Saturday, October 30, 2010

An American Nightmare on Bloody Elm

"No dog can live like this
Knowledge gained is far from bliss
So I resolved my soul to free
Through blackest magic and dark alchemy"

"Welcome to the prime time bitch"
-Freddy Krueger

With All-Hallows/Samhain fast approaching I thought it would be appropriate to post something in the spirit of the day. I haven't done a great deal of research on the historic Samhain festival and thus can not offer much except some probably well-used passages from The Golden Bough.

So instead of focusing on the holiday itself I shall focus on something closely associated with it in modern times, namely the horror movie. Actually, one specific horror film that happens to be my favorite in the genre and one that I suspect has had a profound effect on my life in ways I'll probably never be able to fully comprehend.

The film in question is A Nightmare on Elm Street.

I first saw it when I was very young -probably no older than 5 as I don't remember being in kindergarten at the time. I got to see it one night when it was airing on television and it absolutely traumatized me -I had terrible nightmares for over a month and would not be able to get up the courage to watch the film again until I was almost a teenager.

Of course I went on to love horror movies long before another Wes Craven film, Scream, was released and made it hip for my generation to watch them again after being long ridiculed in the early 90s. I was very much a horror geek in my teens -I had a subscription to Fangoria, dozens of slasher flicks on VHS and stacks of Stephen King novels; even a Freddy glove and mask. My love affair continued well into my 20s -I saw Freddy Vs Jason at least six times in theater when it was released. I've seen virtually every major horror film released between 1980 till 2005 and they were always fun times.

Only one other horror film, The Exorcist, has ever had the same effect on me that Nightmare had. Further, I've found in numerous discussions over the years that I was hardly the only one deeply frightened by the original Elm Street film. A female friend of mine and massive movie buff that loves all kinds of bizarre films once proclaimed to me that Nightmare would be the only horror film she wouldn't let her children watch until they were closing in on middle school. Others have shared similar sentiments with me.

The Elm Street films are typically described as slashers and that's pretty apt for most of the films in the series. However several of them, especially the first and New Nightmare, have always struck me as profoundly darker, mysterious, and even timeless, than virtually any other like film. It was as if they had tapped into something that was both very old and evil as Wes Craven himself alludes to in an onscreen appearance in New Nightmare:

...I'll tell you about what the nightmare's about so far... It's about this entity, whatever you want to call it. It's old, it's very old. It's existed in different forms in different times. About the only thing about it that stays the same is where it lives and what it wants

What's that?

The murder of innocence
That exchange can be seen between about 1:40 and 2:00 here. In the same scene Craven goes on to drop another tantalizing hint:

In this nightmare in progress then does this thing have any weaknesses?

Well, it can be captured sometimes.

Captured? How?

By storytellers of all things. Every so often they image a story good enough to sort of catch its essence and then, for a while, its held prisoner in the story.

Like the genie in the bottle?

Craven's choice of a genie to represent the negative entity that Freddy embodies is interesting. While most Westerners consider genies to be generally benevolent,if somewhat mischievous entities due the image portrayed in Aladdin and the like, they were considered to be quite sinister and dangerous beings in the original folklore.

Here they were referred to as Djinn and were considered to be similar to demons:

"Djinn, an ancient, Islamic, invisible, illusion-casting species who live for centuries, can manifest in any form and travel anywhere instantly. Like the Greek daimon, they are spirits of intermediate nature between humans and angels. It is said in the Q'uran that they are an ancient species who were created before humankind from smokeless fire. The Djinn have no bodies of their own but are masters of illusory disguise. However, because the Djinn are made of fire, when they manifest in human form they have flaming eyes, which are set vertically in the head, not horizontally as human eyes are."
(A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits, Carol K and Dinah Mack, pg. 147)

"All Djinn are closely intertwined or involved in human affairs. Like fairies, Djinn steal human babies and substitute their own. They also indulge in petty demonic acts like pushing people down stairs, making them yawn uncontrollably, spilling their milk, and giving them nightmares, but these are minor annoyances compared to the serious maladies that Djinn are known to cause, such as epidemics, convulsions, insanity, and death."
(ibid, pg. 149) 

A Djinn would seemingly be an apt mythological creature to liken Freddy too. Incubus, succubus, and 'sleepwalkers' (energy vampires) would also work as would virtually any other 'dream demon' myth of which the world's mythologies are full of.

Is it possible that Craven somehow, as he states in the movie, 'tapped' into this ancient entity and created a modern form that would provide it with fresh victims?

While the previous paragraph is probably stretching the concept of collective unconscious a bit to far, there is a fascinating synchronicity between the original Nightmare and the JFK assassination.

For one, Kennedy was assassinated almost exactly 21 years to the day that the original Nightmare was released, which opened November 9th, 1984. Kennedy died on November 22rd, 1963. In the US, as well most other Western nations, 21 is considered the age when people reach adulthood or come of age or at least legally old enough to buy booze.

JFK was assassinated on Elm Street, which was referred to as 'Bloody Elm' by the locals. It gained this moniker on account of all the gun fights, stabbings, and other violence that occurred along it in the Old West.

Michael A Hoffman, among others, have noted that America's collective nightmare on Elm Street began that day. If it began on that day it had surely come of age by the time the first Elm Street film was released. For many the Kennedy assassination was seen as the end of 'traditional' America. Indeed, the culture changed rapidly with the rise of the Beatles and the rest of the rock'n' roll revolution that soon followed. It was the beginning of the drug culture and the 'sexual revolution' and the general breakdown of standards of decency.

In a way no series of films better embodied this change than the Nightmare ones. Here we had a demonic child murderer that was turned into a marketing icon primarily geared toward children. Every kid wanted a Freddy mask and claw in the late 1980s. His "Welcome to prime time bitch!" line became a catch phrase. Hell, he even got his own TV series.

The Nightmare films were so effective in part because of their ability to blur the line between reality and fantasy -In the original the viewer is a times never sure if the victims are asleep or awake and if what they're experiencing is real or an illusion brought on by insanity. Behind the scenes, the films would also straddle the line between reality and fantasy.

Craven apparently got the idea for Nightmare after reading a series of articles describing a group of Cambodian men that were terrified of sleeping after fleeing from Pol Pot's regime. These men suffered sever nightmares to the point that several died shortly after falling asleep. For more information on these 'nightmare deaths, check here.

The stalking of Heather Langenkamp depicted in the film is in fact based on real life experiences the actress had. I've always wondered whether Craven's idea for the stalker aspect of the New Nightmare script came before or after Langenkamp's real life stalker.

One thing that most certainly came after the New Nightmare script, which prominently features earthquakes in its storyline, was a major real life quake. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake was one of the strongest urban quakes in history, causing 72 deaths and $20 billion in damages. It occurred shortly as the New Nightmare production was wrapping up.

I certainly do not believe that Wes Craven meant the original Elm Street film to be some kind of magickal working but it seems to have inadvertently turned into that. It captured the zeitgeist of the era, picking up on the twilight language of the dream killer, decaying suburbia and bloody Elm, perfectly symbolizing the American nightmare that was then entering its prime. As Craven himself stated in New Nightmare, something old and evil became infatuated with Fred Krueger and gave the character a power that it could have otherwise never possessed.

And we, the children of the Freddy generation, inevitably responded to this power with the all the terror the modern era supplies, yet we can no longer conceptualize it. It's only when you're a child with the thought of dying while you're asleep and never being aware of it that the horror and confusion of our times can truly be realized.

Welcome to our nightmare.

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