Dreams offer introspective explanations of our innermost fears and desires. We all remember waking up in the middle of the night, either in a start or foggily, after having one of those dreams that feel too real. They either keep us up at night or wake us up drenched in sweat. Perhaps we jot them down to remember them the next day or prefer to forget them all together. Dreams have always alluded us. From Aristotle’s perception of the meaning of dreams to Freud’s psychological process of them, dreams have become a fundamental tool in understanding the human psyche. Horror films like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven) latch onto the abject terror that lurks in the deepest parts of our subconscious for that same reason. They manifest visual imagery of our fears in ways that evoke a visceral reaction most other film genres do not.
Not only do dreams become zones of terror within Elm Street, but they also develop a space for horror films to explore the innermost workings of the female mind. This cultural phenomenon extends to other films like Black Swan, It Follows, and The Babadook, where reality and dream become points of tension for its female protagonists. Viewers are granted access to the minds of these female characters as they navigate their own lived experiences through a reality that is arbitrated by male figures around them. Horror films heighten this feeling of a collapsed sense of what is real and what is not, mirroring how often feminine “truth” is put into question.
It is no coincidence, then, that much of Elm Street takes place inside a dream. What is most beguiling is the film’s interest in exploring young high school girls’ dreams as the source of that abject terror. Most of the visual depictions of the dreams conjured by the spirit of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) take place within the minds of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Christina (Amanda Wyss) exclusively. In extension, the audience is immersed in the same disturbing experiences as the girls, becoming passive spectators of their dreams.
The opening scene of the film, as we later find out, is Christina’s own nightmare. The film seems to make it a point that her dream— where Krueger chases her through the same warehouse, he used to murder children in — be the first ever visual construction of a dream the audience is treated to. She becomes the immediate source of awareness within the narrative, the anchor to a world that does not seem completely real. There’s a focal moment in the dream after Krueger puts on his iconic blade glove where the camera cuts to a close-up shot of Christina’s face, seeming to address both her character and the audience. Her distress is palpable and amplified within the size of the shot alone, making the viewer feel even more connected to her character’s emotional state. It is why her anxieties and fears being dismissed by everyone around her, particularly her boyfriend, Rod Lane (Jsu Garcia) becomes all the more jarring. It isn’t until Rod witnesses Christina’s murder at the hands of Krueger that he is placed in a similar position as her: powerless, helpless, and doubted. The film is already setting up these gendered dynamics that become integral to who is believed, what is believed, and why.
In Elm Street, Nancy, Tina, and Marge Thompson (Ronee Blakely) become the central focus of Krueger’s nightmares, while this is paralleled with their agency as women. All three female characters become points of contention to the male figures around them, as they threaten important boundaries of truth that are arbitrarily set by the men only. There’s a dichotomy in this film that links truth to men and dreams to women, so when they try to warn the men in their lives that they’re in danger, they are patronized and dismissed.
While every other male character within the film still suffers the physical terror of Krueger’s violence, they aren’t treated to a visual depiction of his mental torment within their dreams. However, they are perceived as the authority on truth. It is important to note this distinction, as characters such as Nancy’s dad, Donald Thompson (John Saxon) and her boyfriend, Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp), become sources of “truth” on these already muddied boundaries between reality and dream without living the nightmares that Nancy and Christina do. Elm Street’s collapse of dreams and reality is especially intriguing when the source of truth is Nancy. It is distressing how Nancy has to not only fight within her own mental prison while in Krueger’s grasp, but also constantly prove her lived experiences to those in her life as her father and boyfriend — much like Krueger — make her question her own reality.
Elm Street is both intrigued by and in fear of what is inside the female mind, which manifests through Krueger and his nightmares. These nightmares are then linked to the idea of who is in charge of “truth,” and who the audience is supposed to believe. Violence becomes the centerfold of female sensitivity and fear, as their minds reveal that what they fear most is to be doubted and be punished for it. Horror films like Elm Street spend so much time dissecting the minds of their female characters in hopes of not just uncovering their fears and desires but revealing just how much they are influenced by their male counterparts. Krueger becomes an exaggerated figure that visually represents female fears in a way meant to repulse viewers into a state of abject terror. It is the terror of female truth being distorted to fit a specific male narrative that most often silences women into submission, making them question their own sanity and judgement.
Perhaps, Elm Street is also a caveat to male viewers and their own fantasies. Masculinity becomes so incredibly ingrained in the violent acts that Krueger commits, despite them taking place in dreams half of the time, it becomes difficult for male identity to be seen as separate from Krueger himself. Because the nightmares waffle between reality and dream, Krueger’s actions do too. This suggests that his own male fantasies extend into the real world, and it becomes increasingly harder to separate what is just a fantasy from what is not. Where do male fantasies end, and where does the reality of them begin in our world? This seems to be an important question the film addresses as it connects Krueger to its other male characters.
What remains brutally unwavering is the violence inflicted on female characters and its link to male fantasy and desire. This is also in direct tension with the feminine mind, and the way male fantasies intrude that space in a way that distorts and manipulates the essence of it, much like Krueger does through his nightmares. Horror films allow for us to explore themes of gender and hierarchy in a way that blurs the lines of suspension of disbelief in our own tangible world, helping us look at these problems at a distance. They also provide a territory of camp generally considered awkward in more traditional genres that emphasizes the problematic nature of gendered norms to their full graphic faculty. Thus, uncovering little by little issues we often overlook in our own culture vis a vis exaggerated forms of visual experiences in order to grant us that distance and objectivity.
Horror is engrossed with the female mind as a means of understanding what films like A Nightmare on Elm Street reveal about feminine identity overall. It is a vessel for understanding the fears and tensions of femininity within the context of male desire. More than any other dramatic genre could, horror offers an imminent critique on male fantasies’ proclivity for violence against women and need to police their truth. Horror, in its graphic and exaggerated nature, elicits a more honest response from viewers as the shock of these underlying issues becomes that much more distinguished. Like the unexpected violence of a car crash, horror films bring these issues to light in a way that holds their viewers hostage and forces them to acknowledge the carnage left behind.