Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part II: Nightmare on Elm St, Nightmare Logic
by Travis Hedge Coke
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie,” says Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream, directed by A Nightmare on Elm Street originator, Wes Craven. In a later film in the Scream series, a character will insist, “There are rules!”
The Nightmare on Elm St franchise is very successful, perhaps because it frequently presents – and re-presents – rules, but what it really has are situations. The situations are what happens in the movies. The rules are what characters tell themselves and tell one another to try to make sense, to give meaning, and therefore value and control to situations.
The 1984 original film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, written and directed by Craven, establishes the basic scenario – a group, primarily youths, are being harassed and murdered from within their dreams by the ghost of a killer and implied child rapist, Freddy Krueger, who can be confronted via lucid dreaming and who can, upon waking, possibly be drawn into the waking world, where he is more subject to normative physical law and medical reality.
Other rules are suggested, such as Krueger growing in power the more he is feared or remembered by young people, Krueger’s ability to incarnate in a specially prepared fetus.
The inviolability of the rules is called into question first with the end of the original film, after Krueger is defeated by the rules as they are understood, yet appears to have lost little to no power and the movie ends with the implication of his success, and implication seemingly reaffirmed with the discovery of victim, Nancy Thompson’s diary in the first sequel. Thompson, however, returns in the third film in the franchise, and it is entirely within reason – as it is – that the end of the first movie is not a re-powered or still-empowered Freddy Krueger, but an actual nightmare of Thompson’s.
What rules this world is not a set of physical laws immutable and distinct from human perception or will, but emotional veracity, the impulses of anxiety, the nature of nightmares. The nature of nightmares is not to normalize or stabilize but to increase in horribleness. The bad thing has to happen.
The more confident a youth is, in this world, the more subject they are to a universalist causality guiding them to suffering and ill-consequence. Krueger is so much more than a consequence of a political or human realm, and is empowered in the way that storms and stars are empowered. The more that humans hold to the rules they have learned, the greater Krueger’s repeated violations of them become, beyond even being resurrected by dog pee to, in the first reboot, being not a character in a film series and its franchise, but a real world demon given shape and face by that franchise, in what is both ostensibly our real world and very clearly another fictive world.
Krueger is so big that not only is it difficult to tell the difference between dreams and waking reality, but waking reality and deliberate fiction are blurred.
In the second reboot, retelling the first movie of the original film series, Krueger is explicitly a child rapist, the nightmarish nature of his manipulation and shaming of children and youths is enhanced, and what had become kind for a gleeful malice is stripped of all charm.
A large part of the fanbase for the franchise dislike this second reboot specifically because the burned, disfigured face of Freddy Krueger is less appealing, his crimes are less cartoonish, and the anguish of his victims is more palpable and less pantomime. It is unpleasant. It is a nightmare.
Freddy Krueger at his most harmless, is still deadly and horrific, but he is forgivable, he is allowable. We want the Krueger of rap videos (the Fat Boys’ Are You Ready for Freddy and, since then, multiple, not always licensed, others), the Krueger of action figures aimed at kids and playground reenactments, the television anthology Freddy’s Nightmares, in which Krueger introduces stories to us with a distanced humor and puckish charm, and we want him to be permissible, so we, the franchise, and the performer, most notably and most anchored, Robert Englund, find ways.
The Krueger of the original film is horrifying, and successive films more often than not seek ways to humanize and soften that very hard, very palpable and legitimately painful presence, while maintaining and illusion of frightfulness and threat. The franchise adopts iconography of outdated cinema, outdated narrative, with the son of a thousand rapists narrative, the thunder, lightning, and ghost nuns in magic churches, positioning Krueger as a narrator, a confidant, a bored puppet master trying to generate entertainment. In the second movie, Krueger reaches into our world collaborating with, grooming and manipulating a closeted boy. In other movies, he will play on feelings of parenthood or yearning for parental presence, parental acknowledgment.
In the second reboot, the final movie version so far, Krueger manipulates two of his victims into believing that they, as small children, falsely accused an innocent man, in confusion or through being unable to grasp the intensity of the situation. He feeds this guilt, he pushes it in them, just as he pushed guilt and uncertainty onto them as small children when he abused them then.
There is a gag in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, a tie-in novel set in and detailing part of the Twin Peaks franchise, wherein a demonic entity, BOB, tells a young girl he is sexually and psychologically abusing, that he would be powerless, even unable to be present, if she did not on some level want his abuses, and we see Freddy Krueger play on that same false rhetoric to cause even greater harm, even worse pain.
And, that is the central rule, the unspoken but great understood of many horror franchises, of many horror stories: The victims must have done something bad. The victims must have violated a trust, must have enacted a taboo, must have stepped beyond the bounds.
And, that, too, is what every serial abuser in the history of serial abusers has told their victims and implied to their enablers.
So, what we are left with is is that, like the Dream Warriors – teenagers who fight Krueger in his own territory of dreams – we must not confuse rules and reality, we must not confuse rhetoric with territory. When the Dream Warriors fall, it is because they lose sight of the flexibility of dreams and therefore of dream-realness. If Freddy Krueger is a dream demon, a dream entity, and by implication any reality he occupies and affects is a dream reality, rules become only tendencies, and tendencies are subject to anxieties, just as all dreams. The scariest thing in a dream does not have to be something terrifying in waking realness. But, even awake, that frightening thing, that thing that in the dream was beyond scary, too scary, is still upsetting. It is still, even if it is also silly, it is scary.
Dream-scary is not a product of what a thing can do, but because it embodies or radiates, it possesses or simply is a scariness.
We deal with that. We deal in that.
Krueger, recontextualized to a clown. Krueger was rite of passage, as accomplishment. The bogeyman made the story of the bogeyman.
Lucid dreaming is used, in the world of Nightmare, to combat nightmares, to combat and cope with nightmarish beings and scenarios. There is very little reason that lucid dreaming’s deliberateness and deliberate awareness would not be a benefit to our waking operations. Intentional living.
Part of facing Freddy Krueger is the implied maturation. The idea that a person is facing something in themselves which scares them, which hurts them. And, this implication is both unhealthy and predominant.
Like abusers, as members of society – as society – we lie to those we have wronged.
The parents, teachers, authorities and caretakers in a Freddy Krueger movie are inevitably unreliable, panicky, prizing and reinforcing ignorance, enforcing curfews and snapping out issue of shame and condescension. Screams are met with jibes about masturbation. Anxiety is dismissed by spreading around narcotics. Parents drink their stress away and proffer sleeping pills to their children. Police enforce policies to teach naïveté.
It is not the violation of the individual, the sins of children which facilitate the violence in Nightmare’s world. Society’s worries, generational traumas, the invention and reaffirmation of unnecessary but panic-generated taboos build the machinery which a sadist like Freddy Krueger can use and will use and will abuse.
You and I are not going to be Freddy Krueger. You and I run a risk of being Mr Thompson, Nancy Thompson’s father. We run the risk of being parents who murdered a dangerous criminal and then covered it up and live in fear and anticipation, live with guilt and a continuous internal dialogue as to realpolitik, necessity, the world.
The guilt the parents of the first movie face daily is not guilt for their actions, but guilt for their fear, and their fear is that they will be found out. They will be caught, condemned, face the anger of their community, the loss of their families, the loss of their freedom for a thing they felt to be right and justified by the preservation of innocent life, more lives, by the killing of an acceptable and cruel target.
It is not too far to go, to perceive the guilt of the parents in the light of the guilt of a nation culpable not only in wars but in war crimes. Suburbs are built on burial grounds. 80s horror certainly knew that. America is built on wars and by the greater good and divine right and American exceptionalism.
Nightmare’s adults are faced with a very real 1980s. They make every attempt to protect their children from reality and every attempt they can to avoid acknowledging their children are in reality. The children, although they are mostly between child and adult, as teenagers, cannot see the reality their parents grapple with, because they are concerned with their own, immediate and personal, reality. As the parents believed they had to take authority and control, when they murdered Krueger, the teens feel, movie after movie, story after story, that they must wrest control and power from their parents, they have to step aside from their parents world in order to affirm their own world, make their own rules, and in those rules, denounce and defeat the bogeyman.
Freddy Krueger is not the bogeyman, and the dream of the bogeyman is harder to restrain and stab to death. Krueger is the worry of Krueger. The possibility of Krueger. Which makes Freddy Krueger the game where you try to forget the game, and if you remember the game, you lose, and you always lose.
It is a rigged game. And, a game which teaches us, even shames us into rigging it ourselves. The folk song, the nursery rhyme song that purportedly invokes Krueger is a song no one would know if not for Krueger manifesting phantom plays of goats and children and creepy twilit hours with fountains of blood in order to plant the song, teach the song, remind of the song.
Is Freddy Krueger the girls who sing his song? Krueger utilizes deliberately unsettling and guilt-laden imagery to manipulate and primate his victims, his harassment is both targeted and psychologically deft as it is blunt and sometimes surreally distracted, but is he the girls? Are they autonomous, unfeeling and unthinking generated imagery, or are they bodies he is inhabiting and being while they are present? Is he roleplaying as phantom victims?
In Freddy vs Jason, Krueger’s boredom seems to motivate the plot and his actions more than rage, cruelty, or the pursuit of goals. His wanting to be remembered, to be feared and most importantly noticed, acknowledged, is put forth as the reason he resurrected Jason Voorhees and sends him out murdering teenagers (and anyone else in reach). But the actual scenes of Krueger dealing with this resurrection and directing of another person, while trading on his familiar use of blunt psychological manipulation, also show how short-tempered, irritable, and just easily bored Freddy Krueger is, distinct from rage or malice.
And, what is dream logic, if not the logic that keeps us from being too bored? Dreams generate interesting avenues and intriguing confluences. Dreams put before us dream-complications and dream happenings. Fugues of feeling with imagery or articulation around them.
Freddy Krueger is – or plays at being – a fugue which has imagery and articulation surrounding him.
The consumption of a pizza with human faces and jokes about it being, “soul food,” are labored and performative, but are they not the articulation around the fugue? Are they not processing-imagery?
The Cult of Freddy. The celebrity of Krueger.
The Springwood Slasher has to stay, relatively, to Springfield, and if he cannot, he has to make a Springfield. Nightmare radiance works with any image, any scene, but the nightmare only works in its range, the same as celebrity only works within its range. A nightmare is only scary when you remember it.