has to stand up against. Nancy’s mother attempts to convince her that all she needs to release negative tension is a little bit of sleep. At that very moment, Nancy grabs the bottle out of her alcoholic mother’s hand and yells right in her mother’s face, “Screw sleep!” After that, she slams the bottle to the floor, making the glass shatter all over the kitchen, and walks out.
Instead of playing the classic damsel in distress, Nancy displays courage by facing her foe head on. She willingly enters the dream to challenge the monster, Freddy. She walks deep into the abyss of the nightmare, calling Freddy’s name, and challenging him. Planning to pull Freddy out of the dream by holding him, the same way she did with the hat, Nancy has the house trapped with devices designed to neutralize the monster. As Freddy chases Nancy around the house, she continues to battle him with trap after trap. She sets a sledge hammer, which comes down right on his chest as he exits the bedroom door; sets a lamp to blow up when he hits the trip wire; and sets him on fire in the basement. Nancy has the courage to bring this monster out of her nightmare and into her home, so that she can battle him on her turf, and eventually defeat him.
As a result of being challenged by a monster that she could not run and hide from, Nancy is forced to mature instantaneously due to not being able to rely on adults. During the puberty stage, adolescents go through many physical and emotional changes. These changes include experiencing things for the very first time. Nancy and Tina begin having dreams of Freddy Krueger for the very first time as high school adolescents. In their dreams, Freddy is an ugly demonic man who wants to be impishly flirtatious and attempted to penetrate their flesh with his phallic claws. This is an extreme Gothic representation of a woman going through the menstruation cycle for the very first time. The dreams of wicked flirtation and extreme male-on-female penetration exemplify covert sexuality, which ultimately leads to overt sexuality. Another example of bodily transformation is the scene when Nancy wakes up from the dream in a hospital, and a streak of her hair turns completely grey. This scene is symbolic of Nancy having to grow up at a younger age than she is naturally expected to in order to deal with a problem that her police officer father will not believe in and her drunk mother could not if she wanted to.
Ann Charters articulates that the coming-of-age story, also known as the initiation tale, is a narrative in which an adolescent protagonist faces challenges that prepare them for adulthood (1791). Nancy’s father is an authoritative police officer. He has a very strong personality, and generally what he says goes. One would argue that a good police officer must be strong in the head and very rational. The problem Nancy faces is that this narrative defies the laws of realism and enters the realm of the Gothic narrative. Nancy’s mother is drunk, or at least holding a bottle in her hand throughout most of the narrative. Especially toward the end, she is little to no help to Nancy. She deteriorates into alcoholism as the story progresses. Nancy suffers the tragedy of her parents being separated. Then she suffers the loss of friends, and being caught right in the middle of a murder investigation in which her father is the officer in charge. All this takes place at the exact same time that Freddy begins invading her dreams.
At the end of the film, Nancy finally decides to strip Freddy of all of his power over her. She simply stops believing in him, taking away his energy, and his image disintegrated right before her very eyes. At this point in the narrative, the protagonist completes her transformation from adolescence to adulthood. In the very next scene, Nancy walks out of a door. She goes through the door for the last time as a child, and comes out the other side an adult.
Freddy Krueger has become a well-known name over the years. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street has spawned five film sequels, a television series, one spin off film, a crossover film featuring Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th film franchise, and a film remake of the original. Also novels, comic books, posters, t-shirts, collectible statues, Halloween costumes and décor, and action figures have been produced over the years replicating Freddy Krueger. Why is this vile creature such a universally popular character? What is it about him that people can relate to or at least empathize with? The answer is that he embodies real life moments in the lives of people who are at particular stages in their life. Freddy symbolized the curse of female adolescence, and Nancy defeated him. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a Gothic feminist fairy tale within the structure of a coming-of-age narrative.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon. New Line Cinema, 2010. Blu-ray.
Charters, Ann. “Appendix Six: Glossary of Literary Terms.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 8th ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 2011: 1791. Print.
Law, Jennie S., Mccoy Maureen, Beth Olshewsky, and Angola Semifero. “All About Amelia: The Amelia Bloomer Project (The View from ALA).” Young Adult Library Services 10.3 2012: 1. Academic Search Premier. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
Smith, Andrew. “Introduction.” Gothic Literature. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP. 2013: 2-3 + 131. ProQuest Ebrary. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.
Stoker, Bram. “Chapter II: Jonathan Harker’s Journal (continued).” Dracula (1897). New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003: 25. Print.
Young, Penelope. “Witch Images in Australian Children’s Literature.” Diss. U of Southern Queensland, 2001. Abstract. Unpublished: 1. UHWO Library Research Bar. Web. 13 Dec. 2014